Flurries swirled in the 5 degree wind chills on a February morning in Boone, NC. I sat in my truck in a public parking lot waiting for Andrew and Brian, my two closest friends, who were on their way from Raleigh and Hillsborough. I had left my home in North Charlotte around 5:45 a.m. driving west, like them, with a slow sunrise in my rearview mirror.
I texted my wife a short video of the snow spinning like cold miniature tornados across the concrete from the confines of a warm truck cabin.
“You are either crazy or those biscuits have crack in them … or both,” she joked. My stomach growled anticipating a big Appalachian breakfast takeout platter from Melanie’s Food Fantasy.
The biscuits definitely do not have crack in them — just a lot of butter and salt, which may be nearly as addictive. My friends texted from about 20 minutes away, and we coordinated an online order so that we could walk to the outdoor pick-up station as soon as they arrived.
By the time we got back in my truck with our takeout boxes in lap, the food was a little cold. Still, it didn’t disappoint. Truthfully, this whole trip was not only about the food. The early Saturday morning trip was about connection and wresting away a tradition that the pandemic had taken from us.
For nearly 10 years, the three of us have made annual (if not more) trips to the North Carolina mountains to hike and camp. We’ve been to Linville Gorge Wilderness Area multiple times, Elk Knob State Park, Stone Mountain, Doughton State Park, Mt. Mitchell, and Grayson Highlands in southern Virginia, just to name a few.
Several years ago during one particularly cold and rainy night, we each laid swinging and sheltered in our hammocks listening to the wind run through the trees. I opened Yelp on my phone and patiently waited for a signal and some distant satellite to tell me where was the closest, well-rated breakfast option.
“Melanie’s Fantasy Foods,” I yelled to Andrew and Brian.
“What? Is that really what it’s called?,” Brian said as we laughed at the ridiculous name.
“Yep, 30 minutes away. They open at 8. Let’s get there early tomorrow.”
You would have thought the food had been touched by an angel, divinely handed down from a Southern heaven. We each devoured more than we deserved to eat that morning — pancakes, grits, egg and cheese biscuits, stewed apples, hash browns, pots of coffee, and fresh-squeezed juice. We each claimed it was the best breakfast we’d ever eaten. It wasn’t a stretch compared to the previous night’s lowly dinner.
From then on, nearly every camping trip included a discussion about how we could get to Melanie’s for breakfast before we drove home. In some cases, the camping trip just became a pretense for getting breakfast at Melanie’s. Eventually, we started finding a Saturday or two per year to meet in Boone, have breakfast at Melanie’s, walk around downtown, lazily wander around at the Mast General Store, and then each drive back home.
Among the many social events that were cancelled due to the pandemic, our camping trips and Melanie’s breakfast meet-ups were shelved in 2020. These types of experiences — not as mundane as grocery shopping or as venerable as family dinner at Christmas — provide moments of connection we need as humans. These shared experiences sit in the context of a larger story about what it means to be friends with these other people.
Breakfast in Boone isn’t about eating breakfast. It reinforces a shared experience with roots that are years deep into the past. Like a call-back from a witty comedian, it is a punctuated reminder of where we’ve been together. And each time we get back together in that same spot, it feels a little more lived-in and comfortable, like it’s the only thing that makes sense.
That’s why in late January when Andrew suggested via text that we try to figure out a breakfast meet-up at Melanie’s, Brian and I were both on board. Though none of us had any reason to suspect we had COVID-19, we all agreed to get tested a few days beforehand to put each other at ease.
It’s irrational to drive 2 hours, one way, in the dark morning hours to eat a lukewarm box of takeout breakfast food. Our wives all reminded us in case that reality was lost on us. But, we all do selectively irrational things for emotional reasons. We make decisions with our hearts. We go to great lengths to keep our stories alive. We brave nasal swabs and sub-freezing weather to stay connected to each other.