America at Ground Level – Part 1


“When you gotta go, you gotta go!”

Think about the words “urgency” and “frequency” — and then imagine the rush of anxiety at 30,000 feet when the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign goes on. You’ll understand why a chronic bladder condition has brought my travels back to ground level.

Having flown millions of miles, I’ve decided on my last few trips to experience America from ground level whenever possible. I’m blessed with a dependable luxury sedan that drives like a mattress and has a V-8 rocket under the hood for those moments when you need to escape a traffic jumble. I also have an iPod loaded with such ridiculously good music that my car is tantamount to a concert hall on wheels.

I don’t have to check bags or go through security lines or decide what to pack and what to leave behind for space reasons. And, I can bring my own pillow wherever I go.

As for “urgency” and “frequency,” I generally can stop when and where I want, with plenty of exits off the freeways. And, when the freeway starts to feel more like a NASCAR race there’s no shortage of towns to stop in while driving along the backroads of America.

These are, of course, the towns where you damn well better slow down to 25 mph when an unusually tiny sign saying so appears. Evidently, small town budgets depend rather heavily on a Barney Fife squad car tucked behind a hedge with radar gun in hand positioned somewhere in that half mile between the 70 mph highway speed and the backwards crawl these little towns dictate so you don’t miss their boarded-up shops.

But, rather than despair for the demise of small-town America, isn’t slowing down really the essential joy of seeing America at ground level?

“Recalibrate your metabolism”

I have enough flexibility these days that it took about a nanosecond to downshift from being in the hurry that my harried lifestyle demanded for the past 40 years. Done correctly, driving can become this zen-like experience that only vaguely resembles travel as I knew it.

Now, if I spend more than 6 hours driving on any given day, I take that evening to reevaluate my priorities. Four or five hours a day of asphalt and concrete under my tires is just about right, especially with a bladder and innate curiosity that inevitably adds an extra couple of hours of stops along the way.

There are the things you never see from 30,000 feet or that you drove past without blinking in your fast-lane life. I actually now look forward to those “Historical Marker Ahead” signs that suddenly appear and I promptly start slowing down lest I miss something truly historical, but often also somewhat hysterical. One marker out in the absolute middle of nowhere pointed out that by looking straight ahead you still could see ruts made by wagons along that portion of the Santa Fe Trail — and, sure enough, there they were.

And, there’s always the “world’s longest snake” or ” world’s biggest ball of twine” or some equally fascinating oddity to take in, not to mention more caves and caverns than you can shake a bat at. Fortunately, most of these “roadside attractions” come fully equipped with “Clean Restrooms.”

I assume there was a day when that word “clean” was necessary and important to a lot of people, but luckily it’s pretty much a given now. A mere “Restrooms” sign satisfies me just fine.

“Becoming a Discerning Seeker”

That said, there’s no reason to settle for “raunchy” if “clean” really is available. You quickly learn where you’re likely to find decent restrooms and where you’re not.

May I take this opportunity to thank whoever decided that virtually every freeway exit and most decent sized towns needed at least one of those self-service gas stations and convenience store/fast-food joints. My personal preference is QT, which we called QuikTrip for decades. They’re predictably and reliably clean. And the stores are well stocked with a selection of snacks and beverages that probably would not receive the American Dietetics Association Seal of Approval.

Depending on where you are in the US, you generally can rely on a nice big 7-Eleven (skip the small ones). Or a Circle K or Allsups or KwikStop or Kum & Go — though Kum & Go seems a little too graphic for my tastes. I’m a bit leery of places who didn’t run their names through a branding focus group.

If possible, avoid the tiny little mom-and-pop places that have signs in the windows saying “Restrooms for Customers Only.” When you end up buying something to meet the customer qualification and assuage your guilt, you too often discover that they could invest just a tad more in their “facilities.” I just love that euphemism when stopping at what my mom called “wide places in the road.” When I ask, “Could you point me to your facilities?” I often get this look that says, “One more question like that and we’re going to shoot you on the spot. The can is thataway.”

Fast-food joints generally are reliable — the McDonald’s, Burger Kings, and Taco Bells that dot the landscape of America. Just don’t eat their food. Buy a bottle of water if you feel guilty using their facilities for free.

Starbucks with easy highway access are consistently clean and friendly — but please could they add a second restroom? When traveling, I’m less concerned about WiFi than porcelain.

I’ve long been dubious about those official “Rest Areas” along the roadways, but these days they not only have spacious and clean restrooms, but many resemble vending machine resorts, with beautifully landscaping, “You Are Here” maps under plexiglass and lots of pleasant sitting areas and picnic tables to enjoy for a few moments not barreling along at 70 mph dodging trucks and a whole host of drivers who should be allowed absolutely nowhere near the steering wheel of a vehicle. More on drivers incapable of driving in Part 2.

I’ve become a big fan of those massive truck stops like Love’s and Pilot Flying J. If you can’t find something you don’t need there, you won’t find it anywhere. They have big restrooms, including showers for the truckers, food, camouflage clothing, absurd bumper stickers, gadgets galore and enough snacks to bring on a diabetic coma just walking through the store. But, man, am I relieved when I see one ahead on the horizon.

I used to stop at Cracker Barrel, but their restroom hygiene on my last few visits seems to have decreased in direct proportion to the amount of kitsch for sale on every square foot of floor space. They have virtually nothing gluten-free on their famous menu, so about the only time I pull into a Cracker Barrel now is when I need to rock myself to a state of calm out on the front porch in one of their old-timey wooden rocking chairs.

Your best bet, I’ve found, when you really gotta go is to swing into a roadside Holiday Inn Express or Hilton Garden Inn or Marriott Residence Inn. Just walk right in like you belong there and look for the ground floor restroom arrows. Their facilities are consistently clean, spacious, and private.

So, enough about meeting that essential physical need while traveling. More thoughts from ground level in the dispatches ahead.

Coming Up…Part 2 of “America at Ground Level” will feature some observations about traffic etiquette, drivers, people who think they’re drivers, trucks, and highway conditions. I’m guessing you’re way ahead of me already.

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With an increasingly pointless amount of arguably useless information packed inside my head, and a totally inappropriate number of opinions about virtually everything, and a family who must suffer through listening to both, it seemed only fitting to foist them upon others who care to read and react. Now well past 60 years old, this is an outlet intended not to unleash but enlighten, myself much more than others.

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One thought on “America at Ground Level – Part 1”

  1. Thanks, Tim. Excellent advice to anyone who longs for just a little dignity when traveling these days. In your own vehicle, you create your own world of peace and gentility. I loved the book “Blue Highways” by WIlliam Least Heat Moon for all the reasons noted above. The real America is off the interstates.


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