It was 10:00 p.m. My car, thirsty for petrol, urged me to exit the interstate and find fuel. Just ahead, Kingdom City waited with the tools to fill my tank. And my stomach.
Kingdom City isn’t really a city. Heck, the town’s population barely reaches into three digits. But it shares a common trait with more famous small towns like Branson and Lake Ozark: tens of thousands of travelers touch it daily.
Many of Kingdom City’s 121 residents work to keep commerce and tourism flowing, with food and fuel and tourist information at each corner of the exit.
My car gravitated toward a truck stop diner and rolled into the parking lot. The lot was a labyrinth of shallow potholes filled with fresh water. A monstrous thunderstorm had just fled the scene, churning east down the highway. As I filled my car’s tank with the corn liquor she loves, the lightning flashes guided the storm away, into the darkness.
My nose led me to the warm glow of the truck stop diner, which, even at 10 pm, bustled with energy. Inside, every face I saw was “on the road.”
Quietly, I observed truckers and travelers taking a break. Families flowed in and out of this fuel center, this nerve center, this pit stop. The wall behind the service counter bore a backlit photo of the Gateway Arch. And Mark Twain Lake. And the State Capitol.
A family entered the main door, engaged in a lively debate. Mom and dad wanted to head to the Lake of the Ozarks, two hours southwest. The kids, a brother and sister, begged to travel to the land of childhood adventure in Hannibal, a two-hour drive in the opposite direction. The children were close enough in age that I guessed they might be twins, about Tom Sawyer’s age and attitude.
I wanted to offer a suggestion, but stayed silent.
Instead, I filed through the food line, and piled my plate like a buffet professional. I sat down in a booth with a huge pile of so many different foods that it can only be compared to Grandma’s dinner table. The family debate followed me through the line, and settled into a neighboring booth.
The young boy was adamant: “I’ve got to see Mark Twain Cave.”
“There are caves around the lake, too,” Mom reasoned. “And swimming and boating…and golf!” She smiled at her husband.
The young girl rolled her eyes. She caught me smiling as I watched them out of the corner of my eye.
“Well, what would you do?” she drew me into the debate, challenging me with all the unfiltered frankness of an eighth grader.
With a sympathetic shrug to mom and dad, I answered. “I’d stay an extra day, and hit ’em both.”
I took another bite of broccoli. My eyes scoured the buffet table for a to-go box. The four family members looked at each other to size up the battle lines.
“Works for me,” Dad finally said. Mom looked relieved. The daughter gave me a thumbs up sign. I relaxed and shoveled into my baked beans.
“So if you had one day, what would you see in Hannibal?” Dad put me on the spot.
That was easy. “Climb Cardiff Hill to the lighthouse, and get a bird’s eye view of Mark Twain’s Mississippi,” I said. “Check out the museums, and ride the riverboat. I’d definitely go to Planter’s Barn Theater to see actor Richard Garey in “Mark Twain Himself.” Downriver, drive up to Lover’s Leap for another great panorama. But I also think you have a date with Mark Twain Cave…”
“And the lake?” Mom asked.
“You could play a different golf course every day for two weeks, and still not touch ’em all,” I shrugged. I started to point to a brochure rack near the truck stop entrance. But before I said a word, I changed my approach. “Anybody have Internet connection?” They laughed. Everybody flashed their iPods, and began Googling Hannibal and the lake.
For the next half hour, eight thumbs danced on personal electronic devices, with only an occasional “Wow!”
I ate in peace.
I glanced at my watch. 10:30. Time to go home. I rose and turned to leave. “Have fun!” I offered to the family of dancing thumbs. I think I saw Dad nod in response.