The road to Denver is full of omens

THE ROAD IN MISSOURI -- Omens can come with thunder claps that mean greatness lies in wait. Destiny is you in a superhero suit. Or lightning bolts that mean you just got struck down the back with enough voltage to light up Paducah, Ky., which you just passed while being pelted with the grass growing from a 1968 rusty Chevy Biscayne atop a flatbed truck.

Drive about two-thirds of the way across the country following a basketball team and a dream, a year after driving all the way across the country for the same reasons, you hope thunderclaps are better than seared shorts.

It is a bad omen when you try to buy a Herald newspaper near the state line in Fort Mill at 6:30 a.m., 1,570 miles from Denver, it is Denver you need to get to by Tuesday night, and the paper box jams. It is a bad omen an hour and a half later when you stop for coffee at a place spelled "The Cubbard." And the Cubbard has been closed for at least as long ago as gas was $2.79 a gallon and somebody thought "cupboard" was "cubbard."

But the traveler who follows Winthrop hoops by asphalt and not sky miles must drive on and wait for guidance. Sports Editor Gary McCann and I know this. We lasted 5,300 miles together last year this very week believing in luck, fate, karma and coffee.

It is a good omen a few hours later in the foggy mountains outside Waynesville, N.C., when coffee again shows it is king. McCann drove you back and forth to Washington last year, and now, he's willing to take you to Denver to watch Winthrop in the NCAA Tournament.

He pulls off at the exit, and the guy in the parking lot named Craig Cragle says, "I'm from Pineville (N.C.), of course I heard of Winthrop," before you even have to ask twice. This is more than 200 miles from home. Good omen. "Hope they win, too."

But then the omens come down in thunderbooms because inside the Pilot gas station comes the voice. "Hey, you guys."

It is a woman named Mary Beth Foster, and she was in this same store a year ago as we stopped for coffee and to see if we should drive the rest of the way to Spokane, Wash. "I remember you guys. Who could forget?"

She doesn't recall why she remembers until I say "Winthrop" and "basketball" and she says oh yeah, the two guys who were going across the country just for a basketball game. "Did you make it?"

Even Larry the maintenance guy remembered two guys driving across the country. Who forgets crazies?

The coffee, Kenya King, still strong as turpentine, was just as good as last year, McCann states with emphasis, meaning another good omen.

Then, Foster asks, "Another basketball game?"

I say yes; this time, Denver.

This is the woman who last year said to me, "Sugar, you are a long way from Washington."

This year, Foster put an arm around my shoulders and looked at McCann, who tried to smile although he was 1,200 miles from dropping me off. She said, "Honey, keep on truckin'. Go Winthrop!"

That isn't an omen. That's a sign from heaven above.

McCann interrupted my reverie to state: "Get in the car. We have more than a thousand miles left. And all of them are with you."

Yes, this second trip already had taken a turn for the better.

And like last year in the first day of following Horace Greeley's "Go West, Young Man" motto -- although I'm older than 40 and McCann, the star sports writer for almost four decades, is so old he gets free coffee sometimes -- the road is again wonderful. A man named Khan served us the worst coffee in the world, then we still smile. He asked when I said we were driving to Denver, "Have they no planes in South Carolina?"

Yes, but not for us. We would drive if the game was on Mars. McCann would drive, of course, I would expense out the jet fuel and lottery tickets.

Tennessee was again a long, east-to-west state. Seems it hasn't grown in a year. But we passed into the central time zone, went from afternoon to morning so McCann said, "Hey, I feel younger already," and we stopped at a place called Crossville. We pulled into a BP station/restaurant.

"The Bean Pot" restaurant, cornbread and beans -- it says so right on the sign -- but so much more. In the parking lot, a black Porsche that cost more than my house was parked directly next to a pickup truck that lacked a left front fender. Panel vans, too -- double parked. Must be some good beans and cornbread.

Owner Jim Jones changed the gas price from $3.25 to $3.19 right while McCann was pumping the gasoline, using one of those big suction cups on a pole. Would have saved The Herald about a dollar if we came later.

But Jones made up for it when he said, "Owned this place for 20 years, it's been open 38 years. Never been closed. Ever. Front door doesn't even have a lock on it."

And it doesn't. I tried the front door, and it had a knob like a closet but no lock.

There were metal round orange Gulf signs on the walls, and they were hiring. Cashiers and cooks. I got neither job but was told I could wash dishes if I stuck around till after the lunch rush. It was chicken and dumplings to go with the pintos and cornbread.

A guy paid for his lunch, bought a pack of Doral Lights 100s, then asked in the same breath, "Got any live bait?"

The hostess, clerk, a wonderful lady named Mandy Underwood, said without skipping a beat, "No live or dead bait here, and if you want live bait, just dig deep."

This is a place with a working payphone outside and a waitress named Joy. Joy Richards.

I asked her of she ever heard of Washington State, the team Winthrop is playing Thursday, and she said, "Course I heard of Washington State. Washington is a state. Washington state. And as for Denver, you ain't even reached Nashville yet, son."

McCann and I met a man named Dudley Schaefer from Decatur, Ill. On his way home from the Bristol, Tenn., stock car race the night before, "Where the drunks was a-rollin' down the hill," as Schaefer put it. Schaefer won $15 on scratch-off lottery tickets in his sleeveless T-shirt. He had a tattoo that said "Rolla."

I didn't ask if he was waiting for "Derby" to be tattooed on the other arm.

The Bean Pot is a place where, in past decades, Roy Acuff, Michael Jordan, Alex Haley the "Roots" author and Vince Gill the country singer have eaten the cornbread and beans.

"The barber in 'Hee Haw,' he stopped in here, too," said Jim Jones, the proprietor. "Smokin' Joe Frazier the prizefighter, and the guy from the Oak Ridge Boys with the long beard. Can't remember his name. I'm a transplanted Yankee from near Akron in Ohio, anyway."

And now, McCann and Dys have darkened the door at the Bean Pot.

Some high-rent company.

McCann and I pressed on. He drove. As usual. Last year, I may have backed the rental car up once or twice, but not much more. He drives, I talk. He hopes for laryngitis. For me.

We rolled on, into Kentucky and then Illinois. Bound for St. Louis and Kansas City, then Kansas and then Colorado and Denver.


The same reason I told the people at the Bean Pot and every other stop. To watch Winthrop and write about it for the people at home.

There is no good reason. So what?

There is probably not enough good reasons that Winthrop beat Notre Dame last year in this tournament or can beat Washington State this year.

Take a trip like this, a second time, it seems that more omens are good than bad. Anything seems possible.

If you are willing to take some chances. Dream a little.

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