I woke up on one beautiful, shimmering summer morning and did it. I packed a few belongings, hopped into my car, and left. I don’t know where I thought I was headed. I just knew I wanted to go live out the lifelong fantasy of getting up and disappearing on a road trip without telling anyone. I remember thinking that maybe if I drove long enough, I’d find the place where the pavement hit the sky and that I would feel better. Because Chicago was starting to feel like a cage.
It had been a rough year. My girlfriend of four years and I had broken up a few months back, and I wasn’t taking it well. It was a strange feeling, waking up and looking on the other side of the bed, expecting the gentle heaving and falling breath of someone sleeping next to me. It wasn’t just the empty space that was the problem. It was the vacuum she left behind. Things between us just didn’t work out, and not for lack of love. The love was there. But life gets extraordinarily complicated sometimes. And so that was it. She moved out. I was hungover every day for a month after it happened.
Then the second shoe dropped. I lost my job. Just before my 10 year anniversary at the office.
I worked in IT, and when the president sat me down to let me go, he said, “Why don’t you become a full-time food writer instead?” asked the president. “You should just do that. You like that stuff, don’t you?”
I could feel my face growing impossibly red. “I earn twenty-five dollars per blog post,” I said. Each word I uttered felt as if it were choking me. “There’s no way I could make it. You don’t understand. It would be suicide. It’s just a hobby.”
Then he laughed. It wasn’t just a laugh, but a snicker. And that was it.
In movies and television, impromptu road trips always look amazing. The main character drops everything and goes on an adventure, and when they’re done with their journey, everything ends up falling perfectly into place. In reality, however, things were a lot different. I was broke, scared, and alone, with no destination in mind. All these feelings were new to me. My hands clung to the wheel until my knuckles turned white, and every now and then I’d try to relax my hands until I realized they had turned into vice grips again. So I just stared at the yellow lines of the highway and kept driving, with a broken stereo and nothing but the noise of the tires on the highway to keep me company.
It wasn’t long until I found myself in Madison, just a few hours from home, when I decided to pull over and check into a shitty hotel. I’d already had it with the road. I’d make a terrific truck driver. My room had a hole punched into the wall, the sparse bathroom was lined with strange stains, and the air was filled with a blooming mildew smell that was constantly being pumped through the air conditioner. But it didn’t matter. I just needed a place to sleep. And if I wanted to add a matching hole in the wall, I’m sure nobody would have noticed. I briefly considered it.
It had been at least a decade since I’d been in Madison. The last time I’d been there was when the University of Wisconsin was known for its legendary and insane campus-wide Halloween mayhem. I was dressed as a tiny shabby-looking Spiderman, with a tiny hole poked into the front of the mask so I could drink beer from a straw. I was also wearing a blond curly wig on top too for no reason other than the fact that it was hilarious and I was drunk off my ass. I stayed out late, but apparently not late enough, because I found out the next day that the wild crowd had started a riot, breaking windows and looting stores. Rumor had it that a girl on a balcony flashed the crowd and the whole place went nuts. Halloween in Madison was canceled promptly after that.
I spent the day aimlessly walking around campus. All the students had gone back home for the summer, and I tried to picture what the university would be like if there were actual people in it. In my mind, it was bustling with excited voices, everyone wearing Birkenstocks and flip-flops, toting around backpacks and a few books, complaining about professors or their shitty ex-boyfriends or how they drank too much the night before. It was a lively mental image. But no one was around. I wandered around listlessly among empty academic buildings, until I saw a small group of people walking on campus, and so I followed them. They walked into an ice cream parlor, laughing amongst themselves, and I slipped in silently behind them.
I ordered a heaping cone of chocolate peanut butter ice cream and sat outside on the steps. It was cold, smooth, and full of frozen ribbons of peanut butter, and it was soon running down my hands before I could finish it. I looked at it forlornly and finally gave up, dumping the runny and leaky cone into the trash. Normally I like eating ice cream cones as much as anyone, but eating it alone in a place I hardly knew, took the simple pleasure out of it.
I continued my slow paces until I heard gentle laps of water against the shore, and I found myself on a large patio on Lake Mendota. There were a lot of people sitting around, drinking beer, causing general shenanigans. I heard bellyfuls of laughter and saw faces saturated with smiles and so I sat for a while trying to drink it all in. I thought to myself, maybe I can soak in the sun and the laughter and put it somewhere inside me, to save it up for when I needed it later. Then I thought that was a stupid idea and let all the happy chirping noises of people drain back out of me like the rush of water from a broken dam.
I moved away from everyone and sat on a pier with my legs dangling off the edge, sticky and covered with melted chocolate ice cream. I listened to seagulls fighting over scraps of food they’d picked up on the patio. A duck swam up to me with optimism in its eyes, wondering if I had any bread, thinking hopefully that I would be a nice human, and share it. I shrugged at them and said, “Sorry, duck.” I gestured to my empty hands. It turned its beak up and paddled away. It shook its head at me as it wiggled off.
I bought a bottle of whiskey and carried it around in a paper bag, but I didn’t feel like walking around drunk by myself, so it remained capped. Hours had passed by since I had a meal and I watched people excitedly run into a restaurant, coming out with heaps of pizza boxes. I knew I had to eat, so I forced myself to walk in.
I’d heard of Ian’s from watching countless hours of food television. They were the wacky pizza place in Madison with the New York style slices and zany stoner toppings, mostly known for their mac and cheese pizza, along with their oddball daily specials. People in line were pointing at things they were excited about eating, and talking about which pieces they wanted to share with each other.
I ordered a mac and cheese slice to go, and drove back to the hotel. I sat on the bed, looking at the hole in the wall, drinking whiskey and alternating it with bites of cold starchy pizza. I don’t remember how it tasted. I feel like it should have been good. I usually remember what food tastes like long after I’ve eaten it, but to this day, I don’t remember a single thing about it. I fell asleep, drunk, with crumbs all over my chest and the television playing softly in the background.
The highway was long and lined with beautiful rolling green hills that we didn’t have in Chicago, and I could feel my grip on the steering wheel relax just a touch, my knuckles pink instead of white. I rolled the windows down and let the roar of the hot wind fill my ears, running its wispy fingers through my hair. I didn’t pay attention to the signs, exits, and little towns. I just kept going. But like most roads, this one would have to take me somewhere. The scenery changed gradually until the frequency of the name Minneapolis showed up on sign after sign. The hills gave way to the angular edges of a city, until it sprang up around me, swallowing me up.
I spent the evening wandering around Nicollet Mall, getting lost in Minneapolis’ small downtown area. I marveled at how clean the streets were and how happy people seemed, draped in the final rays of the setting summer sun. Everyone in Minneapolis was inexplicably attractive with a kind aura to them and I knew that if I had only reached out and said something to a stranger, I would probably have made a friend. It just felt like one of those types of places.
But it wasn’t perfect. Later that night, when I took a cab to a comedy show – which was a thing I didn’t really want to do, but I made myself get out anyway, the cab driver told me that a man had been shot and killed on the same sidewalk I had walked down that day. The cab driver hated Minneapolis and when I told him I was from Chicago, he asked what I thought about him moving there. I shrugged and told him that Chicago wasn’t much better.
I woke up early the next morning as the sun beat on my face through the crack in the curtains. It suddenly dawned on me that I really had nowhere to be or anywhere to go. It felt like falling, falling in a terrifying, endless spiral. I lounged around in bed, listening to a strange noise repeat itself, until I realized that strange noise was my stomach. At least my stomach knew what it needed. I threw on some clothes and headed to the lobby.
The attendant at the front desk smiled at me. “Can I help you?” she asked.
“Actually, yes,” I said. “I’ve never been here before. If you picked one place I had to eat at, where would it be? Preferably somewhere cheap.” I stopped short of telling her about not having a job. I felt pathetic, but I didn’t need to look pathetic.
She furrowed her eyes and thought for a moment. “Do you like burgers?” she asked.
I nodded. I didn’t tell her that I wrote about burgers back in Chicago. Whenever I tell people that I write about food in my spare time, they become nervous when I ask them for food recommendations, as if they’ll disappoint me somehow. It gets a little easier when I tell them one of my favorite things to eat is the Seven-Layer Burrito at Taco Bell. I only whip that bad boy out for emergencies.
“Well, there’s a pretty good burger place that a lot of people like to go to when they’re new in town. It’s called Matt’s Bar. They serve a stuffed cheeseburger called a Jucy Lucy.” She still looked a little hesitant. By “people,” she meant “bored tourists.”
“Do you eat there too?” I asked.
She laughed. “Yes,” she said. “Sometimes. Not too much. It’s pretty heavy.”
“All right, then. Matt’s Bar. I trust you.” I looked at the bicycle propped up against the wall of the lobby. “Are these for rent?”
Before I knew it, I was out on the street, wearing a helmet that was slightly too small for my head, listening to cars honk as they almost killed me. I wobbled on by like a child learning how to bike for the first time. It would have been cute, if I wasn’t 32, and not about to die every few seconds. It only took ten minutes before I was drenched in sweat, and to make matters worse, I was already horribly lost. Google Maps is a wonderful tool for the lost traveler, but when you suddenly find out your bike route has been shut off due to construction, your phone might as well be a ham sandwich.
I pedaled in the general direction of where I thought the bar was. The map was getting even more confusing. I cursed at my phone, hungry and angry, and that is, no joke, when it started to rain. Hilarious, I thought. An hour-and-a-half later, I found myself in a quiet residential neighborhood with a sore ass and an angry stomach. There, on the corner, stood a shabby-looking bar, with people humming around the front door like excited bees.
I looked at my phone, shoved it back in my pocket, and said, “Fuck you, Google.” A bike ride that should have only taken me twenty minutes, took me nearly two hours. I blame both the technology and the fact that I’m an idiot. I walked into the dark bar, soggy from the rain and sweaty from the ride, my legs burning.
Matt’s Bar was worn-in, lined with brown booths filled with people chatting away. There was nowhere to sit except for a single stool at the bar, sandwiched between two older gentlemen and a gaggle of college kids. I looked around to see if there were any other tourists around – but everyone seemed like local folk for the most part. I motioned at the stool to see if anyone was sitting there, and with small shrugs from the people around me, I took the seat.
I ordered a beer and sipped on it, letting its bitterness linger on my tongue. Behind the bar was the smallest griddle I’d ever seen, with room for maybe about eight or nine small burgers. A man stood over it, concentrating, watching, flipping patties, his eyes never looking up once. I looked around and everyone was either eating a burger, or already looking satisfied over an empty basket filled with crumpled napkins and messy pools of melted cheese.
To be honest, I already knew what a Jucy Lucy was, missing i and all. They’re just inside-out cheeseburgers with the cheese stuffed inside the patty. I’d made American cheese-stuffed burgers at home on my cast-iron pan. They turned out pretty good, but coming off my own stove, they didn’t seem all that special. I knew what Matt’s Bar was, and how it was supposed to be one of the legendary places where the Jucy Lucy was supposedly invented. I’d already learned this information long ago. I wasn’t here for any of that. I was just at Matt’s Bar because I needed something to eat.
“Ordering food? What’ll you have?” asked the bartender. He was tall, older, and skinny, with a silver mustache like Sam Elliot.
“Jucy Lucy. And fries. Thanks.” He nodded and gave the order to the cook. I stared into the bubbles floating up in my amber-colored beer, the liquid matching the color of my surroundings. Before I knew it, the beer was gone and I ordered another one. I’m kind of a small person, so when I drink on an empty stomach, I’ll feel a pint of beer right away. Maybe it was because I hadn’t eaten that morning, or I was dehydrated from the two hour bike ride, but whatever the reason, the first beer hit me like a bag of bricks.
The men to my left were gray-haired, quiet, and didn’t say much. One looked older than the other. When they did speak, it was in short bursts. There was a knowing silence between them. I turned my head in their direction, and the beer spoke, moving my mouth for me.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hello,” said the younger one.
“Are you from around here?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I’m just visiting. My father.” He gestured to the man sitting next to him. The man waved at me. “I live in Wisconsin. He lives here.”
“Ah,” I said. “I’m from Chicago.” They nodded. “I’m here on a road trip.”
“Yeah?” responded the younger one. “Where have you been so far?”
“Just to Madison,” I said. “I haven’t gone too far yet. I’m just looking for places to go, didn’t really plan things out. I asked the girl in the lobby where I should go for lunch today, and she suggested I come here. I biked. That was a bad idea.” I pointed at the helmet dangling off the back of my stool, then at my wet shirt. Both of the men laughed. “Do you two come here often?”
“No. I don’t,” said the younger one. He gestured to his father, who cleared his throat.
“I come here maybe once a month,” he said. “I like the burgers. They’re pretty good.”
“Great,” I said. We sat in silence after that. I looked at the old bottles behind the bar and watched the cook working his magic behind the tiny griddle. After a long while, the bartender slid up, holding multiple baskets in his hands. He handed off two of them to the men next to me. He looked at me, motioning for me to wait momentarily, and he came back with my burger and fries.
“Now, I’m warning you, let this cool off for at least five minutes before you bite into it. It will burn your mouth.” It was clearly a phrase he’d recited at least a million times. I pointed at my glass. “Another one?”
“Yep,” I said. I stared at my burger as he filled another pint glass. It was small, on a puffy little white bun. It didn’t look like a whole lot. I wondered why everyone loved this little thing so much. I shoved a pale, boring-looking fry in my mouth while I was waiting and was surprised to find out it was salty, crisp, and pillowy in the middle. Half of the basket disappeared quickly into the abyss of my mouth. I thought carefully and turned to the men.
“If you two had a choice to just get in the car, right this minute, and drive somewhere within a day’s reach, where would you go?” I asked, between mouthfuls of fries. “Don’t think about it too hard. Just think of the first place.”
Both men thought about my question for a minute. The man’s father shrugged and looked at his son.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “There’s not too much around here.”
“If you come up with something, let me know. I’m just looking for my next destination.” I looked at my burger. It had been maybe two or three minutes since the burgers had been delivered, and I cautiously poked the patty with my finger. The outside seemed cool enough, warm without burning my finger. I picked it up, looked at it while the men next to me watched, and took an enormous bite.
A searing pain burst across my tongue and I almost spit the bite out. The cheese had turned into a scorching liquid blend of fat, salt, and heat from the griddle. It coated my mouth and I almost knocked my beer over frantically grasping for it, trying to put out the fire inside my face. Tears immediately started welling in my eyes from the pain. The men next to me started laughing while I gasped and swore. I don’t blame them. My eyes were practically bulging out of my head. The cold beer saved me, immediately tempering the burn throbbing through my jaw, though I still had to fight the urge to spit everything back out into the basket.
My tongue grudgingly recovered, and I took a smaller, more cautious bite. I stopped, mid-chew. This time, the heat had nothing to do with it. The small details counted for everything – the UFO-shaped patty was seared heavily, covered in a crisp caramelized shell of griddled beef, salted heavily enough to make the beef sing. It was filled with a liquid cheese center that looked deceivingly thin, but tasted like the best American cheese I had ever eaten in my life. But it wasn’t just that. I was suddenly hyperaware of everything around me, every sound, every bottle behind the bar, and every person talking to the person next to them. For a brief moment, my life came blossoming back into color. That feeling only lasted for a split second.
My new acquaintances, experienced enough in life to know better than to bite straight into a Jucy Lucy, finally started on their burgers. I inhaled the rest of mine like there was no tomorrow. Part of me wanted another one, but the reasonable part reminded me that I had a nice long bike ride back to the hotel.
I paid my tab and started strapping my helmet on. The son put his burger down for a minute, wiping his fingers on a napkin. “You know,” he said. “It’s not much of a place, but I always liked La Crosse, in Wisconsin. It’s along the Mississippi. There’s not a whole lot there, but I don’t know. I always liked being by the river. It would probably be boring for you since you’re young, but that’s where I go sometimes with my kids and my wife.”
“Perfect,” I said.
He was right. La Crosse was boring. But I loved it anyway.