Words by: Dylan Cruikshank
As I pulled my car into a rest stop off Interstate 40, my sleepy eyes spotted a large neon sign glowing in the distance. It flashed brightly, pulsating information on current gas prices and food items for sale.
I was driving from Nashville, Tennessee to visit my family in Tucson, Arizona. It was about three in the morning, so I decided to stop for a cup of what I expected to be terrible coffee. I had been driving for around sixteen hours straight at this point, and had another sixteen hours to go. I needed a break.
Plus I had needed to take a piss for the last hundred miles or so.
The only cars on the road at this time of day were myself and some of the 3.5 million estimated professional truck drivers in the United States. As I pulled into the truck stop just outside Amarillo, Texas, I was amazed at the number of semi-trucks parked at this modern day oasis. Some were dirty and looked barely road worthy, while others looked brand new and lustrous in the Texas moonlight.
The constant flow of trucks coming and going was hypnotizing.
As soon as one pulled out to leave, another quickly pulled in to take its place. Feeling somewhat emasculated as I parked my Subaru next to a forty ton beast marked “refrigerated transport”, I got out and headed inside.
Inside was nothing like I imagined.
A clean entry way lead to a food court with four or five choices in food. Burgers, tacos and pizza were all available at this ungodly hour. Out of curiosity I explored the rest of the truck stop to see what it had to offer.
Apart from the usual services you find at any gas station—fuel, car wash, air pumps—there were showers you could rent for just a few dollars. The bathrooms reminded me more of sanitized Army barracks than truck stop toilets.
Dozens of stalls and full length mirrors ran across the walls in all directions. It was nearly empty at this hour other than a couple of customers loudly doing their business. Vending machines took up what little bare wall space was left. An assortment of cologne, condoms and small booklets with girls on the cover were readily available for a small fee.
Across from the bathrooms and showers was a lounge that boasted a huge seventy inch television. In the lounge sat five or six truck drivers drinking coffee and talking about weather and road conditions. Walking further down the hall I came to a closed door with a cross on it that read “chapel.”
Next to the door was a schedule of religious services. Maybe this is where you buy the “God is my co-pilot” bumper stickers I had been seeing on the road.
After my exploration, I bought an acrid cup of coffee and stepped outside for a cigarette.
Standing there in the early morning hours, I looked across the freeway to see two more truck stops that looked equally busy. I wondered if they had a chapel in them as well. Because next to them was an adult bookstore and a strip club.
The strip club advertised, “Truck Drivers Welcome!” in flashing pink neon lights. That’s probably where one could find the seedier aspects of life off the Interstate.
After all, some of these places are rife with drugs and prostitution. They also attract modern day hobos who hitch hike from place to place trying escape whatever it is their running from. I had overheard stories about truck stops on the outskirts of larger cities. It can actually be quite dangerous to walk the parking lot to and from your truck in some places.
Though from casual conversation at these sorts of places with real truckers, it seems most of them are genuinely good people doing an important and sometimes dangerous job.
The image of the truck driver that most people have is an outdated and negative one.
Most people think of truckers as middle aged Charles Manson lookalikes. Hopped up on amphetamines, speeding through the night to make their destination on time. This image, I think, comes from movies, sensationalized media reports and urban legends.
I’ve seen drivers of all ages, races; and according to the schedule on the chapel door, religious backgrounds as well. Most of the crimes you hear about happening at truck stops are due to derelict types who are just passing through.
Or often local drug addicts who are just looking for a quick payday. Part of me wanted to go and investigate, but I was pressed for time. Climbing back into my unimpressive, fuel efficient car, I headed back out on the Interstate towards my destination, Tucson, Arizona.
I had made this trip many times over the seven years I lived in Nashville and loved the drive. Usually when I went home to Arizona to see family, I would forego airplanes just so that I could live on the road for a few days.
I love the sense of freedom that I felt jumping into my car and hitting the road. I wondered, though, how these professional truckers did it everyday. I loved the long hours on the road and the solitude it provided me, but I was only in transit for a couple of days at a time.
The average truck driver in the United States could be away from home for weeks at a time, and driving up to eleven hours a day or more. I thought about the boredom and loneliness that must follow these men and women on the road.
It’s no wonder that the eighty-two primary Interstates in the US are littered with these titanic truck stops. Further down the road I passed by one of the dozen or so Native American casinos on I 40.
The sun was just starting to rise over the North Texas plains but the casino parking lot was still packed full. Semi-trucks, motorhomes, and motorcycles all sat patiently in the parking lot waiting for their drivers to get their fill of the casino’s entertainment.
Next to the casino was an even larger truck stop than the last one I stopped at. It also advertised showers, food, truck cleaning and a lounge.
This was the first sign of civilization I had seen for a couple of hours and the last I would see for a couple more.
As a new day dawned through my windshield, and more cars began to accompany me on my trip home, I felt an appreciation for these little towns that I so quickly passed through. Without them these titans of cargo transport would perish, and I’d be unable to enjoy my short sojourns into the world of long haul driving.