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.