Family road trip traditions are weird. Ours is taking a trip to Cracker Barrel. At least, it is for now.
Whenever we’ve loaded up the rental van and headed east from Southern California, we’ve known the downhome, Southern-inspired restaurant going to be on the agenda, interspersed between the oddball hole in the walls off the interstate and gems buried deep in the cities we’re passing through. There’s no justification for this from a culinary standpoint. The food’s decent enough, and like any chain, some locations are better than others – the one in Kingman, Arizona outshines the one in St. George, Utah, for example. A few of my friends contend none are better than others, because they’re all bad. I don’t share that sentiment. It’s not gourmet of course, but a morning dose of biscuits and gravy provides enough fuel to satiate me before a long day of driving.
Kitsch, on the other hand, is an especially bright and shiny lure. Cracker Barrel is a megawatt beacon of Hee Haw-grade cheese, and I’m a but a moth. It’s been this way ever since my former roommate used the venue as an incentive to help him chaperone a day trip to Yuma for his church’s youth group. It worked, and the restaurant’s been an integral part of my road trippin’ ways ever since. Now that I’m a parent, though, it’s enjoyed lofty status because of uncanny ability to cultivate personal nostalgia.
I still get a dorky kick from Cracker Barrel’s rocking chair-strewn front porch and its general store, even though the only thing I’ve ever brought from the shop is a pack of gum. However, going to the place with the family in tow creates powerful touchstones; incidents that will hopefully cause our daughters one day to tell their kids, “That was what we did. That was our thing.” On the road, touchstones look like memories, but they’re slightly different. The latter is oftentimes part of a fleeting point in time that may or may not be captured again. A touchstone is grounded in routine. It provides something constant to look forward to whenever one feels compelled to accept the charges of the interstate’s call. While this can be a final destination, it works best when it’s only a stop along the greater journey. In that sense, it becomes the consistent anchor that binds vast memories of terrific road trips together. Our trips to Cracker Barrel have created a through-line that links various family getaways to Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. All three sojourns provided wildly different experiences, but the obligatory excursion to Cracker Barrel provided a sense of safe harbor along each trip. This has yielded substantially more value than a piece of chicken fried steak or fried catfish.
I’m worried this may change. There’s a Cracker Barrel opening in Southern California next February. Granted, it’s launching about 90 minutes from our house in the high desert community of Victorville, but that still puts it within the Golden State’s borders. This is slightly disconcerting, because it blasts apart a vital component to the Cracker Barrel touchstone. Up to now, the only way for us to partake in its rustic folksiness was to leave the state. It wasn’t even about exiting California, either – Oregon and Washington are also Cracker Barrel-free, so heading north was futile. It was all about going eastbound and down. This made going there special. Seeing my kids pretend to play checkers on the venue’s requisite front porch checkerboard or watching them dart between aisles spilling with mini Kincaid prints, stuffed animals, and local college apparel was something I could only witness when we were in the grip of the road, far from the relative predictability of home.
This won’t be the case anymore come February. We could hit it on the way to Vegas. Hell, we have family less than 30 minutes from Victorville. Theoretically, it could be a place to eat before or after a visit. This has left me struggling to fathom whether its presence disrupts its status as a road trip touchstone for us in the future. It will almost certainly make seeing one on the road significantly less special. Perhaps it will be time to consider something else. Lord knows there are options – I admittedly have a soft spot for the crisp burritos from Taco Time, and they’re located in both Oregon and Washington.
But even if a California Cracker Barrel affects future road tripping decisions, it doesn’t change the past. A touchstone is a touchstone, and there’s comfort there. I’m sure I’ll never set foot in the new location, but I’d like to imagine that when I zip by it while I’m tooling down I-15, I’ll think to myself, “That was what we did. That was our thing.”