VALPARAISO, Ind. — When I reconnected with the Lincoln Highway in Mishawaka on Tuesday afternoon, I followed the original 1913 route, which takes a more northerly track through Northern Indiana via South Bend. The highway was later realigned to follow the more modern U.S. 30, which cuts a more direct route from Fort Wayne toward Chicago, linking up with the original route in Valparaiso.
After my afternoon stop in LaPorte, barbershop owner Adam Wilson suggested I check out the tiny town of Westville on my way to Valparaiso and perhaps stop in at Olga’s Restaurant, which I was told serves up some good pizza. Olga’s is owned by the Pecanac family, which eventually settled in Northwest Indiana after fleeing their native Croatia in 1994 during the civil war in Yugoslavia.
I pulled off State Highway 2, which bypasses the town of 5,800 people, and onto Main Street, which was lined with Lincoln Highway “Coast to Coast” banners. As I was driving around town, I found that there’s not too much the place.
I pulled off to the side of one street to check the rest of the route for the evening.
As I was looking at Google Maps on my smartphone, a portly older fellow walking in the street, bright red from a sunburn, approached me.
“Are you lost?” the man asked me. “No,” I replied, “just taking a quick break.”
He looked at my rental car, a Nissan Altima with Virginia plates. He was puzzled: “If you’re from Virginia, why are you in Westville?”
“I’m driving the Lincoln Highway to San Francisco.”
He seemed puzzled. “Why would you want to do that?”
At this point, I tried to explain what I was doing and where I was headed, which was Valparaiso.
He interrupted me: “You gotta be careful in Valpo — real, real careful. They got that strange a roundabout … real confusing. Real real confusing,” he said, slowly emphasizing each word.
I was about to tell him that I live on the East Coast, where traffic circles, rotaries and roundabouts are somewhat normal road features and nothing to worry about.
“That roundabout is socialist!”
Oh boy. That was my cue that is was time to leave Westville.
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I thanked the man for the tip, rolled up my window and got out of town. I got back on the highway, which winds its way toward Valparaiso through some scenic countryside. I successfully navigated the supposedly socialist roundabout at La Porte and Sturdy roads and went into downtown along Lincolnway, the main drag.
Every few minutes, the local radio station I was listening to was promoting Blue Öyster Cult’s upcoming Summer Jam Music & Food Festival performance in Central Park Plaza downtown. With the cowbell from “Don’t Fear the Reaper” beating in the background as I was driving along Lincolnway, I discovered that were a ton of local kids hanging out in front of the courthouse and on the sidewalk.
I parked the car and ventured out to find some dinner. I wanted to check out a local brewpub I found on Yelp, but it was closed for a special event. I walked some more. Some local teens aimed their bubble-blowing guns at me, which I thought was pretty pathetic. In April, I survived roving drunken armies of people with water guns during the Songkran festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Teens with bubbles? That was pretty pathetic, but for my safety, it was obviously better than a real weapon.
I walked into Round the Clock, a self-described “family restaurant” with standard American diner fare and took a seat at the counter. I ordered a Southwest Philly sandwich, “a twist on a classic” punctuated by some chipotle mayo, according to the menu.
“That’s my favorite sandwich,” my waitress, who looked like she may have recently graduated from high school, told me.
While waiting for my order, I pulled out “American Road,” a book by Pete Davies documenting the famous First Transcontinental Motor Train in 1919 from Washington to San Francisco along the Lincoln Highway.
As I was reading about the convoy’s trip through Northwest Indiana — the Daily Herald of La Porte, at the time, warned readers “that counties too backward to keep their portion of the highway in repair will lose the road” — a friendly older waitress approached me and lifted up the book.
“Are you getting into it?” she asked. “It looks interesting.”
I told her about my own transcontinental trip and her face lit up like a Christmas tree.
“Rock on!” She gave me a high five. “Are you going to write about me?”
Before I had a chance to answer, she continued: “If so, my name is Patricia,” who told me she wasn’t originally from Valpo, as this place is casually known as.
“I moved from Gary to Mayberry,” she said laughing in her slightly raspy voice as she shuffled about gingerly in the service area near the counter. “I’ve got lots of stories.”
“Oh yes, she definitely has stories,” my waitress said after Patricia had moved to another area.
But Patricia, who seemed like the elder queen bee among the relatively young restaurant crew, was busy, moving about the restaurant, wiping up tables and chatting with customers, including an older gentleman she called “Pops.”
My Southwest Philly came and it was a good, solid sandwich. I had hoped to chat with Patricia some more when she came back around to ask her about whether she was excited that Blue Öyster Cult was coming to town. I doubted that her co-workers had even heard of BÖC.
As I was getting ready to pay my check, Patricia came back my way and announced to her co-workers that I was driving across country to San Francisco and that I had chose to stop for dinner “right here in Valpo.”
They seemed briefly fascinated with my trip were also somewhat puzzled why I ended up in their town on my way west. Regardless, my journey seemed to momentarily break up the monotony of the evening at the Round the Clock. They all wished me safe journeys westward and then they got back to work.
I paid my bill and got back on the road.