MIDWAY — For those traveling west on Interstate 70, and having just breached the outer limits of Columbia, the Midway Travel Plaza shines bright in the cold February night before motorists plunge into the Missouri River valley and the dark expanse between the college town and Kansas City.
Like the Western trader stations and outposts where dusty wanderers would leave their weapons and traders would stock up on their way in and out of town, the Midway Travel Plaza embodies the spirit of the American travel experience.
With a restaurant, laundromat, boot shop and lounge, it is more like a town than a filling station. And the “town” is better appreciated after sunset, when the day’s concerns give way to the evening’s pleasures. When the Back Door Lounge upstairs turns on its neon beer signs, the country music starts blaring and the dance floor becomes a stable of commotion.
No one will ever accuse the Back Door Lounge of putting on airs.
Beyond the reach of Columbia’s ban on smoking, the air is a thick fog of tobacco smoke made colorful by red and blue light radiating from numerous neon signs spelling out "Busch" and "Miller Time."
The bar is full of cowboy-hat- and denim-clad folks drinking bottled beer under a handwritten sign advertising the night’s special: $1 cherry Jell-O shots. If this were New York, it could be mistaken for a costume party, but it is not. This is Midway, and it is authentic.
After the jukebox gets a workout playing old country music standbys, a band of local boys take the stage. Immediately, the smoky air is pulsating with versions of Johnny Cash and Randy Travis.
Couples and cowboys alike rush to the dance floor.
Suddenly, the truck stop lounge is a vivacious roadhouse of stomping boots and hoots of pleasure. There's no place they'd rather be than upstairs at the honky-tonk west of town off the highway.