#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 15
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)
We head south and welcoming us to town is the Hastings Applebee’s, brightly lighted against the night sky. Back in Kansas City, days ago, we’d done a search for nightlife and Applebee’s, headquartered there, was the first thing Google found.
“Look, nightlife!” I say to Brent.
That same Google search is what landed us at Boulevard Brewing Company the next morning so, well done, Googs. Brent glances at Applebee’s and suppresses a smile. “Nightlife,” he acknowledges, and drives on.
Two things are weighing on us right now: the need for adventure and the need for sustenance. We’re on the road to see and do new things, which usually means letting go of the familiarity and comfort of chain restaurants. As self-declared road champions, Brent and I prefer the discovery of local fare and off-the-wall places and we only patron known chains as a last resort, when we’re on our last legs or when we plan poorly and nothing else is open.
We keep driving south, following Sally the Map App’s directions, and suddenly it feels as though the town has slipped away and we’re just heading into darkness. “Where’d the town go?” I ask.
Brent shrugs. “We’re at the lake,” he offers.
I do a quick Google search. “There are 25,000 residents here,” I tell him. “Where did they put them all?”
We round a bend and suddenly an orderly city plan springs up beyond our windshield, with a good 25 blocks’ worth of grid-laid streets.
Between us, we start referring to Hastings as two separate towns. There’s the “north side,” behind us with our old buddy Nightlife and the Visitor’s Center, and this “south side” of orderly city blocks, both connected by the dark, barren curve of the road around Lake Hastings. Brent and I look at each other and then to the stretch of traffic lights, concrete city blocks, and golden street bulbs lighting our path. We smile and start counting down the streets toward the museum address.
The streets are easy to navigate and we easily find the Kool-Aid Museum, where, to our surprise, there’s enough street light to take pictures. Our first photos almost pass as daylight takes, even though it’s after 9, Central Time. We can’t go inside the museum, but there’s plenty to read on the building’s placards and posters, and we fill in the rest with the help of Wikipedia.
The story goes that inventor Edward Perkins of Hastings, Nebraska created a liquid concentrate called Fruit Smack in his mother’s kitchen. Then in 1927, to reduce shipping costs, Perkins discovered a way to remove the liquid from Fruit Smack, leaving only the powder, which was renamed Kool-Aid. And though Perkins moved Kool-Aid’s production to Chicago in 1931, Hastings still celebrates its invention with its annual Kool-Aid Days every August.
As any successful artist, entrepreneur, business owner, cowboy, adventurer, musician, brewer, traveler, writer, etc., will undoubtedly say, in creating anything, there is failure. It comes down to what you do with that failure. I close my eyes and imagine Perkins in his mother’s kitchen, and all of his stages of experimentation along the way. For Edward Perkins and Kool-Aid, this is where it started, the desire, the belief, the drive, the problem solving, and the refusal to give up, right here in the middle of America, in Hastings, Nebraska.
As Brent continues with his pictures, I search the posters and finally find what I’m looking for. “Berry Blue!” I burst out in a wave of memory and I start talking fast, as if I’d just drunk the deliciously sugary stuff. “That was my favorite! First it was orange, and I thought it was the best, but then Berry Blue had this blueberry/lemon combination and I couldn’t get enough of it…”
Brent lowers his camera and looks at me in contemplation. “I liked orange,” he says evenly, and goes back to his pictures. Brent took childhood seriously.
For all the obvious reasons, nighttime sightseeing is peculiar. Here on the south side, we’re eerily alone. With the wind picking up just a bit, it’s as if we’ve slipped through time.
Returning to the car, Brent wants to find some Kool-Aid Man footprints in cement, Hollywood Walk of Fame style. They’re needle-in-the-haystack to me, which, now that I’m tired and my mind is silly, is an intriguing phrase. Variations of the “needle in the haystack/bundle/meadow” reference date back to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and before that, to a 1532 speech given by Sir Thomas More. To me, the phrase never described an impossibility. I remember hearing it as a child and thinking, “But you know the needle is there. So just keep looking.” Simple as that. Just like liking orange.
“The footprints aren’t out here at random,” Brent reveals. “They’re at the Visitor’s Center, back up on the north side.” We have a starting place. And between here and there, there’s not one food-like place open that we can find. It might be Nightlife after all.
Sure, the Visitor’s Center closed hours ago, but we lurk around the building in the dark, trying to see inside. I return to the flagpole while Brent searches among the bushes. “If one of these passing cars would just call the police on us,” I say, “We could ask the officers where the footprints are…”
“Found ‘em!” Brent suddenly shouts. Haystack needle.
Next to the bushes that line the parking lot is a slab of cement, with no real lighting on it and certainly no giant Kool-Aid Man statue pointing at it. (I suppose most people show up in the daytime, so they don’t need such markers.) Triumphant, and without needing to wait in line, we put our feet inside the giant footprints and Brent does his best Kool-Aid Man imitations.
I’m delirious with hunger by the time we get to Nightlife, which is mercifully close by and the only place still open, so I order way too much food and even some more to go.
“You still have cinnamon rolls in the car,” Brent protests.
[Yes, I’m a road forager. I think it’s the hallmark of a good traveler.] And Brent may roll his eyes as my to-go cheese sticks arrive, but tomorrow morning we’ll sleep through our continental breakfast in Lincoln, feast on these Applebee’s cheese sticks and leftover cinnamon rolls from the tire caterpillar gas station, and we’ll laugh about how clever we are.
(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12, Segment 11, Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8, Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)