I like rest stops. They are the commas in the monologues of highways. When I drive by myself on rambling meandering excursions to nowhere, I tend to stop at them as much as possible. You get a chance to see all the traffic and the busyness around you, the stuff that just whizzes by like potential hazards when you actually drive. Rest stops are the opportunity for a driver to become a passenger for a brief window of time.
Rest stops vary in settings, of course, even though they all are designed for the same purpose: to stop driving. Some highways have a lot of them, and some only a few. When I lived on Long Island, the famous LIE that extends from Manhattan to Riverhead, at the time, only had one rest stop. From what I recall, it was only on the direction heading eastward. It was more of a parking area; there were no facilities when I was there. Towards the end, a detached caboose was plopped there, with a sign on the highway pointing to it saying “Tourist Info”. I never went in the caboose so I can’t tell you what the inside was like. I do know that many times I would drive past it during the day, and there were no cars around. My guess is that it mostly comprised of brochures and had no live people manning it. Maybe people got cut out of the budget at the last minute; it was too much of an expenditure for the government.
Along the interstate system, there are many rest stop areas, which is always great, especially when driving around the country, to get a couple hours of sleep to avoid paying extra money for a hotel. On some of the toll roads like the New Jersey Turnpike, or the New York Thruway, one can find service stations where you can get fast food or gasoline. During the simmer, especially on the weekends, those places are always packed, complete with full parking lots and directional guides like a mini-mall. Interstates that aren’t toll roads seem to have to make do with comfort stations, facilities that are limited to rest rooms and vending machines. Those places are the best if you are out on a drive and don’t want to deal with crowds but yet watch traffic. Usually, trucks outnumber cars; their drivers taking a siesta for a couple of hours so they can continue cross-country sojourns to all corners of the nation. Any tourist in the area usually is looking to rest himself or his dog and get on with things. There are no vendors setting up shop like a mini flea market, the way it’s done in a lot of service stations.
Parking areas are even more primitive than the comfort stations, having no facilities at all. That’s what mostly dots national and state roads. I guess the theory is that they aren’t limited access like the interstates, so they aren’t needed as much for lavatory reasons. Generally, you get out, stretch your legs and remember that blood does flow through them, and then get on your way. It isn’t too often that I’ve come across a parking area that is jammed pack. If anything, people might decide to hold off until the next fast food restaurant to congregate.
Most parking areas, I have found, tend to be little stopovers in nature. Since there isn’t a lot of manmade constructs dotting them, the main feature tends to be whatever nature that was cut through to make the highway. This sort of makes sense; rest areas on top of residential strips probably don’t go over that well with town boards. Even though the town government versus the federal government is like an ant taking on an elephant, ants can bite, and it is better to avoid them. Or at least so it seems; I usually see parking areas nestled in park-like settings. Then again, why would someone stop in an industrial park if they couldn’t at least get a Big Mac out of it. The parking area’s very sparseness demands on some level to be set in an aesthetic atmosphere of sorts.
Sometimes, it seems like parking areas are quaint and old-fashioned, with all of the gas stations and convenience stores that are dotted by interstate exits and along national highways. Especially in the latter case; parking areas seem strange when you’re driving through a small town with all kinds of conveniences, a bunch of residential houses, and then a sudden pullover on the road. But they still lend a distinction to the road that it is on. It is as though the road is saying, look, I’m not just a thoroughfare to get you from work to school to the mall. I’m letting you rest because I’m going to take you places beyond all that if you stay with me long enough. I’m the road that travels, not the one that commutes.
You can get that feeling when you drive on U.S. 20, a road that seems like a simple state highway when it links you from town to town. It’s easy to forget that this stretch of concrete connects you between two oceans. So when you see the indicator “Parking Area” a mile out of a town, it may at first take you by surprise. Why the heck do they need something like that on a road like this? You pull over into the parking area and see a map of the county, and the adjacent counties to you. An eighteen wheeler is the only other vehicle in the area with you, and seemingly, there is no activity coming from it. There are no facilities, no stores in the immediate area, and then it occurs to you that the driver might be inside, asleep for a time. Why would he be doing that on a road like this? Then you look at the map with its multiple counties and recall a simple geometry lesson as you see the highway you’re on. A line is a set of points that has no beginning or end. That’s what U.S. 20 looks like on this map, and you remember how far you have to go if you want to find a finish line. You look out at the vast view behind the featured sign, and realize the highway goes further than you can see. It is only a small dot on a map. Other cars drive past you. Maybe they see you, maybe they don’t. Maybe they are taking their kids to soccer practice in the next town. Maybe they are going to Oregon. They don’t stop in the parking area, but maybe they will be in the next one a few miles down the road. You just never know on a road like this one.
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