Any crappy day will be a little easier to bear if you start it out with a good donut and some coffee. That’s simply a rule of the universe.
Please let me explain myself.
Years ago, I was talking with my longtime friend and soaking buddy, Paul, the guy who introduced me to western hot springs, and I was rattling on about some crazy route I was taking to get from one point to another.
I must have mentioned a few food destinations and, since he was already quite familiar with my wanderings, he cut in and said, “Listen, these trips are all about the food for you.” And, while I may have been under some illusion or denial up until that moment, his statement made sense. I no longer needed a grand purpose, theme or goal.
I mean, I love the driving. I love the solitude. I love the tiny remnants of unspoiled nature. I love getting some perspective on the country and my fellow citizens. I love the majesty of America’s landscape. I love the ruins, the architecture, the abandoned gas stations, the journeys back in time over hundreds of miles of backroads. I love the purple mountain majesties and the diamond deserts and the lonesome highways. I love the smell of gasoline mixed with the dawn while I’m filling up my tank and thinking about where I’m going to turn at the next junction. I love camping in Canyon Country. I love all that and more.
But I really love a good chile relleno in Las Cruces, New Mexico, or a piece of Mile High Blueberry Pie in Salmon, Idaho, or a tray full of fried catfish and stewed tomatoes with okra in Birmingham, Alabama. Or some New York City Pizza. Or a slice of frozen key lime pie dipped in chocolate on a popsicle stick in southern Florida. I could go on. The list is long. And let’s face it - I’m not the only one who feels this way.
There is a rich field of literature on road food. I have no desire to add to it - the Paul whom I mentioned earlier, he and I have often joked about putting out a book called “Great Restaurants of the Great Basin” that would total no more than four pages. I have driven hundreds of miles out of my way for a good sandwich. In “Kolyma Tales,” a magnificent book about the Gulag, written by Varlam Shalamov and filled with some of the darkest stuff you could ever imagine, the author states calmly, but with absolute authority that, after all else falls away - friendships, love, civility, all the trappings of society - we are left only with hunger.
My original theme was going to be “Comfort Food.” I was actually not going to have a theme - and I sometimes prefer to have no theme at all - but “comfort food” popped into my head last week as I was meditating and, the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had been neglecting one of my favorite subjects. I started to go through photos and began to think about the decisions that go through my mind when I photograph something.
I won’t go into that here, but I will state that the connection between one’s gut and one’s brain has been well-documented by science. The same can be said of the brain/camera connection. So I began to pull photos. I could see the makings of a multi-part image series. I realized it might take a while for me to figure it out on a psychic level.
The photos became a flood. I decided to take this slowly and mull on it for another two months. As this was all going through my brain, this subject suddenly floated to the top of the mental fryolator - donuts.
I won’t pretend to not like donuts. Why would I do that? I love donuts. I may love blueberry muffins more, but I still love donuts. I do NOT stop at every donut shop I pass, though. I would have to get a seatbelt extender if I did. But something about donuts is part of the hidden key to the American psyche. One small puzzle piece of the Great American Dream that Hunter Thompson sought in “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.”
Every town has a donut shop. If they’re too small to have a donut shop, you can still find fresh ones every morning at the mini mart, sitting in a particleboard and plexiglass case under hot lightbulbs, with a little box of wax paper sheets just below, maybe a pair of plastic tongs, and a few urns of coffee steaming next to it. Any crappy day will be a little easier to bear if you start it out with a good donut and some coffee. That’s simply a rule of the universe, fixed, immutable. Please don’t lecture me about fats and sugars, about health and sickness, about body mass index and diabetes.
I know we all cannot eat donuts. I have reached my limit on other things in this life. I know about excess. I have paid the price and I stay away from certain things, but when it comes to donuts, you’ll have to pull the last one out of my cold, dead right hand. A blueberry muffin will be in my left hand and, most likely, I’ll have a burrito wrapped up in my pocket and an empty pizza box in the back of the van, along with a receipt from the drive-through Dairy Queen 50 miles back on the highway.
To paraphrase Walt Whitman:
“I celebrate donuts and sing donuts,
And what I assume, you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as donuts belongs to you.”
Here, then, is the true heart and soul of America.
All photos by Paul Vlachos.
This piece first appeared in EXIT CULTURE: WORDS AND PHOTOS FROM THE OPEN ROAD. You can purchase the book on Amazon HERE.
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Paul Vlachos is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He was born in New York City, where he currently lives. He is the author of “The Space Age Now,” released in 2020, “Breaking Gravity,” in 2021, and “Exit Culture” in 2023.