Long before the sterile interstate highways sliced the country like surgical scars, there was another America. An America of winding roads, scenic overlooks, and county fairs. And if you leave the main highway, you’ll still see this other America, a place of soft-serve ice cream, Mom and Pop motels, one-stop-light hamlets and cornball town names like Gnaw Bone, Indiana and Blue Ball, Ohio.
As far as I know, no one has ever written a book just about US 50. But I’m sure one could write a book about this most American of highways as it traverses the states. From its eastern terminus in Ocean City, Maryland to its western endpoint in West Sacramento, US 50 still offers a glimpse of what the USA once was. I've often thought - if I lived in a fantasy world of no responsibilities or schedules and endless dollars to fill my gas tank and belly - that it would be fun simply to get on US 50 in Ocean City and just keep driving west, chronicling the colorful characters and offbeat businesses along the way. Of course I can't do that, so we'll have to settle on small stretches. I've been on many parts of US 50 in my 40 -plus years on this planet: stretches in Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. In fact, if the whole highway is 3073 miles in length, I have probably driven two-thirds of it at various times. Below are some highlights from US 50 in southern Indiana:
MOM & POP MOTELS: Holiday Inn and Howard Johnson brought interstate anonymity to the lodging industry, but before the chains came along the industry was largely mom and pop “motor inns” by the highway, their neon “vacancy” signs drawing in the weary traveler. I saw this beauty along US 50 outside of Bedford, Indiana. Unfortunately, I rarely stay at Mom & Pop places anymore (actually, I rarely travel anymore so I rarely stay anywhere!), the experience is just too hit and miss. I once found myself having to stay at an utterly wretched Mom & Pop place in Cleveland and when I inquired at the front-desk if they had a room available, the clerk asked me: “For the whole night?” Yet, I have stayed in very adequate ones. Rachel and I stayed in this mom and pop motel several years ago when I was giving a talk in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. It was very nice.
ICE CREAM: Some of the best frozen treats can be found on America’s backroads, whether it be a locally owned and churned soft-serve or a Diary Queen Dilly Bar. I spotted this ice cream dive along US 50 in southern Indiana and I’ll write a slogan for them: you can’t beat the Jiffy Treat! There's a little soft-serve shack off a side-road in Mason, Ohio that makes their soft-serve ice cream into the shape of elephants and other animals, I can't wait till our daughter gets old enough to have one of those cones!
GROCERY STORES: Sleepy hamlets are still one of the few places where one can spot tired-looking IGAs or Mom and Pop grocery stores. These are the places that pan-fry their own chicken to sell in the deli, have their own butcher on staff to hand-slice meats or someone back in the bakery makes homemade pies to sell. These are the grocery stores of yore. Yes, I like my Kroger Marketplace as much as anyone, but there’s something to miss in the “everyone knows everyone” atmosphere of a small-town grocery. When I lived in Oxford, Ohio in the mid-1990s a sleepy IGA still held on and I’d often find myself lured to their dimly lit aisles as opposed to the big chain supermarkets.