Microcosm of a Truck Stop
I think I will add “visit a truck stop” to my list of recommendations to people coming to travel the US and want to see the “real stuff.” In the travel world this idea of “authenticity” comes up often. The idea of wanting to see the locals in their natural habitat and how they really live. If you want to see the rural southerners in their natural habitat a truck stop is a great place for it.
For those of you who have no sense of what the American South looks like and what a truck stop even is here, let me explain. The US is enormous and is spanned by a network of highways. These shimmering ribbons of asphalt are filled with equally shimmering strings of trucks. There are trains and planes, but most of the goods in the US are transported by truck at least part of the way from their source to their destination. All of these trucks need drivers and they often drive very(!) long distances.
Truck stops are part gas station part rest stop and often even part hotel. Usually where two highways cross just off the exit ramp is where you find them. Ok, I grant that there are trucks in Europe so there very well could be truck stops, but really the one we went to the other day here in rural Georgia was wild. I lived in the South and traveled back and forth many years before moving abroad, so this shouldn’t affect me so much, but it did.
Here are some sights you might be missing if you skip the rural truck stop:
- Running a contest for best showers on the highway. Not that having public showers is necessarily so odd. They are in most big train stations here and I was SO thankful for them in the ports in Greece, but there is something very American about running a contest for the best ones.
- Employees that do not seem to have an clue about hygiene or their own jobs. Even when their job is to push a button on a computer screen. I had to go back and ask her a second time to press the proper button, because the pump was broken.
- Entire aisles dedicated to dried meat. Additional aisles for every candy imaginable in various sizes from King to Double to Mega. The bin marked “everything here is 25 cents” had all the smaller sizes and seemed ignored. Any sort of heavily sweetened, fried or dried food you could imagine was there.
- The beer case was filled with cans of American beer. No imports here. Really no selection at all. The entire fridge was filled with the same brand in white and blue cans just packed in groups from 6 to 32.
- The soda case is a wonder of math, all permutations present. Both coke and pepsi and their entire range. Flavors I didn’t even see for sale in the grocery store are here offered in multiple sizes starting with 20oz (more than a pint) and going up from there.
- The rack of bananas on the way from the gas station/convenience store part toward the McDonalds. Maybe they figure anyone heading to the McDs was looking for healthy food so maybe would buy a banana. Add to this the idea that this place WAS half gasstation/convenience store and half McDonalds. I admit though that having a hot meal is nice and probably ironically better than the lanes of snacks.
- While waiting, I watched a guy the size of a small blimp futz about in his van. I could see a head of white hair in the passenger seat. The guy put a foldable wheelchair into the back of the van and threw away a few empty slushy cups. He then came back and closed all the doors on the van. This took several minutes in his languid movement through the heat all done with a cigarette hanging near vertical out of his mouth.
- Girl with enormous yellow fluffy shoes walking around. Seriously as if Big Bird made slippers.
So if you are driving around the US and want an authentic local experience pull off the highway. Pick an exit that is labeled with the crossing highway and not necessarily a town. Park in the shade of the pump and look toward the building. Across the hot asphalt and beyond the guy smoking in the back of a beat up old pickup truck is a place for that experience. Go in, look around. This is authentic day to day reality.
Although I normally write about Germany and living as an expat there, I just got back from a big trip back to the US. So there will be a number of articles about seeing the home country with the eyes of an expat. This is one of those articles and they will all be tagged with repat.
July 17, 2011 @ 4:39 pm
I love reading your impressions of America! Your second paragraph is so eloquent. And the bit about an entire aisle being dedicated to dried meat is hilarious. I’ll be interested to see what strikes me as remarkable when I finally return home.
July 24, 2011 @ 4:36 pm
Thanks. I will write more about that trip at some point. Back in Europe and likely do some more current things interspersed. Definitely interested in seeing your opinion of going home. It was wacky for me.
July 10, 2011 @ 3:28 pm
The TA travel centers are the absolute best. They have auto part sections, food, clothing, showers, fast food sections, sit-down dining sections – they have IT ALL! When we’re going from NC to PA (and back again), we always aim for the TA truck stops!
July 16, 2011 @ 10:54 am
I don’t know any of the chains. This was a Pilot I think. It was perfectly fine and at the time I was driving around the US, I would not have thought about it. Just being away so long it was an experience to be in one again.
July 6, 2011 @ 7:50 pm
There may not be a lot of people that can relate to this post. However, you can consider me one of those who understands what you are talking about! 🙂
July 16, 2011 @ 10:54 am
Thanks Jeremy. There must be truck stops in California as well, right?
July 6, 2011 @ 6:17 pm
So true 🙂 And I love that you can always see locals doing some shopping in the smaller truck stops in the rural areas. I guess it’s what you do if you live in a town of 5 people 🙂
July 16, 2011 @ 10:55 am
It reminds me a bit of your Country Fried Chicken post. The rural culture in the US is so much different than that of the big cities. I guess that is true the world over, but it seems somewhat stark there.
July 6, 2011 @ 4:25 pm
I wouldn’t have thought to highlight a truck stop — the things you take for granted as being new to someone else! I stopped at my fair share on the Oz road trip and loved that we could grab a $3 shower at the more remote stops. When friends from London have come to visit, they can’t wait to go to Walmart and enjoy walking up and down each aisle — just like I do in grocery stores overseas O:-)
July 16, 2011 @ 10:59 am
I think of it as seeing old things with new eyes. And seriously, going to a 24 hour Walmart at 2am is a great thing.
Although I have taken showers at the ports in Greece, somehow the idea of stripping down at a truck stop to shower is odd. I guess there is enough space to keep clothes dry? Do they usually offer towels as well, or strictly BYOT?
July 6, 2011 @ 9:21 am
Great post! The intricate and expansive highway system of the U.S. truly is a sight to behold. One thing you forgot though is the entire fridge dedicated to energy drinks, lol.
July 16, 2011 @ 10:56 am
Indeed, the fridge of chemical drinks. Ugh, of course how else would someone be able to drive across the US in 3 days?
July 4, 2011 @ 4:53 am
Aww – I love truck stops. If you find a good one they will have a cafe attached with some of the best chicken fried steaks of your life!
July 4, 2011 @ 7:59 pm
Mmm fried stuff.
July 4, 2011 @ 3:53 am
Absolutely loved calling into truck stops when did our Route 66 road trip many years ago – Australia is dotted with them too – but love the old diner-style of truck stop. I would not call McDonalds a truck stop, even if it adjoined to a gas station – you’ll find them all over the world.
July 4, 2011 @ 7:58 pm
This truck stop had a number of pieces, a McDonalds being one of them. Pretty much all the gas stations and truck stops have fast food franchises in them now. Subway started it and was quickly followed by all the chains to one degree or another. These truck stops are modern not traditional or cute. This is part of what makes them an interesting thing. If you stop at one outside of Georgia and then one in the middle of nowhere in North Carolina off a highway, they are likely to be the same. Perhaps down to the patrons. This samness is part of the culture aspect of it. National chains and brands at the local level.
Ooo diner style sounds interesting.
July 4, 2011 @ 1:34 am
I think you were actually pretty polite about this particular truck stop. It’s definitely a good way to see authentic US culture, just not the culture we really want the rest of the world to see. What I also find sometimes baffling is how something like this trashy truck stop can be just a few miles from really nice, wealthy neighborhoods. Well, and also goats and chickens and such. Hmm….
July 4, 2011 @ 7:54 pm
I guess you are right about being polite, I was trying not to be totally sarcastic. It really was a classic grotty yet shiny place. The selection of unhealthy shit was amazing and vast. I do hope customer number 21 enjoyed shower number 3.