MERRILLAN, WISC. -- US 12/27, Merrillan Cafe
An oasis of humanity in a depopulated land of corn farms and Christmas tree nurseries, this small local eatery is getting busy at 7:30 a.m.
I had whizzed by earlier going north on US 12/27, aiming for US 10 and then Detroit Lakes, my next stop on the Steinbeck Highway. But after I discovered that all my pictures since Baraboo yesterday were lost, I had to turn back.
I have to go back to Mauston, 90 miles south, to retake some photos of the town where John Steinbeck stayed overnight exactly 50 years ago today.
I've learned the tragic way that you have to format a new memory card in your camera before you use it or all your photos can dematerialize, which 134 of mine did.
This cafe -- one of those local places they aren't supposed to make anymore but do -- is run by Kathleen Sullivan, who's had it since 1993.
Local farmers, hunters, ATV-ers, truckers and the rare itinerant journalist who stop in this town of 585 for breakfast are her customer base. The food is good, homey and cranked out by Kathleen in her tiny but efficient kitchen.
When I walked in six burly, bordering-on-too-heavy older farmers were relaxing in two booths drinking coffee. They were talking football, moaning about taxes, discussing land prices and kidding each other the way old friends can.
"If you paid your fair share of taxes, they wouldn't need to borrow money for a new school."
"You're a better negotiator than I am."
"You're all right. You know all the angles."
Someone they all knew -- obviously not a farmer -- walked in and sat down.
He had seriously white hair bunched at his shoulders. A white fu-manchu. Tattoos on both biceps and forearms. A floppy hat. And his black T-shirt -- cut to the armpits -- read "Born a genius. Slacker by choice."
You think he'd come in to discuss the latest news about Harley Davidson, but he wanted to talk Minnesota Badger football.
By the time I ate my perfect breakfast of two eggs over easy, sausage and American fries, four young studs came in, plus two duck hunters in camo and a middle-aged couple.
When I left and started driving south to retrace my trail to Mauston, the cafe returned to normal.
Beverly the waitress was running from table to table taking orders, delivering plates and filling up coffee cups -- and praising Kathleen's work ethic at the same time.
And Kathleen was still working the grill, whipping up picture-perfect breakfasts and no doubt happy she no longer had a stranger in her kitchen asking nosy questions and telling wild ghost stories about some guy named John Steinbeck.