When I got to Tennessee it was apparent my trip had changed. I was in the hills. Towns were small and commerce appeared to be at low ebb. Antique stores abounded, but looked from the outside to contain very few actual antiques. I would classify them as junque stores. I went through Dover, Bear Spring, and Carlisle only to find myself headed towards Tennessee Ridge, where I seriously doubted the wisdom of my route. I wouldn’t call myself lost, only somewhat compromised.
It’s hard to find a straight road in the hills. In order to make my way south I sometimes had to head straight east or west to find a route which advanced my ultimate goal. The roads were marked neither well nor often, curling up and diving down, which slowed me considerably. The speeding ticket affected my pace of travel as well. I learned a hard lesson there on the outskirts of Tennessee Ridge.
I was concentrating on the route markers I guess. I was trying to stay on either 49 or 46 South. The roads run together there for a while which always confuses me. The relative absence of restaurants and gas stations also concerned me because I was low on both fuel and breakfast. I was looking for places to stop, consulting the atlas, and changing CD’s from Nashville Skyline to Blood on the Tracks. Despite those distractions clipping along nicely when I saw flashing lights behind me. I honestly thought it was an emergency vehicle and pulled over only to let him pass on the narrow two lane road. I was very surprised when he pulled in behind me.
Didn’t there used to be size requirements for law enforcement officers? I’ve seen some short cops lately but when this young man stood outside of the Buick window I don’t think he had to stoop to look me in the eye. His voice was squeaky.
“Can I see your license, registration and insurance card please?” I had them gotten them out before he reached the car. This was not my first rodeo, so to speak.
“Do you know why I stopped you Mr. McClure?”
“I really don’t. No.”
“I clocked you at 62 in a 35 mile per hour speed zone.”
“Is that right? I wasn’t aware I was in a speed zone.”
“Yes sir, you are. You entered the city limits of Tennessee Ridge which established a speed zone some ways back. Even if you had not entered that zone the speed limit on this road is 55.”
“I’m very sorry. I am unfamiliar with the area.”
“All right sir, please wait a moment and I’ll try to get you on your way as soon as possible. Where are you headed today?”
“All right then. I’ll be back shortly.”
I once received two speeding tickets in less than a week. It was a busy time at work. I purchased a radar detector. I’ve gone to driver’s school. I’ve gone to court and asked to be placed on probation. I once got a ticket, soon after I started driving my Mom’s 1980 Malibu, which was so far over the speed limit it qualified for reckless driving and resulted in my insurance company dropping my coverage. My wife was dismayed. You could even call her upset. Our insurance rate increased. It’s been a problem.
But I sure as heck didn’t see a speed zone change in the middle of those hills. If I was entering the town of Tennessee Ridge you couldn’t prove it by my surroundings. A solid bank of trees lined the roadway on both sides. Not a building in sight. And I was in the town of Tennessee Ridge?
When the little policeman came back to the car I have to say he was very professional.
“Mr. McClure I’ve reduced your speed in my report considerably to lower your point score. You may appear in court or you may pay this ticket by mail. Instructions are all there on a separate sheet which outlines your options. Have you had any tickets in the past two years?”
Two years is a long time. “I’m really not sure officer.”
“Well if not you may also be eligible for a safe driving course that would erase this ticket from your record if that is a concern.” He handed me the ticket.
“Thank you very much. While I have you here would I stay on this road to get to Erin?”
“No sir, this road will take you down to Route 13 and then on to Waverly. For Erin you would need to go back to Route 49.”
“So this is not 49?”
“No sir this is a county road. To get to 49 you would need to turn around and go back about a mile and a half.”
“I have to say sir, we get very few folks passing through here on their way to Florida. Have you considered Interstate 65? I could direct you there.”
“Thank you but no. I’m going a different way.”
“Ok then, well have a good trip and watch your speed.”
“I will. Thank you.”
Why we thank the people that bust us is a phenomenon that goes unexplained. But there you have it. Busted on the outskirts of Tennessee Ridge and proceeding cautiously, I went in to town anyway hoping to find gas before making my way back to Route 49 and on to Florida.
In Tennessee Ridge I filled up at a forlorn Citgo station which had the oldest gas pumps I would encounter on the trip. Far from having a card reader, you started the gas flowing by turning a crank on the side of the pump. Inside the dark station corn dogs under the dim glow of a heat lamp created a greasy aroma. A wrinkled Indian man speaking English with a very thick accent laid my credit card over a carefully placed carbon papered form and slid a bar violently across both to register my purchase. He must wonder, like I did, how in the world he ever ended up in this place. I walked outside and took a quick look around. In addition to the gas station there was an antique store and a nail salon. A nail salon? Those businesses and a handful of houses looked to be the entirety of Tennessee Ridge. Maybe there was more town down the road. I’ll never find out. I got in the Buick and turned around, my tires crunching the gravel drive, and left. I doubt I’ll be back.
After Erin came Dickson, a town of more substance. I was drawn, like a moth to a flame, by these big black letters on a block of yellow panels. W-A-F-F-L-E H-O-U-S-E. I have a thing for Waffle House. I knew they would be coming and that one in Dickson was the first I’d seen. Having obeyed the speed limits impeccably, I was having breakfast later than usual. But breakfast at the Waffle House? It was one of the reasons I made this trip alone.
My wife had a bad experience at a Waffle House in Florida. I’ve tried to persuade her that one should not judge a whole chain of restaurants on a single establishment but that has not been a successful strategy. I have not been in a Waffle House with her since that day. I admit it was a bad encounter. It involved vomit, not by us but rather a Waffle House staff member, and it truly was not pleasant. It’s a bad story and I’ve promised her I won’t tell it. Suffice to say that I have forgiven Waffle House while my wife has not. And so I go there alone.
I love it there. I sit at the counter so I can be close to the cooking and the waitresses. The big griddle and stove are directly behind the counter. And because Waffle House exists only in the South the waitresses call you by endearing names. As soon as I hit the stool and reached for a menu it began. I heard the lilting voice of a sturdy 55 year old waitress in her Waffle House uniform call out to me from the other end of the yellow formica:
“Watcha drinking honey?”
“You want that black?”
She slammed down one of the thick Waffle House coffee cups and a glass of ice water in front of me. The coffee could be better. But it was so good to back in the Waffle House.
I’ve had practically everything on the Waffle House menu and that day I had my mind set on eggs. The only question was whether I ordered them with hash browns or grits. I love both. Decisions like that are not easy for me. In the end I had the hash browns because I couldn’t resist the add ons. At Waffle House there are many ways to enhance your hash browns. If you know what I’m about to write skip over this, but for those not familiar with the ingenious and wonderful hash brown ingredients available at Waffle House let me run them down for you. The possible options, though not endless, are considerable.
The hash browns are so good because they are scattered on the big hot griddle and thoroughly cooked unlike the square patties of riced potatoes that start frozen and often emerge with lukewarm middles that never touch the heating surface. After scattered, which is a given, you can have a single, double or triple order any of these ways:
Smothered -with Onions
Covered -with American Cheese
Chunked -with Hickory Smoked Ham
Diced -with Tomatoes
Peppered -with Jalapeno peppers
Capped -with Mushrooms
Topped -with Bert’s Chili
Or the ultimate, scattered all the way-with everything.
I had “scattered all the way” years ago and it was a meal. It crowds your taste buds though,confusing them. On that day, in Dickson Tennessee, I craved simpler fare. My waitress came with more coffee and a ticket book in her hand.
“Watcha gonna have honey?”
She took her time, settling her elbows on the counter. It was more like a consultation really. She seemed very interested in my meal, which I appreciate because I take these things seriously. I knew my waitress, whose name tag identified her as Marla, would run me through a series of questions, not unlike an interview, and I was prepared to answer each question as accurately as possible. What resulted, after all, would be my breakfast.
“Two eggs over easy.”
She leaned in close and spoke softly. I detected the faint smell of cigarettes.
“Our cook this morning doesn’t do over easy very well. Breaks the yolks. If you want them a little runny I’d order over medium. Real runny? Go with sunny side up.”
“Sunny side up then.”
“Two eggs up. Toast?”
“Hash browns or grits?”
“How you want ‘em?”
“Smothered and peppered.”
“Bacon or sausage?”
She looked at me quizzically as if I was making a mistake.
“You can get your hash browns chunked (ham) for only 70 cents darlin’.”
“No, it’s OK. No meat.”
“OK then. Anything to drink?”
“Large or small?”
“Now or with your meal?”
“With my meal.”
“You got it baby.”
She then loudly called the order to the cook, a large woman in a hair net standing in front of the stove not five feet away who was working slowly, serenely, and steadily. I liked the way she puddled the oil on the griddle before she broke the eggs into it. She did it with flair.
At Waffle House they call out the orders, not placing the ticket on a little shiny wheel with alligator clips, not entering a thing on an electronic device. Old fashioned yelled orders. I love the sound, the cadence, the call and response interaction of the waitress and the cook.
And I love it when the waitress calls me baby. It might make me blush a little. Sometimes I think I’d like to live in the South. And sometimes I think, not now given my age and the trouble I would have being on my feet all day, that if there is such a thing as reincarnation I’d like to come back as a short order cook. Or a big bird of some kind. I can’t decide.
The breakfast was terrific. As I ate I studied the road atlas.
“Where you headed?” my waitress asked.
“Oh it’s so good. I took my Mom and my aunt last month to Florida, the panhandle, and they never been on vacation. Never even been out of Tennessee. It was wonderful. I’m going back, soon as I can save up the money again.”
“How’d you get there?”
“I went over to 45 which takes you all the way through Alabama.”
“That’s four lane isn’t it?”
“Yeah, most the way. But not interstate.” Four lane wasn’t compatible with my plan.
“How long you worked at Waffle House Marla?” She looked devoted to her employer, lots of Waffle House pins on her hat and apron.
“Thirty years at this Waffle House?”
“No. Fourteen years at another Waffle House, sixteen at this one.”
“Why’d you change?”
“They pissed me off at the first one.”
I asked Marla where I could pick up Route 46 or 49 again. Seemed I had lost it once more. She smiled big.
“Turn around sweetie and look out that window.”
I swiveled on the stool and there, on a post hanging above my Buick, was a big sign with an arrow that read “46 SOUTH.”
We laughed. I gave Marla a big tip. She and Waffle House did not disappoint. My eggs were just right, the hash browns were impeccable, and Marla managed to work the four horsemen of customer endearment into our conversations; honey, sweetie, darlin', and baby.
I love the South.