Buc-ee’s, Duncannon Lane, Richmond, KY. Photo by Warren LeMay. https://tinyurl.com/2u6rt2cn

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Sour Cherries at Buc-ee’s

My first time at Buc-ee’s wasn’t so much about food, per se, but what happened on a road trip through familiar territory when I succumbed to its vast array of candy.

My partner, Russell; my brother, Nathaniel; and his partner, Alexandra needed to fill up on our way from Atlanta to Cincinnati, the first leg of an annual Christmas odyssey to visit family in both the Scylla of Ohio and the Charybdis of Virginia before the long slog back on the hellscape of I-85. There was an overnight at a West Virginia resort that hosted its own ’80s night, decidedly not the Greenbrier, but that’s another story.

This particular Buc-ee’s is relatively new and dominates its very own exit with multiple roundabouts just south of Richmond, Kentucky, where Nathaniel and I’d lived with our parents for several years as children. It is a bizarre, Walmart-sized gleaming structure boasting its buck-toothed beaver logo, the whole thing a blight on this stretch of Appalachian beauty.

As we pulled into one of seventy gas pumps, gawking at the behemoths parked next to our little VW, we made plenty of jokes about our probably not fitting in too well in this place. The obvious evidence was our small European car, even if the lowly Jetta wasn’t built in Germany. In my estimation, that beaver logo and all it symbolized belonged right up there with the Moon Pies and RC Cola one might find at Big Daddy’s Fireworks (Beer & Gas), an imposing emporium seemingly in the middle of the interstate as you approach my Tennessee college off I-24 between Chattanooga and Nashville, whose sign bears a large mafia don clad in a blue suit and smoking a cigar, teeth gleaming.

He brazenly beckons everyone from the entire region.

Except for the Waffle House in Monteagle, Tennessee, where my order of cheese eggs with raisin toast and an urn of coffee hasn’t changed in a quarter century, or the nearby Pop’s Happyland Truck Stop where my order, often sent to the kitchen for shock value, was pork brains on white toast and where I could pay by check for a meal under five dollars, I usually think of these roadside eateries as designed for and marketed to a culture not my own. Let’s face it, I only enjoy Moon Pies and RC Cola ironically. And I have no recollection of ever setting foot in Big Daddy’s. On our family’s travels on that stretch of interstate, I think my parents knew that the greatest combination was not fireworks and gas.

So I was certainly surprised when I found myself consulting the oracle in this oasis I didn’t choose but where I found myself anyway, simply because we needed fuel.

Nathaniel, Alex, and I dispersed to our respective bathrooms. Russell was having none of it, so he stayed in the car and, in our collective memory, missed out. Art bedecked the hallways, a veritable Appalachian Louvre, each piece costing upward of several hundred dollars, and, according to Alex, not too bad.

“I’d buy some of that,” said the architect with some of the finest taste of anyone I know.

In the bathroom, I gawked at the gleaming toilets. “I’ve used dirtier urinals in Vienna!” I might as well have proclaimed to the forty other guys in there.

Back in the main store there were tents, hunting gear, and Big Green Eggs for sale. I’m sure one of us, possibly Nathaniel, said that Buc-ee’s seemed like a great store for preppers to stock up the wares for the apocalypse.

A little bit jarringly, a job posting on a sandwich board proclaimed a general manager vacancy hauling a salary of $200K. That sounded pretty good to the two academics and writer in our band.

“We’ll take it!”

How hard could it be?

Probably very.

After filling a tall cup with a disarmingly red Slurpee, I high-tailed it for the Berlin Wall–sized plethora of candy. Gum drops, orange slices, all my favorites. But the sour cherries seduced me with their waxy siren scream. Those wax balls, the size of earplugs, would satisfy the itch. But they would have to wait. While I was shameless about wielding the giant Slurpee around the store as I inhaled its instantaneous jolt of sugary energy, I hid the candy in a grocery bag in the door pocket of the car, pretending it was ibuprofen, knowing I’d get looks and groans from everyone except my sweet-toothed accomplice, Alex.

I stashed them away for a private moment.

While I have many good memories of living in this region as a child, I wasn’t sure what might bubble up in this desertscape of my memory. I’m not in touch with anyone from Richmond anymore, so retracing my steps in this area is like visiting a dusty attic you just remembered you had. Images come to the surface the old-fashioned way, not through Instagram stories or Facebook posts. For example, somewhat near this gas station close to the water’s edge on an old boat was the site of the now defunct restaurant Hall’s on the River. Our family would order its famous beer cheese, whose tang I can still savor if I think about it hard enough. You put it on celery or crackers or downed it by the spoonful. And the nearby Clay’s Ferry transported those with the patience of Job about three cars at a time, tethered to an overhead cable, on a disconcertingly low platform to the other side. I think we must have laughed at the unsteadiness. It was like being adrift on a hovercraft that had lost all its power.

We were probably all thinking, will we make it?

Also in this territory, a bit south on I-75 from here, is the quaint town of Berea, known for its college and arts community. Everything here is perfectly crafted, carved, written, or painted. When my parents were still together, my mom had a hammered dulcimer made for my father from here, its sound holes heart shaped. The dulcimer is at once cheery and mournful, an elision of harpsichord and sitar.

They’ve been divorced for more than thirty years, but it’s still on display in his current house.

Recently, he had it restrung.

Farther north of here in Lexington, where we moved with my mother after the divorce, other memories percolate, too. An image permanently fixed in my Polaroid memory was one at the Lexington airport. Every Christmas, my mom, brother, and I would fly to Georgia to visit my doting grandparents. It was usually freezing and often snowy. In those days we would frequently board directly from stairs onto the plane, ingesting the almost addictive smell of jet fuel, the bump I’ve always associated of going somewhere.

On one of these trips as we pulled into the airport, I looked up at the metal letters that spelled out Blue Grass Field. They projected several inches from the wall. A bird’s nest stuck out from one of the letters. Was it in the “u” or maybe in the “a” or “e”? I’ll never know. But thinking back now, I must have made a joke that these winged creatures took up residence in—of all the places—the airport. Were they, too, waiting for a flight?

Were they going south, like us, to join other eagerly awaiting family?

Later that day after the Buc-ee’s stop when I finally pulled out the sour cherries in my Cincinnati hotel room, they were indeed tauntingly sour. I kept eating them, one and two at a time, a satisfying light crunch through the shell all the way down to the tart center. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Staring back were my violently red lips, mouth, and teeth.

Instead of committing this self-inflicted carnage, I should have followed Odysseus’s lead and plugged my ears with the waxy candy against the allure of the past, the dinners by the river, the seemingly treacherous ferry trips, the intoxicating strum of the dulcimer on my father’s lap, and of those trips south to my grandparents. To the past when everything felt whole, and then wasn’t, and then became something newly stitched, like us on this palimpsest of a road trip. A new group of four making our own way together, patching, rather than paving over, the old highways.

Thinking back on my crazed reflection many months later, I see Saturn devouring one of his sons, eyes bulging, caught in the act. Just like in the Goya, the look on my face suggested I was doing something I shouldn’t.