March 10, 2013

Fumbling into Dogpatch


We were lost, and had been for quite some time, driving aimlessly through the dense woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, following the narrow, curving two-lane blacktop as it snaked through the endless, closely packed evergreens that pressed tight to the edge of the road on either side. There were no road signs, no landmarks apart from the trees and the rocks, and it had been a couple of hours since we’d passed another car. The only thing on our side at the moment was that it was summer—June to be precise—and so we still had five or six hours of daylight left.

            It was 1990, and my future ex-wife and I were on our honeymoon, a meandering road trip from Chicago north into Canada and generally eastward to Toronto before turning south again. I’m not real sure where or how we ended up in the U.P., but there we were, and we were lost. She was driving and I was attempting to navigate, but with no road signs and no landmarks to go by, this was difficult. I refrained from bringing up the plot lines of the three hundred horror films that were running through my head. She never really much appreciated the connections I was able to draw between any given situation and a horror film that ends badly for the couple on the screen.

            “This can’t go on forever. We’ve got to hit something soon.”

            “Or maybe we’ll just hit Lake Superior. Erie. Whatever the hell’s up here. That’ll at least limit our choices.”

            “Our choices seem pretty limited right now.”

            She was right. There were no side roads, no cross roads, no off roads. Just the road we were on, dragging us inexorably lord knows where.

            When I was young, I used to come up to the Upper Peninsula a couple of times a year with my parents. We always stuck to more or less civilized areas, but even then the place gave me the willies. There were a lot of oversized fiberglass animals in Upper Michigan, a lot of creepy roadside statues, and at least one ghost ship which had been found empty and adrift in one of the lakes and turned into a restaurant. The endless trees were worse.

            Then we rounded a bend and saw a gravel driveway leading to a small gravel parking lot around a ramshackle little wood frame building. The sign out front declared it to be the Dogpatch Restaurant.

            “What the fuck?”

            There was nothing around for miles. Maybe hundreds of miles. There were no billboards offering directions, no road signs of any kind. It was just a restaurant sitting there in the middle of the woods. There would have been no way to find it except by accident after getting horribly lost. In other words, the only way to find this place was to make a terrible, terrible mistake. But now that we had, what choice was there? It might have been made of gingerbread and candy, and we still wouldn’t have a choice. It all seemed so obviously sinister, but she slowed the car and turned into the driveway.

            There were no other cars in the parking lot and no indication that the place was even in business, let alone serving lunch, but we stepped out of the car, happy to at least be able to stand upright and move around some, and headed up the rickety, unpainted wooden steps to the screen door.

            “I’m not so sure this is wise,” I said, “but we’ve got no choice. There are forces beyond our control that directed us to come here.”

            “Just shut up and try the door.”

            The torn and wobbly screen door squeaked open as I feared it would, and we stepped inside. The place still seemed operational. It was more or less clean, and it hadn’t been ransacked by badgers, bears and raccoons. The floor was carpeted and squeaked underfoot. For a moment it seemed the place was completely empty. There weren’t any other cars out front, so if anyone was here it meant they either walked here or never left. The bad feeling I got when the place first appeared around the bend only deepened.

            I was about to say something when a husky, bald man in his late fifties appeared from what I guessed to be the kitchen. He was wearing a white apron. “Heya,” he said with a crooked smile. “You come searchin’ for some bodacious vittles?”

            “I . . . guess we . . . have. Yes.”

            “Well good doggy, then, let your feets carry ya right this a-ways.”

            I was already taking all this as given and expected, as he led us over the uneven floor and down a few short hallways to a small dining room. There were six or eight tables topped with white tablecloths and cloth napkins. Three of the four walls of the narrow room featured large picture windows that looked out on the parking lot and into the woods. The fourth wall, against which we were seated, was lined with blown up panels from Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” comic strip. Only then did the joint’s name and the strange vocal inflections of our host start to make sense. It was a theme restaurant. A theme restaurant that made absolutely no sense, sitting here deep in the middle of some uncharted woods in Upper Michigan, as if it had been lifted into the air by some mischievous aliens and dropped there accidentally.

            The man in the apron seemed to be the only one there—maitre’d, waiter, chef, busboy, cashier, all rolled up into one lonely (and possibly dangerously insane) man trying to keep a desperate delusion alive. He dropped two menus in front of us and left. The menus were spiral-bound and had to be, given that they were about fifty pages long. As I began to flip hopelessly through mine I saw why. Instead of a simple list of salads, appetizers, entrees and specials, each item on the menu came complete with a description. But not one of those insipid two-line descriptions heavy on useless adjectives like “golden brown” and “grilled to sizzling perfection.” No, these were long, rambling descriptions written in Li’l Abner speak: “Now I done be tellin’ ya’ll that this here, hoo-eee, this here sammich done be a belly-buster, sure ‘nuff, plum burstin’ with vittles like you ain’t never seen with your’n ole sore eyes!”

            At least with those two-line descriptions you were left with some vague idea of what it was you were ordering—fish, say, or a salad. These descriptions were just baffling, vaguely threatening, and gave no real indication what might be arriving on the plate (or in the bucket, for that matter). There was every chance I’d end up ordering a muskrat skewered on a dirty stick, or a small bowl of hair.

            “This is all very unnerving.”

            “I’m not even that hungry.”

            “You better be. There’s no getting out of here as it is, and you don’t want to make things worse by offending him.”

            “But I’m not sure I want my . . . ‘belly busted.’”

            My guess, the closest I could come to an actual logical explanation for any of this, was that our host opened his restaurant in the middle of the remote northern woodlands away from any kind of civilization in the hopes of ducking the inevitable lawsuit filed by the Al Capp estate. According to the menu cover, he’d been able to avoid that lawsuit since 1966, which was pretty darn good. But I guess it was the pre-Internet age, when such things were still possible.

            I’m not sure what my future ex-wife ended up ordering (not sure she is, either), but somehow there in an absurd restaurant in the middle of the fucking woods in Upper Michigan through some weird turn of events I ordered a Monte Cristo that was about the size of my head. I hadn’t even finished it before the promised belly busting began. Agonizing pain aside, it was a spectacular sandwich, and suspiciously cheap. I may have idly wondered what kind of meat he’d used, but at the time I didn’t much care.

            Uncertain whether we would be allowed to leave the premises after settling the bill or if we’d instead be taken out back to become that evening’s special, we thanked the man in the apron for his hospitality and headed for the screen door. He didn’t try to stop us,

            “Now y’all come on back to Dogpatch y’all done get a hankerin’ for some fine vittles, hear?” he called.

            We got in the car and headed back out onto the two-lane. About a minute later she hit the brakes.

            “What?” I asked, a little startled.

            “We never asked for directions. Let’s turn around and go back.”

            I shook my head. “It’s pointless. You can go back there if you want, but you won’t find it. It vanished behind us the minute we pulled out of the parking lot. It won’t reappear again until someone else gets hopelessly lost.”

            For once she admitted I was probably right, and we drove on.


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