So I tallied it up and during our recent road trip we spent close to 49 hours in the car over an 18-day period. Since most of this was done in shifts of six hours or more, I think we can safely say that we earned a gold medal for family togetherness and on-the-road savvy.
I’m sure some of you are thinking so what’s she not telling us? Which is a fair point. I’ve had a tendency to report the happy and educational side of our travels, like sauerkraut balls and lessons about the Underground Railroad. I haven’t dwelt on the truly shameful number of French fries were consumed, both with and without cheese. And although I may have mentioned that the kids had no screens of any kind in the car, it’s not like they were reading Kafka or learning macrame. In fact, I did my best to fill landfills and support the Chinese economy with my purchase of invisible ink activity books.
And of course, the children did run out of the ability to amuse themselves. When that happened, we resorted not to reading fine literature aloud or even audio books but the telling of Scooby stories.
But I’m telling the honest truth that in all those many hours, we had about twenty fussy minutes and virtually no fighting. And we managed to keep our speed between 60 and 63 miles per hour for the majority of the trip. We even took a very successful last-minute scenic detour on the very last leg when it looked like traffic on the Interstate was going to be unbearable. As a result, we tooled most of the way across Pennsylvania on Route 30, stopping at a local brew pub in Gettysburg and basically enjoying the countryside at a slow but pleasant pace (as opposed to sitting in a cloud of heat and fumes on the beltway around Baltimore).
But lest you think that I’m giving myself too many pats on the back or have gotten too high-minded there’s one thing I haven’t shared. One thing that has been a fact of every long road trip my family has ever taken. And it’s not something I’m proud of.
OK, deep breath here. Here’s my deep, dark secret, in two simple words:
Allow me to explain. I’m pretty sure that the values and politics of this corporation do not match my own and in fact might be in direct opposition to them. To be perfectly honest, I can’t even bring myself to do any research because I’m afraid that if I did I’d learn something that would render me incapable of ever eating in one of these restaurants again. And do you see a link here? I think not. If you feel like calling me a hypocrite, you may do so – I won’t blame you a bit. In fact, I ask no absolution.
But the fact of the matter is that for breakfast (which, I may add, they serve all day), the food is pretty good – some of it is quite good. It is cooked fresh. The service is almost always friendly and the coffee isn’t bad (it isn’t good either – just not bad). And the kids love to stretch their legs while looking around the little store in the front, which is always well-stocked with any number of cheap and tempting toys like a parrot that will magically repeat anything you say to it (for example, “Mommy is a silly head” followed by maniacal laughter). The bathrooms are clean. And I can buy them a coloring book or two and maybe a stick of root beer candy to pull out later when things get a little dicey and one of my children has resorted to covering himself in some of the many, many, many stickers I also purchased.
So what’s bad about Cracker Barrel, other than what I mentioned above? Well I’m never a fan of choosing chain over local. And the CB is particularly offensive because the entire conceit of the company is that they are down-home and folksy in a way that probably has no relation to how life ever actually was. The menu lists items such as The Cracker Barrel’s Country Boy Breakfast® and Uncle Herschel’s Favorite® (note, please, the trademark signs). On offer in the gift shops are episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, The Waltons, and The Beverly Hillbillies. The music playing over the PA is likely to involve someone blowing across the top of a jug. And the shelves are loaded with overpriced versions of things you can buy at the grocery store like Hershey bars or Coke in special “vintage” containers.
Only in America could we be nostalgic for rural life during the Great Depression – and only here could a savvy company turn that nostalgia into consumer gold. I mean who isn’t a sucker for Hee-Haw lunchboxes and Atomic Fireballs? You just didn’t know you needed them!
And as Teddy observed with genuine surprise and delight in his voice when we walked into our third and last Cracker Barrel of the trip “all the Cracker Barrels are the same!” He’s right – that’s why we stop there, because it’s always consistent. But it’s also why we probably shouldn’t. Because that’s not really what travel is about. And I know better.
But man, do I love their pecan pancakes.
Don’t tell anyone OK?