Home Away From Home

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 22
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)
America’s roads have been our home for this journey—well, the roads and Brent’s Jetta, which is filling up with state maps, brewery t-shirts, a bent peacock feather, and a good layer of sand and soot. Over the miles, we’ve listened to the hybrid folk of Trampled by Turtles, the fast-talking lyrics of Dessa, and the zombie epidemic survival stories of World War Z. As we cross into Minnesota, the tenth and final CD of the zombie war is wrapping up, and it’s been a doozy of a story. But before you think we filled our entire road trip with sound, let me remind you that there have been wonderfully long stretches of road that we spanned in silence, listening only to the wind and the sound of our own thoughts, which is the beauty of traveling with an introvert. The ability to sit in peaceful silence is an old art, I think, and Brent and I are masters of the craft.

What we’re slow to master, but certainly practicing, is the ability to find good road food. By good, I mean local, tasty, somewhat healthy, and best of all: There when we need it. So far, we’ve thrived on classics from Mom-and-Pop shops when we could find them, gas station fatty salty cheesy [and in Brent’s case] bacony snack foods when we couldn’t, and the nightlife of the Applebee’s chain that we turned into two days’ worth of bellyfuls when there was nothing but 80 miles of road ahead. And after days and days of this, the pattern is about to change, because where we’re going, we will feast like kings.It’s dark by the time we arrive in Rochester, Minnesota, and of all the amazing places we’ve been these last few days, Rochester is different. I lived here for a good twelve years, and Brent lived here a bit longer than that. He’s since moved to St. Paul, and I’m now located out of Pittsburgh, but Rochester is still our home away from home.

Home Away From Home

Rochester had once been a great hub for IBM, which now has a smaller presence but is still located on a sprawling campus of buildings paneled with blue glass that is known simply as Big Blue. According to Wikipedia, “As of 2013 the company held the record for most patents generated by a business for 22 consecutive years.” [Brent holds two.] Wikipedia mentions some company inventions/developments that perhaps we’ve heard of, such as, “The Automated teller machine (ATM), the floppy disk, the hard disk drive, the magnetic stripe cardUniversal Product Code (UPC)…” etc., etc., etc. All right here in the plains of Minnesota.

Beyond IBM, Rochester is known for the Mayo Clinic, which got its start after a series of massive tornadoes (two F3s followed by one F5) destroyed much of Rochester in 1883, prompting local physician Dr. William Worrall Mayo, his sons William and Charles, along with Mother Mary Alfred Moes and the Sisters of Saint Francis to start a hospital that is today part of the Mayo Clinic.

In 1907 Dr. Henry Stanley Plummer invented a new system for keeping records and for moving them quickly throughout the hospital via a system of conveyors and tubes. Hospitals worldwide have kept their eyes on Rochester, Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic and have been implementing Mother Mayo’s practices ever since. Thanks to a sharp bread knife and fumbling fingers, yours truly has her very own Mayo Clinic patient number and a half dozen tiny stitch marks on my right index finger to remember the occasion. I can tell you from experience that as you walk down the hallways of Mayo from one specialist’s office to another, the second specialist has already learned of your situation and is ready to talk with you when you reach their door.

We hop off the highway and approach Rochester from the south. When we get to the big corn water tower on our right, we smile knowing that dinner is just ahead. “The big corn” is a 60-foot water tower on the site of what was the Libby plant, now Seneca Foods. [And as true locals put it, you always give directions in reference to what was there, and then maybe mention what’s there now if you get around to it.] I remember that when I first arrived in Rochester, I organized the landmarks according to where they were in relation to “the big corn,” a funny habit that I keep to this day.

We hit downtown and park the Jetta, and as we step out on the streets of home and stretch our legs, I hear someone calling my name and I turn and see my friend James locking up the patio of the Grand Rounds Brew Pub. (I haven’t set foot here in five months, and this is what happens. That’s home.) James crosses the street to us, gives me a hug, and the three of us catch up for a few minutes. “Business is good!” he tells us as he heads back to it, and if we’d been a little earlier on our entry into town, we could have eaten at the Grand Rounds before they closed for the night. (The last time I was here, they featured a salmon dish that was out of this Home Away From Homeworld.) As it stands, we’ll head to Newt’s for some late-night food.

Newt’s
when I bump into my friend Ellen, the talented violinist, on the patio. Ellen is part of the duo Thomas and the Rain, who have been playing music together for years. “You’re here?” she says and hugs me. “I thought you were on a road trip in the middle of America.”

“We’re still on it,” I say. “We just drove into town.”

We catch up for a minute and then Brent and I head on our way, but just before we do, Ellen elbows me and says, “Hey, can I bum a candy cigarette?”

Home Away From HomeDo you see why we love this place? We head up to Newt’s, sidle up to the bar, and proceed to pig out. I get my favorite: beer battered fried chicken salad with buffalo sauce. Brent gets a giant burger and I help him eat his fries. Full and happy, I check the time and note that we have very little of it before Forager closes.

“It’s over by the highway?” Brent asks.

I nod. “Where the Good Foods Store used to be,” I say. “You’ll see.”

Home Away From HomeWe drive the handful of blocks away from downtown and closer to the highway and make a right. There before us is the backlit sign I had seen on Facebook. “There it is!” I say, and I can’t keep my excitement down. Back when I was getting ready to move to Pittsburgh, this place was just an idea in my friend Annie’s mind and the subject of excited chatter in the building where my writing studio was next door to Forager’s architect. Months and months (a year?) later, and after many Facebook progress reports from a variety of local artists who were brought in to apply their talents, here it is, right in front of me.

We get inside with enough time for me to a have an original draft beer (and Brent to have a soda) and for me to explore and try to stay out of trouble (I only went into the employee area one time, and that was with express permission).

In addition to being a brew pub, I discover that Forager has a wood-fired oven and what they call a Pop Up Kitchen, where any potential restaurateur can try their hand at running a mini-restaurant from kitchen to register to see if they truly like the work before applying for a business loan.

We close the place down, and hop in the Jetta, aiming for St. Paul. And I think that, for all of its familiarity, this home-away-from-home in the middle of America never fails to surprise. At the rate Rochester is growing, generated by thinkers and innovators coupled with artistic doers, I could spend a dozen more years here basking in great friendships and swimming in the concept-to-reality momentum. I pick out the stars in the night sky above and think about how very American it all is.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

 

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 21, Segment 20, Segment 19, Segment 18, Segment 17, Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

This Side of Eerie

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 19
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

This Side of EerieWe’re on the west side of Iowa, driving east toward a giant Volkswagen spider, the Jetta windows rolled down. I’m digging in my purse, and finally find what I’m looking for: the red packet of candy cigarettes we got back at Fort Cody in Nebraska. I open the pack.

“You’re really going to sit there smoking a candy cigarette?” Brent asks.

“Yeah,” I say, making a declaration of it because I’m funny like that.

He looks thoughtful for a moment. “Gimme one,” he says.

This Side of EerieI oblige, and we sit with our candy cigarettes as the wind whips around us in the car. We’re giddy and gritty and feeling like champions of the road, so I take a picture of us like this. As I post it to Facebook, a friend’s post catches my eye. “Hey!” I say. “We’re stopping in Rochester for dinner, right?”

“I hope so.”

“My friend’s brewery is opening there, today. They’ve been putting a lot of work into it. I didn’t know when they were going to open, but today’s the day. We’ve got to show our support.”

“Okay,” he says. “What’s it called?”

Forager.”

I look over our list of stops yet to make. There’s a whole page of Brent’s scrawly writing. I’m not sure we can add a deadline to the list. “Think we’ll make it?” I ask. “We can’t dawdle.” With that last part I mean Brent can’t dawdle.

“I hope we’ll make it,” Brent says. And then he says, “No dawdling,” implying me.

“Right,” I say, returning the ball to the proper court.

With that settled, we find our exit and I chomp up my candy cigarette. Suddenly I realize how tired I am. The afternoon heat isn’t helping the sleepy feeling. On our quiet side road, we look for a town and I start daydreaming about a siesta.

“Okay, now watch,” Brent says after a few glances at his mileage markers. “There should be a hairpin turn…”

This Side of EerieWe find it, curl the car around to the left, and there, under a tree in the middle of a neighborhood, is the Volkswagen spider. Someone actually took the time to remove the tires from a Volkswagen Beetle, replace them with giant pipe-like legs, then hoist the car about 10 feet off the ground. It’s neat, and creepy, but still neat. And creepy.

“You go,” I tell him, yawning. “I’ll stay here. I can’t take pictures, anyway.” My phone is still on the floor of the car, whining about being too hot and refusing to work ‘til it cools down. “I’ll watch you from here,” I say.

This Side of Eerie“Okay,” he says without hesitation, and hops out of the car. Three seconds later I follow him out, having processed multiple thoughts simultaneously, the way only computers and dreamy brains can do. My first conclusion: It’s up to me. Brent doesn’t care if I sit in the car or not, and I know he’ll never think a cross thought about it. I also know he needs someone to take his picture with the spider. Second conclusion: We’ve come this far. This road trip was never about the destination; we could have flown to Denver easily enough to see Trampled by Turtles play at Red Rocks. Instead, we drove the long way around—indeed!–in order to explore. And I certainly didn’t travel the long way to Avoca, Iowa to sit in the car.

This Side of EerieI exit the Jetta and cross the small street in four paces. Brent is standing under the spider contraption, taking pictures straight up. I sit in the grass underneath it and look up. From this vantage point, it’s especially impressive.

Otherwise, it’s quiet here in Avoca. Birds are chirping, but there’s no noise from the nearby houses, none from what looks like a trucking company down the lane, and just a few buzzy bugs from the green field to the right. Beyond the field, there are some workers tending a bonfire, but no real sound coming from that direction, either. The bugs and birds keep it just this side of eerie.

“What is this thing?” I ask. “Why is it here?”

“I don’t know,” Brent says, snapping pictures with his trusty camera. “But I like it.” Snap. Snap. “Here,” he says, handing me the phone from his pocket. “Get one of me running from it…”This Side of Eerie

Did I ever tell you that Brent was in a spider movie once? He was an extra in a Christopher R. Mihm film called The Giant Spider. He’s officially listed as an “associate producer,” but if you ask Brent, he’ll tell you he’s “screen candy.” (Brent’s part in the movie is to make out with a hot girl at a drive-in.)
This Side of EerieI get up, take his phone, and the next thing I know, Brent and I are running around the yard, striking poses and one-upping each other’s ideas. We’re yelling, “Get this! Get this!” while pretending the spider’s chasing us, that we tripped and have to roll out of its way, that we’re trying to sneak up on it. Occasionally, I steal a glance at the house closest to us, waiting for someone to run out and stop us. But no one does. If they’re in there laughing at us, they’re stealthy about it.This Side of Eerie

This Side of EerieRejuvenated, and with my sense of wonder restored again, Screen Candy and I hop back in the Jetta, ready to experience more of what myopics mistakenly call America’s “flyover country.”

“When I have a house,” I tell Brent, “I’m going to set something up in my yard and watch the tourists flop around.” He just looks at me. “It’s going to be awesome,” I laugh and roll my hands over each other, plotting.

Now if this were a movie, we’d be driving off into the sunset having escaped the spider’s clutches, not realizing that it’s watching us and readying for the sequel. As it is, we’re driving east, straight into our next adventure.

“Tree?” Brent asks, getting me back on track again.

“Tree,” I concede, as we begin our search for a tree in the middle of the road. We drive off, leaving the giant spider safely in our rear view. Or do we?

 

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 18, Segment 17, Segment 16, Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)