Finding America at a Back-Roads Gas Station
DICKERSON, Md. -- Everything happens for a reason.
At least that's what people tell you when your plans go south.
Driving from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., recently, I did as I nearly always do: I clicked the "avoid highways" option on Google Maps and chose a route I'd never taken before.
You'd be amazed by the number of different routes you can take between western Pennsylvania and our nation's capital. This one took me through the heights of the Laurel Mountains toward the original Lincoln Highway, where I went through the delightful town of Mercersburg and then due south toward U.S. 40, the original National Pike. Eventually, I slowly snaked along the Maryland side of the Potomac River southeast toward D.C.
This way of traveling lets you see, even if only fleetingly, the towns, unincorporated villages and cities that sometimes connect on one single U.S. route. On these roads, you see the differences in prosperity, density and decay that make up America.
As I approached a bend in the road that passes under an ancient stone train bridge along Maryland Route 28, it happened. The flat-tire warning signals began flashing across my dashboard. I didn't have a choice. I had to try to navigate past the sharp curve, through the narrow underpass, and pray there was somewhere flat to pull over on the other side.
I am fairly sure I completed a world-record 30-second recital of the rosary in my head as I made it around the bend. Then I took in the damage. My tire was shredded.
The Dickerson Market looks like the hundreds of general stores I see every time I hit the back roads. It has a post office attached to it, not to mention no-name self-service gasoline pumps in the front and a sign boasting "famous fried chicken."
On that day, it was my oasis.
To those passing through, these general stores are just gas stations. But to people who live here or come to the area regularly for the hiking, biking and fishing, places like Dickerson Market are the center of the community. It's where they can get an amazing breakfast sandwich hot off the grill or donate to Toys for Tots. It's where they can buy a birthday card, a winter hat or groceries, or where they can sit for a spell at a handful of tables and chairs.
It is where conversations spring up among strangers, with the grace and charity you won't find on social media or cable news.
I certainly found that grace and charity in the hours I waited there for AAA. I also found a microcosm of America in the veritable parade of strangers who helped and offered to help.
A white couple with more tattoos than I could possibly count, a group of young Hispanic men and an African American couple all offered different forms of assistance for my obvious distress.
Michelle Ennis isn't surprised by the hospitality shown by the patrons of her store. "I see that type of kindness from our regulars in little things every day," she says. "This place is a piece of history as well as a reflection of our community. We may change, because we have to change with moderation and things like that. But you still have down-to-the-basics, pleasant people. ... You miss that in the cities. I've been in cities, and you can hardly get someone to say hello to you or look you in the eye."
Ennis owns the store with her father, Robert Fowler, who bought it 22 years ago. He was a regular, and the former owners wanted someone who cared about the community to carry on the tradition they began in 1948. Michelle Ennis' kids work behind the counter, and her husband helps when things break down. "It is a real family operation," she says.
More than 1,000 pieces of their fried chicken leave the unassuming general store while I wait for my tow.
To anyone passing by, this just looks like a gas station. To anyone who takes the time to step inside, they will find themselves in a wonderland.
It is Memorial Day weekend, and no tire stores are open to repair my car. AAA tells me the dispatch will tow my car home to Pittsburgh, and I'll get to ride along. The anxiety that starts to overwhelm me as I wonder how I am going to interact with a stranger for 5 1/2 hours in the small space of a tow truck quickly evaporates minutes after Krasimir Georgiev shows up to take me and my bruised Jeep home.
An immigrant from Bulgaria, Georgiev's story makes the time fly. He arrived from Germantown with little money and an uncertain future. Now he's a small-business man who owns two tow trucks and employs several people.
Grace always finds a way to show up just in time. I've written that before, and I say it often. Even though I know it will come, it's always surprising where you find it. Sometimes it's on a back road in Maryland that you thought you were taking for no good reason. But it turns out there was a reason.
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