Every few years, I hear about this enormous Christian conference in Urbana, Illinois. Thousands upon thousands of people attend. And whenever I ride south on Rt. 13, I can't help thinking, What if they got their states mixed up? What if, instead of Urbana, IL, they go to Urbana, IN?
I rode through Urbana a few weeks ago, on my way down to pick up Deborah's sewing machine. Out here, they'd call Urbana a blink'n'missit; out East, it would be a poke'n'plumb — poke your nose in, and you're plumb through. It's a rural farming community, with a short row of houses, a gas station, and... Pam's Cafe.
This place has always intrigued me as I've ridden past it, partly because of the paint, and partly because of the fact that I had never seen it open. This day, however, open it was. So I parked amidst the dozen or so heavy-duty pickups, and poked my head in.
"WELL, YOU LOOK COMFORTABLE." The two waitresses — one of whom I suspected to be Pam herself — were on break, smoke curling up from their mirrored cigarettes. Comfortable? I had to laugh in spite of myself — I'd obviously been riding in the rain, every inch of my riding gear dripping. "I'm OK," I chuckled, "at least I'm dressed for it." "WHAT CAN WE GETCHA?" I wanted to get something — breakfast sounded good — but I hadn't seen any credit card stickers on anything, and I knew I didn't have the cash, but I asked anyway. Pam's raspy, pack-a-day, small-cap voice took on a hounded note. "NO HON, NOT YET, WE'RE GETTIN' IN ONE OF THEM MACHINES NEXT WEEK. YOU CAN GO TO ONE OF THEM MACHINES UP AT THE MINI-MART, OR WE CAN TAKE CHECKS. WE'RE OPEN UNTIL TWO." I needed to get down to Marion before the sewing machine shop closed anyway, so I said I'd be back.
Open until two, I mused. No wonder it was never open when I went past. As I motored on, I realized that I actually had my checkbook inside my coat pocket. D'oh!
An hour and a half later, sewing machine retrieved and firmly strapped to by passenger seat, I was back, and hungry for lunch.
I hadn't relized it on my first glance, but Pam's Cafe was... a farmer hangout. The scenes on the outside walls hadn't tipped me off. The John Deere wall plaques, toy tractors, and the seed-company mug did, though. A group of farmers sat in the other room, swapping stories. "He took his Case out into the fields last week, rutted 'em up something bad." I and my city-boy self felt like we'd stepped into an alternate universe. "Say, how do you get yer innernet service? I've got a satellite hookup, but I've been thinkin; one of them DSL lines might be better, can you get that through the REMC?" My alternate universe took an odd twist. I started to gather that things worked a whole different way out here. Phone companies I'd never heard of. Prices for corn and soybeans checked every morning. Satellites and GPS. No one mentioned the rain. Clearly, my view of farmers needed an update.
Lunch arrived. My waitress had said the tenderloin sandwich was pretty good, so I got that — although it took me a minute to realize that it was, indeed, a sandwich — the breaded meat hid both halves of the bun and hung over the edge of the plate. It wasn't until I'd eaten a four inches of it that I discovered the lettuce.
After my second cup of hot chocolate, it was getting on towards 2:00, and things were shutting down. I discovered my check underneath my plate, and went to pay. I resisted the temptation to play with the toy tractors on the counter while my waitress added up the bill. I left that afternoon, my hunger sated, and my mind satisfied that I'd finally gotten to experience this place after riding past it so many times.