My wife and I have discovered during our forays into big cities that we don’t especially like big cities. There’s just something about driving on a 12-lane superhighway crammed with cars – each of them striving to go faster than the rest, each of them piloted by a foolish person – that rubs us the wrong way.
The St. Louis metro area has a population of about 3 million. We might have thought twice about venturing into that area some years back had we known that this figure referred to the number of cars on its roads.
We’re much more at ease on quiet country byways and the hamlets that dot these roads. One such small town where we stopped was Hannibal, Missouri.
Hannibal is extremely proud that it’s the boyhood home of Samuel L. Clemens, aka, Mark Twain. Numerous businesses ride on Twain›s coattails, including Pudd’nhead’s Antiques and Collectables, Becky Thatcher›s Five and Dime, and The Jumping Frog Cafe. I wondered if the latter catered to jittery amphibians or if frogs were the sole item on the menu.
Illinois Scenic Route 3 is a delightful drive. Route 3 is a serene two-lane thoroughfare; the type of road William Least Heat-Moon wrote about in his book, “Blue Highways.” The road snakes along the base of the limestone bluffs that form the superstructure of the Mississippi Valley. Turkey vultures with ebony wings the size of sheets of plywood circled lazily on afternoon thermals rising from the bluffs.
We stopped at Chester, Illinois, hometown of Elzie Segar, creator of Popeye the Sailor Man. The town has erected a bronze statue of the spunky spinach-eater, his corncob pipe clamped firmly in his Bunyanesque jaw, within sight of the broad Mississippi.
We drove past weathered tobacco barns and campgrounds with names like Devil›s Backbone and Rest In Peace. Kudzu snakes over anything that stands still, including an old silo that had been transformed into a monumental green tube. 
A roadside marquee supporting the local small-town team read, “Go Mud Divers!” We drove past Big Cyprus Creek Bayou, but I wasn’t able to see any of the bayou due to all of the trees and vines and the icky, brownish water.
We avoid dining at fast food joints whenever possible, opting for the homey atmosphere of small-town eateries. One of our most memorable gustatorial experiences took place at the Courthouse Café in Waterloo, Illinois.
My wife immediately got a good feeling about the Courthouse Café due to a sign that pointed to the restroom. The sign had an arrow on it along with quaint lettering that read, “Powder Room.” Having a powder room versus a bathroom or a toilet is a mark of elegance, according to my wife.
Speaking of elegance, the first thing we heard upon taking a seat was the café’s two waitresses belting out an a cappella version of “Where Oh Where Are You Tonight?” I recognized that tune from the old “Hee Haw” television show.
My instincts told me that this dining adventure would be much different than anything we might have had at a McDonald’s.
Helen and Tammy, the waitresses, also seemed to be the owners of the establishment. I don’t know how else they could have gotten away with being so silly.
At one point, Tammy discovered she had overlooked some minor detail.
“Hold still,” ordered Helen, as she lifted Tammy’s hair and blew into her ear.
“There,” Helen proclaimed. “Now you’ve got a refill.”
We listened to conversations in the café as we ate and soon felt very much at home. Helen and Tammy bantered with the regulars, one of whom was a grandmotherly lady sitting at the table next to ours. We struck up a conversation with the lady, and she told us that she has a son who looks just like Randy Travis. She pulled a photo from her purse, and we had to agree he certainly bore a strong resemblance.
Helen and Tammy were the kind of waitresses who touch you on the shoulder when they ask if you want more coffee. When they called you hon, it felt honest and real. But above all, they had fun.
As my wife and I paid our tab, Helen asked, “How was the food? Was it OK?”
When we replied that it had been excellent, she replied, “Good. Now I don’t have to go kick the cook.”
And that is why we like small towns. Because they are the kind of places where you can participate in random conversations that are both lighthearted and enlightening.
Jerry is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, have two grown sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry currently works full time for the Dairy Star as a staff writer/ad salesman. Feel free to E-mail him at: jerry.n@dairystar.com.