Burger/Out of joint
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I'm an eater -- a gourmand, I guess you'd say. It's a consuming passion and my greatest, and no doubt most deadly, sin. I find I love the act of eating and the comfortable feeling of having eaten well, and while fine suppers in romantic circumstances are all very well, I can't separate them as memories from disturbing dinners in atrocious surroundings. Can I choose between artistically dripped sauces in Washington and appalling fried calamari in New Jersey? Between my disappointing first bowl of grits in a southern Denny's and homemade sausage in a Catskills country firehouse? How can I forget Mr Burger And Chinese Too? I'm afraid that to me, eating is too much fun; seldom does a unique meal, by itself, leave a good story to tell. So this is a story about place more than food -- or rather, about a non-place, full of non-food and a sort of non-community.

It was late last summer, in the hottest part of mid-August, when I try not to travel and end up driving anyway. We had fought our way over the Blue Ridge in a blinding thunderstorm on I-77, in a white-knuckled stream of traffic dotted with tankers and plagued with aggressive SUV drivers, all of us afraid to slow down too much lest we be hit from behind by that large shadow half-visible in the mirror. Even the back seat, normally an inexhaustible fountain of demands and comments, had fallen silent.

Then, out of the weather and into the foothills of the Virginia mountains, we found ourselves in a miles-long backup of cars at the inadequate junction of I-77 and I-81, at the beginning of that remarkable stretch of I-81 where you're going both north and south, if the signs are to be believed.

From the back seat comes the announcement: "I have to go to the bathroom!"

Myself, I'd rather be dodging tankers in the rain.

Tensely, we waited out the traffic jam, all the while eyeing roadside bushes and wishing we were in Pennsylvania, where they don't clear the right-of-way as thoroughly. Hopefully, we swung southwest at last on the northbound highway -- but it wasn't until we turned north again that we found a place to stop.

The scene struck me as we came up to it. Under a silver sky, there was a narrow valley with a highway bridge across it and a mighty river of traffic instead of water slashing between the hills. Looking impossibly long, a tanker truck caught the light as it crossed the bridge. All around, trees lined the horizon, dark in the shadowless light.

To the right, a cluster of low buildings you might find anywhere in the U.S. -- but teeming, as an oasis on the edge of a great desert might be (Last Burger For A Thousand Miles! Tank Up and, well, you know). A meaningless place in itself, but full of importance.

Maybe it was relief. We found it, of course, at McDonald's, that essential adjunct to American motor travel. But in the crowded men's room, it was plain everyone felt the same sense of release from strain. In accents of the deep South, the mountains and the Midwest, the men were gossipping about weather and distance and challenges overcome. It was the last place I would have looked for it, but everyone seemed happy.

Not everyone, actually. Facing the dining room's main door were seven huge people, jammed into the narrow metal and fiberglass slots provided as seating in fast-food places. Stone-faced, they eyed the scene like squat statues meant to ward off intruders (Abandon All Appetite, Ye Who Enter Here), or else to accept small sacrifices from grudging strangers. I could relate to their expressions a bit: I know from undignified experience that fat is surprisingly squishy, but they could not have been comfortable, racked in like that. I tried, and failed, to imagine what they were driving. I would not have looked forward to that, either. I hoped they did not have to go far.

Opposite them, beside the door, a man with a white beard watched out the window. Unlike the rest of us, he had a couple of bags with him, and a moment's speculation led my daughter and me to deduce, and find, the bus station across the oil-spotted parking lot. A spectacularly tall family walked by, in colorful college T-shirts that defied guessing, for the schools named had nothing to do, geographically, with our route and weren't even famous for basketball. Everywhere at this way station in the middle of nowhere, there were prosperous families and hardscrabble truckers, midwesterners and tidewater-dwellers, chattering and hurrying.

I assume we ate something. Knowing my daughter's tastes, it was doubtless chicken nuggets, requested, nibbled and left unfinished on her part -- for she is not an eater and we encourage her. I would have had a salad, though I dislike the bland greens you get in such places. But it was OK. We needed sustenance and rest as well as relief. It was good not to be moving for a few minutes, even if we were far from home and among strangers. I remember we celebrated by buying a dessert.

Could an isolated caravanserai in the Sahara be much different, or more welcome?

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