Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Respite on the highway

I returned last night from a 1,500-mile road trip. It should be about a 10-hour trip, each way, but it took us 12 hours to get to my parents’ house in Iowa and 12 hours to get back. Those extra two hours? Don’t tell my mother, but we wiled away those extra minutes at highway rest areas. Before we left, my mother had warned me to stay away from them. “Bad things happen there,” she said ominously. “Really?” I asked. “What kinds of things?”
She went on to regal me with stories from her friends who had heard about vague rest stop horrors from their friends, or read about them…somewhere.(All predicated with “They SAY…”)
I was traveling with my daughter and my dog. Our traveling days were warm. The sun shone brightly. So we stopped at rest stops, unfolding our stiff legs out of the car and exploring the tiny park-like parcels of land. After stops along I-76 in Colorado, I-80 in Nebraska and I-29 in Iowa, we began to feel comfortable with the rest stops’ sameness – sensible concrete buildings where unrecognizable music played on some hidden sound system; lobbies where the furnaces were already turned on; well-kept grass lawns; and a smattering of original touches – a modern sculpture gallery in one, a plastic dinosaur in another; a well-raked sandbox in another. The centerpieces of the rest areas – the bathrooms – were uniformly clean and quiet. Along the way, we found small treasures – a cattail-fringed pond glowing in the sunset; an elm dropping acorns to the ground.
The stops provide a welcome respite from the hum of the highway and endless mazes of road construction cones. They are a throwback to the past; to a time when towns near the interstate highways weren't all built up with Wal-Marts and McDonald's.  And they are disappearing - Arizona recently announced it is closing its rest areas to save the state money. 
Yet, when I saw my sister during our Iowa visit, she echoed my mother’s concern. “Don’t ever stop at rest areas,” she warned. “People disappear.”
“Really?” I asked her. “What happens to them?”
“I don’t know,” she replied in a hushed voice.
I don’t either. We exchanged greetings with other travelers. We did see one car with Oklahoma license plates that had been painted with the words to the Pledge of Allegiance (why would you do that?) and countless strangers smiled at our beagle, who always steals the show.
I don't feel any more endangered at a rest area than I do at, say, a shopping mall or an airport. They SAY bad things can happen there, too.
And on our rest area tour, we had no close calls, no scary encounters, no 911-moments, except for these: that cheap tissue-paper toilet paper that tears when you try to pull it, and one unforgiving vending machine that took our dollar and kept our Sweet Tarts.

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