“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Oasis Travel Center, just off I-10 in Robertsdale, Alabama is everything you expect from a truck stop on the side of the Interstate in lower Alabama, except for the crumbling piles of bricks and crinkled sheets of metal, a meticulously arranged crash site of a shiny crimson railcar that has replaced an entire side of the building… and the neon hippie symbol-clad VW bus protruding out of the front performing as a door. We didn't know much about the diner, but we turned into the parking lot and our daughter shrieked with joy. The decision was made. This is where we will grab breakfast.
We walk into the Derailed Diner and approach the hostess stand, and see that the convenience area of the rest stop and the diner itself are open to each other. We notice a few toy trains in a case and a couple souvenir spoons from the area, and we say we’ll go check the store out later, all seeming pretty normal. Coffee bar, aisles of beach goer paraphernalia, and a southern white picketed children’s playhouse with wrap around porch stocked full of funky trinkets. We also realize that not only has a train wrecked here, so has an entire pirate ship, skeletal crew in tow. We feel overwhelmed with areas to explore, still laughing that this is a glorified gas station.
Jim and Karen Brown purchased the Oasis Travel Center in 1996, previously owning numerous rest stops and various ventures from the Midwest to the Deep South. They made a great team, but in 2000, Jim passed away suddenly. Karen was left with a choice: to survive her loss, or to thrive in his memory.
“Sit anywhere y’all like.” This was a decision indeed. There are tables created to look like you're tailgating off the Grand Canyon. There is an entire school bus with a long bar pulled up to, with flat screens hanging from the windows instead of screaming youngsters. There are four-tops surrounded by bucket seats from lounge cars. The train car wrecked into the side of the rest stop is a full dining car. Our moment of “wow” was discovering that almost every table is a glass top case with historical and antique contents, all surrounding a different theme per table.
If you like antique trains or cars or airplanes, if you're into local history, if you like anything space travel related, if you're a motorcycle buff, if you enjoy old cartoons or toys, if you get a kick out of sports memorabilia, you will find a table that will draw you in.
We made the decision to have breakfast at a table that contained an old oval track with antique matchbox cars lined up like a tiny car show, an antique Chevrolet ad and small cards with “Track Trivia” fun facts.
Our table tent told Karen’s story of losing her husband and choosing to thrive in the wake of her painful loss. She picked herself up and did what she knew she could to make herself smile again. She knew that the most effective way she could make herself feel joyful again was to create an environment for others to feel joy themselves. So she set off on the mission to add wonder and adventure to everyday life. She knew that a great amount of families would come through the rest stop en route to their vacation destination, truckers would pit stop at the Oasis looking for a bit of rest and decompression, businesspeople were going to stop in for a quick home cooked meal, they themselves missing home. If there was anything she could do to put a smile on their faces, she was determined to do just that.
We read through the short story hiding behind the “Hers and His” Harley riding salt and pepper shakers, and were intrigued, so say the very least. Sean chose between salty meats for his breakfast platter, Livi got pumped up for her scrambled eggs and toast, and I had my heart set on blueberry pancakes. We placed our order with our incredibly kind waitress, and proceeded to immediately blurt out all of our questions of Karen and Jim, and where this stuff came from, and how the truck beds hung, and why a massive school bus, and did you know there’s a unicorn behind my chair, and so so many trains! She proudly smiled and was more than happy to humor us. She spoke of Karen lovingly, telling us how many hours she spent searching for the perfect nostalgic items to give homes to in her diner. She described to us the hours and manpower that went in to creating a truck stop decor this epic. We felt so proud to be in that honorable place at that honored moment.
She went on to tell us how proud she was of the diner and how hard Karen had worked on this Rest Stop, and that the theme really meant something to her. It sounded to us like this project was what kept Karen’s spirits up through one of the hardest times in a person’s life, hoping that no one else has to feel the tremendous heartache of losing your partner, though knowing that the anguish is all too common. The project kept her motivated. Her dream kept her company.
In the sharing of this joyous nature that is the Derailed Diner, the holiday season is not without it’s spectacle, which is why I’m sharing this story with you now. The diner is the perfect place to hold a Polar Express recreation event, and they thought so, too. From December 9th through 12th and 16th through 20th, the dining train car is transformed into a scene from the beloved Christmas tale, inside and out. Each child receives a train ticket with a special message of holiday magic. While inside, cookies and hot chocolate are served by singing and dancing attendants while the sugar plum covered kids are taken on a railway journey to the North Pole, just like in the story. I have heard that this free event is something that cannot be missed, but reservations must be made (click here for more info) so that all the twinkle eyed travelers between the ages of 4 and 12 can be accommodated on the magical expedition. Our little lady does not meet the age requirement just yet, so if you do attend, please send us your photos, stories and experience our way! We would be overly appreciative to feature your lovely babes’ smiling faces in a followup to this story.
There is so much that can be done to make a person feel joyous, to feel comfortable, to feel at ease. I think every person that we encountered that morning was well aware of this simple truth. My pancakes were made with love. We knew that the smiles shared between my family and our wonderful waitress were honest and genuine. The joyous shrieks that burst from our daughter’s lungs were made possible because someone somewhere cared to share a little bit more. When your mission is to leave a place better off than you found it, that sentiment is reflected inside of you and every person that catches a glimpse of the light to carry on.
When I encounter opposing emotions, I try with all my might to remind myself that I do not know this person. I only know what they want me to know. I don’t know what they are going through, I do not know where they have been. I have no idea what battles they are fighting or defeats they have faced. I may never see them again. What impact can I make in one simple interaction? I believe that people have the ability to change the world through small and quiet acts of kindness. We may not all have an entire truck stop on hand to build a train in and deck out with little bits of childhood to make people smile, but we each have something. We have something inside of us, something around us, that can be a harbinger for others to feel a little lighter. Holding the door for an extra few seconds isn't going to make the news, and letting someone over in traffic isn't going to be a trending video on Youtube, but you never know where that person is headed. You will never know where they have been.
Do what you can with what you have. Helen Keller, the amazingly talented author, lecturer, and political activist of Tuscumbia, Alabama, in all of her ground breaking for the deaf and blind community, stated so beautifully and honestly, “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.”