UnBooks:Special Insert Feature:Phil Eats His Way Across North America

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edit Special Weekend Travel Editorial Feature

Tom Wilson, Editor, The New England Times


Sometimes you have to take risks. My next-door-neighbor, Phil, is an average guy in many respects; however, on occasion he does a thing I react to the news of with a mix of horror and admiration. Thus, when Phil told me his sister was getting close to giving birth as a single mom in Los Angeles, and she needed him there for support, I knew something bizarre was about to ensue in what would normally be a regular cross-country trip.


You see, Phil doesn’t make much money.


That meant Phil wouldn’t be taking a plane, train or rocket ship from Connecticut to California. He would be driving his full-size, second generation, leatherette seated, two-door, vintage, collector-plated, red 1972 Buick Skylark. The one that pumps gasoline fumes into the passenger cabin, forcing you to drive at high speed with the windows down. But I knew that wouldn’t be my main concern. As you know restaurants, with their high overhead and fancy spreads, are expensive. Phil was going to have to make some pretty interesting choices as he ate his way across North America; and I found I had to tag along with him to see what those choices were. I was due for a break anyway.

It was going to be awful. Not just sleeping in the car (because motels are expensive too), or camping, which would be worse; not just the damp smell of used socks that would fill the car every time we stopped and rolled up the windows for safety; no, the very worst thing about this trip with Phil would be the constant, monotonous vibratory drone of Eisenhower-era “national defense” (read: not expensive) highway concrete. After awhile, it gets into your teeth.


The expedition began at 4AM. Something was missing, however. Phil tried knocking, then throwing rocks at my bedroom window. The sun was up when we pulled out of the driveway. Wasting no time, Phil headed us west and away from the coastline. Pretty soon we rolled onto the highway. As he had in town, Phil drove at a constant 55 MPH. My clamped teeth started to harmonize with the concrete vibration almost immediately.

“Do you think we could roll the windows down now?” I managed to ask. Phil nodded. Hand cranks were turned. Wind rushed in. “Where do you think we’ll stop for breakfast?”

Phil briefly glanced over at my shivering form.

“No time for breakfast. We’ll conserve our energy, like the pioneers, and have a large midday meal. It’s healthier for you that way.”

Many hours later, having left Connecticut long behind and passed through part of New York state, both of us listening to my stomach gurgling to advise its emptiness, Phil stopped the car to fuel up just outside Scranton, PA.


edit Gas Station

“Come on,” insisted Phil when he saw I was just going to lounge in the Skylark and enjoy the brief lack of road noise, vibration and fumes while he gassed up. Groaning and confused, I acquiesced and got out. For some reason Phil was heading right inside the small structure. With nothing else to do but curse him, I followed along. Inside, Phil threw me a shrink-wrapped sandwich.

“It’s good to walk about a bit,” he commented, moving to the cooler and selecting a pair of Lipton ice teas. “We’ll eat this meal standing up to maintain our alertness, like the Cherokee.” Phil handed me one of the drinks, then went off to find his own sandwich. Getting the idea, I momentarily set my stuff down to fetch a couple of large bags of potato chips.

“Thanks,” said Phil, resting his food on the service countertop. “Try to keep your meal on this half of the surface. We want to be considerate to the other customers, after all.” He grinned at the young girl behind the counter, who weakly smiled back and then tried to ignore us.

We went back for seconds, then thirds. The cherry cola was the best I’ve ever had. Then I overdid it.

“What’s that for?” Phil wanted to know. I was about to pay for an additional ham-and-cheese to carry out.

“In case I get hungry,” I told him. Phil gasped.

“Oh no,” he said emphatically.  “There will be no eating in the car.”


The Buick burbled us along until we had a choice around 5PM: whether to head into Ohio or West Virginia. “I don’t want to be anywhere near Kentuckistan,” advised Phil mysteriously.

A sign alongside the highway close to Mansfield advertised a Bed and Breakfast. My cramped body ached for a mattress. I energetically pointed the sign out to Phil.

“No way,” he responded, giving me a look. “B-and-B’s are expensive.” Of course. My spirits fell.

“We’ll sleep in the car,” I was told unnecessarily.


You might be surprised to hear it, but we were ready to be off quite early the following morning, around 3:15AM. Phil’s snoring had a lot to do with it, but I figured if he didn’t complain about mine I would conspire to ignore his. We had stopped by a pond, which Phil said was suitable for brushing of teeth, minor washing, and refreshment. Soon we were past Columbus and veering dangerously close to Kentuckistan. The map was consulted and Phil was cheered as we took the #70 to Springfield.

I didn’t want to admit it, but I was hungry again. Every so often I’d glance over at Phil, though, and see that he was doing some strange contortions with his stomach and mumbling to himself. Suddenly we left the highway to go south-west.

“What’s going on?” I gently questioned. Phil grunted.

“Taking a quick side trip to Dayton.”

“Why?”

He smiled briefly.

“Folks are friendlier in Dayton, that’s all.”


After a bit we entered a residential neighbourhood and Phil kept slowing to look at successive homes, saying “No,” or “Naaah,” or “Hmmm.” Finally he was happy with a selection, and turned into the driveway. It was about 8:30AM.

“Family?” I wanted to know as we got out.

“Uhh-uhh.”


edit Stranger’s House

We walked up the path to the door, stepping around bicycles, action figures and various other kids paraphernalia. Phil rang the doorbell. A small and portly woman answered, blinking up at us.

“Hello, Misses McNeil,” Phil greeted. For the first time the woodburnt family name sign jumped out at me.

“Hello,” the lady responded warily. She moved a child’s toy out of the way with her foot.

“I’m Phil, from The New England Times.” I smiled and nodded, playing along. “We’re doing a story comparing the lives of moms in different states, and your local PTA has recognized you as a strong example of effective motherhood in the community.”

“Oh!” said Misses McNeil.

“We’ve been driving for two days to come see you,” Phil added. “The paper thought it would be best if it was a surprise, get your natural reaction sort of thing. If we could have a few moments of your time…”


Shortly thereafter we were seated at Misses McNeil’s breakfast table, eating eggs, scones, and bacon, and drinking coffee. Chatting on and asking questions between bites, Phil was getting the low-down on her parenting skills. “By the way, this is the editor of the newspaper, who’s here to keep an eye on me.”

I looked up from my coffee, unshaven and startled. A day and a half out of my regular schedule and I had forgotten who I was.


Promising to get her a copy of the article, we left the McNeil residence fat as geese and satiated. Later, after a rest stop, I popped the question.

“Can I drive?”

No,” Phil answered without looking.  

After a moment he added: “There’s a trick to it.” My eyebrows went up. The car was an automatic.


The rest of that day we made it through Indiana, Illinois and into Missouri. At St. Louis we left #70 and took #44 south-west.

“This is farm country,” informed Phil. “Highest number of farms of any state save Texas.” I still didn’t suspect what this meant. We bedded for the night at the side of the road in Phil’s ratty canvas tent that had that musty canvas smell. At least it didn’t rain.


edit Farm

According to Phil, you must be careful with your selection of a farm. An unseasoned traveler could race into a berry farm and gorge himself in the row. But you’d get no variety that way. No, the experienced way of doing things is to ignore the rumblings of your stomach and let the first few farms go by.

“Look for a good combination,” Phil advised scholastically. “Dairy and vegetable. Maybe corn. I’d like some corn. We can boil it in that water can in the trunk.”

I still do not care to think of corn to this day.


We found ourselves right on the Missouri-Kansas-Oklahoma border, and went west. I stared out the window at the Smoky Hills. Camping was interrupted by flash-flood rainfall, sending us scrambling back into the Skylark at 2AM. We stared at one another in the dark. Lighting illuminated us momentarily. There was the sound of our ragged breathing.


“You get the tent?” Phil asked.

“Nope,” I responded, water running down my face. “You?”

“Uhh-uh. Damn. Guess it’s gone.”

“That’s a shame,” I said mournfully, smiling in the dark.


The next morning we gathered what few remains from the campsite there were, then headed off. A steady drizzle continued to soak the countryside. We entered Colorado.

“I want to make good time today,” pleasantly explained Phil, as if we hadn’t already. “So I don’t think we should stop for food until late.” To quiet my cries of disappointment, he pointed out that the rain would make any attempts now plain unpleasant.


The sun had set but the waterworks were still with us as we passed another state line, and Phil announced: “I’m sorry to have to do this, but we have to go through Utah.” At Green River the hunger was so strong I could have taken a two-by-four and broke it over Phil’s head, had I had the room to swing it, just to stop the damn car and find something to eat. At Price, I was ready to gnaw on the upholstery, but one look from the driver and I knew I’d better keep still. Finally, at Provo, we exited the highway and pulled into a mall.


edit Wal-Mart

“This is great!” Phil said. Hobbling out of the Buick, clutching my stomach, I followed. We went inside. “Did you know Wal-Mart recently renovated its stores to include groceries?” he asked me over a shoulder. I shook my head but he didn’t see. “The cheapest groceries ever,” Phil exclaimed to the air in front of him.


A minute later we were at a cooler. Phil was grinning from ear to ear. He pulled out a container of eggs, a quart of orange juice and a can of tomato juice. Then he grabbed Tabasco sauce off a nearby shelf. “Just a second,” he told me, then disappeared. A few seconds later and he was back, with a pair of plastic glasses. Shortly thereafter we had a couple of virgin red eyes. Then we had some-assembly-required sandwiches, Oreo cookies and pop. We sprawled in the aisle. It was late in the evening and no staffmember ever came by the section.


“I did this in a grocery store in 1997,” Phil reminisced through a mouthful.  

“They had one of those sample cooking stations set up and I waited until the lady was about to go home. Then I told her the manager said I should clean up, and after she went away, cooked some steak bits on the grill myself. After that I went to a liquor store and had my fill of beer in the aisle. They were a bit more on the ball there, though.”


I was glad to be out of Mormon country when we go into Nevada the next day. There is something distinctly impure about gorging on Wal-Mart food while in the store. The desert was refreshing after the rain. Not long now until we’d reach California, and this god-awful trip would be over.

“We won’t get to my sister’s tonight,” warned Phil around 8PM. That meant one thing: another hobo meal. He tried tuning the vintage radio around, but all we got was Sympathy for the Devil for the hundredth time. He switched it off. We didn’t eat for another whole day. But now I was used to it. I was numb.

Somehow we ended up too far south. Looking back, I think this was part of Phil’s plan: he had time to swing out for one more low-cost meal before getting to his pregnant sister’s house. I can’t believe we jumped the fence.


edit SeaWorld

Prior to 2001, you could SeaWorld yourself right across the country: Florida, Texas, Ohio, and of course California. Just like Dairy Queen. The trick here is finding open displays that you can get your hand (or a sharp stick) into.

“This will definitely help us with our hunter-gatherer technique,” said Phil enthusiastically.

Be careful: some animals and fish are poisonous! Thoughtfully, Phil had brought along The Illustrated Aqua Encyclopedia and we rounded up our trip with a nice sushi dinner. Mahi-mahi was a bit beyond our reach. This time.


Lately, since I've been back, I've been noticing how expensive restaurants are. How the service is always too slow. How I could do a better job myself. I started thinking about how I could afford a vintage automobile if I just cut back on some expenses. Last week I ate at a toll both, just to see if I still had the knack. Had a picnic. No problem. Tonight I'm taking my wife out for dinner.

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