MA Road Trip: The Kindness of Strangers

The open highway can be an exciting place, filled with the promise of new experiences that teach you about how others live and see the world. But it also can be lonely as you swerve onto an exit lane and bunk for the night at a roadside motel; as you emerge out of the cocoon that is your car with the familiar sound of your iPod play list, you realize you're the new kid in town, without a clue, a friend or a restaurant recommendation.

The women of Windsor Presbyterian Church, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Kim O'Donnel)

Thank goodness for strangers.

It was Jeff from Minnesota and J.C. the bartender who kept me company at the High-Life Lounge in Des Moines as I tore into my chicken pot pie and sipped on a Hamm's, a Minnesota lager.

It was Norman from Palla, Iowa, who recently lost his wife and introduced us to his "special friend," also a widow, who showed us the beauty of rising from the ashes of sadness and lining up for the giant slide at the state fair.

It was Erin Coleman, a MA reader in Des Moines, who on faith alone trusted that I'd show up at her church on Tuesday night and teach her fellow congregants a few new tricks about cooking with zucchini and corn. And it was the women of Windsor Presbyterian Church, who showed up, with vegetables from their gardens and chose cooking class with a strange woman from back East over watching fellow Des Moinesian and gymnast Shawn Johnson pursue the Olympic Gold.

It was MA reader Sara Gilliam and her pal Kim (whom I later discovered was a reader) who broke bread with me and my travel companion Madge at an Indian restaurant in Lincoln, Neb., one of their favorite spots to sup in town. When we sat down, we four were all strangers, but it took no time for the walls to come tumbling down as we tore naan, passed wine and chatted like old friends.

Later this morning, we leave the friendly perimeters of Lincoln for a very long stretch of I-80 and the unknown of western Nebraska, but we're comforted by the prospect of new friends in a strange land.

Below, one of the recipes from Tuesday's cooking class in Des Moines.

Make-Up-As-You-Go-Along Corn Salad

For 2 ears of corn (estimate 1 per person), add the following:
1 small handful basil leaves, torn (alternatively, use flat parsley or cilantro)
1/2 medium sweet or red onion, diced
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small handful small tomatoes (cherry, grape, pear varieties work nicely), sliced in half
1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder (or, 1/2 teaspoon each cumin and coriander, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
Salt and black pepper to taste

Husk corn thoroughly, including interior silk. Snap off ends if necessary to create a flat edge. With corn standing upright, place edge of sharp, wide-edged knife against kernels and slice from top to bottom, allowing kernels to fall. In a small saucepan, boil a few inches of water. Add kernels and cook for about 30 seconds.
Using a sieve or colandarand rinse under cold water. In a medium bowl, add kernels and the rest of the ingredients, stirring with a wooden spoon as you proceed, tasting for intensity of spices and salt. Season until satisfied. Serve with grilled fish, chicken or as part of a larger vegetarian plate. Keeps one day covered in the fridge

By Kim ODonnel |  August 14, 2008; 8:27 AM ET MA on the Road , Travel
Previous: Iowa State Fair: Pickles, Pork Chops and Pink Cowboy Boots | Next: MA Road Trip: A Brain Break in Nebraska


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I LOVE Western Nebraska. I very much dislike the closed-in feeling of East Coast-Interstates. Plus, drivers on I-80 generally know how to drive on the Interstate; slow traffic actually does stay to the right.

If you're leaving Lincoln this morning, you could make it to Ole's in Paxton for lunch. Probably not your style, though. Or the Chances R in York but that'd be early for lunch. Sometimes I still think about their mashed potatoes. Again, that place probably isn't your style.

Posted by: K | August 14, 2008 11:25 AM

So what did you think about the Hamm's? Don't worry - its not my favorite - I should have suggested and Leinenkugel's from WI - the next time through, ok?

Yes, there isn't anyplace better than the Midwest - we are hoping against hope to sell the house we just built in the DC area and move to WI just as soon as possible - even my native Floridian hubby can't wait for that!

Glad you enjoyed IA. . .

Posted by: Native Minnesotan | August 14, 2008 12:06 PM

You extroverts just amaze me! I'm so impressed that you meet people with such ease. I just finished driving 1300 miles cross-country, and I think the only person I spoke with on those two days (outside of "do you have any rooms available?" and "I'll have the house omelet") was a very friendly guy at the drive-through coffee place early one morning. Conversation lasted 30 seconds. I love that you find friendly people everywhere you go and just start talking. How do you do it?

Posted by: esleigh | August 15, 2008 10:33 AM

to Esleigh:
I'm the Kim of Sara and Kim that KO and MD met in Lincoln. I think the way to find friendly people is to be outgoing and friendly yourself. Yes, you get many rebuffs and single-word answers. But, at least in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Minn., (the states I tend to travel in the most) people are pretty willing to have at least a superficial chat.

I encountered an amazingly friendly clerk at a gas station in Davenport, Iowa, earlier this summer. She was running my credit card, which is a University of Nebraska affiliation card. She was "Oh! You're my first Nebraskan today. Are you going or coming?" I said I was going home and she said, "I like to keep track of the people. I've met people from all over, even Europe, in this job."

She was a relatively young woman working in what could be a totally deadly boring job, but she'd made it fun and rewarding for her self by engaging people and apparently keeping some sort of "life list" of places from people she'd met.

So I guess my advice is just to keep trying. That being said, Sara and I, and Kim and her friend Madge, are all journalists or former journalists, personality types that are used to asking questions. That's another suggestion -- ask questions. Even if it's just -- where do you like to go to get a good piece of pie? --will usually engage conversation.

Posted by: Kim | August 15, 2008 12:37 PM


Thanks for the response. I tend to be an observer rather than a questioner. While observing people has benefits, I often forget how much I can learn just by asking. I can honestly say it would never have occurred to me to ask a *stranger* where I could get good pie. I appreciate the reminder that all the friendly people I know were once strangers to me and that engaging with the world requires action. Next trip, I'm asking some questions. Thanks much, and cheers to you and your friendly Nebraskan compatriots.

Posted by: Esleigh | August 15, 2008 7:25 PM

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