From the monthly archives: "September 2017"
Ray and Wilma Yoder, Cracker Barrel and RV fans (Courtesy of Cracker Barrel)

Ray and Wilma Yoder, Cracker Barrel and RV fans (Courtesy of Cracker Barrel)

GOSHEN, IND.—-Ray and Wilma Yoder watch the world roll by from the front porch of their 85-year-old farm house on County Road 34 in Goshen, Ind. While sitting next to each other on a twin rocking chair, Ray and Wilma wave to Amish neighbors who hold tight reins on their horse and carriage. Truckers and cars go too fast for this thin stretch of rural highway about 25 minutes southwest of Elkhart.

You see, Ray and Wilma always move in modest directions.

They met in 1953 in baptismal class at a Mennonite (new order Amish) church about four miles from where they live today. Ray has lived in the same farm house since he was five years old. “Wilma came about ten miles that day in a horse and buggy not knowing it was all going to be worth it,” Ray quips during a front porch conversation on a warm September morning.

Ray and Wilma will celebrate their 61st wedding anniversary on Oct. 11.

Their life has been filled with rewarding turns.

The Yoders are the proud parents of four children between the ages of 43 and 58. In the 1960s Ray became a factory worker at the now- defunct Globemaster Mobile Homes in Goshen before snagging a job delivering motor homes from manufacturer to dealers in Elkhart, the RV capital of the world.

And that was their gateway to becoming octogenarian Americana celebrities.

In 1978 while making a delivery in Nashville, Tn. Ray ate at his first Cracker Barrel Old Country Store on Briley Parkway by the Opryland Resort and Convention Center. Cracker Barrel is headquartered in nearby Lebanon, Tn.

Since then Ray and Wilma have visited all 645 Cracker Barrels in 44 states.

Signatures from Ray and Wilma's fans. (D. Hoekstra photo)

Signatures from Ray and Wilma’s fans. (D. Hoekstra photo)

“It’s so much like the food at home,” Ray says. “The green beans are super good. We’ve not been able to match the meat loaf. Maybe its a little drier.” Wilma adds, “Sometimes mine falls apart but it as near like mine as any I’ve tasted. I like their hash brown casserole. Blueberry pancakes.”

Ray and Wilma are to Cracker Barrel what Willie Nelson is to Wacky Tobaccy.

As Ray and Wilma’s children grew older Wilma began to trail Ray in a second RV so they could make more money on a drop. They would rest at the same time. They would communicate through Citizens band radio.

“I didn’t let her go anywhere without me,” he says while glancing at his bride. “Even with the snow blowing in Wyoming I would look in the rear view mirror and her little headlights would be there. We would pull into a filling station and people would see us talking together. They’d say, ‘Are you two together?’ And I’d say, ‘We don’t get along too well so we have two motor homes.’

And Ray and Wilma laugh at the memories.

The Yoders also planned vacations around Cracker Barrel. For example, when they visited the Grand Canyon they would find a nearby Cracker Barrel. “We never owned an RV,” he says. “We were always in a new one. We could sleep in it if we were en route. But we needed to use rest rooms at the rest area or a Cracker Barrel. The best part of our lives were the years with the RVs.”

Ray says it took about ten years before they realized they had a Cracker Barrel streak going.

“We had a couple hundred of them down,” he says in a country drawl as thick as pancake syrup. “I heard where another restaurant chain had a guy following them. I said, ‘If he can do that, we can do this one. And if you don’t mind Mom, we’re going to all of them’.”

Wilma nods her head in agreement.

“I like to eat,” she says.

Ray and Wilma's team work during a New Mexico road trip.

Ray and Wilma on a New Mexico road trip.

The Yoders do not own a computer. They do not have GPS. They are not on Facebook or Instagram so there’s no social media bragging on their Cracker Barrel quest. “I knew where I was going,” he says. “The Cracker Barrel map would always say what exit to get off at. Its a map filled with 600 stores.”

The hard-hitting journalist might ask if Ray and Wilma have documentation of all their visits.

“I really don’t have documentation,” Ray answers. “Just between me and God. I will tell you we’re not in a lying situation. We didn’t do this to prove anything to anybody. We took some pictures. We did circle each one on the directory map. I’d put a check mark on the map as one we’d have to get.” Once Ray and Wilma visited the Cracker Barrel they would circle the check mark on their map.

I almost used the Freedom of Information act to make Ray and Wilma show me their maps.

I almost used the Freedom of Information act to make Ray and Wilma show me their maps.

Ray explains, “Now that we’re retired from the RV we take our own car. We still like driving and getting out. Is there a rodeo or a concert? We like Western Swing and we can’t find that very easy around here. We’ve seen Asleep at the Wheel at about 25 places and we’re still not tired of them. We came to Naperville (at a July, 2012 Tex- Mex Festival) to see him (bandleader Ray Benson).” There is a Cracker Barrel Old County Store at 1855 W. Diehl Rd. in west suburban Naperville, Ill.

Ray and Wilma have discovered that most Cracker Barrels are alike. “The one in Hilton Head is up off the sand on posts to make up for high water,” he says. “Eight of them are right-handed, all the rest are left-handed.

“Right-handed is where you go in the front door and the dining room is to the right.” In soft tones Wilma admits, “I had a bad experience (in New Orleans) with a new restroom. I was going to the right when I was so used to going to the left.”

Ray says, “We got serious about this in the ‘80s. We got eight (Cracker Barrels) in one day.”

I about fall off my country rocker.

Ray continues. “Someone asked, ‘How do you do that?’ and I said, ‘Don’t eat too much at the first one.’ They were out of the way places but we needed to get them in order to claim them with our
bunch. It was along U.S. 17 in North and South Carolina: Maybe a half an order at (the first) one…Then a coffee to go at the next one… By ten o ‘clock we were at the third one, probably the house salad…The fourth one would be noon hour for meat loaf…The fifth one would have been a sandwich. At that time we liked their grilled cheese and bacon sandwich (sixth)…. Even if you waited until nine at night you’d have the grilled chicken dinner…The eighth, final stop,would be the cider float. The waitress would say, ‘Excuse me?’ And I’d say, ‘You have both ingredients. Instead of doing a root beer do a cider. And they would do it. ” Cider floats are not on the Cracker Barrel menu.

That’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Notable Cracker Barrel celebrities start with gospel-soul singer Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul does not like to fly. She travels to gigs in her luxury coach bus. In 2012 Franklin told me how much she loves
the chicken and dumplings at Cracker Barrel. In 2011 she signed a plate at the Cracker Barrel in Lakeville Mn. before a performance at the Mystic Lake Casino near the Twin Cities.

“Never met her,” Ray says. “Timing was off I guess. Did she come during the lunch hour? Some of them put on baseball caps and you never know.” Cracker Barrel employees have come to know Ray by his white cowboy hat.

Ray and Wilma’s daughter Doris Copenhaver works at the BMV (Bureau of Motor Vehicles)  in Goshen. In a phone conversation she says, “We didn’t realize how serious they were until the early 2000s. We were amazed. The meat loaf is what got Dad started.  What’s weird is going to one without them. Its like, ‘Well, I know they’ve been here before.’ We also used to go with them when they delivered motor homes. They go to Sarasota (Florida) in the winter so we would eat in the ones near there too.

“This keeps them young.”

The nearest Cracker Barrel to Goshen (pop. 33,000) is at I-80 and Cassiopolis Street in Elkhart. “We go to that one, sometimes for family get together,” Ray explains. “The lady who runs the cash register there, her and her husband used to run the Greyhound bus station across the street. She always knows us.”


The camper van visits RV fans Ray and Wilma Yoder (Photo by Jon Sall.)

Ray maintains the Amish population birthed the RV industry in Elkhart. “They don’t worry about unions,” he says. “One Amish guy will know a neighbor down the road looking for a job and they bring them in. You go to work at four in the morning and work hard at it. And make pretty decent money. Why pay ten when you have five who will do it? I’d say about 80 per cent of the workers were Amish when I started in the RV industry (in the late 1960s).”

Indeed, in June, Allison Yates of Atlas Obscura wrote a story “Why the Amish are Building America’s RV’s (They’re forbidden from driving them, but not making them)” and pointed out the Amish of Northern Indiana have never been as isolated as other Amish communities in America.

Ray celebrated his 81st birthday on August 28. As a surprise, Cracker Barrel flew Ray and Wilma to the Cracker Barrel grand opening in Tualatin, just outside of Portland, Or. It is the first Cracker
Barrel on the West Coast. The Nashville-based chain previously had only ventured as far west as Boise, Id.

“All the employees were waiting for us to make our appearance,” Ray says. “It was different
for two little country kids. I told them I could drive to O’Hare airport (in Chicago.) I’ve done that before. But they came with one of those limo cars and took us to O’Hare.”

Recent storefront (Courtesy of Cracker Barrel)

Recent storefront (Courtesy of Cracker Barrel)

As a 17-year-old, Wilma was attracted to Ray for his homespun values. He once ranked third in the Indiana State Table Tennis Tournament and these days he travels to Branson, Mo. for checkers tournaments. “He was a nice person,” she says. “Other boys didn’t have as much character. I thought he was better looking.”

Ray continues, “I was never into alcohol. Not that needs to be brag, but I did enough other things. I had my part of excitement in life. In mid-life you have two or three jobs, you have a little family and you have to work at that. We did that, too. There were no divorces in the Amish church. You pick them and you stay together.”

And that has been the old country creed for Ray and Wilma Yoder as they seen America through the wide open windows of an RV and the comforting heart of a Cracker Barrel.

Canadian sunsets (D. Hoekstra photo)

Canadian sunsets (D. Hoekstra photo)

TROIS-RIVIERES, QUEBEC, CANADA—Like all great tiki establishments, the Hotel-Motel Coconut remains true to its original vision.

Gerry and Madelaine Landry opened the Coconut in 1961 in Trois-Riviers (Three-Rivers), a 90 mile drive north of Montreal. They wanted the Coconut to capture the spirit of their Tahitian honeymoon.

Amazingly, the place hasn’t changed much in 56 years

Current owner Valerie Boisvert looked around the dark 180-seat Coconut bar that is loaded with rattan chairs, totem poles, tiki statues and shell lamps. “They brought all this back from Polynesia,” she said.” The Landrys also built a modest wooden bridge and added faux palm trees and portraits of pretty Polynesian women in all of their black velvet glory.

And while I’ve been to tiki bars from Easter Island to Hawaii to San Francisco, I can’t remember going to a roadside tiki bar with an adjacent tiki hotel. And motel. And an 80-person outdoor Coconut Terrace overlooking the highway and the magnificent Laviolette Bridge that arches over the St. Lawrence River.

The Coconut Hotel-Motel has 37 rooms.

When I visited Trois-Riveres in mid- August, my Room 29 had one door going outside to the parking lot AND another door into the hallway. At first I thought the hallway door was an adjacent room.

Hotel-motel manager David Duhaime explained, “That’s the reason we have hotel and motel. If we had only a door for outside it would just be a motel.”

I love the basic and good nature of Canada.



My little paradise.

The motel dates back to 1958 when the two-lane Quebec Route 138 was the popular route between Montreal and Trois-Riveres (pop. 115,000).The route runs parallel to the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. The Hotel-Motel Coconut is on the west side of the city. “It used to be a motel with 12 rooms,” Duhaime said. “At one time it was called the ‘Hotel TV’ because it was the first motel here to have cable TV.”


Coconut Bar

Construction of I-40 left Route 138 in the Southwinds, but like Route 66 in the states, Route 138 remains popular with bikers and campers. After their honeymoon, the Landrys morphed from TV to Tiki.

Inside the coconut bar.

Boisvert and her husband Sylvain Carle bought the establishment in 2002. “Everyone knows the Coconut Bar,” she said. “It took us two years to find the money. We met here.  My husband said ‘I love you’ to me thefirst time here.’ We have been together 29 years.


Valerie and Sylvain did make one structural change.

In 2012 they closed the motel restaurant and added, yup, another tiki bar. Located off the modest lobby, the romantic Volcano room offers a small bar, billiards and video machines. The Volcano is drenched in red light. After a couple of tropical drinks you may think you are in a seductive Amsterdam alley.

Complimentary breakfasts for hotel guests are served in the Volcano room to get your day off with a bang. Sylvain is a former chef at the Gueridon restaurant in Trois-Riveres and during November and December dinners are served in the Volcano room. The Volcano does not serve the traditional Montreal poutine (French Fries, cheese curds topped with gravy). In the Volcano room Valerie and Sylvain also diminished Polyneisan music in favor of rock n’ roll. Island music can still be heard between 4 and 9 p.m. in the Coconut Bar.

The way things are going in the states, I imagine more Americans will be finding their way to Canada.

Owner Valerie Boisvert and hotel-motel manager David Duhaine.

Owner Valerie Boisvert and hotel-motel manager David Duhaime.

Duhaime said, “We don’t get many Americans right now. You are here.  During the week we have people who are working in the city. On weekends we have tourists. Winter we have snowmobilers from everywhere. Two French movies and one documentary have been shot  here. French music groups stay here. Here, even in the winter it is  like summer. It is like having a south vacation.

The Coconut Bar serves 80 tropical drinks, beer and wine.  Highlights include the “Porn Star” (Curacao Bleu, Sour puss and 7 Up,) and the “After Sex” (vodka, banana liqueur and orange mix.)

“Every year we try to make a new drink,” Duhaime said. “At the employee Christmas party they have the challenge to make the best new drinks. The newest one is Coca-Sangria. People like the Zombie, Rainkiller. Some on the menu are from 50 years ago.”

The old drinks have the kick of a good honeymoon,

The Hotel-Motel Coconut tiki bar, Volcano room and Coconut Terrace is at 7531 rue Notre Dame (Route 138) in Trois-Riveres, Quebec. (1-800-838-3221.)  Autumn rates are $85 (American). I received a complimentary “Coconut” lei when I checked in.

William W. Powers State Recreation Area--in Chicago.

William W. Powers State Recreation Area–in Chicago.

Urban camping has spread its wings at the William W. Powers State Recreation Area.

The 580-acre park is the only State Park in the City of Chicago. The recreation area is at 130th Avenue O on the far southeast side of the city. The park’s jewel is the 419-acre Wolf Lake that borders Hammond, Ind., and although it has been described as a “hidden gem,” nearly half a million people visit annually.

Interim Site Superintendent Levi Bray said that at least 60 per cent are minority outdoors enthusiasts, which skews up from national camping demographics. There’s no camping at the park but there’s ample room for bird watching, boating, biking and picnicking. Fishing is a big draw as the lake is filled with bass, catfish, northern pike, hybrid muskie and walleye. Bird watchers can catch blue jays, finches, orioles,
mallards and cardinals.

And there’s Pee Wee the monk parakeet.

Pee-Wee and his newspapers (Courtesy of Levi

Pee-Wee and his newspapers (Courtesy of Levi Bray)

Local lore says a few South American parrots migrated roughly 30 miles from the Hyde Park neighborhood of late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. Pee Wee now lives in the park’s business center.

“Someone said Harold Washington introduced these birds to Hyde Park,” Bray explained during a late August interview. Bray began his career with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) in 1990 as a Site Technican. “Back then we had hundreds of the parrots here,” he said. “They blew the transformers. (The monk parakeet likes to build nests adjacent to warm transformers.)  It killed them all, except for a couple.”

In January, Bray was assigned as the Interim Site Superintendent at William W. Powers. He had been Ranger at the I&M Canal State Park near Joliet. “When I came back I saw Pee Wee was still there,” he said with a laugh.

Mayor Washington lived in the Hampton House condo building, 53rd neat South Shore Drive, across the street from a small park that included a colony of monk parakeets. He called the birds a “good luck
tailsman.” After his death in 1987, the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) tried to remove the parakeets. Hyde Park residents created a defense committee and threatened a lawsuit. The birds won.

Remember when conflict was so beautiful?



Wild Indigo Nature Explorations illustrates biodiversity of outdoors Chicago and offer programs in Cook County Forest Preserves.

Abraham Lincoln visited the future William W. Powers park and Mary Todd Lincoln nearly drowned in Wolf Lake in a spot located near the visitors center.

The State of Illinois acquired an 160-acres parcel of the future park in 1947 and in 1965 the Illinois General Assembly named the area after 1920s Chicago alderman William W. Powers. He used the cottonwood and willow tree site for picnics to feed the needy during the Great Depression.

“There’s a lot of history here,” Bray said. “Actually until I came here for the job, I didn’t even know this existed. We draw a lot of Hispanics. African-Americans. Lots of Polish.”

Wolf Lake is a deep Chicago melting pot.

In 2014 the Coleman Company, Inc. and the Outdoor Foundation compiled the “2014 American Camper Report” through 19,240 online interviews. Their research found that eight per cent of American campers were Hispanic, six per cent were African-American and four per cent were black. (The average age of a camper was 32.)

New minority camping organizations are emerging such as Outdoor Afro, based in Oakland, Ca., Wild Indigo and the National African-American RVers Association (NAARVA), the fastest growing RV organization in the country. NAARVA was founded in 1993 and has nearly 2,000 members.

The North Carolina-based organization hosts annual rallies that includes seminars, fishing, cake walks, pot luck dinners and worship service.

“For the last three to four years, we’ve been growing four to five per cent a year,” said NAARVA president Carolyn Buford in a phone conversation from her Kansas City, Mo. home. “We’ve had a lot of young retirees who have moved to the southern region; Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. Our members have motor homes, travel trailers and fifth wheels. The only requirement is that you have cooking and bathroom facilities in your RV.”


Carolyn Buford

Buford’s father was an avid camper. Her husband Luther is a retired Kansas City law enforcement officer. She is retired from information management at AT&T. Carolyn and Luther bought their first unit in 1969. It was a Holiday Rambler travel trailer. They now own a motor home.

“One reason we joined NAARVA is that we had been to a lot of states and we had seen very few minorities,” she said. “It was interesting to hear about an organization comprised of 98 per cent minorities. Even as we travel today, we don’t see a lot of minorities on the road. NAARVA has local clubs and we see more minorities when we camp with our local clubs. We go away for the winter and even though we’ve been going to this particular park for six or seven years people still look at us like, ‘Where did you come from?’ ”
Supreme Court judge Clarence Thomas is an avid  camper who can be found setting up shop in Wal-Mart parking lots. “We contacted him we know he bought an RV,” Buford said. “As far as we know, he’s still camping in his RV (he once had  40-foot Prevost).” Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson is a well known African-America RV enthusiast. The Bufords purchased their motor home from Bill Thomas Camper Sales in Wentzville, Mo., the same St. Louis area store that serves Gibson.

Here comes the Judge: (with wife Ginni), Image from Business Insider, Australia.

Here comes the judge: (with wife Ginni), Image from Business Insider, Australia.

Bray said, “Lately I’ve been seeing more African-American people camping. But as a kid I never thought about camping. One of my wife’s friends, they’re big (African-American) family campers. He was in the
Army and I think that’s how he got into it. Every Labor Day my wife’s cousin and their family go to Starved Rock (outside of Chicago.) Its about 50 people.”

Bray, 60,  grew up on a farm between West Memphis and Little Rock, Ark. Bray was speaking the day after the park’s “Aquatic Pet Take Back” event. “This was for reptiles and goldfish,” he said. “No one showed up. I guess no one wanted to turn in anything. But in the past there’s been instances when people brought in alligators. Maybe an iguana is not quite what someone wanted, so they can turn them in here.”

The park is operated under the auspices of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. It is open year round. Bray said, “Starting in October we’ll have duck and geese hunting. This park is really a nice place. The (Cook) county actually just put a campground about 15, 20 minutes south of us.”
In the summer of 2015 the Forest Preserve of Cook County opened Camp Sullivan, 14630 S. Oak Park Ave. in Oak Forest. The park had been used for scouting activities but was turned over to families and groups  for the first time in 50 years. Camp Sullivan is part of the 612-acre Tinley Creek Woods and offers tent camping, bunkhouse rental and a vintage red barn with a climbing wall. Also, in 2015 Camp Shabbona Woods, 15810 S. Torrence Ave.  in South Holland opened with nature trails, mulch tent pads, three season cabins, and yes, even bathrooms and showers.

The Aug. 27 New York Times Travel section reported the explosion in camper culture. Writer Stephanie Rosenbloom said that about 13 million households in the United States planned to camp more this year than last year, according to research conducted  by Kampgrounds of America. More than a million new households have started camping since 2014.

Such massive growth has to embrace the diversity that gives America her wings.