We had just crossed Minnechaduza Creek on Highway 83 this side of Valentine, Nebraska, when the passenger in the car lamented her lack of restraint in choosing foods during our long travel day home from Colorado.
She eyed the last couple of nuggets of breaded chicken bits in the cardboard container and shook her head. "I haven't had a single healthy thing to eat this entire day,'' she said.
Funny, because I'd just been thinking how much I'd enjoyed the thick slab of convenience-store pizza I'd selected when she picked up the chicken bits at the last gas stop. I said as much and added, "I think when you're traveling, you get a dispensation from good food choices.''
Besides, I reminded her, we ate a wholesome meal for lunch. (Sometimes a guy should quit when he isn't ahead.)
"Lunch?'' she said. "I forgot about lunch. I had beef in that thick bun of white bread and the juice dip, along with home-made fries with more salt than that lake in Utah.''
Again, I'd been thinking how much I'd enjoyed the bacon cheeseburger I'd had at the roadside diner somewhere near Sterling, Colorado. It came with a huge side of fries that I found delicious, maybe because of the salt?
We'd stopped to fuel up the pickup and to stretch our road-weary legs. It was nearly lunchtime, and the diner was right there. It was a comfortable place, with a couple of locals lingering over coffee at the counter, a waitress-cashier who called you "hon,'' and a big window behind the counter that offered a glimpse of the kitchen. The windowsill had one of those metal clip things to hold new orders. From our table we could see through the window to where the cook worked the grill. The tantalizing aroma of hamburgers and bacon and onions on the grill wafted through the window, reminding me of truck stops of old, like the one the McDonald family used to operate at the top of the hill outside Chamberlain where the highway turned east toward Pukwana.
Frankly, I couldn't believe how lucky we'd been to have happened upon that magical diner. Out of all the food joints in all the towns between Denver and Fort Pierre, we had walked into that one.
During our later conversation about food choices, I defended our meal choices at the roadside diner. I said we hit the basic food groups - the burger, beef and bacon supplied meats, the cheese constituted dairy, the bread, um, grains. The fries were potatoes from, like, the vegetable group? "And,'' I added, "they served the burger with lettuce and tomato and onions and pickles. That's four more vegetables.''
She didn't think so, mentioning things like fruits and leafy greens and nuts. I began to hanker a small bag of Planters peanuts.
She's a nurse and has always had good sense about a healthy, balanced diet. As a reporter, I tended to eat gas-station sandwiches, blue-plate specials at roadside diners and cellophane-wrapped mystery food from motel and courthouse vending machines. One election night, we wrapped up the final edition about 3 a.m. and went to breakfast at an all-night place on the west side of town. One guy had a tall stack of pancakes swimming in maple syrup and buried in powdered sugar. He called it heaven on a plate.
I've been more aware of my diet in recent weeks. A granddaughter is staying with us while she completes an internship for her master's degree in dietetics. She's picked up a lot of knowledge about nutrition during six years of college. She calls potatoes "starch.'' (Whatever.) She sometimes points out that I have three separate starches on my plate. "That's probably more than you need.'' She says it politely, even sweetly. I've come to understand that almost everything I once enjoyed is stuffed with starch, crammed with carbs or socked full of more sugar than a Red River Valley beet field.
With her advice, I'm learning good - well, better - choices. At home after the Denver trip, I've been watching my selections and eating healthier. When I sleep, though, I dream of roadside diners and convenience-store pizza.