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The Truck Stops Here

Counter culture: There's a spot waiting for you at Johnson's Corner Cafe.
Sean O'Keefe

My buddy Gracie and I have this map -- a U.S. highway diagram torn from the front of an old Rand McNally atlas, showing all of the major interstate routes spooling out across the fruited plain. From I-95's start in Florida's malarial salt bogs to the terminus of I-90 in Seattle, from purple mountain majesties and sea to shining sea, the map showed them all. And it was with this map alone that, during one late summer and fall back in the mid-'90s, the two of us navigated the length and breadth of the country, looking for the best diner in the United States.

We weren't only looking for diners, of course. In the best Kerouackian tradition (and while we were still young enough to pull it off), we went looking for kicks, joy, and the clarity of distance -- for the kind of fun you can only find with four wheels on the road and no particular destination in mind. We were looking for different horizons, for oceans and mountains, for the best margarita in the continental 48 (which turned out to be a thermos bottle full of tequila-heavy banana daiquiris sucked down in the dirt back yard of an Albuquerque casita) and the greatest stretch of forgotten blue route across the desert (Route 95 South skirting the edge of the Yuma Proving Ground). Personally, I was looking to get laid -- and ended up falling in love. Gracie was mostly just looking for miles, and he got his wish, too, putting 12,000 of them on the odometer of his trusty purple Ford Taurus in three or four months of near-perpetual motion, spanging like a six-cylinder pinball from Buffalo to Ashtabula to Detroit to Phoenix, from Blythe to Barstow to Boulder and beyond.

The diner quest was a big part of our trip because we were both diner kids: East Coast rust-belt rats brought up wrong on plates of questionable spaghetti at Italian train-car cafes, gyros and feta at 3 a.m. Greek dives, roadhouse meatloaf, truck-stop pie and a million cups of watery joe at countless chromium temples. We'd done the Prufrock thing -- measuring our time in coffee spoons -- and the Tom Waits nighthawk shtick. Diners were in our blood, so we set out to find the best one ever -- because every truly epic road trip needs a goal, however elusive or ill-considered.

Our favorites from that trip (and others) are still recorded on the map, their names carefully lettered beside their home towns. Amy's Place, the State Diner, the Grill, Cunt's Truckstop (since renamed), the Golden West Pancake House, a Flying J up near Cheyenne where I almost died, Doe's Eat Place (Bill Clinton's favorite restaurant), the Dubliner (somewhere in Indiana, in a town where every business kept hours exactly opposite those of the rest of the civilized world because every man there worked the night shift at an ag plant one town over) and Johnson's Corner Cafe.

Johnson's Corner, which we found almost by accident, which we would've missed entirely had it not been for the timely appearance of a native guide (my future wife, though neither of us saw it coming back then) who told us, "Go north on I-25 until the stink is unbearable, then turn right."

Johnson's Corner, which sat right off the frontage road, a dusty sprawl of parking lots and big rigs, mirrored windows reflecting the endless, flat nothing all around it. Johnson's had everything: a restaurant, general store, CB and chrome shop, attached RV park and Sunday chapel, gas pumps, long-distance phone and mail service, even a flea market in full swing just down the road where you could get anything from a bucket of Coors longnecks (five for five bucks, even today) to a Chinese knockoff switchblade to an amethyst crystal necklace guaranteed to quell the bitter humors for less than the friction between the two ten-spots burning a hole in your wallet. It was a scene you'd expect to see in the opening credits of some big-budget Jerry Bruckheimer end-of-the-world sci-fi blockbuster, with a bunch of scrappy survivors trying to eke a living out of the post-apocalyptic wasteland, selling chicken-fried steaks and plastic dashboard Jesuses to a steady stream of mutant road folk in Mad Max leathers and hockey pads.

Johnson's Corner was exactly what Gracie and I had been looking for -- even though we didn't know that until we found it. If we hadn't had a short-term rental cabin waiting for us in the high country, I would have moved right in.

I'm not the only one who's fallen for its charms. Over the fifty years that Johnson's Corner has been in business (its history stretches back to the days when it was the only real stop between Denver and Cheyenne and its signs dotted I-25 for dozens of miles in either direction), it has collected accolades of a variety most restaurants can't even dream about. Its name and that of its founder, Joe Johnson, were read into the 106th Congressional Record as an example of "the industrious spirit and can-do attitude that have made America great." The Food Network dubbed it one of the top five truck stops in the country. In 1998, it was picked as one of the best breakfasts in the world by Travel & Leisure, its competition every other breakfast served anywhere on our little blue marble. Better than eggs and champagne in the deep leather of some Manhattan brunch spot, better than baguettes and chicory in the French Quarter, pain perdu along the Seine or pho and jackfruit juice in Saigon. Better than anything anywhere. And I don't disagree.  

On a retrospective tour of our misspent youths, my wife and I recently stopped at Johnson's Corner. The menu is everything you'd expect from a kitchen that caters to farmers, day-trippers and the long-haul crowd -- a board of fare sketched out during the Eisenhower administration and still pretty much unchanged today, with a little diner-style Mexican thrown in for color. (If it were Chicago, it'd be Polish dock-worker favorites, Greek in Buffalo, pork roll or scrapple in Philly.) I got a giant plate of flat-grilled corned beef hash cooked up brown and crispy 'round the edges, two eggs perfect (over so easy the yolks were still cool), four pieces of toast, hash browns (the shredded variety, mass-produced and brought up from freeze-dried -- the unfortunate standard of high-volume diners -- but in a portion large enough to feed a hungry Irish family of four), and coffee delivered by the pot. When she wasn't looking, I stole bites of Laura's so-classic-it's-almost-retro-cool hamburger sandwich, forking into the open-faced spread of a half-pound grill-fired patty and whipped potatoes (real ones, not from a box) on a fresh roll with gooey brown gravy. We shared some of the kitchen's famous cinnamon rolls -- soft and fluffy and slathered in cream-cheese frosting, made by the hundreds every single morning in a section of the sprawling galley dedicated to making nothing but -- and some fresh peach pie.

And since Johnson's Corner is the kind of place where you can order a crunchy, full-sized chicken-fried steak topped with an artful fall of peppery white sausage gravy as a side dish, we did, and I ate that, too. It was fantastic -- greasy, hot and salty, and packed with enough fat, calories and cholesterol to take a year off my life, but worth every day. You've got to eat without regrets in a joint like this. You've got to get in touch with your inner fat kid, embrace that crazy-eyed little whelp and just dig in. Carpe diem, baby. Seize the gravy.

Because I am no longer the young man I was when I discovered Johnson's Corner -- no more the flighty, fidgety, terminally displaced wastrel, stick skinny and bone dumb, a sack of bad habits on two legs, with the metabolism and moral compass of a hyperactive ferret -- this visit was different from those of my youth. I didn't slouch at the counter, stacking change for my pot of coffee, flirting with the waitresses, calling old friends on the house phones just to hear some friendly voices. I didn't pick fights with the regulars over matters of politics or box scores, didn't sit for hours waiting for something -- anything -- interesting to happen. Instead, I sat with my best girl in the non-smoking back room with its view of nothing and its slightly less carcinogenic air. I smiled more and cursed less. Maybe I'm changing as I get older.

But then, so is Johnson's Corner. It's in the middle of a massive remodel, with one section sealed off behind plywood and plastic sheeting, and an expansion that will extend its boundaries out into the northern parking lot. Looking at an artist's drawing of the new, improved Johnson's Corner, I saw a modern "travel plaza"-- not a diner, not a roadhouse, not a truck stop of the sort that's becoming rarer with each passing year. In the picture, it seemed sleek and low-slung, shiny and bright -- and yet here, from the ground, I couldn't see much that I would ever want to change.

For now, the core is intact. The counters, the pie cases, the old booths and well-worn surfaces are just like I remembered them, untouched by the dust and industry on the other side of the temporary wall. I know, because at a point maybe halfway through our meal, I felt the pull of that older, dumber me wanting to come out and play. And I let him, if only briefly, excusing myself from the nice table in the quiet back room and slinking out into the front, where I hunkered down at one of the counter stools, lit up a smoke and tried to drink it all in again like I did my first time through.  

Renovations or no, the magic is still there. It's in the details, in the things you don't even recall until you're already gone and twenty miles down the road. Like how when you first walk in, you're immediately struck by the dry heat, the babble of voices and a layered, full-lung busy-kitchen smell that speaks directly to every cell in your body of dimly remembered family vacations: A blind man would know where he is just by the sound and smell of Johnson's Corner.

The magic is in the black plastic phones mounted on the counter -- so anachronistic in this world of Nokias and Blackberrys until you find yourself far from home without your cell and come to understand that there is no comfort in the world like hunching over a hot cup of coffee on a cold night and hearing the voice of someone you love filtered through the scratch and pop of a bad land-line connection. It's in the dull chrome of the counter, the scuffed foot rails, the gut-sprung booths and the worn spots in the formica where fifty years of elbows put down in exactly the same spots have rubbed the finish away, right down to the smooth brown laminate. That's the kind of history no restaurant can buy, but can only earn with fifty years of continuous service, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Since 1954, Johnson's Corner has never once closed the doors. Not even for an hour. Not even for a minute.

For now, anyway, Johnson's Corner looks and feels like it did to me in 1996, as it did to others in 1976, and probably in 1966 and 1956, as well. And even if for only five minutes, it felt good to crawl back into my old skin, rest my elbows on the counter, look through the smoky windows at I-25 and wonder where the road might lead me.

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Johnson's Corner

2842 SE Frontage Road
Johnstown, CO 80534

970-667-2069

www.johnsonscorner.com


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