NASHVILLE — For decades, Ray and Wilma Yoder traveled across the country on a unique quest — to visit every Cracker Barrel Old Country Store in the country.
They ate their favorite meals — meatloaf and pancakes and grilled chicken sandwiches — in the most obscure of places: Duncan, S.C., and Layton, Utah, and Baraboo, Wis.
Along the way, they stopped at national landmarks like the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty, and they visited local wonders like the Opryland Hotel.
They always kept a folded map on which they circled every Cracker Barrel they visited on the road. By 2015, they had visited more than 600.
"A retiree is just that way," says 80-year-old Ray Yoder.
But, as they moved ever closer to Cracker Barrel glory — doing something no one had knowingly ever done before — tragedy struck.
And they almost didn’t make it.
Road trip gone wrong
The journey began four decades ago, when Ray Yoder visited a Cracker Barrel in Nashville. Now Ray and his wife, Wilma, have crossed the country together, traveling an estimated 5 million miles, to visit every Cracker Barrel there is. For the record, that number is 645. Jessica Bliss Road trip gone wrong
Ray and Wilma have been married for 60 years. They have four grown children and have lived on the same small farm in Goshen, Ind., nearly all their lives.
Ray has a grandpa's sense of humor and a warm laugh. He loves being on the road with his wife.
There was no forewarning one April day two years ago when he almost lost her.
The couple was on a road trip. They are always on a road trip. How else could they visit every Cracker Barrel in the country?
Wilma was driving. She started to feel tired and asked Ray to change seats so she could take a break. Just as she pulled into a rest area off a Florida interstate, she had a brain aneurysm and collapsed. She was rushed to Baptist Medical Center in Jacksonville, Fla.
She survived. She recovered. But for more than a year, the Yoders didn’t visit any Cracker Barrels. They weren’t sure if they would ever again.
“She is here by a miracle,” daughter Doris Copenhaver says.
How it all began
The Yoders' journey began nearly 40 years ago in Nashville.
Of course, back then it wasn't their goal to eat at every Cracker Barrel.
Ray's hometown of Goshen is a manufacturing center for recreational vehicles and accessories
His job was to drive RVs across the country, delivering them to dealerships or buyers.
That's how he found himself in Nashville at the Opryland Hotel setting up an RV show and looking for a place to eat.
Cracker Barrel employees pose for a photo with Ray and Wilma Yoder (seated) at the restaurant in Mt. Airy, N.C. in December 2015.
(Photo: Submitted Photo)
The most convenient spot was a Cracker Barrel on Music Valley Drive.
And get this.
"I wasn’t too impressed quite at first," Yoder admits.
He had to go a couple of times to really fall in love. And, obviously, he did.
On the road as much as he was for work — so many unfamiliar backways in so many unfamiliar towns — Cracker Barrel, Ray said, always felt comfortable.
There was one on nearly every roadside, the service was always friendly, and he didn't have to wear a suit and tie. "It fits in with little good-for-nothing farmers," Ray jokes.
"Let me assure you, it didn’t take long before I knew it was my home away from home."
'Why don't we go to them all?'
Ray went it alone at first, while Wilma was home with the kids.
On the road, he would often order one of his favorites: potato casserole, one pancake with blueberry syrup and extra butter and — if he wasn't feeling too weight conscious, sometimes a couple of bacon slices or a sausage patty.
"It's a super start for the day," says Yoder.
As the Yoders children grew older and began to move away, Wilma started joining her husband on the road — and ordering her own Cracker Barrel special.
It wasn't long before Ray had a plan: "I said to my wife, 'We have been to so many. Why don't we go to them all?'"
Ray and Wilma Yoder attend the ribbon cutting ceremony for a store opening in New Albany, Miss., in May 2017.
(Photo: Submitted Photo)
A big surprise
Their children knew Mom and Dad traveled a lot, and they knew their parents liked Cracker Barrel. In fact, they often ate there as a family in Elkhart, Ind., not far from home.
But it wasn't until Ray and Wilma had visited hundreds of Cracker Barrels that the Yoder kids realized what their parents were up to. Their daughter's response?
"Just kind of amazement," Copenhaver says with a chuckle. "It's just kind of like, 'Whoa, they do have really good food, but you want to go to every one?'"
The answer, of course, was yes.
Once she understood, Copenhaver helped track new store openings and printed off all the information her mom and dad needed to get to those, since her parents don't have a computer.
On the road again
The Yoders recently returned to the road now that Wilma is fully recovered. These days, Ray does all the driving.
Long ago, it was RVs. Now, it's the Mercury Marquis or the Ford Fusion.
Ray estimated they have driven nearly 5 million miles.
Monday — as they walked into their very last Cracker Barrel in Tualatin, Ore., outside Portland — they could say they had officially called on all 645 Cracker Barrel locations in 44 states.
Beth Quinn, left, (Cracker Barrel's regional vice president of retail) and Ben Noyes, right, (Cracker Barrel's regional vice president of restaurant) pose with Ray and Wilma Yoder at the store opening in Snellville, Ga., opening in March 2017.
(Photo: Submitted Photo)
On each visit, they sit in the familiar rockers, play the iconic peg game, enjoy a cozy fire and order a cider float. It's not on the menu, but the kitchen will normally make it anyway, Ray says. It's especially good with fall apples.
“Well everybody does something, usually anyway, and we thought we’d do this and it would be fun,” says
Sometimes Ray Yoder tells the server what they are up to — visiting every Cracker Barrel in the country.
"I don’t think they believe me," he says, laughing.
Copenhaver is happy to see her parents hitting their goal.
"I think it keeps them going and keeps them active and keeps them healthy," she says. "It's nice that they can do it together."
Their final trip came courtesy of Cracker Barrel, which is based in Lebanon, Tenn. The company flew the couple out to Oregon from their home in Indiana for the event. And they gave them the royal treatment.
It was a great end to a 40-year, millions-of-miles quest.
Well, at least until a new store opens, that is.
Contributing: Tim Gordon, KGW-TV, Portland, Ore. Follow Jessica Bliss on Twitter: @jlbliss