As the Red-Headed Girl of My Dreams, the Above-Pictured Columnist and our four young children set a course due north from our East Davis home, we all swore an oath: no movies in the van and no McDonald’s.
Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those choices. It’s just that if we want to eat Happy Meals and watch “Toy Story 2,” we can do that from the comfort of the couch in our living room. Even Mount Shasta under a full moon can’t compete with Woody and Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the gang.
As for McDonald’s, I’ve always been a fan, even on road trips. Sometimes, especially on road trips. Consistency can be comforting when you’re rolling through a strange town with limited choices. McDonald’s also can be a godsend when the unexpected events of the day land you at your destination long after every other dinner option is closed for the night.
My sweetheart and front-seat companion brilliantly suggested that we get each kid an inexpensive camera to call his or her own and the plan worked to perfection. Suddenly we were pulling over to snap photos of deer and totem poles and odd-shaped boulders and large houseboats and even the occasional mural on the outside wall of a small-town hardware store. With no distractions inside the van, all attention was focused outside.
As for our informal culinary ban, it extended to Subway, Burger King, Taco Bell and several other familiar faces, which more or less guaranteed we’d be spending a bit more at mealtime and sometimes regretting we were forced to eat the local Bubba Burger instead of a Big Mac.
We convinced the kids it would be an adventure to eat in new and unique restaurants in towns we’d never seen before, fully admitting that this course of action might result in some truly awful meals. Or perhaps an extraordinary experience.
The first test came in the upper Sacramento River town of Dunsmuir where “Urban Spoon” directed us to a local restaurant where the help was clearly flummoxed by the sight of six people sitting at the same table, four of whom requested children’s menus.
We left disappointed, frustrated, hungry, way behind schedule and much poorer than if we had just grabbed a quick bite at the Burger Barn down the street and eaten while we drove.
Interestingly, though, this “bad” experience was the topic of much lively conversation the rest of the evening and into much of the next day as we headed north across the Oregon border into Klamath Falls. The “adventure” part of the meal plan was working out just fine, even if our taste buds were not satisfied.
Speaking of children’s menu, it became apparent on this trip that they are all printed by one company in Emporia, Kan., featuring as they do a choice between mac-and-cheese, mini corn dogs, chicken strips, peanut butter and jelly and grilled cheese, all with a choice of sides (choose two) including applesauce, canned corn, plain white potato chips, carrot sticks and pork ‘n’ beans. No kid has ever ordered the pork ‘n’ beans, but it remains on the menu nonetheless. $4.99 per kid, add $3 for hot chocolate, milk or lemonade.
And, because there are six in your party, they add on an 18 percent gratuity without even telling you, leading the unwary to double tip more often than not. “Adventure.” Remember that word.
Then again, the next day at the popular 900 Wall Street in trendy Bend, my sweetheart ordered a prime rib sandwich that became the gold standard by which all other meals were judged for the rest of the trip. For a while, I thought we’d have to double back through Bend on the way home just so she could repeat the experience. As for me, if we ever land at Wall Street again, I’ll order a platter of their spicy deviled eggs (just $1.50 for two), better than anything on McDonald’s extensive menu.
Much farther up the road, in north central Washington, the mighty Grand Coulee Dam beckoned, with its string of small towns — Coulee City, Electric City, Grand Coulee and Coulee Dam — and a wide variety of local restaurants and drive-ins. It’s the land that chain eateries forgot. But, despite the many choices offered, we picked the one where that word “adventure” came back into play and made us forget all about Dunsmuir.
The pattern repeated itself as we meandered throughout the Pacific Northwest, sampling the good, the bad and the mediocre. Bigfoot’s in Seaside, Ore., had outstanding fish ‘n’ chips, while Pig ‘n’ Pancake in the same town was superb with its pan-fried razor clams.
To be sure, they weren’t all “happy” meals on this journey, but every place where we ate gave us something to chew on for the rest of the trip.
— Reach Bob Dunning at firstname.lastname@example.org