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Late last year, work and love summoned me to Atlanta, my hometown. After nearly a decade in the Bay Area, and three continuous years of travel and itinerant living, being back there seemed unfathomable. But by February, the third month into a new lease, I was warming to it. Then, COVID-19.
Certainly at the onset of quarantine, it was a gift to be home, in both the physical and the familial sense. But as my girlfriend, Gabriella, and I began to understand more about the virus, and our vulnerability in dense urban spaces like our tiny but cute Piedmont Park apartment, we feared our fortress might become a constraint—and with looming financial uncertainty, worse still, a yoke. It was time to go.
That preamble may help explain what brought me to just outside of Palatka, Florida. It was the vacated residence of Gabriella’s (now deceased) great-aunt Jean, a place where we gratefully spent four peculiar weeks. We took sanctuary in a semblance of home in the unlikeliest of places, unincorporated Putnam County, a rural swath in the Deep South where the poverty rate is double the national average, and, at least in our particular slice of Putnam pie, included neighbors with proudly erected Confederate flags—an unlikely sanctuary for a biracial couple.
A relevant qualifier: I am a traveler. I don’t mean I like to vacation. I mean I am a food writer and magazine publisher whose career has made it a requirement to live a somewhat nomadic life. Beneath the prestige of those titles has been a dearth of personal capital yet an abundance of gastronomic and gustatory gratification. For me, mobility is a way of existing. Thus, the plan was to spend a month in Florida, lay low, and plot a cross-country trip culminating in Mendocino, California. Normally, a trip of such proportions would lead me to any number of celebrated dining establishments along the way, but times being what they were, I had a different mission: to eat exclusively outside, in places where the best food isn’t sold in restaurants, but along the road. The rule was, when you see a roadside vendor, pull over. This was particularly true if said vendor had: 1) a large commotion surrounding the endeavor, 2) billowing smoke, or 3) a local specialty.
The rules served us well before our road trip had even begun. Number 3—local specialty—is how I met Buddy, purveyor of the best shrimp of my life. Enticed by a row of yellow signs with red words reading alternately Ocean Shrimp and Fresh Shrimp, we met the lifelong angler known locally as “the Shrimp Man,” a title well-earned for his plump Atlantic shellfish, simultaneously translucent and luminescent.
Buddy sells up to 300 pounds of shrimp daily from a small vacant lot in East Palatka, where a large wooden platform shaped like a filleted day boat sits on wheels and is hitched to the back of a Chevrolet pickup. There’s always a line for Buddy’s shrimp, which is to say there is a small, but ongoing convention of big trucks sporting license plates and bumper stickers adorned with some combination of eagles and red and white stripes. Gabriella and I were in a powder blue Honda CR-V with a kitten sticker on the rear window. No one wondered if we were from out of town. They wondered where we were from.
We bonded with Buddy. He made us feel not at home, per se, but he gave us an approximation of the comfort associated with it. By the second week, we were regulars, and for the next month, at least once a week, but usually more, we stocked up on shrimp, and each time, learned a little more about Buddy: that his sister had just died from “that damn virus,” that he was the son of Captain Jack, and that he’d grown up in that captain’s seat. Looking back on a month when two once-in-a-lifetime events collided— a movement for racial justice and a losing race to an escalating pandemic—I will remember fondly that glorious home cooking that we did; the ceviche, broiled shrimp sliders, and fried shrimp. Buddy provided us food that provided us joy, and in the spring of 2020, joy seemed more elusive than ever.
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On our last day in Palatka, something remarkable happened. I was on Twitter, doing a thing I sometimes do, which is searching my location to see what’s nearby. On this occasion, I was the beneficiary of an extraordinary gift. It was from @crab_reefer, and it read:
“Happy Saturday, Everybody, We Have Live Blue Crabs, Fresh Oysters, & Frozen Shrimp!!! We Gladly Accept EBT! Call Us: 386-328-1441...Our Location: 160 West Louis Broer Road, East Palatka, Florida 32131; Stay well and be safe.”
Below the text were two images: a blurry one of (presumably) a blue crab, and the other, a large handful of oysters stacked on a burlap sack. The tweet came to me just before sunset, so late that I quickly became reconciled that if we didn’t make it in time, I would be content with a mere near-run-in with the local crab man from Twitter. I texted the number asking if I could come by and was surprised to get an affirmative reply.
The oysters brought us off the main road and down West Louis Broer Road, where we drove slowly past houses in varying states of structural soundness. We drove all the way to the end of the street, to the railroad tracks almost. Somewhere in all of this was subtext about segregated housing in the South. It read: “This Is a Black Neighborhood.”
At 160 West Louis Broer, an enormous mobile cooler that was basically a walk-in refrigerator on wheels was hitched to a big truck. This had to be it. I called the number and a man quickly picked up. “All right. Gimme 15 minutes.” Hmm, I thought. We could not give him 15 minutes. Idling 15 minutes in a town where we stuck out from miles away was not an enticing proposition, not even for fresh oysters. I began to apologize for being unable to wait, then unexpectedly, a concession. “All right. Hold on.”
Not a minute later, a frail man emerged from the house, walking slowly as he placed his arms through a long-sleeved button-down shirt. He led me to his cooler and proceeded to fill brown grocery bags, one lined inside of the other, with local oysters. We had negotiated “$20 worth,” but only after closer scrutiny of the haul back at Aunt Jean’s did it register that our oyster bounty would’ve likely cost 10 times that amount had it been procured in a big city. Our last night in Florida we indulged in Dominican lager and juicy Eastern oysters with brine that tasted of salted butter. Our trip across the U.S. had been inaugurated first by the Shrimp Man and now, the Oyster Man.
Driving cross-country during a pandemic is a bizarre duality of simultaneously running away from, but also toward, something ominous. It isn’t easy to quell the thrill of a drive across the United States, but haunting reminders of abnormality abounded: vacant storefronts, taped-over playgrounds, and would-be smiles covered in bandanas and masks. It is hard to know what to make of a town where families and human contact have been obliterated.
We drove first to Arkansas, a state that was, on the whole, enlightening in its greenness—an ode to the Ozarks and a natural beauty that’s evident even when driving along highways and bridges. We had plans to stay near Palestine, but an hour before we were set to arrive, we were treated to a fantastic lightning storm that evolved quickly into a fantastic thunderstorm. Detouring to Bentonville and staying in a hotel in an office park wasn’t the romantic choice, but it was the easy one. We arrived too late for dinner, and instead ordered two Fat Tires, the best available beer, for $6 each. We drank most of them, then passed out.
The skies cleared the next day and, using the app Hipcamp, a sort of Airbnb for campgrounds, we found a picturesque landing spot in Wichita, Kansas. We arrived with just enough sunlight and leftover shrimp, which we sautéed with pasta for a simple and gratifying dinner. Our morning coffee, bought en route from the excellent Radio Roasters in Decatur, Georgia, was embellished with Hawaiian rolls—purchased originally as buns for our ethereal shrimp—now repurposed as slightly toasted bread smothered with jam. It was just enough fuel to bring us to our next destination: Boulder, Colorado.
For the uninitiated (as I was), Boulder can be a hard place to fathom. It is pristine in landscape and weather, and the residents, presumably under the influence of such plushness, are friendly and active. It is a haven for well-heeled outdoorsy types, and this was reflected in the ample outdoor patios, bike lanes, parks, and SUVs with various sporty things hitched to their roofs. Eating outdoors was mandatory due to COVID-19, but even in the olden times, I think I would’ve arrived at this conclusion. In Boulder, an indoor restaurant is almost too sedate.
Perfect example: A planned hour on the creek quickly, or perhaps leisurely, evolved into an afternoon on the creek. With feet in the water, I placed an order for pickup at Sherpa’s, an 18-year-old Himalayan restaurant run by Pemba Sherpa, a Nepal native, outdoorsman, and tour guide who’s climbed Everest. An adventure-driven restaurant is very on-brand for Boulder, so I was particularly delighted that our dining choice matched the energy. On a gloriously sunny afternoon, we flattened recyclable takeout boxes into plates, and arranged crispy samosas, noodles, naan, and momos (deliciously steamy and chewy) atop large river stones—boulders, I suppose—and had our very own Boulder Creek buffet. Using creek refrigeration, our local microbrews stayed just cold enough. Every time I looked down at my feet and saw the tall and attractive blue cans, I was soothed.
After Boulder, we were confronted with the choice of Utah or New Mexico. I’ve not been to Utah, so hopefully there is no offense taken as I say (rather emphatically) that I am so grateful we opted for the Southwest. New Mexico was analeptic. The drive from southern Colorado, through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and small towns like La Veta, Blanca, and Fort Garland, was perhaps the most memorable I have ever done. The shifting terrain from rugged mountain sunset to expansive sagebrush desert is precisely the kind of stretch that compels people to travel across the country—and to never forget about it once they do.
At the risk of enraging residents of both places, I’m coupling Taos and Santa Fe for their energetic kinship. Both are inundated with art and artists, and pre-Hispanic architecture provides a dazzling homage to the specific and beautiful people and culture of this region. There were many restaurants, surely very good ones, that weren’t open during our time there, but Taos Mesa Brewing became a favorite haven for gourmet pizza and growlers of pilsner. On the inverse side of the day, an espresso and snack from bean-to-bar chocolatier Chokola was one of the most blissful pairings of our monthlong journey. That is some seriously exquisite chocolate.
On the way to Santa Fe, in Hatch, another roadside spectacle beckoned a U-turn. This time it was a brick-and-mortar that satisfied number 2 in the rule book on roadside dining: billowing smoke. This was no ordinary market. Three older men sat in lawn chairs in front of shelves overflowing with jars of spicy green salsas and whole roasted green chiles whose portions filled plastic freezer bags, along with hominy blends (also stuffed into freezer bags), ornamental red chile wreaths called ristras and fresh and dried chiles. Everyone who visits New Mexico carries on about the green chiles and, it turns out, they’re not wrong!
Of course, shopping at farmers’ markets remains one of the best ways to get a sense of what’s good and fresh nearby. It was at one such market that I was introduced to Santa Fe’s Cloud Cliff, a 36-year-old bakery that uses local wheat and a stone hearth oven. I do believe their buckwheat-amaranth loaf with olive oil and honey is the best bread I’ve had in my entire life.
Buoyed by fine bread and chiles, we were California bound— but first, Vegas. “Off the Strip” is a commonplace way of advocating for a Las Vegas most never encounter, but seeing as the Strip was closed when we arrived, and having never been before, “off the Strip” may be the only Vegas I’ll ever know. On the bright side, it was a perfect 24-hour trip, punctuated by a visit to the Arts District for an exceptional cold brew at Vesta Coffee Roasters and pastries at Crown Bakery in Chinatown. Crown is an exhilarating place for lovers of East Asian and European sweets.
The kitchen is visible from the shop, and we were treated to the theater of bean-paste confectionery happening as we shopped. We were so enticed by our haul of cookies that we opened the box and began eating before we even started the car’s ignition.
High on sugar and caffeine, we drove through the desert and into our final state. Inexplicably, it was the least hospitable arrival of the entire journey—not even a Welcome to California sign! More scandalous is that it was the least beautiful part of the trip, which may come as a surprise to those who presuppose the Golden State to be all palm trees and beaches. Fellow travelers would be wise to do as we did and mitigate the drab drive with a stop in San Bernardino County, at Cima Mining Co., a produce-laden convenience store where you can get a date milkshake with enough sugar to power you through the remainder of your desert drive.
Four hours later, we stopped in Bakersfield for fuel and a stretch. Seven hours to go! Our good spirits were rewarded and heightened with another roadside rule, number 3: local specialties. The sign read Oranges–$5, Avocados–$5. We subsequently enjoyed a full two weeks of freshly squeezed orange juice and guacamole.
Finally, we were in Mendocino County, at the Gualala Seafood Shack. As I sat with my calamari, I reflected, gobsmacked, on the vastness of the United States, and the food and people that connect the beaches in St. Augustine, Florida, with the Pacific Coast. With each mile logged, I became more aware that the experiences I had become privy to would never have happened without COVID-19, and that in each place we stopped, the thread that tied everyone together was a deep pride in the local food. By that last mile and final roadside bite, I had realized culture may be the only thing we have that’s more formidable than, as Buddy called it, “that damn virus.”