Phil Hugo: Itchin’ to go and greet Gus

By Phil Hugo - Guest Columnist

I’ve got an itch, and it’s not due to wool fabric against my skin, a bad case of the hives or a mosquito bite.

No, it’s the kind of itch I get when I want to travel, as in taking a road trip. To somewhere, be it New England, the big sky country of the American West or to visit family. Anywhere. If it looks like it would be fun, interesting and an opportunity to learn something I’m ready to hit the road.

I was scheduled to take a trip in May to visit family and share in the joy of my niece’s wedding in Omaha, but COVID-19 has upended the travel and wedding plans for many folks. Aelea and Matt have moved their event to May of 2021. So much for the best-laid plans. Meanwhile, I find myself reflecting on the many miles I’ve logged between Ohio and Nebraska over the years.

I came to Ohio from my home state of Nebraska in August of 1972. I had no idea how long I would be here — months, maybe a handful of years. How time flies. I’m beginning to stare down 48 years and before long, half a century. Wow!

Many of the road trips I’ve taken with Lima as the point of origin have been with family members as a traveling unit of warm bodies. I’ve also racked up thousands of revolutions of the odometer by myself.

My roots are in eastern Nebraska, where the seeds were planted in 1894 when my great-grandfather Cornelius Hugo left Kansas to set up shop in West Point, Nebraska. He founded a sheet metal shop that has grown into a five-generation plumbing and heating business.

When I want to visit family I point the vehicle west, heading for the Nebraska horizon, some 730 miles distant, the hum of the tires on pavement a constant refrain. It has been said that often we travelers are so intent on reaching our destination that we miss out on the journey itself: the landscape, the inhabitants of that landscape and the food they serve us.

I’ve often wondered how many miles I’ve burned following the paved ribbon, so I did a quick calculation. Based on an average of one round trip a year, it comes out to 70,800 miles. Now, given that there were years when I rolled the wheels sometimes two and rarely three times a year, I’m upping that to 80,000-plus miles. Another way of looking at it — roughly three trips around this place we call home.

Of course, before one can even bring about wear and tear on a set of tires, a departure time should be established. Over the years that time has varied, especially as it involved other family members. Often, it was later rather than earlier. With work schedules and young children, it sometimes meant driving through the night and then being chased by a rising sun in the rear-view mirror.

I’ve mended my ways in recent years. Whether going it alone or in the company of my wife, the target for departure is 7 a.m. With a travel time of approximately 13 hours to Nebraska, it allows plenty of daylight hours to read the midwestern landscape and makes for less eyestrain as one chases lane markers into the night.

Another advantage to an early start allows for a late breakfast at the Maxwell Street Grill on Halsted Street in South Holland, Illinois. Take the exit off Illinois I-80, and you are there. Aside from a good omelette, the highlight of my visit is to greet Gus Bisioulis, the congenial owner of the Grill. I learned on one of my first visits that he is often gone by 11 a.m., hence my time of arrival no later than 10:30 a.m. so we can visit.

“Hey Gus, it’s good to see you. How are you?”

“Good. Can I get you something to drink?”

“Water please.”

Dressed in business attire minus a tie, he comes over to my booth where we discuss family. The happy grandfather shows me a photo of a grandchild. Gus inquires how my brother Ken is doing. Ken discovered the restaurant on one of his trips to Michigan where his son went to college. He has a knack for finding such places.

Gus talks about a recent tip to visit family in his homeland — Greece. He may have left home, but he hasn’t lost the accent. He bags a dozen dinner rolls fresh from the oven for Ken. We exchange hugs and go our separate ways. Until next time.

I motor across Illinois, wondering what the rolling prairie must have looked like before it was plowed under. Big bluestem, Indian grass and coneflowers. Imagining a prior landscape. Now reading a present day landscape with cattle grazing pastures where bison once roamed.

Iowa beckons and before long I am looking up and down the Mississippi River, search-ing for barge tows. Sometimes I see bald eagles in the backwaters.

A few miles on, I arrive at my next stop, the Iowa 80 Truckstop, billed as the world’s largest. It says so on its very tall sign. I fill the nearly empty tank, go inside, have a look around and grab a milkshake for the road. It’s quite a place. Check it out sometime.

I journey on, making my way to my homeland and have a wonderful time with family — sharing time around an evening bonfire, laughing, playing my harmonica and eating hotdogs and s’mores.

And then, as time would have it, I head for home, watching for what I may have missed on the way out. I hum the song “Here Comes the Sun” as it crests the horizon. Later, a full moon, Luna, seduces me with her beauty, daring me to keep my eyes on the road.

Back home. Safe. Greeted with a hug and a kiss. With these memories on my mind, I’ll no doubt get an itch to take another road trip. If not before, then to Aelea and Matt’s wedding next May.

By Phil Hugo

Guest Columnist

Phil Hugo lives in Lima.

Phil Hugo lives in Lima.

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