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Breakfast in Burns

Some places will make you bend your rules a little.



One of my basic travel rules is to never go into a place whose name starts with "Ye" or includes the word "olde." Another is once you've had a bad meal in a place, don't go back.

So I was violating two of my own rules when I stumbled across the highway at 7 a.m., headed back for Ye Olde Castle. The night before, they had given me a steak that tasted like the cow had run farther than I had driven to get to the restaurant.

I was in a town called Burns, Oregon, out in the part of Oregon that looks like Nevada. It's a three-motel town, and in accordance with another travel rule, I had chosen the cheapest. It was run by a somewhat dysfunctional family whose matriarch/desk clerk did her best to get her husband to hold down his yelling at the kids so she could explain to me that you have to turn the shower up real high to get any pressure and you can open your window if you want to get some air, but the factory out back gets started at 7 in the morning -- with a steam whistle, it turned out.

Burns -- named for the poet Robert Burns, which means of course the high school mascot is the Hilanders -- is the kind of town where the locals refer to places by who owns them. So when I asked for a place to eat dinner, the response was, "Well, Lil's across the road there does a pretty good steak." "Lil's" is localspeak for Ye Old Castle, owned by Lil. When I looked across the road and saw the "Ye," I had a bad feeling, which I should have honored, because the feeling only got worse with Lil's steak.

Ye Olde Castle is part restaurant, part museum. The owners apparently have three great passions for collecting: old bicycles, Budweiser stuff, and everything else. As you wait for your food, you can pass the time looking at model cars, old Schwinns, a mini-carousel, antique dolls, a Studebaker poster, kiddie-sized police motorcycles and bumper cars, and enough variations of Anheuser-Busch memorabilia to ensure that, even when the place is packed, there are more Clydesdales in the Castle than humans. The Castle is also the kind of place where the coffee cups are that particular Waffle House brown, and you know, before you order it, that the salad is iceberg lettuce with tomatoes and croutons, maybe some red cabbage. The Castle's diet plate features fried fish and cottage cheese.

But I wasn't in the mood to be picky. I had a shuddering truck on my hands and a long drive in front of me. The shudder had started the day before on some gravel roads, but there were 300 miles of two-lane pavement between me and home, and when I asked the mechanic about the shudder, his actual response was, "Well, I ain't gonna spend all day lookin' for somethin' that I can't fix anyway." And that was on Saturday when the shop was open. On Sunday my whole plan was A) brave breakfast at the Castle, B) say a prayer to the travel gods, asking that if the wheel does come off the truck, may it happen where the road has a shoulder, then C) get the hell out of Burns.

Not that Burns is a bad place, you understand. I love small towns. Burns is the kind of place where you see two guys on motorcycles on your way into town at a rest stop, then you see them gassing up at the station, then walking down Main Street, then at dinner, then at breakfast, then on the road out of town the next morning. You feel like you know people after a day in a place like Burns.

Burns is the kind of town that everybody calls "remote" and says there's no reason to go there. But one day it will probably be "discovered" -- you'll know that's happened when you see a reference to the Burns Art District -- and then the money will come in, and then the condos will come in, and then the insurance agents on Main Street will be replaced by stores selling Native American blankets for $450, and then all the people swarming around it -- the same ones who call it a shithole now -- will sip their lattes and say things like, "It's really too bad they ruined Burns with all this development."

In the current Burns, when you order tea at breakfast, out comes the Lipton. It is, I was reminded for the first time since the early '80s, the "brisk" tea.

The bikers were at breakfast too, but they weren't saying too much. Neither were the locals, for that matter. There's not a lot to say in a place like Burns, especially at 7 in the morning when nothing much has happened yet. If you live there, you already know everything. And if you don't and you've been there for a day, you've already seen everything. Burns is the kind of town where, when a car turns left out on the highway, somebody in the restaurant will say, "Now, where's old Pete goin'?"

As I headed for the door, all full of pancakes, I nodded at the bikers -- see you out on the road -- and petted a plastic Clydesdale. It's a long way to home hell, to anywhere from Burns, and I had a full stomach, a truck that was a decent shot to make the trip, and no particular schedule. And some days, out on the road, you can't ask for much more than that.

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