COLUMBIA, Mo. — Truck-stop reality might not strike a lot of people as having TV potential, but when the Travel Channel happened upon a place off Exit 121 along the Interstate Highway 70 corridor just west of here, lightning struck.
TV crews came calling, and everything naturally got amped up. That reality set in over the last several months for Joe Bechtold, general manager of the Midway Travel Plaza, which was made even more famous in "Truck Stop Missouri."
The well-visited stop offers a slice of life — heck, make it two slices — with an interesting cast of characters, the ones visiting and the ones working there.
"You know, it's been a lot of fun and a lot of work," Bechtold said. "It's time-consuming but really cool. ... For us and our customers, it's been great. People come in and they're kind of excited to see people who they've seen on TV."
In its first season, "Truck Stop Missouri" focused on the family-owned travel plaza and became one of the Travel Channel's brightest gems. Thirteen episodes aired, and it will be back again this year as "Truck Stop USA." Run dates have yet to be determined, but you can stop in and see the real reality.
The difference here is that in addition to food, you can buy boots, fireworks and antiques, and even upgrade your body-art portfolio with a new tattoo at Under the Gun Tattoo — you know, all the stuff you need for the road.
Then there are the special events that make the little screen: cow-patty bingo, lawn-mower racing, battle re-enactments.
Sailing down I-70, you really can't miss the cluster of 15 businesses and one church nestled in the quiet countryside about a seven-hour drive southwest of Chicago.
In the restaurant, you get a welcome as if you're part of the family: "How ya doing, baby?" followed by later checkups with "You doing OK, dear?" and "You're welcome, honey." Warm and welcoming without a trace of plastic.
The waitresses know their stuff, such as with 18-year veteran Ruth Marie Roe, who suggests starting a meal with dessert. Here, indulging in a piece of homemade German chocolate pie will set you back only $2.49. It's the same for fresh-baked fruit pies (pronounced "pahz").
All that TV exposure hasn't run up prices yet. A char-grilled hamburger with a choice of mashed potatoes, slaw or the "daily veggie" runs $6.79. And reports are that the biscuits and gravy are second to none. Homemade sausage gravy on two fresh-baked biscuits is $3.99.
The Backdoor Lounge fills to the brim on Friday and Saturday nights, when country music bands take the stage and kick up the energy at 9 p.m. And pretty much by that time 100 or so trucks, lined up neatly like toys, have parked for the night so the drivers can get some R&R.
No doubt those truckers can't wait to finish dinner and get some shut-eye so they can make haste into the Midway Antique Mall and Flea Market the next morning. Its massive inventory arrayed over 60,000 square feet includes vintage toys, glassware and china, quilts and coins, and plenty of Americana, all with seemingly reasonable prices. Currently, 235 dealers offer their wares in 325 booths. It's laid out nicely; no mazes or dark corners to get lost in. The only way to get lost is in time. Some people reportedly breeze in for a break from the road and emerge from the aisles three or four hours later.
If your trunk's full, you can stash that new old dresser you just bought over at Midway Mini Storage. Then go pick up the kids at Cannery Row Daycare or at the Fearfest Haunted House and haul them all to the Gateway to the High Country Cowboy Church, a spiritual font for "cowboys, cowgirls and horse lovers of all brands," for a quick prayer.
Then it's back to the road and all those high hopes for the new TV season.
If you go
The Midway Travel Plaza covers 200 acres off Exit 121, just west of Columbia, Mo., on I-70 almost smack between St. Louis and Kansas City. The Midway Travel Plaza sits about midway between the interstate's terminal points just outside Baltimore and in Cove Fort, Utah, a span of 2,153 miles.
For more details on the Midway Travel Plaza, visit midwayexpo.com/travelplaza, call 573-445-1211, or, of course, watch the Travel Channel.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun