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Know the West

Praise the Lord and pass the pancakes


Drive across the West along the Interstate and you'll get the impression that sleeping, eating and filling up the gas tank are the activities we hold dear to our hearts. Of these three, however, the greatest seems to be eating.

I'd stayed overnight at a motel no driver could see, much less imagine, just off the interstate. It probably had been built in the 1920s, remodeled in the 1950s, and then pretty much left as a landmark to ineptitude for the last 50 years. No HBO, no ice machine, no continental breakfast, no security device unless a doormat that wouldn't lie flat had been intended to trip intruders as they skulked past my door. My room had no fewer than three double beds. A young clerk gave me the single rate and expressed relief that 'd taken the last room, for then he could flip the switch and put power to the word "No" on the neon "Vacancy" sign above the door; we could all rest assured: The motel was full.

The next morning, I drove back toward the Interstate for breakfast. The Golden Trough sported a towering sign visible at least a half mile away. I pulled into the parking lot, locked up, then patiently stood beside the plaque just inside the door that announced: "Please Wait to be Seated."

"Table for one?" the hostess inquired.

"Yes, please."

"Did you get a ticket?" she asked.

I tried a joke. "No, I observed the parking lot speed limit when I pulled in."

She seemed irritated by yet another guy who thinks he's funny, but all she said was, "I mean, for the breakfast buffet. If you just want to order, you'll have to wait a minute."

Three other breakfast parties had crowded in behind me and she glanced toward them with a rekindled graciousness. "Tickets?" The party directly behind me waved their stubs in the air, as if they were bidding on the prize steer at a livestock auction.

Before the words "If you'll come this way" could be uttered, the entire clutch of tourists pushed past me, making a beeline toward the seating area.

I had unknowingly stepped into one of the many (but often not talked about) Buffet Triangles. Unlike the better-known Bermuda Triangle, people crossing into this vortex don't disappear, they just get substantially larger. It's the hundreds of pounds of meat, potatoes, eggs and pastries that simply vanish. Just like that. Had I chosen to spend the night at a major motel along the interstate, I'd probably have possessed my own ticket, a complimentary breakfast coupon packaged with each room's rental. Instead, I ended up at the Goldilocks Inn, where I got three beds, none of them just right.

The hostess returned like a sheepdog, prepared to herd another ticketed gaggle of grazers into the dining room. She glanced at me, remembering that I'd asked for something unusual. She gave me one of those looks reserved for wolves, a sideways kind of facial snarl that amounted to a warning not to mess with her lambs.

"I'll have to clean a table. It will be a few minutes." Then she looked over my shoulder. "Tickets?" Another group of hungry motorists accelerated past me toward the dining area.

All three groups waiting behind me had been seated before I got ushered to a table. I ordered a cheese omelet, then sat back to observe the buffet crowd.

There's a kind of excitement in the air when food is present, an aroma that triggers memories and abducts the rational mind. A buffet is designed to stimulate the appetite, which is why so many plates carried past my table were heaped like little mountains. A buffet seems to taunt us: I dare you to eat more than you paid for.

Now that the federal government has declared obesity a disease, we probably need to rethink the buffet mentality. The Pillsbury Dough Boy has been America's role model long enough. I mean, even bartenders can be held responsible for serving drinks to obviously intoxicated patrons. By my count over half the customers shuffling past me appeared pudgy, paunchy, potbellied or just plain wide. There should have been a designated eater standing by in the lobby.

I'm lucky I wasn't in a hurry, because during the long wait for my omelet, I almost caved in and switched to the tempting buffet. A waistline is a terrible thing to watch.

David Feela is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Cortez, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].