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There are travelers who feed a passion for retracing great steps by seeking out and beholding the places where Stonewall Jackson fought or Amelia Earhart landed or Lewis and Clark bivouacked.

Itinerant, retired Midwesterners Ben and Barb Stillwagon go where Guy Fieri ate.

In three years, the Stillwagons have dined at 249 of the mom-and-pop restaurants featured by Santa Rosa resident Fieri on his hugely popular Food Network TV show, "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives."

On Wednesday, Ben and Barb, both former blue-collar workers who happened to be born within about a hour of each other in August of 1944, visited hallowed ground.

The longtime residents of Springfield, Ill, parked their Mercury outside the 250th stop on their down-home epicurean odyssey — the Johnny Garlic's in Santa Rosa, birthplace of the Fieri phenomenon.

They were greeted and fed, over-the-top generously, by Fieri, the Midas-touch superstar who was a flicker in the galaxy of Sonoma County restaurateurs until he followed a whim to enter the Next Food Network Star competition in 2005.

Dressed as usual in shorts with his sunglasses suspended above his eyes, Fieri recalled to his special guests that in fall of 1996 he and partner Steve Gruber played carpenter to remake the former Baggio Restaurant and Big John's Chicken into their first restaurant, Johnny Garlic's.

Pointing to the couple's right, he said, "I used to sleep in that booth right there."

The Stillwagons ate up their exclusive encounter with Fieri, reliving memories of the road and the plate as they showed him their five albums of memorabilia from "Triple-D," as fans refer to Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.

Here were Ben and Barb's mementoes from one of the couple's favorite spots, Darwell's Caf?in Long Beach, Miss. Fieri spotted them and jumped back, rubbing a forearm as he recalled how Darwell's became a free, disaster feeding station for neighbors ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

"It gives me goosebumps," he said.

Spotting the scrapbook entry for Sweetie Pie's in St. Louis, he declared to the Stillwagons, "Was that buffet the bomb, or what?!"

In time, the famously spike-haired and engaging celebrity showed the couple to a table and his staff loaded it up: garlic onion tortilla soup, Johnny Garlic's Caesar salad, coconut shrimp, Ahi Won Tacos, cajun chicken fettuccine.

Between bites, Ben Stillwagon recalled how he and his wife of 44 years got on to their Triple-D quest.

He was flipping TV channels in 2008 and came upon Fieri touting the three-pounders at Hillbilly Hot Dogs in Lesage, W. Virginia. "I half-jokingly said, &‘Barb, we've got to go there; I want one of those hot dogs.'"

They took that first in-Fieri's-footsteps road trip to West Virginia, and a crusade was born. Ben and Barb pack up and strike out, generally for a week or two, and each day hit one to four of the approximately 450 independent eateries across America at which Fieri has hobnobbed with cooks, polled patrons and pounded down the oftentimes gut-bulging delicacies.

Ben admitted that the journeys tend to put weight on him and he needs to deal with that. He grimaced slightly when Barb noted, "We went and bought a new treadmill."

Both agreed that their travels along the Fieri trail haven't been just about TV-touted diners and the food they serve, but about seeing America and having cause to visit far-flung kin and friends.

"It's been a reason for us to travel," Ben said. He added that one interesting insight has been how the national, repeat-airing exposure from Fieri's show has saved restaurants that previously struggled, allowed others to expand and caused some that were already popular to get accustomed to telling folks the wait will now be longer.

"Pretty much, he has tripled everybody's business," Ben said.

This California trip has been his and Barb's longest. They'll have been on the go for two months when they arrive back in Illinois on about the 21st of October.

Ben acknowledged, as he set down his fork and wrapped up his 250th Triple-D meal, that they've got a fair amount of Fieri-inspired eating to do before then.

"We'll be at 325 when we get home," he pledged.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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