When I was a kid, a rest stop was some tiny gas station on a two-lane highway that had a not-too-clean bathroom around the back that you had to ask permission to use.
There wasn’t a sign that said “ladies” or “men” – it was just the same room the mechanics used. There were no signs that said the employees had to wash their hands, and the sink usually was dirtier than their hands, anyway. There was no diaper-changing station, no high-powered, paper-free, hot-air hand dryers.
The only things you could buy in the office where you paid for gas were state maps, cigarettes and vending-machine sodas. Buying coffee or lunch at a gas station wouldn’t have crossed your mind. If you needed another rest before you needed gas again, well, there was that nice, long stretch of deserted highway coming up.
Boy howdy, have things changed.
Not only does every gas station have multiple restrooms now, but some of the interstate rest stops are competing with each other to have the most modern and luxurious facilities. Because, after all, that’s probably going to be the only thing in your state that a tourist on a superhighway ever will see.
Your state is going to be judged by its bathroom facilities – not by its scenery, its leisure activities, its history or its economy, but by the quality of its toilets.
My mother used to set out fancy embroidered, starched and ironed “his” and “hers” guest towels in the bathroom if we were having company that night. We children were told that if any of us used them, we would be in for a shunning at best, solitary confinement at worst.
Thank goodness my mother never had heard of waterboarding. The guests, of course, would never think of using those towels; they would find and use a regular bath towel. And in the morning, even after the biggest party, those towels hung there exactly as unused as they were when they were put out. After all, the guests had mothers, too. They knew the rules.
From my travels, it seems some states are putting out the guest towels in their rest areas, and some are not. But almost every off-ramp in every state now has some sort of giant truck stop with more stuff for sale than the world’s longest yard sale combined with a coffee shop, a state fair midway, a clothing store, a food court, a Radio Shack and a Bed Bath and Beyond.
Oh, and they also have restrooms. Which you will need because you bought the large coffee and a few sodas at the last giant rest stop. I think that’s the business plan for chain truck stops. You think you need coffee to stay awake because you’re taking such a long trip, but the trip only is so long because you keep stopping to “rest” and buy more coffee.
And do we really need 47 flavors of coffee? If you’re drinking something called a “cookie dough cappuccino,” why don’t you just admit it – you don’t like coffee. There are 300 other types of drinks you can buy at a modern truck stop. You have tried all of the coffees; maybe it’s not for you. Try something else.
I’ve also noticed something else in the modern rest stops: a remarkable lack of graffiti, rude or otherwise. I guess if you want to say something crude and shocking nowadays, you do it using your cellphone, not a bathroom wall.
• Jim Mullen is a syndicated columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.