Driving from Seattle to New Orleans sounded like a good idea at the time. The wedding dress wouldn’t have survived a flight even if I had carried it on. I couldn’t let a plane ride ruin the dress I had worked on for almost a year. Truth is I really like road trips. The music, car snacks, stopping at weird places along the way; all of it appealed to me in a way air travel never did. Maybe it’s the hopeless romantic in me.
Twenty hours is a long time to drive by yourself. My musical companions, Bowie, Lou, Metallica, and girl groups from the 80s, were started to lose their magical touch. I needed to stop again soon or I’d never make it to my hotel. Originally I thought I’d drive the thirty eight hours straight but then I realized I’m not that crazy or stupid. My hotel was just over the Colorado/New Mexico border. I was about three hours away but I needed a break. Badly.
As if the road trip gods were listening to my inner monologue, a sign appeared on the side of the road for Al’s Place. It was at the next exit and it was open all night. Diner food sounded like heaven at 2 am.
Al’s Place was the only thing I could see as I exited the highway. Bright lights shone on the building and a huge sign took up most of the sky. The sign had a 60s vibe to it and it moved. The figure on the sign, Al I’m guessing, had mechanical arms that were moving as if to flip a pancake. This place was going to be amazing. Maybe I could find some kitschy souvenirs for my friends. They’d love this place.
The first steps after sitting for so long were agony. I walked around the parking lot a bit to wake up my limbs. I took a few pictures of the sign and posted them to Instagram with my road trip hashtag. All of my friends were using it as we made our way to New Orleans for the wedding. It was going to be an epic “photo album” for Stewart and Janie.
There were a surprising number of cars in the parking lot. Given the hour, I figured they were either desperate travelers like me or people who worked night shifts or really early morning shifts. We weren’t that far from Pueblo, CO so maybe they were all on their way there. A friendly waitress named Marge seated me at a booth by the window. Marge looked exactly like a diner waitress in a movie; a little older, a little tired, and super sassy. She had big blondish teased hair and perfectly applied eye makeup. Her peach colored uniform fit her as if it had been made for her and she wore the kind of sensible shoes I never consider buying. She poured me some coffee and told me she’d be back in a few for my order.
The menu was huge like most diner menus; a little bit of breakfast and lunch and a dessert menu that rivaled any I’d seen before. I opted for my standard diner order of pecan pancakes and bacon. Marge brought me orange juice even though I didn’t order it. She said it was good for me.
I’m the kind of person who likes going to restaurants alone. I like to people watch and diners are perfect places for people watching. Especially at 2 am in the middle of nowhere Colorado. The diner was pretty large and old fashioned in the way diners tend to be. I guessed it looked like this the day it opened. The other patron even looked a bit old fashioned, not out of place just worn. There wasn’t anyone near me; most people were seated around the counter or across the room along the side window. There was a family of five eating in a corner booth. The youngest child had made a mess of his scrambled eggs and his parents looked too tired to care. His siblings, a boy and a girl around 9 or 10, were blowing straw papers at each other. Behind them was a table of guys in work boots and coveralls. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but I matched them with the big truck in the parking lot with Marvin’s Repairs painted on the side. They were all enjoying dessert, pie if I wasn’t mistaken. The rest of the people around the counter were your typical late night diner crowd. There were quiet conversations, lots of coffee refills, and the constant call of food orders. It was all very soothing.
Marge refilled my coffee and promised my food would be right out. As she stepped away from my table, I noticed another single diner across the room from me, staring out the side window. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew him. He looked so familiar but I couldn’t place him. I didn’t know anyone in Colorado so it was strange. I couldn’t figure it out and I didn’t want to be that person who creepily started at another person at a diner at 2 am. Nothing good ever came out of being that person. I distracted myself with browsing on my phone until my food arrived. I dug in as soon as Marge placed the plate in front of me. I am not exaggerating that these were the best pecan pancakes I have ever eaten. The syrup was homemade and the combination of that with the pecans hit the spot after a long day of driving.
I noticed that the man across the room had a guitar and was getting ready to play something. It wasn’t anything I recognized and no one seemed to mind his playing. Scrambled Egg Kid stopped making a mess and focused entirely on the man and his guitar. The workers finished up their pie and sat back to listen. I had never been to a diner with live music before. It seemed to make absolute sense. I took a few covert pictures of the guy. I didn’t think any of my friends would believe me when I told the story later.
He kept playing softly but loud enough that I could hear him across the diner and above the din of food orders and forks scraping on plates. He played a bit of everything, classic rock, country, and an acoustic version of “London Calling.” He even threw in a stripped down version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” He never sang, just played the songs.
Marge came back to check on me.
“Who is that guy? Does he play here all the time?” I asked as she refilled my coffee cup.
“The guitar guy? I think his name is John or Jim. He comes in every now and then late at night or early in the morning and plays for bit. Doesn’t bother anyone so we let him do it. People think he’s someone famous but I don’t know. Can I get you anything else?”
“I think I’d like a slice of cherry pie. I shouldn’t have it but I will anyway.”
“Always eat dessert honey, life is too short.”
I didn’t really need the pie but I wanted to stay and watch Guitar Guy more. No one else seemed like were leaving anytime soon and I didn’t want to be the one to break the spell. I posted a photo of him to my friends with the following caption “Guitar Guy at a diner in the middle of nowhere. What are the odds? #stu&janegethitched”
As I started in on my pie, a few comments came in on my picture. My friend Marnie thought the guy looked familiar too, “Is that that “musician” you dated in college? LOL!” Another friend asked if I was bringing him to the wedding. It was the third comment that stopped me mid-bite, “Doesn’t he look like a bit like Jim Morrison?” That was it! That was who this guy reminded me of; he looked a lot like Jim Morrison. He was dressed like the Val Kilmer version of Jim Morrison but with facial hair. He wasn’t old enough to actually be Jim Morrison (if you were one of those people who believed Morrison was dead). Guitar Guy could be his son.
He looked at me at this exact moment. He didn’t stop playing. He nodded his head as if to say, “I get that all the time.” I didn’t know what to do except smile. He went back to playing and I quickly finished my pie and paid my bill. It was time to get back on the road. I left a tip for Marge and took one last look around the diner. The magic of the moment seemed to have passed; Scrambled Egg Kid was throwing eggs again and the workers were paying their bill. Guitar Guy finished his last song as I walked out the door.
I got back into my car, popped in a Doors CD, and made my way back to the highway. I could see the lights from Al’s Place in my rearview mirror for about mile down the highway. Jim Morrison sang “Roadhouse Blues”. I knew in my heart that Guitar Guy was not Jim Morrison but the possibility of it would keep me awake for a few more hours. Maybe all the way to New Orleans.
Based on the prompt: You've been on the road driving for almost twenty hours. At 2 am you drive up to a restaurant that's open all night. Describe the experience and the people you see. From 1000 Awesome Writing Prompts by Ryan Andrew Kinder.