01/21/2014 12:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Born to Rock: An American Odyssey to the Cracker Barrel


The screen door slammed with the intensity of our beating hearts, all three of us -- me, Jack and Mears. Name's Johnny, by the way, but people call me Frankie for short.

We hadn't been home for a long while. There'd been some trouble, sure, but it wasn't nothing a warm plate of chicken n' dumplings and a few rounds of checkers out on the front porch couldn't take care of. Hell, we were born to rock, and those chairs were waitin'. We hopped in that dusty Tahoe and jetted outta old Baton Rouge, headlights pointed at the dawn, toward New Orleans.

Our destination: the Gonzales Cracker Barrel.

Jack rolled up his window, relit his cigarette and tuned to us. With the smoke blown from his mouth 'tween yellowed teeth, he announced, "We ain't stoppin' til' we got ourselves some corn bread and jam, boys."

Me, though, I couldn't get Mama's Pancake Breakfast outta my head. Been a long time. A damn long time...

I glanced back, the Interstate flyin' beneath us. Mears was sitting quiet. We never seen him like this before. Normally, that boy'd talk the reins off a horse, but today he was making Paul Newman seem like Chatty Cathy.

"Whatcha thinkin'?" I asked.

"You know what I'm gonna do?" Mears just stared out the window the way he did sometimes, back then, before it all. "I'ma slather up some of them biscuits in that blackberry jam. Then. Then, I'm gonna eat 'em."

He sighed.

Rocking ain't always been so good to Mears. We never talked about it or nothin' but last time there were a few hitches. His old girl, Jess... well, she never made it out. Not the same way at least. She was different, after. Something about undercooked sausage. Spent a good twenty or so in the lav, said she ain't never goin' back.

We weren't worried though. Not this time. Biggest thing was getting there.

Sure, there were detractors along the way. Always are. Pushers enticing with the supposed delicacy of Pillsbury -- the fat man had gotten too big, everyone seemed to be running product for him in those days -- or worse, the syrup-laden, back-ally constructions of that Irish bastard "Mickey D." But if we wanted easy, we'da walked away from this game a long time ago.

There were other obstacles: Applebee's of Time Past, bleeding that sweet serenade onto our wanting pallets. But we knew what neighborhood they wanted us eatin' good in, and truth be told, it ain't no good. Nobody returns from there.

Also that stretch of winding highway with the Burger King on one side and the International House of Pancakes on the other, each calling us to smash on into the guardrails in our excitement. This is just past the Hooters by I-59, the one that'll pull you in with a sweet promise (even if you ain't hungry) but never let you out.

And before the trip was done, we'd meet people questioning us: "Why chocolate-covered sunflower seeds? Why not just eat seeds and M&Ms?" The unflappable ignorance.

It ain't about that. Never was.

We stopped to get gas, Jack lightin' up another smoke at the pumps while Mears leaned against the back of the Tahoe, hands deep in his jacket pockets like he's looking for a spent roach, mind deep into... Jess, probably.

Jack never had no worries, no girl. He was his own breed. Me, though? Yeah, sure, I'd lost me a gal too, back then. Wasn't durin' that trip, but let's just say I know the feelin'. Shit went sour over in Houston. H-Town, some called it, probably for Heartbreak. The Heartbreak Hotel. The damn Heartbreak Hotel. When she turned heel and split like a bat outta Hell, well... maybe that's what turned me onto this shit. Image of her walkin' outta that Taco Bell'll never leave me. 'Cept when I'm knee-deep in a country ham special, grits on the side, like they do.

Never shoulda trusted her. This was after we heisted the Mama's Pancake Breakfast recipe. She's got it now. I tried writing to her, the whole nine yards, but hey, that's in the past now... those flapjacks'll be my resurrection. Right?

And I think they'll be Mears' too, 'cause I could see his eyes light up like a slot machine as we saw that northern light burning bright as a Skynyrd concert off there in the distance.

It read, "Cracker Barrel."

Almost time, boys. Almost time.

Even we shall be healed.