The trip that was a trip - part one

Friday 2nd June, 2023

Some getaways don't go as planned, but that's not always a bad thing. Often times inconvenience and unexpected obstacles are more memorable than a perfect experience.

Before Memorial Day, my husband and I did what all Austinites do on a holiday weekend and evacuated the city to dodge the influx of tourists. It only takes a few times of staying behind and enduring new chaotic traffic patterns and a lack of general politeness to know why everyone leaves.

We booked a hotel in a small north Texas city called "Greenville." Greenville is not a destination. There are no museums, tourist hotspots, or food scenes. It's the same as every American town outside of a major city - chain restaurants, Walmart, multiple Dollar Generals, and an excessive amount of fast food restaurants. If you're lucky while you're there, you might spot a few trees amongst a vast pavement landscape of swirling exits and on-ramps that had to be designed by a civil engineer that either hates their own species or is bored out of their damn mind.

So why Greenville? Well, it happens to be the closest civilization to a river known for fossil hunting. My husband, Ryan, and I have been looking for fossils there for years, and after a brief hiatus, we were ready to make the trek again. I have always wanted to find Mosasaur vertebrae. They're not uncommon there, at least by fossil-finding standards, which makes it extra frustrating every time I see a new one posted in the river's Facebook group. Sometimes I think I'm the only one who hasn't found one.

The short vacation wasn't just about Mosasaurs. We were also in dire need of some nature time. Prior to this, we had a very "people-y" month and were looking forward to true silence with the exception of birds, bugs, and cows.

It is so quiet out there. It is amazing.

Our plan was to stay two nights in Greenville, both nights sandwiching our fossil-hunt day, but we had no plans to wake up early. This was our recovery weekend, which meant no solid plans, no rushing, and no appointments. These were the rules.

In the middle of our four-hour drive north, I called the hotel to ensure that a late check-in wouldn't be a problem. I was surprised at the niceness of the hotel clerk who answered.

"Oh yeah," He said, "I'm here 'til eleven, and if it's later than that, that's fine too. I'll just let the next person know. I'm putting a note on your account right now."

It was a huge change from the usual deep sigh followed by asking for an exact time. I have yet to have a front desk person tell me no, but they always make it clear I'm ruining their day. This degree of "not a problem" was a first.

Great, I thought. This is already turning out to be an easy trip.

Looking back, I might have jinxed it.

We arrived at the hotel. It was the same as always, tucked awkwardly behind Home Depot, right off an access road. We didn't stay there for the scenery, but for the convenience, cleanliness, and, if I'm being honest, the price.

When I gave my name to the front desk clerk, he lit up. "Oh, yeah! We spoke on the phone!" He was a young, white guy, probably in his early twenties. He seemed so familiar to me it was as if I already knew him. I couldn't tell if he felt the same or if this high-level niceness was his natural state.

After checking in, we found food, watched garbage hotel TV (another thing I always look forward to), and crashed out for the night, oblivious to the chaos ahead.

The next morning (more like early afternoon) we needed two things: coffee and food. I announced our options to Ryan as he finished getting ready. There weren't many of them.

"It looks like iHop, Starbucks, or this place called…" I wasn't sure I could read the name in good conscious, but he was waiting in suspense.

"Called what?"

"Cotton Patch Cafe?" I know my face scrunched as I said it as if the words tasted bad.

Who did this? I thought, What marketing team decided this was an acceptable name? And in the South no less?

It was clearly a chain restaurant, which somehow made it worse, meaning the name had to be approved by groups of people, not just one or two out-of-touch owners that meant well.

Ryan froze. "Cotton Patch Cafe?" He asked in disbelief.

I nodded, trying not to laugh at the absurdity, "It doesn't list coffee specifically, but, you know, cafe. They should have it, right?"

He nodded and made an expression as if to say, Duh, of course.

"It's up to you," I said.

"I kinda want to try Cotton Patch. Let's do the weird thing."

For context, our code of conduct while traveling is always to opt for the more interesting things. We've always had the belief that a more interesting time is better than a boring one, no matter the circumstances.

The universe was about to test that belief.

"Alright," I said, "Let's do the weird thing."

Somehow, the Cotton Patch Cafe was popular enough to have a wait. It was our last chance to hop off the weird train and hit a nearby iHop. Knowing Greenville's speed (a snail's pace) we decided to stay. It was unlikely that any other restaurant would be more efficient.

When we were finally seated, our waitress - a thin, black woman about my age wearing a covid mask - cruised by our table, she announced emphatically, "I don't know when the hell I'll be over here to help you, but I will be eventually."

I could tell Ryan and I were both thinking the same thing. Was she held hostage here? Is she aware of the name of this place? Are we the only ones who think the name is a problem?

I appreciated the waitress's honesty, as abrupt as it was. I didn't think a lot of it since my mind was on one thing: Coffee.

Looking at the menu, coffee was nowhere to be found. My eyes scanned the tables full of senior citizens who all seemed to be in agreement that Dr. Pepper or sweet tea were the only beverages in existence.

There wasn't a mug in sight.

The menu was piled with typical large southern plates - chicken fried steak, meatloaf, beef tips, and mashed potatoes. Salads were relegated to the back of the menu, barely legible, and existing purely out of obligation.

It quickly became clear that words have no meaning, and this was not a cafe.

You signed up for this, I thought, You picked the weird thing.

The waitress returned, and, instead of standing next to our booth (like waitresses typically do) she shoved herself into Ryan, practically sitting on his lap, flipping open her notepad flirtatiously.

My eyes were huge as I stared into Ryan's, hoping he could read my face. What the hell is happening?!

If eyes could uncomfortably shrug, his did. We struggled to contain our laughter.

After a moment (longer than anyone was comfortable with) she got up and gave me the true covid treatment of six feet distance.

"Can I get you all something to drink?"

I did my best to erase the past two minutes from my mind and focus on the situation at hand. I was a dying addict.

"Do you have coffee?" I asked, nearly whispering as if asking for something illegal. I was already terrified of her answer.

She paused. After a moment of thought she said with some trepidation, "...We do…"

I waited for a "but," followed by some explanation like, "We have to dig it out of the trash" or "It's only enough for one person," or maybe, "It will take two hours to make."

Instead, she replied, "I have to make it. Is that ok?"

"For sure," I said. I didn't care what it was like at this point. Every moment that passed in this pretend cafe, my expectations and understanding of reality dwindled.

"That would be great," I added, "Coffee and water please."

She wrote it down, her expression as though she was doing a mental puzzle and working out how she could make coffee happen. Ryan said he wanted the same and that seemed to add to the puzzle.

She left briefly, but every time she passed our table, she had a new tactic to get Ryan's full attention. For example, after chatting with another male customer, she blurted to Ryan, interrupting our fossil hunt planning.

"You gonna let him talk to me like that?!"

"What?" He said, looking up from the Google map we had both been discussing.

"Did you hear what he said? You're gonna let him talk to me like that?"

"I didn't hear him. I wasn't paying attention."

It was clear that wasn't an acceptable answer.

She sat beside him and released a deep sigh, to which Ryan gave her a pat on the back like you would if your coworker had a rough day. "You okay?" He said sincerely. His tone said, you seem like you're not okay.

After every new shenanigan, she'd leave and we'd stare at each other in disbelief, collecting them all for the expressive conversation that would definitely be happening in the car.

Finally, she arrived with two mugs of coffee and nothing else. No water. No spoons. Spoons didn't exist at Cotton Patch Cafe, and apparently, there was a shortage of napkins too. There was one to share between us.

"Taste it and see if it's okay. I'm not a coffee drinker and don't really make it."

It wasn't great, but we both said it was. Any other answer would have equated to more chaos.

"You want some cream and sugar?" She asked for the second time.

"That would be great," I repeated.

The cream and sugar didn't arrive, but she did make time to get into the booth behind Ryan and loom over his shoulder, seeing how long it would take him to notice her.

I tried gesturing with my eyes, making faces, and even told him he wasn't a very observant person. She proved he could be murdered at a moment's notice.

He finally saw her, his reaction like mine, finding it humorous but also uncomfortable.

"Y'all didn't know I had incognito skills," She said, walking away, her head high with pride. "I'm incognito. I'm Incogn - o" Insert slur that I am too white and too uncomfortable to put into writing.

I'd be lying if I didn't say her delivery was hilarious. At the same time, none of this was feeling real. The experience had become so outrageous that we accepted our place as passengers along for what felt like a bit from the show Impractical Jokers.

We were trapped in this madness for two hours, receiving basket after basket of rolls and butter but no real food or water. We watched tables get cleared and reset, new customers arrive, eat and leave.

"Where's your food?!" Our waitress finally asked with pretend outrage.

I gave a big shrug. My face saying, you tell me.

She paused the antics that would have made a younger me, who hadn't been married for 13 years, consider fighting her.

She finally brought our food, and cream and sugar. She refilled our coffee, not from a pitcher⏤that would be too normal⏤ but from a plastic water glass. The coffee burnt her hand as she poured it into our mugs, a good percentage dumping onto the table.

I used my napkin half to clean the coffee.

Our food was cold and terrible, the only upside being Ryan's "funnel cake fries" which were sticks of funnel cake that came with a marshmallow fluff dip⏤ you know, standard cafe fare.

To say it was a relief to get the check would be an understatement. Upon escape, we were faced with the realization that the Cotton Patch Cafe had eaten a large chunk of our fossil hunting day. We would need to change plans. This realization only happened after a very long, dramatic recount of the past two hours. We were practically yelling at each other in disbelief.

On the bright side, I have a joke that will last me ten years. I've already told Ryan if he's ever tired of our marriage, there's a waitress in Greenville waiting on him. I've been finding every opportunity to ask him if he's going to leave me for her. He's already tired of it, and I love it.

I wish that had been the last of what Greenville had in store for us, but it was only the beginning. I'm still mentally unpacking the whole thing.

In the meantime, I'll be adding some kind of travel-coffee contraption to my wish list. This is the first and last time I'm letting a "cafe" ruin my day.

(continue to part two)

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