The road is full of questions, mysteries. Why are three-digit Interstates that start with even numbers loops, the ones with odd numbers spurs, and why can't they ever follow their own rules about that? What does
"certified business location" mean? Jackie Robinson, Christopher Reeve, Michael J. Fox... Shrek?
And whatever happened to those topless cafes, anyway?
For the average American interstate traveler, nothing is quite as mysterious as the truck stop. As the miles tick by, they loom in windshields and fade in rearviews, banks of white trailers laid out like piano keys... or perhaps they more closely resemble menacing teeth, warning those with only four wheels to stay far, far away. Few roadside attractions seem as unwelcoming or unfriendly, and none have reputations like they do -- seedy nicotine-scented havens of spilled beer, piss-flooded toilets and tawdry, clammy "lot lizard" sex.
This is the fifth and final installment of this sprawling series
, in which we lay out the blueprints for making your very own Mid-Majority, for keeping this flame alive when we're gone. It's the most important step to follow if you want to live on the road for months at a time, following small-college basketball where it leads. This is where we unlock the secrets of truck stop life.
I've written before about how I discovered this hidden world. In March 2005 (the end of "Season 0"), during NCAA first/second round weekend in Kansas City, I stopped in at a TravelCenters of America (known more generally as "TA") outside Kansas City for gas and was blown away by the facilities. This TA thing had it all! There were bathrooms, showers, washers and dryers, wireless internet access, a fully-stocked store with food and travel accessories, and even a potential place to sleep: the well-lit parking lot, surrounded by security cameras. I knew I'd stumbled on something, something big
. It wasn't until The Mid-Majority officially began the next season that I followed up and learned more.
But one thing I quickly learned was that all truck stops are not created equal. There are, as I call them, evil truck stops.
These are the places that ruin it for all truck stops, that give the entire genre a bad name. Watch out for any establishment with a male first name (Willie's, Jack's), and keep clear of any of those that add an adjective (Hillbilly Willie's, 18-Wheel Jack's). You can expect exactly what you expect: scum-covered bathrooms, graffiti everywhere, and a general mistrust of anybody wearing clean clothes.
Evil truck stops tend to be one-offs, single entries in doomed lines. There are chains that are sketchy as well, like the inconsistent national Petro, and the alarmingly gross Mr. Waffle, a series found in the Carolinas that are built around Waffle House ripoffs that will put hair in your eggs, your pancakes and your coffee.
But it's easy to simply pass by these scum-encrusted havens of travel hell. The rules to remember are so easy, you only need four fingers on your hand. When we're on the road, we swear by the Big Four
: TA, Love's, Pilot and Flying J. If there's a potential security problem, they'll notify you about it, in excruciating detail.
At any of these places, there's laundry
. Whether you're on the road for weeks and months at a time because your hauling loads coast-to-coast for J.B. Hunt or just hunting for the next at-large mid-major, you need to keep your clothes clean. Staying in hotels won't help you there. The laundry service is next-day or non-existent, and you can rarely tell if a location has coin-op machines... it's not something that's usually listed in the amenities. But at a good truck stop, there are always washers and dryers at your disposal, and if you don't pack your own laundry soap, it's available in the store. And it's just as safe as any laundromat; as long as you stay close by and keep an eye on the machines, nobody's going to steal your stuff.
Another great thing is the availability of showers
. In most places, you buy a ticket at the desk for 10 bucks or so, and that gets you a five-digit code that will unlock the stall they assign you to. I don't take as many truck stop showers as I used to, but if you leave somewhere at 5 a.m., drive all day, then have a 7 p.m. tip, you're going to get stank. So you can drop in, wash up, get your suit on, and arrive at the game fresh. And any good truck stop doesn't worry about that "green team" low-flo crap like the hotels do. You will get every single penny's worth of water pressure you paid for, and getting a scalding-hot firehose turned on you is an experience and a half. Good morning,
Doctor's orders state that I can't do this anymore ('cause of "carbon mo"), but you can still sleep
in your car in a Big Four parking lot and maintain some sense of quietude and dignity. It's soft, safe, well-lit, and nobody's going to come bother you. Eight hours? Sure. Quick three-hour nap? Those are possible too. You can wake up refreshed, go inside and take a shower, and get back out on your way for about a quarter of the lodging and services costs of a hotel. Just like the truckers do it.
And then there's the sex
. Well, a complete lack of it anyway. There might be a line of prostitutes near the diesel pump at Hillbilly Willie's (we wouldn't know), but at a modern travel center, the only women you'll find are behind the counter -- and most of those are over 55. I can honestly say that in five years of truck stop living, I was never lured into johnhood, not once. But there was this one time in a Flying J lot in Florida last year. I was sitting in the parking lot with my hands in my lap making pulling motions, and a big black dude in an old green Ford Explorer came by. He tried to make eye contact with me, making some hand gestures, too. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that he was putting his fist in the vicinity of his mouth -- some kind of signal for something. I ignored him until he drove away.
I was busy sewing the arms on a Bally.
The fifth and most important attribute of modern truck stops is wireless internet access
. We used to try to steal wifi from hotels until they all got wise and put passwords on their systems. Any travel center worth anything offers access for free or no charge, and that's because all truckers love to check their MySpace pages. Whenever the wifi goes down, there's a line of dudes at the fuel desk, and they're all angry.
Except at the TA's
, I've noticed. The wifi hardly works correctly at any of those places, and a lot of other things don't work either. Ever since Hospitality Partners took over the chain two years ago,
TA went from the favorite truck stop of TMM to the fourth on the list. The new owners aren't putting too much money into the locations, and they're falling into disrepair. When we used TA exclusively through Seasons 1 through 3, it was out of loyalty. Their RoadMile marker machines make it so you can buy a shower without talking to a person (just put a ten-dollar bill in the slot), and there are a lot of them -- over 150 in total. We just never stop there anymore, unless there's no other choice.
We had a thing for Love's
for a while, but that was mostly because they had a lot of mid-major gear in their shops, a side benefit of some agreement with Steve & Barry's to dump unwanted college merchandise. But S&B's is out of business now, and Love's is left as a garishly-lit neon jungle with sometimes-working wifi, nine-dollar showers and an adjoining restaurant (usually an Arby's or a McDonald's). We like how they always scream, "Welcome to Love's!!"
when you walk in, but the thrill is gone.
(Those were Bush-era gas prices; these folks aren't really that bad.)
There was never a thrill at all with the red-and-yellow Pilot
locations; there are over 250 of them around the country, and it's easy to just drive by them without noticing they're there. They have showers and laundry, but the parking lots are small, the shops are tiny and cramped, and the prices are high. It's like the 7-11 of truck stops.
The best truck stops, the creme of travel centers, has to be Flying J.
When we see that big square sign with the orange stripes in the distance, with the LED sign offering segmented messages, there's a heart-skip and a feeling of eager expectation. Mostly because we know exactly what to expect; every Flying J is pretty much the same awesome Flying J, and it's an oasis of assurance on an often-random road. Flying J is owned by the Mormons, so everything is beehive-uniform, from the Cookery restaurant to the layout of the store.
There's always a big sign in front of the driver's lounge (where the big-screen TV, showers and laundry facilities are) that says, "Professional Drivers ONLY," but that's just to scare off losers. Just walk in like you own the place, because you do. Sit down and watch some TV with the boys; the channel will be stuck on TNT, just like it is at every Flying J (and that's why I've seen every episode of "Burn Notice"). And best of all, there are booths where you can take your computer out and get some work done.
Which is what I'm doing now, at a Flying J in Wytheville, Virginia
. I'm going to go get my laundry out of the dryer, close out of the cheap wifi, and get back on the northbound road. But I'll leave a large cup of Flying Java for you (with some peppermint "cappucino" mixed in... you know, for the holidays), along with a shower coupon at the fuel desk. Don't be shy about accepting them; out here, you can always use a little extra hospitality.