You see all manner of things on the road in rural America, like turkeys being taken to the slaughterhouse…
…and farm equipment between this farm and that one:
We drive the back roads whenever we can, and this journey through northern Illinois and Indiana took us smack through the heartland. If you ever wondered why they call it “the heartland,” let me give you one example of it, from this very strip of road.
This was, you see, the type of road where you go a ways, then make a turn, then go through a little hamlet… like this one appropriately called “Hamlet.”
We’d been on the road awhile, crossing over from Iowa into Illinois, and were ready for a lunch break. We followed the GPS to an out-of-business restaurant (the gizmos will tell you how to get someplace, but they won’t tell you if they’re open when you arrive), then stopped in a town where a local deli was crowded, the hostess too harried to give us the lowdown on how to order (something with pieces of paper and a lot of choices we had to decipher on our own), and the salad bar small and picked-over.
I asked an older couple at a table near the front window if there was another place in town where they served lunch. The gentleman launched into a long explanation with elaborate descriptions of how to get there and when his wife tried to give me the abbreviated version he hushed her, saying, “I’m telling this.” It struck me that people in this tiny town got tired of hearing each other, so they welcomed the chance to chat with a stranger.
“If they’re not open — we had a festival this weekend, and they might be all out — thousands of people, you wouldn’t believe how many, were here for it — anyway if they’re not open, there’s a great restaurant down in Viola behind the gas station–” He had so much to say, he started a new sentence before finishing the one he was uttering.
“But try the place down by where you came into town here,” the man said. “They have good food. You can’t miss it. It’s right next to the bowling alley.” We thanked them and walked the two blocks back to our rig.
Despite what the couple had told us, we nearly missed it — the restaurant wasn’t just right next to the bowling alley, it was in the same building. The dark interior spoke of it long history without upgrades, and when we asked about getting cream for our coffee we were told they had powder. We were starting to think this was a local thing — or maybe times were just too tight even for milk. When Bob asked about a burger, the server said they were out of hamburger. Out? Oh, yeah. That big festival.
We follow our instincts when it comes to new restaurants, and this one just didn’t feel right. “Thanks anyway,” we said, and passed the woman our menus.
Back in the RV, we were glad we had our own food with us, but were really hoping to try something local. I’d given up on the GPS, and was trying to remember where the couple had said the place in Viola was.
And just then, who should appear? Yep, that elderly couple from the restaurant in town. They had come out to make sure we’d found the place. We told them the festival had done the restaurant in as the gentleman had predicted, and they nodded. “Thousands were here for it,” the man said, his wife nodding next to him.
“The place in the next town?” I asked.
“Good food,” the man said. “Just go left at the light. Sheppard Inn it’s called.”
“Just one light?” I asked.
They nodded. “Behind the gas station,” he said. We chatted a bit longer, then managed to excuse ourselves by saying we’d worked up quite an appetite with all the anticipation, and gave our anonymous friends a wave as they drove out of the gravel lot.
As we drove eastward on Illinois 17, we talked about how we had missed the friendly-to-strangers culture of small-town, rural America, where we’d grown up. See why it’s called the “heartland”? It’s not about the geography, as most people think. It’s about the hearts of the people who live there.
And the restaurant they’d directed us to? Well, it had Sheppard Street Restaurant and Creamery on the sign, but “Sheppard Inn” was close enough to get us there. The food was excellent — the Bean and Bacon Soup will probably even make the annual “Bob and Ellen Best Eats” list!