The Chocolate Factory


I have always had the travel bug in me.  When I was a senior in high school I traveled to Costa Rica with a few kids in my spanish class, when I was a sophomore in college I raised money to take a trip to Peru, and the summer after I graduated college I entered a Travelocity contest to win a free trip around the world (which I lost).

That same summer my boyfriend Mike and I decided to take a road trip cross country.  We had just graduated college and the whole world was our oyster.  We packed up his car to the brim; with a camping tent, sleeping bags, pots, pans, toilet paper, hand sanitizer– our plan was to rough it.

Our first stop was Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois.  Neither of us had much camping experience but, I mean, how hard could it be?

We pulled into a heavily wooded area, where the trees were so close together and so tall, you felt like you were inside a giant log cabin. The sun was setting and there seemed to be no one around for miles.

We pooled together the $12 camping fee and dropped it into a little wooden box.  Next to the box was a laminated “No Campfires” sign, including clip art of a blazing fire with a big “NO” symbol on top of it.  We panicked, since we had planned on cooking our food that night. Going out was not really an option unless we wanted to go another 20 miles in any which direction.  And after 13 hours in the car, we really didn’t want to do that.  While we were debating what do to, a ranger pulled up behind us in a clunky golf cart.


We tiredly squeaked hello and desperately explained to him our campfire dilemma.  He raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“Y’all staying out here tonight?”

We nodded.  He commended us for our bravery.  “I wouldn’t stay out in this heat, shoot! Good for y’all.”

Sitting in our air-conditioned car we smiled and nodded bravely, having no idea what we were in for.

He ended up allowing us a campfire, just for the night, because it had rained earlier that day so the chances of a forest fire were slim(mer).

Thus begun setting up camp and starting to cook.  After melting the lining of the pot, spilling bean juice near our tent (bears don’t like bean juice though, do they?), and burning our hands on the pan handle, we had finished our humble meal of beans and spaghetti.  We sat next to our dim Target lantern and batted away mosquitos; every now and then taking a break to eat.  Ah, this was the life.

The next morning we explored the town of Muddy, which was literally as big as my wingspan.  It included a church that was closed and a thrift store that was open but had no one working there.  We spent the day driving around the nothingness, eating Mexican food, and bird watching.  We didn’t see any cool birds, but the Mexican food was pretty good.

Soon, it was back to camp for “Making Dinner Over the Fire: Part II”, which was much smoother than Part I.  But the weather was hot and humid, and standing close to the fire to supervise the food made us sweat like pigs.  I think a few drops of my sweat fell into the rice, but I chose to let this go unknown.  It probably added some flavor anyways.

After we ate, Mike left camp and hiked down to the spigot to start washing the dishes.  I started clearing things away.  Suddenly, I saw a bright beam of light flash through the trees.  It was moving.

In a matter of seconds I realized it was a park ranger on his golf cart, the chugchugchug of the motor steadily going up the road.  I tensed up, thinking we were going to get in trouble for having the campfire a second night.

The bright beam stopped moving right in front of our clearing, and the chugchugchug was cut off mid-chug.  There was a smaller, but still strong beam of light shining in my face.  The ranger was walking towards me with his high-powered flashlight. It was the same guy we had talked to yesterday.

“See you’s decided to stay another day,” he said, looking directly at the fire.

“Oh, yeah,” I nervously answered, blinded by the flashlight and sweating balls from the fire.  “We put more money in the box though.”

“Noticed that.”


“Yeah, it’s uh, really nice here,” I said, “we’ve been enjoying it.”

(And I use the word “enjoy” loosely, since I don’t really “enjoy” sleeping outside in 103º weather and realizing Walmart is the only reason there’s any civilization here at all).

“Yeahhh, well, it’s a cute little town,” the ranger boasted, gazing hypnotically into our illegal blaze. Another pregnant moment of silence.

“I actually came down here ‘cause I wanted to tell you guys about a little place we have ‘round here.” He paused again, maybe for dramatic effect.

“It’s called ‘The Chocolate Factory.’” He smiled widely.

“Oh… wow!” I said, still smiling and nodding furiously, sweat dripping into my eyes, and rolling off the tip of my nose.  “What is it?”

“It’s a little shop, a little… chocolate shop, you know.” I knew.

“They sell all sorts of fancy chocolates, in all sorts of shapes and colors and all that. It’s…” He was lost for words.  “It’s really quite a sight.”

“Oh cool!” I exclaimed, possibly a bit too excitedly.  It sounded a lot like the chocolate shop by my house in Buffalo.  “We’ll definitely have to stop by!”

He gave us directions, but we were headed to New Orleans early the next morning so it was doubtful we’d actually stop by.

“Well, that’s that!  Certainly hope you find it nice,” the ranger said.  “You two have a good night now.”  And with that, he turned his beam away from us and our fire, walked back to his cart, and chugchugchugged away.

What a nice guy.

We settled into our tent-shaped sauna and tried to sleep as best we could on the bumpy floor.  The next morning our cell phone alarms woke us up at 5 am (how did they do it in the old days?). Five minutes onto the road I voiced, “What if we tried to stop by The Chocolate Factory before we leave here and never come back?”

Fortunately, Mike remembered all the directions; lefts at the silos, rights at the cow farms.  But we still somehow ended up lost.  Turns out there’s a lot more silos and cow farms than we thought.  Thankfully there was a construction crew out early so we drove up slowly.

“Any of you know where The Chocolate Factory is?” I yelled out the window.

One of the construction workers stopped what he was doing; his lips curled into a knowing smile.  “Ah, The Chocolate Factory, huh? You folks are gonna wanna turn right around here, and go a few miles down that way.”  He nodded his head, still smiling, like we had this secret between us.

So, we did a U-turn and barreled down the open road, now determined to make it to this enigma of a place.  We drove and drove, nothing on either side of us but long grasses and farmland.  Soon, on our left, we saw a rickety, faded billboard advertising The Chocolate Factory just miles ahead.  We were almost there!

At this point, it probably wasn’t even 8am.  “I doubt it’s open,” I said, assuming a place that sells chocolate in the middle of nowhere doesn’t keep early hours.  “Yeah, but we’ll just see what it looks like. I mean, we’re almost there.”

Minutes later, we pull into the parking lot of a wooden ranch house. There was a wood cut out of a Pillsbury Doughboy-esque looking character with a sign reading, The Chocolate Factory. We made it!

We opened the door and walked in to an adorably quaint little shop.  There was a group of portly older men all huddled around a small round table, drinking coffee and mumbling inaudible things.  None of them turned around, and I don’t think I saw any of their faces for the whole time we were there.  But their mumble could constantly be heard, like a loud air conditioner or a chronically draining sink.

A man with an apron and short silver hair welcomed us in with a toothy smile.

“Mornin’ folks! Welcome to The Chocolate Factory.”

It all seemed too good to be true.  We were surrounded by chocolates;  from notable cartoon characters, to cars and trains, to bacon and eggs, to chocolate sushi.  They had chocolate in all colors, from green to blue to pink.  I felt like a kid in a candy store, which… I was.

The man in the apron showed us around the store and “behind the scenes” where all the chocolate gets made.  We talked about life aspirations, entrepreneurship, and adventure.  We learned how he and his wife met, her dreams of starting the business, and their small town mentality.  In the end we bought $21.76 worth of chocolate, a price roughly equivalent to our two nights at the campground.  We snacked on the chocolates all the way to New Orleans and then preceded to forget them in the car that night.  Tragically but not surprisingly, we awoke the next morning to find brown puddles in ziploc bags.  If only we had strawberries and mini belgian waffles for dipping.

My trip to the Chocolate Factory was one of those surreal experiences that feels like it should’ve happened on The Twilight Zone.  Mike and I joked that if we were to ever go back, the shop wouldn’t actually be there.  But even if it wasn’t, I was reminded that the world is so full of unique and interesting people.  People who will voluntarily cart out in 103º heat to make friends with complete strangers.  People who dream of making chocolate sushi in the middle of nowhere.  People who open thrift shops in Muddy.

I used to satisfy cultural cravings and adventure by traveling to other countries. But on this trip I found that sometimes, if you drive far enough out into the dry, uninhabited back country, you’ll find some of the sweetest things.


(To read more about Emily, click here.)