I holed up last night in Truckee, California, very near the Donner Pass. The sleep was uncomfortable and cold, and I have a strong urge to get a hotel tonight. It’s really the cold that I’ve found myself unprepared for, not sleeping in the car, specifically.
I had breakfast at what I would say is the best diner I’ve been to so far in my life. It’s called the Wagon Train Cafe. This cafe seemed to hold within it something I thought we’d lost. A sense of tight-knit community.
I walked in, seated myself at the counter and was at once overwhelmed by the character of the place. The walls were all covered with every manner of odds and ends, but it didn’t feel tacky or commercial; the place felt like what I imagine a bear’s den would look like after about 50 years, if bears could decorate. I do not doubt for even a second that each item on the walls of that small cafe were as unique, individual, and as real as each of the guests eating there.
“What’ll you have, son?” the waitress asked me.
“Oh, well I’ve never been here before, so I’m not too sure,” I gently replied.
“Oh hell, of course,” she said with a chuckle, then brought me a menu.
Her face showed signs of age, but her eyes carried behind them a warmth and laughter that seemed to make the years melt away. They were brown, as was her hair, and her step was light. Quick, but not rushed.
“Coffee?” she asked
“Oh, yes please.”
“You know, you’re lucky. On Wednesdays we’re only open from 6 to 8. Got here at the right time!” she said with a smile.
“I got up with the rising sun to start the day. Figured I’d stop in to get some hot food before I hit the road again.”
At this, her interest visibly peaked. She asked “On the road? Where you headed?”
I told her then of my travels across the country. She laughed.
“Well damn! You’re a minute from home. A country minute!”
Although I had no idea what a ‘country minute’ was in terms of distance, her good cheer and sprightliness were infectious. I couldn’t help but smile as I sat sipping my coffee and browsing the menu.
Then I was completely shocked when I saw a man get up from his seat, head behind the counter, and pour himself a cup of coffee. As he was adding his cream and sugar, the hostess came steaming through and nearly knocked into him.
“What’d I tell you about being behind my counter, old man?” she said, in a mockingly serious tone.
The old man froze, looked up at her with the same mock surprise, then said “Well, if you’re not going to serve me, I’ve got to do it myself!”
They both laughed heartily, and then she was on her way to help someone else. The old man stirred his coffee and returned to his seat.
The locals all knew each other by name, and I could tell this was something of a morning ritual. After the shock of the first man behind the counter wore off, I watched amusedly as not one, two or three, but no less than five other customers did the same.
It seemed the cafe belonged to each of them, and they certainly treated it that way.
“Well, decide what you’re having, Indiana?” She said with a smile. After hearing of my adventure, she took up ‘Indiana’ as my nickname and never called me anything else.
I ordered and then smiled as I saw yet another customer head behind the counter, this time to toast a bagel. She noticed my grin and said,
“Yeah, it’s a bit redneck, isn’t it? I’ve been serving here for 24 years. It’s a special place. People see diners in movies and say ‘Well, there’s no way it’s like that in real life.’ I always laugh and tell them it sure as hell is, when it’s their town and they’re comfortable. More coffee, Indiana?”
“Yes, please,” I said. “I’ve never seen anything like this place.”
“Well, we’ve been open since 1947,” she said proudly.
And not five minutes later, my breakfast came piping hot out of the window. I went with the American classic: bacon, eggs, hash browns and sourdough toast. It was the best breakfast I’ve had in as long as I can remember.
I felt at ease in this diner, like I was at home. I’ve not felt this since I set out on this journey and am curious to see if I will again. I think what shocked my senses so sharply was the total togetherness of the place. It was cold outside, in the low 40s, and we were all there to have a warm cup of coffee and a nice meal. It didn’t seem to me that anything else mattered.
The cafe seemed to be a place isolated outside of space and time; everyone knew each other, and if they didn’t, they acted like it. COVID wasn’t much of a topic of discussion. Political affiliations remained differences of opinion, no more.
I saw in the Wagon Train Cafe what I think I’ve been searching for this whole time, in part. It’s not about the personal battles I’ve been waging, but that ‘song’ or ‘heart’ of America I have written about. I said before that it was still out there, but I was beginning to question myself.
In that cafe, I found proof–proof that we can be less divided, ideological, hateful and disconnectedly preoccupied with ourselves. And it’s not that the people of the Wagon Train Cafe were dense or somehow ‘basic townies’ by any means. Labeling the locals of an area in that way is the best and most effective way to be sure you never learn from them.
These people had a true sense of community; a togetherness that was in contact with a part of the human experience that many of us, myself included, seem to have all but forgotten.
What is that thing, that ingredient I now reference? If I knew, I wouldn’t have needed to come on this trip. I’ll continue to meditate on this question, and hopefully by the time I make it home I’ll have an answer.
For now, I’m content to simply drive.