Road Trips, Pit Stops & Public Employees
In the next couple of days Autumn will officially begin. For most of us, however, Summer ended back on Labor Day, that final day of freedom before kids all over the country had to get up early, stuff their new school supplies into their backpacks and board those big yellow nuisances to all of us who have a daily commute. Anyone with kids, kids, kids is tied to home so, for all but a privileged few, the season of great cross country road trips is at an end.
I am a seasoned cross-country road tripper. I started road like most children of my generation, in the rearward facing back seat of my parent’s Oldsmobile station wagon as the Kreutzer family made our regular pilgrimage from our home in the mist shrouded forests of Western Washington to the vast, sun scorched plains of Eastern Kansas. Five kids, ranging in ages from 4 to 14, and two adults were crammed into the interior of the silver-green machine while our luggage was secured up-top in an old-time wooden roof rack covered under a tightly lashed canvas tarp. A couple of years later, we made the same trip in the back of my father’s newly purchased Chevrolet pick-up, the adults isolated happily up front while we kids rolled about loose in the atop blankets and sleeping bags protected from the elements by an aluminum canopy. Later, when my older siblings were deemed just “too big” to be forced into making the trip, my sister Connie and I shared the back seat of dad’s Delta 88.
I made my first cross country trip behind the wheel around 1990, with my friend John in my Dodge Shadow Turbo, when I drove from my home in Washington State to the Seafarer’s International Union’s School of Seamanship in Piney Point, MD. To this day John will tell you that I am some kind of control freak because, despite his many offers to relieve me, I drove every damn mile of the trip. Despite the fact that I hadn’t ordered cruise control on the car, the little Shadow proved to be a good ride for the cross country trip. With a tall 5th gear it positively loped along the interstate and, thanks to tall comfortable seats, we made the trip in good shape. When my training was done, I made the return trip alone in just under four days.
In 2001 I made virtually the same trip in my 1984 Cutlass when I drove from Washington State to Washington DC, a trip I made at the end of February managing to stay just ahead of a wicked arctic air mass that dogged me all the way across the great Plains, and, after storing the Olds for two years while I was overseas, made a leisurely return trip with my wife. In 2010 I crossed the country yet again in my 300M Special and, if the best laid plans of mice and men work out, expect to make the trip the opposite way in our new Town & Country sometime next summer.
The trip out to Buffalo in the 300M was probably the worst trip I have made. The car itself was great, it was the man in the driver seat that had real trouble and the reason was my as yet undiagnosed Diabetes. The ancient Greeks called Diabetes the disease in which you drink away your arms and legs and extreme thirst is one of the first signs that your blood sugar is out of control. As I understand it, when your body’s own insulin fails to bring your blood sugar down to normal levels, your body reacts by making you drink gallons and gallons of water. The water, in turn, carries away excess sugar in your urine and that sugar makes every trip to the bathroom smell like Lucky Charms.
The big Chrysler and I probably got about the same miles per gallon all the way across the United States. Unfortunately for me, my tank was a lot smaller than the 300’s and I ended up stopping at damn near every rest area on Interstate 90 as I made my way out from the west Coast. For the most part, I am pleased to report that the vast majority of rest areas along my chosen route were perfectly serviceable facilities and I feel nothing but gratitude for the men and women of the State Highway Departments that maintain them. One state, however, has rest stops that are head and shoulders above the rest. Are you ready for it? That state is South Dakota.
Rest areas in the State of South Dakota are beautifully maintained facilities. Their grounds are always impeccable, my own yard should look as good, and inside the restrooms are always sparkling clean. In their lobbies, many of the buildings have computerized informational kiosks and interactive geographic and historic displays that make them seem more like museums than public restrooms. Larger Information Centers are actually manned by staff who can help plan side trips and point out special attractions along your route and feature much appreciated extra amenities like pet exercise areas and places where RVs can empty their septic tanks. Having had the opportunity to visit almost every one of them, I think I can say with some certainty that they are consistently the best in the United States and I think it is important to note that Interstate 90 through that part of the country is not a toll road. These services are provided at no cost to Interstate travelers by the people of South Dakota.
In these still somewhat austere economic times, a lot of the services provided by federal, state and local governments have fallen by the wayside. We hear every day about poor service, bureaucratic nonsense, deteriorating infrastructure, new taxes and new forms of revenue generation so it’s nice to be able to report on something good for a change. That’s the discussion I would like to engender here today. Earlier this week we all had a chance to tell our stories about the times public employees have been less than helpful or about how our government has given us the runaround. Today, if you dare, let’s talk about the times they have got it right. Sure, it’s more fun to complain but somewhere, some public sector employee is fighting the good fight. It’s time they got a pat on the back. If you don’t like that, just to keep it classy, tell us about the best place to take a roadside dump.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.
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Must be a family thing, Thom? When I drove your car back from Arizona I also would not let Toni take the wheel. I countered that if something happened and we wrecked the car- I wanted it to be on my watch. But the truth is I never let my husband or anyone else behind the wheel. Just back from the long loop, leaving Washington state to Yellowstone (through Montana) and back up through Idaho to visit Craters of the Moon, I drove the entire way. I'm not sure if it's about control or family tradition? My drivers side window got stuck in the down position and I had that same burned, left arm that dad always had when we arrived back home.
I just experienced South Dakota for the first time this summer and what surprised me was not that there were a couple of nice rest areas, but they were *uniformly* nice. I grew up being schlepped along the I-80 corridor from northern Illinois to western Iowa for family gatherings and the rest areas back in the '80s were pretty awful -- although Iowa has been on a 20 year quest to upgrade and the new ones are good. Historically though my best rest stop experience was just after college graduation when I flew to St. Augustine, Florida to pick up the '96 Buick Regal which was my graduation present and drove it home. I wound up hanging with a convoy of speeding trucks flying up I-24 up from Nashville until I thought my eyeballs were going to float away when we crossed into Kentucky and I saw the signs for the rest area at mm 93. That place was amazing, the stalls were private and roomy. Easily the most comfortable I'd been in to that time.