Throughout my life, I've had a lot of experience with good old-fashioned road trips. My mom grew up in a quaint little ski town about ten hours outside of Vancouver. Every holiday we’d pack our sedan with blankets, pillows, snacks and game boys, and cruise from morning ‘til night. These days, the distances I travel are much shorter, but they usually involve at least a few hours of driving on the highway. During these excursions, I’ve become increasingly familiar with the rest stops along the way—the particular restaurants or gift shops they host, the cleanliness or convenience of the bathrooms, even some of the people who work at them. I used to consider these mandatory interruptions a major inconvenience, but I’ve since come to appreciate the humanity inherent in these iconic landmarks of the modern age. First of all, they don’t discriminate. Whether you’re traveling by limousine, pick-up truck, or semi trailer, chances are you’re going to have to use the facilities at some point in your travels. (If not, I’m afraid to ask the alternative.) Our most basic needs are exposed in a way we usually try to deny or just plain ignore. In order to survive, we all need food, water, and a way to dispose of these substances once they’ve been processed. It uncovers certain unifying qualities of the human experience, qualities we tend to want to overlook, especially in a culture driven by convenience and consumption. But after you’ve been driving in a car for hours, a cemetery of coffee cups and water bottles littering the floor, a rest stop is a saving grace like no other. I might even be so bold as to call this a universal human experience: Next rest stop—two miles. YES!
A rest stop is a place where every single patron shares a common bond—every single person has a destination and where they are in that moment is not it. There’s a transient quality that is neither masked nor mourned. Everyone is en route, stopping only momentarily to rest, refuel or relieve oneself. There is no pretense, no posturing, the mission is simple and we’re all in it together. At least that’s how I feel when I give a knowing nod to the woman in the bathroom mirror before continuing on my merry way. It’s like being part of a community with no solid identity, only the communal value of getting somewhere else, comfortably.
I wouldn’t be surprised if one day we have drive-through rest stops, some way we could complete our bodily chores without even exiting our vehicles. Yes, the image it evokes is slightly grotesque, but surely stranger things have been invented, and accepted. But if it were that way, I think I would miss the connection that happens when you share a sink with a fellow traveler, resigned to the reality of your travel rituals and relishing in the opportunity to stretch your legs and get a fresh cup of coffee. It can be a welcome relief from the isolating act of driving, a reminder that a world exists beyond your driver’s seat view.
I suppose the objectification of the rest stop experience is an easy metaphor. We’re continuously finding ways to make things more streamlined, more efficient and less effort. But is this necessarily good? I drove back from Comic-Con a couple years ago with Edward James Olmos and Michael Hogan. Naturally, we had to stop at a gas station to fuel up and, you know, do the opposite of that. There was one dingy bathroom around the back of the store. I waited in the small line, a couple people in front of me and a few behind—children twisted around the railing as their parents straightened in a bored summer haze—but when Eddie came out of the bathroom, I could feel their eyes get bigger. One person recognized him, nudging the other, and so on...
By the time we pulled out of the gas station, I could see a few heads peering around the wall, pointing in curiosity and awe. Now, this would probably appear benign to most people, probably even to Eddie himself, but I can’t help but feel it’s important. It’s important to embrace our human qualities, share our common struggles and not try to avoid these experiences that make us uniquely human—and part of the greatest emergent property of all: humanity. So whenever you’re at a rest stop, whether literally or metaphorically, try to embrace that experience, maybe even enjoy it; after all, the world would be a pretty shitty place without it. ;)