Vegan on the Road
A fairly ordinary truck stop at the edge of the interstate gets a musical makeover.
Among the first things I notice in a restaurant or other retail establishment is the quality (or lack thereof) of the recorded background music piped in through the speakers tucked into the ceilings. At the TA Truckstop on Highway 33 at the I-5 exit here in Merced County, central California, the vibe is decidedly 1970s, presumably to appeal to aging baby boomers such as myself. Represented were Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Mungo Jerry, Bad Company, Roberta Flack, Billy Joel, B.J. Stevenson, Chicago, Styx, Al Stewart, Abba, Linda Ronstadt, Steely Dan and, of course, the Pauls (McCartney and Simon). We were in there about an hour and a half, my wife working on her Thinkpad and me messing around on my phone, and we never heard the same song twice. This was a little different than our last truck stop experience, in Reno, where we made only a short visit and still managed to hear Vanessa Carlton’s “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” four times.
The kitschy music theme of the dining room seemed like it belonged in Gatlinburg or Branson or somewhere. There were fake guitar sculptures and framed photos of recording artists on the walls, giant G clef and music notes above the salad bar and plaques in the booths featuring large type lyrics of a smorgasbord of eras, including songs made famous by Louis Armstrong, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Righteous Brothers, Judy Garland, the Andrews Sisters and Hank Williams. Snowflake mobiles dangling from the ceiling were probably meant to evoke wintertime, but still seemed like bedraggled refugees from some tacky Christmas display. I suppose this should come as no surprise, considering that the truck stop Christmas tree was still up in the lobby, repurposed for the remainder of the winter season by the addition of red paper hearts along the fronds and a large Love sign at the top, where the star of Bethlehem or an angel blowing alleluias on a trumpet should be.
The last time I was here was more than three years ago, when I had a go-round with an impatient cleaning lady. Neither of us spoke the other’s language very well. I wasn’t yet aware that I am gluten intolerant, and it may have been a good thing for both of us that I didn’t know how to say “diarrhea” in Spanish.
Santa Nella is a convenient rest stop between northern and southern California, but we usually patronize Pea Soup Andersen’s, the faux-Danish overpriced tourist trap with the windmill, just across the road. However, when we last made this trip, about four months ago, I was inadvertently glutened by a seemingly safe food item I consumed over there. The opportunity to avoid that and the overpriced tourist schlock led us to try our luck with the truckers.
Even a gluten-free vegan can be relatively happy at a truck stop, particularly if you’re willing to “fudge” a bit, as I tend to do when I’m on the road. These days, I find that I can tolerate a small amount of dairy or egg that may be hidden in restaurant food a lot better than even a little bit of wheat. My body is still revolting from an uncharacteristically stupid food decision I made a few days ago. Let’s just say that it MIGHT have had something to do with a birthday and a chocolate cake. Pain!
When I’m on the road, a salad bar is a sight for sore eyes. In San José last week, we walked into a tiny Italian restaurant that looked and smelled just like one of the mouth wateringly wonderful family-run holes in the wall on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Finding no gluten-free pasta or pizza crust, we walked right out and headed across the street to a steak house where, my wife assured me via a visit to its website on her phone, a salad bar awaited my delectation.
Disappointment greeted me. No salad bar!
It sounds like the opening of a bad joke. “A vegan walks into a steak house…” But as every vegan traveler knows, steak houses do have one good thing going for them (if you can grit your teeth and overlook the bloody cow carcasses): Baked potatoes. So there we were at dinnertime in a steak house, with my wife choosing a French toast breakfast and me settling for a dish of salad and a baked potato. We are a strange pair.
Salad bar at the Santa Nella truck stop
Here at the truck stop, it is still early in the day and everything on the salad bar looks fresh, even the melons and pineapple. I load up on beans for protein and grab some taters from the breakfast buffet. Lucky me showed up just as the staff was switching over to the lunch buffet, which provided me with carrots, squash and rice. I ate my fill, then headed out to the car and reclined the seat in preparation for an hour’s nap.
It was my wife’s turn to drive.