Reflections from the road: On gas stations

6.05.2013


During my first month on the road, I've experienced and learned a lot. And while I've been doing my best to document everything I've seen, thought, and felt, my attention to the what, where, and when has often overshadowed the how, which is just as important. So this week, I'm aiming to publish seven reflections, each on a different aspect of travel, free from time and space. Here's the first.

The traveling mind, if it is to remain sane, needs a constant, something familiar to anchor it to reality and give it some sense of permanence in the world. Homelessness, I'd argue, often precipitates mental illness, and not the other way around, for that very reason: when man loses the ability to connect to space, he begins to lose the ability to connect to all else.

Heading into my journey, I knew a constant would be important, and I hoped Rousseau, an object with which I'd crafted hundreds of memories, years of familiarity while home in DC, would serve that purpose. My tent too, I hoped, would provide an anchor of safety, its interior walls of orange and slate the same no matter what mountain, canyon, or slab of forest I found myself resting on.

What I did not expect, but what I welcomed readily, was the gas station, the petrol pump, as a place of belonging, familiarity, comfort.

The gas station is the watering hole of the open road, a meeting place for weary travelers and nearby locals alike. Beyond the creature comforts of fuel and toilets and water and shade, the gas station provides social comforts, people to talk to, interesting strangers and unmet friends. On my part, I had to do little more to spark conversation than pull up to the pump with my District of Columbia plates glinting in the sun; soon enough, a "You drove that all the way from Washington?" would come at me from any, often multiple, directions. And I rejoiced at the opportunity to hear from others, fellow vagabonds and sleepy families and burly bikers and sweet elderly couples, all with their own story, their own adventure.

Nowadays, each gas station also sports a convenience store, and inside those doors, I felt even more secure. Though I may bemoan globalization, inescapable capitalism, and shiny plastic packaging on most occasions, the simple ubiquity of today's convenience store fare brought me comfort: everywhere I went, the familiar red of the Coca-Cola soda fountain; the shelf of potato chips, Lays and Ruffles ever competing for space; the stacks of snack bars, twelve to a box, Clif and Powerbar and Nature's Valley in every flavor.

And the people of the convenience store, the collective workforce of America's rest stops, meeting them was always a privilege. Nowhere else could one more easily learn about a place, hear from its ordinary citizens, interact with his real, unfiltered, unpretentious countrymen, than over the counter of the neighborhood fuel stop.

So here's to the Shells, to the Valeros and the Exxons and the Coconos and the BPs and the Route 66s and the mom-and-pop outfits without the fancy pay-at-the-pump luxuries, here's to the millions of Americans who keep our country's watering holes open and running and well-serviced each and every day, here's to the little good we can find in a oil-dependent culture, the silver lining of our addiction, here's to the gas station, the great equalizer, a place where no one cares what kind of car you drive, but just how you drive it and where you drive it from.

To the dozens of attendants with whom I've shared conversation and laughs, unfurled maps and puzzled expressions, thank you.
To the scores of attendants who have pointed me in the direction of a restroom or water fountain or postcard rack with a smile and an index finger, thank you.
And to the hundreds of men and women and children I've had the privilege to meet on my journey, if only for the time it takes to pump a midsize SUV full of unleaded gasoline, thank you.
Thanks for making me feel, on this dusty, desolate, open road, like I have a little piece of home and community and kindness with me.

Here's to the gas station.

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