As someone who enjoys long road trips (perfectly fine if they’re solitary), I can never get enough of the small, often amusing telltale indicators of the cultural composition that distinguishes a place. The visual shibboleths, if you will. Venturing across Interstate 70, one of the oldest, longest, and most heavily traveled segments of the original Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways (yep, that’s the full name), it’s impossible to go more than a few miles without stumbling upon some deeply local curiosity. And it shows from my own blogging history here at American Dirt: of the ten states that I-70 stretches across, four of them (Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maryland) are also among the ten states I have featured the most frequently through over 700 articles/posts. In the grand scheme of things, I imagine I’ve traveled I-65 a bit more than I-70; the Indianapolis-to-Louisville segment was a staple of childhood, while the Indianapolis-to-Chicago segment was the standard during college years. But I-70 is a close runner-up; the keywords “I-70” and “Interstate 70” feature in fifteen articles total.
Stretching over 2,000 miles and linking seven metropolitan areas with well over one million people, I-70 is a hub of the trucking industry. This should come as no surprise. Some of the leaders in truck-based shipping—J.B. Hunt, Werner Enterprises, Landstar System, Schneider National—these are not necessarily brand names that the layperson knows well, and yet they likely conjure reasonably accurate images of a logo if one thinks back to times on the American open road. If someone flashes an image of the bold lettering for J.B. Hunt or the warped Werner text emblazoned on the side of a tractor trailer, a coherent understanding of a major freight company is likely to come to mind. (Coming from Indianapolis, the iconic logo I remember growing up was American Red Ball, though it’s more of a household moving company that also offers specials on corporate relocation. But it still uses tractor trailers with an unmistakable emblem.)
Traveling along I-70 not so long ago, then leaving the highway at a rural exit, I came across a different kind of red ball.
Sure, most Westerners find Indian cooking a bit on the spicy side. But did the owners at Tiffin Indian and American Restaurant and Bar (with a postal address in Cambridge City, about 55 miles east of Indianapolis) really need to use an explosive device to convey the capsaicin quotient in their cuisine? (And yes, curry owes its spice current to peppers.) Or is it hinting at something else? Here’s another view:
Does it evoke another enterprise? We witness the one-room shed archetype, the absence of windows, and of course that big red bomb. A view from the street offers some insight.
Check out that big red sign: Boom City Fireworks. It’s a remnant from the tenant that used to occupy this big white shed, right along with (we can presume) that cherry bomb. Long gone, but the sign remains.
Fireworks retailers are abundant in Indiana; much like Pennsylvania, the state capitalizes on its comparatively lax regulations and can make a killing if a vendor is close proximity to the boundary of a state where restrictions are considerable, like Illinois. Cambridge City is nowhere close to the Illinois border, and the Ohio (20 miles further to the east on I-70) isn’t much more restrictive than Indiana. So Tiffin Indian and American Restaurant and Bar claimed the vacant fireworks structure, then determined that removal of the big sign out front wasn’t worth the cost. And why not keep the bomb?
Of course, to the unacquainted, or even for those whoknow east-central Indiana well, the question lingers: how can an Indian restaurant support itself along rural I-70? Is there a large Indian community nearby? Yes and no. Much as Korean-Americans have secured an unusually stable footing in the dry cleaning industry, or Greek-Americans have made a disproportionate splash among 24-hour diners, Indians—particularly Punjabi Indians of the Sikh faith—are prevalent in trucking and logistics. About a decade ago, I noted the sizable Sikh community on the south side of Indianapolis, drawn to the area due to the high number of warehousing jobs and the thriving trucking industry, a condition no doubt abetted by the convergence of four interstate highways in the city, of which I-70 is serves as the prime east-west axis. Greenwood, Indiana (the first suburb to the south of Indy) may not exactly be Little Chandigarh, but it supports a reasonable number of Indian-owned establishments. Many Sikh Americans moved to the Midwest (and metro Indianapolis in particular) from California, seeking a reprieve from the West Coast state’s high home prices, while the trucking business remained lucrative; just as many of these Sikh truckers operate their own rigs as work for the big companies. Indian truck stops punctuate the I-70 corridor passing through Indiana, supporting the hospitality needs and the palates of this community, thriving amidst minimal media coverage.
It’s impossible to determine at this point if the Punjabi and Sikh trucking industry will grow outside of a niche. But “niche” may be a pejorative at this point; they’re a large enough contingent that anyone in trucking is aware of their presence. They trend a bit younger than the non-Sikh trucker, whose median age is 55. The mega-companies have considerably greater capital and a greater geographic breadth, but their shipping prices are inevitably higher than the small-time entrepreneurs who own and operate their own rigs. Roadside Indian restaurants are certainly more prevalent than they were twenty years ago, and Sikh proprietors have on occasion snatched up the truck stops that go vacant, yielding few changes beyond the smells that come from the kitchen. With the public’s increasing fondness for online shopping and postal delivery, the logistics industry has flourished at least in terms of warehousing and staging, Amazon and beyond. The growing likelihood of autonomous driving may complicate the future of trucking itself, at least in terms of its labor pool. Bearing this in mind, it remains to be seen if we should anticipate a future of Indian restaurants replacing empty fireworks retailers, or other roadside curiosities for that matter. But the next time The Ramones (or a Ramones cover band) are looking to have something to do while on the lonely open highway during a tour, they just might be able to find a place to get their fix of chicken vindaloo. Just be on the lookout for the closest red dot.