September offered an opportunity to sneak down to North Carolina for a family visit. I say sneak not because it was a secret but because ever since the pandemic began, whenever I leave the safe confines of home, it feels like I’m trying to sneak out and back before the virus knows I’m on the loose. When even going to the grocery store feels like a special outing, you know it’s time for a change of scenery. To add a sense of vacation to the trip, we decided to vary our usual route via West Virginia and instead travel through Tennessee so we could visit the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Echoes of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” played in my mind as we barreled down the highway. Finally, it was time for “goin’ places that I’ve never been,” even if they were just small discoveries.
Expecting it would be filled with tourists and preferring to avoid crowds, we opted to keep driving though the Gatlinburg area. We were not disappointed by that decision! It is a beautiful region, but creeping at a snail’s pace down the town’s congested main drag, we witnessed streets full of relaxed tourists strolling shoulder to shoulder, masked and unmasked. It looked as if 2/3 of the Midwest had shown up for a family reunion! The sight was comforting in a way because it suggested normalcy, but it also made me grateful that we’d reserved space in the town of Cherokee. Both areas abut the National Park, but the southern entrance by Cherokee was much less crowded – at least while we were there.
A web search for lodging options in the area turned up a local motel called the River’s Edge. It caught my eye with its promise of a balcony overlooking the Oconaluftee River. They weren’t joking about the view! The space between the highway and the river was just (barely) wide enough to shoehorn a building in between. From our room, we looked directly down into the water and gazed upon a rhythmic flow that was nothing short of mesmerizing. Its view front and center just beyond the sliding glass doors gave the balcony a beautiful ambiance. Complete with chairs and a table, this perch became our private dining room for multiple take-out meals during our two-night stay. Unbeknownst to us at the time of booking the room, Judi’s mom and dad stayed at that very hotel sixty years before (to the day) on their honeymoon. (Life is full of serendipitous moments like that – enough so that it makes me wonder about the rhythms and patterns of our lives, but that is a subject for another day.) The rooms were clean and nicely updated, inspiring confidence that though my in-laws stayed there decades earlier, the mattresses and pillows had been replaced at least once or twice since then – I’ve stayed in a few places where I’d be willing to bet that wasn’t the case!
This brief reprieve from the borders of Wayne County where I live presented an opportunity to resume my continuing search for cheeseburger excellence. A few yards from our hotel we spotted a small place called BJ’s Diner, complete with a sign that boasted “Best Burgers In Town.” Such confidence begs to be tested, so we brought back two burgers to sample on our balcony-turned- dining room.
BJ’s featured Dodge Burger was the first contender. For me, the word “dodge” triggers images of automobiles, a city in the Wild West complete with tumbleweeds and gun slingers, or playground fun with a non-politically correct game of dodge ball. As a burger, it reminds me a bit of the Frisco Melt featured by a certain national chain, minus its Thousand Island dressing sauce. It consists of two pieces of grilled white bread wrapped around a large beef patty with bacon and melted cheese. Sitting by the river that day, most anything would have tasted delicious. On its own, the Dodge strikes me as the kind of burger one makes when times are tough and the cupboard is nearly bare. Like when my daddy used to reminisce about how he loved a good mayonnaise sandwich in his childhood. Since I tend to think of mayo as a condiment and not a main ingredient, that recipe would only occur to me if there were nothing else to place between those bread slices! For me a burger belongs on a bun. It can be white, egg, potato, or even a bagel bun. If we’re using loaf bread, it is a sure sign that someone forgot the grocery list when they went shopping and there are no buns in the pantry; but who’s to argue with a little creative variation? To its credit, the crispy grilled texture of the bread with its lingering butter aftertaste did have a way of making my mouth water!
The other burger we sampled that day was named the Buddy Burger. Buddy was one of the diner’s proprietors, along with Bobbi Jo (hence, the name BJ’s Diner). The description for this contender suggested a little more innovation and promise. Its featured trimmings included pepper, onion, bacon, and cheese. The menu described the burger as “stuffed with” those ingredients. From that I had the impression the ingredients were mixed in with the ground beef and cooked within the patties. That, and perhaps some secret herbs and spices might have created a unique flavor profile. However, that is not the vision behind this burger creation. The peppers, onions, and bacon were sprinkled between two hamburger patties, with the cheese melted on top. It was tasty enough, just not as creative as I’d hoped. On the other hand, the lingering aftertaste of every bite screamed quality beef – that in and of itself would convince me to order it again, especially if I could eat it by the riverside!
BJ’s, like the River’s Edge, is situated on a sliver of property between the main highway and the river. The diner’s structure is reminiscent of an RV or small mobile home. It is as though someone was traveling through the area one day, pulled off the road for a rest, and simply forgot to leave. Sometimes when you’re looking for a place to sell your wares or make your mark in life, any spot along the road will do if it gives you the visibility you need with the customers you desire. Prime real estate is hard to come by and even harder to let go. Having secured a small piece for themselves, Buddy and BJ set out to make the best of things. Judging from the customers we saw, they are doing quite well.
I have come to admire the kind of determination that commits to make the most of the options available while aiming for life’s larger goals. That spirit caught my attention on street corners in Central American towns some years ago, where Cholas parked themselves on the sidewalk along with a bag or basket that had everything they needed to quickly assemble and sell tortilla meals to passing pedestrians. It was a low overhead, cash only, finely tuned process. Both buyer and seller contributed to each other’s success and survival in a win-win situation. Come to think of it, in the town near where I grew up a truck or two often popped up at the lunch hour outside the cotton mill or Chatham Foods and sold sandwiches to workers on their break. Now, that kind of entrepreneurial enterprise has been glamorized by a food truck movement featured on cable network channels. Just last week a sign reading Lulu’s Tacos stood by a truck set up in a vacant lot in nearby Richmond, Indiana. History is filled with a long line of industrious people who look to set up shop wherever they pull off the road in life, all in pursuit of their dreams. Often, they are offering just what we need as we pass their way.
There is much to appreciate about places like the River’s Edge and BJ’s. They provide glimpses into the art of survival. It’s gutsy to set up shop on an area that could pass for a roadside shoulder. As most of us have experienced, life isn’t fair. It won’t always present us with our preferred choice or optimal conditions. We are left to take hold as best we can and make a start where we are. For a while, we can be content to make do with what is available so long as it gets us by. The Dodge Burger represents that commitment. Nothing fancy. It doesn’t even match the typical image of a hamburger, but it is tasty enough. It serves its purpose when mealtime rolls around. It reminds us that sometimes the basics are enough; and even after more or better options are available, it will still be a foundation for our life’s work. Who knows? After a while, it may even become your featured, prized offering and others feel lucky just to have the chance to try one. On the other hand, the Buddy Burger represents risking an experiment. It is the spirit that allows us to become something more through the expression of our creativity. Building on what others have done, we present a new combination of ingredients with a twist here or there, all in an effort to make a name for ourselves. That is part of what drives innovation and discovery. Be grateful whenever you have the opportunity to be part of forward motion.
You may have never literally pulled off the road and opened up a shop, but I suspect most of us are nomads of sorts at the outset. Not knowing exactly what we want and where we want it; or knowing the what, but uncertain of where we will find it. Or knowing what we want and where but unclear as to how to accomplish those goals. Or even finding what we want for a season, only to give in to the urge to pull up stakes later and get on the road again pursuing whatever is your “next.” In either case we take to the figurative highway. Someone once said that life is what happens while we are busy making other plans. That is precisely how it often occurs. On the road of our personal journey, we pause to enjoy a few roadside pull offs. With them comes rest and renewal, provision and diversion, and even contentment and satisfaction. If we are convinced to stay for a while, we attempt to do more than just survive. We test our dreams and explore whether this place will be our land of opportunity. The time spent produces memories that either sustain us or haunt us as our past travels with us into our future. In what seems to be a twinkling of an eye life happens, and those pull offs and memories write our personal narrative, a thread of history, the story of your life that represents you as it also weaves alongside the stories of everyone else who is also making their way.
Cherokee is an interesting place to entertain an idea like this one. National Park. Natural beauty. Locals and tourists. Even the Trail of Tears. Lots of people have crisscrossed through this land. It is a reminder that the road isn’t always glamorous but is instead a mixture of the sublime, the average, the disappointing, plus a few things you wish had never happened at all. It is definitely worth seeing, especially if you can pause long enough to drink it all in.
If the road you’re on takes you through the area, take a break. Enjoy the view. Try the Dodge or the Buddy Burgers. Let the river invite you to open yourself to the ponderings it inspires. It’s a good place to visit and reflect until you’re ready to get back on the road again.