I had one more One More on the Way posts ready to go, so I decided to go ahead and share it. This will be the last of this year’s series, but I think I will work on more of them without waiting for 2017, so periodically search for And One More on the Way to find things to add on to your trip to LauraPalooza or any other Laura Ingalls Wilder trip.
If you’re not from the Midwest, you will probably find driving around to Laura sites a unique experience. Most of the locations are off the beaten path and while several are within easy reach of a four lane highway, others are a long piece down a two lane road from everywhere. Even if you have GPS, I strongly recommend that you take a paper map as well and even as small as they are a map of the town itself is a good idea to help you get your bearings.
On your way to any Laura town you’re most likely going to need to eat at small towns you pass through. While travelers out east are used to having rest areas with a food court, those will disappear soon after you get west of Chicago and from then on rest areas provide exactly what the name implies – a restroom and area to stretch your legs. Also, on Laura trips you have to leave the Interstates and all kinds of rest areas behind for two lane paved roads.
Although most small towns you pass through or turn off the Interstate to stop at will have a bar that serves food and/or neighborhood corner restaurant, many travelers prefer to stick to chains. The chains available normally depend on the size of the town. In fact you can gauge the size of the town by what restaurants they offer. I often point out if asked the size of a town, it’s only big enough for a Casey’s or it’s big enough for a McDonalds.
If the town you find yourself in is even too small for the restaurants listed below, most small town gas stations have a convenience store attached where you can dig up something to eat, look for names like Kum and Go, Kwik Star, and Casey’s General Store. Sometimes even a Subway or Dairy Queen and once in a very long while a McDonalds will be attached to the gas station so keep a sharp eye out.
Let me offer some hard won advice from driving to small towns all over to present, don’t assume there will be another restaurant up ahead, even if you’ve driven the road before and there was another one last time. Stop when you see a place if you need it. That’s important advice for bathroom breaks, buying gas, and finding food when driving out on the Midwest’s Blue Highways. Plus, don’t automatically pass by neighborhood style restaurants. They are a great way to talk to locals and get inside information about what’s around.
In many towns the first level of chain restaurant they are big enough to support is Subway. Subways offer deli type sandwiches and options to use the same toppings to make a pizza or a salad. They also offer cookies (pricey for what they are unless you buy them in mass quantities – super expensive by buying 1 quite reasonable by buying 12, but generally good) and good iced tea (usually both sweet and unsweet).
Next up the chain is a Dairy Queen or DQ. The quality of these vary quite a bit, but if you can hit a good one, the food like hamburgers, hotdogs, tacos, salads, etc. is pretty cheap with generous portions. Making it a value meal or a basket is really worth it considering the amount of food you get. Ice cream is where they make their money with high prices. Sometimes it’s worth it for some really good ice cream, but it will cost you. DQs generally don’t have iced tea and have Pepsi products for drinks.
Next size of town is big enough to support a Hardees in the Midwest, known as Carl Jr.’s in some areas of the country with a very similar, but not exactly duplicate menu. Both use the same star logo. So don’t be surprised if you live in a Carl Jr.’s area and suddenly see their star on another chain. Hardees provide typical hamburger and french fry fare. Another good spot for iced tea (ask if it’s brewed or through the fountain before ordering to make sure it’s the right kind – it varies) and home of a delicious if expensive milkshake. It’s a Laura trip, splurge, I’ll wait for your thank-you, honestly it’s worth the calories. Let me also add that it’s the only place that I’ll buy a chocolate milkshake not in a soda fountain because it’s the only one that’s chocolatey enough to suit me. On a recently discovered note, while many of their main burgers feature an artisan type bun, you can get a sesame seed bun instead on any of them for the asking which is great news for me because I can not say how much I hate their artisan buns.
After that you start seeing the larger chains, McDonalds, Taco Johns, Taco Bells, Pizza Hut, Burger King, etc. that I assume people are familiar with their offerings. Normally these are offered at nearby larger towns not the actual homesites, although a couple like Vinton, Iowa, and Independence, Kansas, are McDonalds size. Once you reach that level there are normally multiple other restaurants in town and you will have a lot of other choices.
One more note, Pepin, Wisconsin is an exception to this size rule. Located on the river in a beautiful countryside, Pepin is a get away town for people in the Twin Cities (for local people think how Galena is to Chicago) and so has an artist community and can support several excellent restaurants. Just another good reason to visit Pepin.
As long as you don’t ask them to be more than they are, there are lots of enjoyable little small town restaurants. That are mom and pop restaurants, tea rooms, and soda fountains, too. Keep an eye out. Ask for suggestions and don’t be afraid to take a risk.
Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation.Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. She is currently President of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.