Cafe Society

The Truck Stops Here

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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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