Between Sacramento and Redding, Highway 5 cuts through the middle of rice country. Right next to rice fields outside the town of Willows, there’s a restaurant popular with travelers, farmers, truckers.
Before I even step inside Nancy’s Airport Cafe, I see Marty Blaker walk out of the restaurant, through a small gate, and onto the tarmac of the Willows-Glenn County Airport, heading toward a 1965 Cherokee 180 airplane. He’s carrying a tell-tale to-go bag.
“Everybody takes pie,” Blaker says. Then, he reaches in the bag, opens a plastic foam container, and says, “Here’s the treasure. Today it’s a piece of cherry pie, and I will enjoy it later this afternoon.”
He flew in this morning from Rough and Ready, California, a little town outside of Grass Valley. He says places like Nancy’s are a kind of beacon for recreational pilots.
“There’s a thing called a $100 hamburger. What that means is you spend more money getting to the airport than you do on the hamburger itself. These days it costs more than $100,” Blaker says with a laugh.
But it’s all part of having an adventure, he says, sometimes solo, “sometimes there may be a rendezvous of two, four, 18 planes that all coordinate and descend on an airport café, and Nancy’s is a very popular Northern California destination for just such things.”
Blaker says he’s been flying his whole adult life and bought this plane 15 years ago.
“It’s simple, and that’s why I love it,” he says. “It gets me around California. I don’t need fancy.”
Flying, he says, is personal.
“Flying gives a different perspective,” Blaker says. “You see the world in a pretty different way from 2,000 to 10,000 feet above.”
Today, he saw the northern Sacramento Valley totally flooded.
“It’s on purpose,” he says. “All the rice fields have been flooded. Getting here was like flying over a big lake today.”
The Willows-Glenn County Airport is hopping. The three agriculture aviation businesses here have a constant rotation of crop dusters flying in, loading up with soaked rice seed, and taking off to plant those flooded fields from the air.
On the tarmac, I meet Willows resident Greg Michael, who just returned from a morning flight. He lets me into his hangar — a sign outside says “Pilot Cave” — which houses his 1946 J-3 Cub airplane. Inside, the walls are covered with flags, and photos of World War II airplanes, which makes sense given this airport’s history.
“It was pretty hush hush, but Jimmy Doolittle practiced his raids here” and at a couple other nearby airports, Michael says.
That’s World War II pilot Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, who led bombing raids on Tokyo soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“These were big airports for heavy planes, built for military,” Michael says.
Another historic point? This is where aerial firefighting got its start in California.
Nancy’s Aiport Cafe has been a long presence in Michael’s life. He remembers when it was open 24 hours a day.
“I trucked for UPS, and you know where the good places to eat were,” he says. “This place was packed all the time 24-7. Everyone knew about Nancy’s.”
Finally, I get to see for myself. Inside Nancy’s, I meet waitress Tricia Lawson, who’s wearing the same name tag she put on 26 years ago when she first started working here. She points out the photos covering every inch of wall space in the restaurant.
“It’s just a thing here,” she says. “Some people hang hats on the wall. We hang people’s pictures with their airplanes on the wall.”
Pictures, and model planes.
“They actually donate them here, so we can have a piece of their history and a piece of our history,” says Lawson.
We stop by the cold box where Beverly Randolph raves about the cream pies on display.
“They’re delicious,” she says. “The lemon meringue is out of this world.”
She should know. She lives just down the road and Lawson tells me she eats here at least twice a week. I ask Randolph if she’s a pilot, too, and she laughs. “Not anymore. I used to be. I’m too old.” She tells me she’ll be 90 in a few days.
Lawson continues our tour, pointing to the tiny kitchen, where a lanky, laconic cook flies through orders.
“They say never trust a skinny cook, but that is such a lie! Michael is a robot.”
Then she leads me into the back kitchen.
“And this is … Elizabeth!” she announces with a flourish.
Elizabeth Martinez is Nancy’s shy but prolific maker of fruit and cream pies. I ask her how it feels to know that people fly from all over California to eat what she bakes.
“Gratitude … That’s the best pay they can give me.”
Back in the dining room, Tricia Lawson refers to every customer by name. She says “In the first three hours of my shift, I don’t even use a ticket book because I know what they want!”
Lawson says a handful of rice farmers are often at the door before 5:00 a.m., waiting for her to open the door.
“And don’t forget the truck drivers,” she says, to whom Nancy’s offers free coffee. “Give a truck driver free coffee, and he’s good to go.”
Though original owner Nancy Stokes sold the restaurant years ago, customer Colleen Brown says the place hasn’t changed. For 22 years, she and her husband always stopped in on drives between Lassen County and the East Bay.
“He passed away last year, and I’m still coming here,” Brown says.
She says even though they only came once or twice a year, “there were a couple waitresses who, when we walked in the door, they still remembered our names.”
As her husband’s health deteriorated, she started traveling alone.
“They’d always ask, ‘How’s he doing?’” she says. “It’s just like home. Nancy’s is a good spot.”
Brown advises, “Anybody traveling, stop and say, ‘Hi.’”
If you do, maybe take a cue from the regulars: get some pie to go. I took a whole lemon meringue home with me.
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