CHURUBUSCO, N.Y. -- US 11 -- Filion's Diner
My prayers for a sign of neon were answered by this humble family-friendly diner in the middle of Nowhere, N.Y.
Actually, it wasn't really neon.
And actually, I'm not really nowhere.
I'm in the middle of Clinton County, 20 miles shy of Malone and 31 miles beyond Rouses Point, N.Y.
Rouses Point, across the bridge from the beautiful Lake Champlain Islands clogging the top of Lake Champlain, is where Steinbeck, and therefore I, 50 years in his wake, crossed from upper Vermont into upper New York.
Steinbeck picked a beautiful if eccentric route. US 2 from Lancaster, N.H., twists around or through Montpelier, Vt., and into Burlington.
Montpelier and the rest of Vermont was under a lot of water after about 36 straight hours of rain had turned the Winooski River into an angry churning brown snake that transformed lowlands into shallow lakes and swamped a ball field.
In Burlington I experienced my first serious traffic jam near the airport and whatever university all the kids on bikes were attending. It took me a while before I realized I was part of the evening rush hour.
Otherwise, it's been the same old story on the Steinbeck Highway.
Except for some serious new malls and office stuff on US 2 on the way into Burlington, the highway is as empty, rural and pretty as its namesake saw it 50 years ago.
I faithfully followed US 2 signs through residential neighborhoods in Burlington and through the squared-off rotary of downtown Winooski -- or was that just the name of that raging river I crossed? -- and then onto Grand Isle and South and North Hero islands.
By the time I made it to Churubusco, it was dark as far as I could see. I passed up the garish light show that pointed to the Pizza Barn and was rewarded by Filion's, which was not here when Steinbeck drove by.
I stopped as fast as I could, backed up, and pulled into the diner's lot. At the counter, Nikole Patnode, 20, became my guide to her local world, a world that she intends to stay in and raise her kids in, just like her parents did.
Nikole's in college, taking human services. Her high school graduating class numbered about 60 and half of them are leaving this land of dairy farms.
She likes it here because life is quiet and it's without the hassles of big cities like New York or Washington, which she saw on high school field trips.
When I came in to the diner most of the dozen tables and the counter had been evacuated by locals who came for the specials -- fish and chips ($5.75) and the hot pork sandwich ($5.95).
After consulting with Nikole, I chose the pork deal -- real pork roast, mashed potatoes and green beans. Everything, including the pies, is homemade.
The meat was tender and juicy, and though I should have skipped the white bread that sandwiched it, it instantly moved up to Number 2 on my best-meal-of-the-trip list.
That spinach and chicken salad at the Pelletier family's restaurant/bar in Millinocket, Me., still holds the top spot.
When NPR's Scott Simon interviewed me yesterday for tomorrow's "Morning Edition Saturday," he asked me what my best meal was so far.
I was stumped, since I haven't been chasing 5-star restaurants, I've been chasing Steinbeck. Simon laughed when I tried to convince him that my simple spinach salad was worth so much praise.
I couldn't remember how to pronounce Millinocket, so my garbled and stumbling answer will never make it to the NPR airwaves.
But when you're in the middle of Maine and hungry and your highest hope is something to eat that doesn't begin with "Mc-," a perfect spinach salad is even better than finding a homemade pork dinner in the dark of northern New York.