(“The Reno Move” reflects my move from Lafayette, Indiana to Reno, Nevada in late July/early August 2011. Originally draft published at Atomic Anxiety in August 2011. This essay has been revised.)
I slept in on Tuesday, not getting out on the road until 10 AM. With 80 bonus miles in the bank I didn’t see any reason to be up and out at the crack of dawn. My family never traveled much when I was a kid so whenever I get to stay in a hotel or get on a plane, I get a little giddy. I’m also more of a night person than a morning person, often preferring to drive overnight on the Indy-to-Mass run.
Of course, you can do that trip overnight because you’re driving through New York, and unlike seemingly every other state I’ve driven through, New York actually knows how to put a rest stop together.
Now, I’m a northeast kid, so perhaps this opinion is tinged with regional bias. (It’s not. I’m just completely right about this coming point.) I grew up in Massachusetts and attended college in Syracuse and Durham, New Hampshire. We vacationed in York, Maine every year growing up, the only blips being the one year we went to Newport to take in the mansions (totally exciting for kids …) and the year we did the Orlando vacation run (Disney, Epcot, Kennedy Space Center, Busch Gardens). That was the only time I was on a plane until after graduating from Syracuse, and I’m pretty sure it was the only time my parents had ever taken us outside of New England, save for visiting a couple colleges: Syracuse and Bethany College in West Virginia. My dad had taken me on one of those bus trips to see the Sox play the Yankees at the Stadium, and I remember some field trip to the Bronx for school but I don’t even remember why we went.
I relate all this to enforce the point that I was not well-traveled. I could claim that I’d set foot in only ten states: the six New England states, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Florida. That was it. And the last four were only brief encounters. This move to Reno signified the first time I’d ever been on a legit road trip west of Chicago, though I’d flown and spent time in a bunch of cities by this point. I didn’t grow up thinking that glorified bathrooms were acceptable highway rest stops, because I didn’t grow up with any sense of highway rest areas at all. That began to change when I hit college. I took numerous trips between Winchendon and Syracuse, though, and stopped at the New York rest areas countless times. After traveling the Thruway and experiencing New York’s take on the rest stop, the rest areas of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and now Nebraska were frankly pathetic. I’m not playing the Big City card here, because the Thruway largely stays away from cities; you can get swamped around Albany if you don’t drive around it, and traffic gets a bit gnarly by Buffalo, but for the most part cities along the Thruway are ideas more than facts. You see the signs for Utica, Syracuse, and Rochester, but you don’t see the cities they correspond to, which gives New York another few points in their favor: interstate travel and local travel should be kept separate.
The New York Thruway has a contemporary conception of “rest stop.” These are not places to stop and rest as much as they are places to stop and refresh. They are full service areas where you can use the bathroom, get fast food, get different fast food, use a vending machine, get more fast food, buy souvenirs, purchase all manner of snacks in bags, fill up your gas tank, and, yes, if you are so inclined, rest.
In the Midwest, the idea of the rest stop is taken literally. They are places where you can stop and rest, maybe have a picnic, maybe drop some quarters in a vending machine (though the further west you go, the less likely you are to see vending machines), and almost certainly relieve yourself in a bathroom that you wouldn’t use if your bladder wasn’t crying, or thought a future bathroom offered a better option.
In New York (and in Massachusetts on the Pike, though their areas aren’t nearly as nice or big), a rest area comes with a big building that contains clean bathrooms and something called “restaurants,” which apparently aren’t allowed to exist at rest areas west of the Empire State. You’re usually given some kind of fast food option, some kind of breakfast option, and a bonus restaurant serving pizza. Don’t fret, Midwestern travelers, they do have vending machines, but you’re likely to be overwhelmed by having six or eight or ten fully stocked and operational machines instead of two theoretically functioning units, not to mention an honest-to-goodness gift shop, where you can grab your soda and snacks off a shelf or rack and purchase them with plastic from actual people! Is your mind blown, yet? Well try this one on – when you use the restroom, you’re going to be standing on a TILED FLOOR instead of concrete, and not only is it tiled, but unlike the few rest areas I saw that were tiled on this trip, in New York the tile was laid down sometime closer to today than 1975.
And get this – the bathrooms are CLEANED. By people. With cleaning utensils. Every single day.
It’s almost like the state of New York actually cares about the people traveling through its borders.
When you’re done eating actual food and using facilities that don’t have you sharing space with nasty flies and the smell of days old piss, you can get back in your car and stop at a gas station BEFORE you get back on the highway.
Did the Earth just move under your feet?
God bless the New York Thruway, where they actually offer one-stop shopping for all your travel needs, where they actually want you to stop. In the Midwest, I never felt like any of the rest areas actually wanted me there; instead, I was made to feel like the rest stops were there out of some ancient duty that modern government didn’t understand anymore, On my move to Reno, I often had to make three separate stops for “rest,” for food, and for gas. Now, I can hear your argument that the Thruway is bad for local businesses, and that in the Midwest and west the small towns benefit more directly from the interstate from their intermittent gas traps, but you know what, screw you, small town. You want me to stop in your town and drop some green? Build something worth stopping to see and I’ll gladly pull off the highway and drop coin in your village. Long distance travelers want the kind of convenience you get in the east where you stop once and get everything. We don’t live in the 1950s anymore. Rest areas shouldn’t cater to the RV crowd who want to stop their gas chuggers and pile out to have a picnic next to a roaring highway. I spent more money in New York than I did anywhere along I-80 just because the New York rest stops have stuff to spend money on.
God help me, in Nebraska they often have a worker stuck in a Visitor’s Booth at these glorified outhouses. How about firing Dorothy from the Info Booth and hiring thirty high school kids to man a Burger King and a Shell station? Dorothy can supervise, and you don’t even have to get rid of the picnic areas. Come into the 1960s, already.
Driving through Nebraska becomes increasingly frustrating due to it’s immense size and the inferior rest areas. In New York, you’re seemingly never more than 50 minutes from the next full service oasis, and it’s easy to plan your stops because the back of your toll ticket tells you where all of the stops are located, and which food and gas options are available at each. Do you see, Nebraska? That’s the kind of information access we need, not some nice old bitty in a booth making small talk when all we really want to know is how much longer do we have to be in this state. Or where the next gas station is. Or why the vending machine is out of “Soda” and “Diet,” whatever “Soda” and “Diet” actually are.
Can you sense my frustration?
It wasn’t all bad. I was pleasantly surprised to start the day by immediately crossing the border from Council Bluffs into Omaha, and it was nice to see that I’d spent the night ten minutes from Rosenblatt Stadium, home of the College World Series. The rest of the state was much like Iowa, except longer and straighter. There’s a 70-something mile straightaway when you move past Lincoln and the dullness of the drive does little except encourage speeding, which I was largely able to resist.
I did surprisingly little speeding on the trip; having a full SUV made the 65, 70, and 75 MPH zones seem perfectly fine, and I had no desire to repeat the speeding ticket I’d received in Ohio last summer when I was heading home for my cousin’s wedding. That was the only time I’ve ever even been pulled over, and the Ohio town cop that ticketed me did so because I was in a sneaky little speed trap where the highway MPH dipped in that town. It’s clearly a trap, praying on non-locals who will rightly figure that a highway speed limit is going to be consistent. When he pulled me over at 2 in the morning, he ticketed me for going 5 MPH over the speed limit, even though I could see a sign that said the speed limit was exactly the same speed I was driving. When I pointed that out to the quota hunter, he smugly replied that the speed limit posted on a sign doesn’t take effect until you are equal to that sign. I hope he had a horrible Christmas.
The fact that I knew it was going to take at least four days to get to Reno helped keep my right foot in check, I think. There was no reason to hurry when all speeding could realistically gain you was arriving in Reno in the afternoon instead of the night. Plus, even though the rest areas were atrocious through this stretch of the heartland, the scenery was beautiful, if repetitive.
At some point on this warm, Tuesday afternoon I became convinced I had left Nebraska and entered Wyoming, but I didn’t see any signs to offer me a “Welcome to Wyoming!” greeting. The landscape began to change, with some slight hills interrupting all the corn fields, and some honest-to-goodness corners allowing you to do something with your hands besides drinking Diet Mountain Dew and changing the radio station. My rental car had XM satellite radio and it was such a fantastic option that I’m seriously considering buying the service, even though I don’t have a car. It’s such a win that you don’t have to spend any time dealing with radio signals falling in and out, or trying to find the sports talk radio stations in every new area of the country. I programmed ESPN Radio, MLB Radio, MSNBC (their bias is more palatable than Fox News’), and Pearl Jam Radio into four of the allotted six slots, and kept the other two free for baseball games or random stations that momentarily piqued my interest.
I don’t mean to overstate things when I say XM was one of the best parts of the trip, but it’s such a joy to not have to think about the radio at all. I knew I was in for a relative treat by having a car that had a functioning air conditioning unit, but the simple joy of satellite radio was a huge, huge plus on a 2,000 mile trip. When I visit a new town or city, I like to eat at local places and stay away from experiences that I can get elsewhere. It’s nice to know I can go anywhere in the country and get a Big Mac that tastes like every other Big Mac, but when I can I avoid the norming experience of chains. This same love of the local does not apply to the radio, however. Listening to sports talk radio in Buffalo or Cleveland or Chicago or Los Angeles is fun for a few minutes, but because I don’t care about the Sabres or Browns or Cubs or Lakers it quickly loses its appeal. I want a national conversation coming out of my radio, not local color.
Confused by the lack of signs welcoming me to Wyoming, I used my cell phone to check my current location and found I was still in Nebraska.
I was still in the state two hours later, too, and started making random prayers to gods I don’t believe in, and pleas to cultural concepts like, “Dear Nebraska, Please Be Over. Thanks.”
The rest areas in this part of the state weren’t always open or functional, but there was a stop or two that offered brilliant, beautiful landscapes to look at opposite the highway. There was one area in Nebraska where Darwin and I were greeted with a “Caution – Rattlesnakes Are Native To This Area” sign, but we thankfully didn’t see or hear any. Darwin’s nose was given a workout at this stop, though, as all the different smells of the location had him amped. This always made me happy, because the more active he was at a stop, the more sleep he was going to take when we got back in the car.
Eventually, Nebraska ended and we were into Wyoming. The first time I drove home to Massachusetts after living in Indiana for a few years I remember crossing the state line and nearly weeping when I saw the hills of western Massachusetts. After the flatness of the Midwest, the rolling hills of my home state were like crystal clean, cold water to a man desperate for drink. I experienced much the same sensation in Wyoming. The landscape here was gorgeous with its large, dynamic hills, and after the “I” states and Nebraska, Wyoming seemed like paradise. We moved quickly past Cheyenne, still too early in the day to stop, and then had one of the best rest stops of the trip at the interstate’s highest point, where a massive statue of Abraham Lincoln awaited us. To get to this rest area, you exited I-80 and then spiraled upwards where the statue and a clean building awaited you. Like Nebraska, this area was staffed by a helpful tourist guide, but unlike Nebraska, Wyoming has places you might actually want to visit if you were RV’ing your way across the west.
I let Darwin out for a big, long stretch because we were making such good time. Wyoming certainly rejuvenated his interest in the outside world and after being largely uninterested in Iowa and Nebraska, he was back to his pinball self in the backseat. He also became curiously enthralled by the passing traffic as we looked down on it from on high. At this stop, the highway was well below you and the distance combined with the speed of the autos, made him constantly want to take off after them. You could almost see his mind trying to figure this new phenomenon out: “They’re cars! But they’re small! Let me go let me go let me go!!!”
We came up on Laramie a short while later and I told myself to stop for the night. We’d entered the Mountain Time Zone, however, and so the local time was only 5:00 or so, which felt too early to give up the road for the day. It’s a completely silly notion, of course, that it’s “too early” to stop even though you’d been on the road for over eight hours but I knew that the town of Rawlins awaited 100 miles up the road and so pressing on felt like the right decision. I should have arrived in Rawlins in under two hours, which would be around 7:30, which felt like the more proper time to stop.
It was a mistake.
First, there were so many work zones between Laramie and Rawlins that traffic was often slowed to a snail’s pace. When I finally reached Rawlins, I was greeted with a decidedly uninviting locale. (Curiously, while there were work zones all over I-80, we saw very little actual working; if this meant that road crews in these states work at night instead of during the day, that makes me glad I didn’t do any overnight driving on this trip.) Laramie’s hotel area had looked pretty inviting from the highway, but Rawlins, despite existing to serve the highway, looked liked it had a permanent “Visitors Not Welcome” sign hung out. We pulled into the Days Inn after stopping at Subway to pick up dinner, and these rapid, short stops always raised Darwin’s anxiety levels. When you stop, he felt he had a right to get out, so when you left him in the car to go inside a building, and then came out and started off without letting him out, he got all whiny and impatient. He knows he’s not allowed in the front of a vehicle when we’re in motion but he pushes at that rule by putting his front paws on the middle arm rest and sticking his head out equal to yours.
That’s endearing at the start of a day. It’s not at the end.
Between Giant Lincoln and Rawlins I had grown surly. I was ready to get out of the car, hating myself for not stopping in Laramie, and so when I entered the Days Inn, which was really Generic 1950s Claptrap Motel with A New Logo Slapped On the Front, I didn’t even care about the vacant stares from the locals who filled the cocktail lounge or the burnt out look from the locals who staffed the establishment.
“Can I help you?” asked a girl at the counter who looked like she was still in high school but was trying real hard to give you the impression that she Wasn’t From Here.
“I have three questions,” I asked, mustering up what charm I could to deliver my stand-by check-in routine. “Do you have a room?”
“Do you take dogs?”
“-it’s a smoking room.”
Fuck you. Fuck me. There are few things I despise more than the smell of nicotine, and stale nicotine is even worse than fresh nicotine. I refuse to date anyone who smokes because people who smoke smell like burned asshole, and that makes you, your clothes, and your apartment eventually smell like burned asshole. Romantic notions of smoking should have died in the ’80s. What any smoker under the age of 50 is saying to the world is, “I’m non-committal on suicide. I’d like to do it, but I don’t have the courage to do it quickly, so I’m going to smoke and hopefully kill you in the process, too.” If I’m not going to date someone who smokes, I certainly don’t want to stay in a smoking room of a hotel, where I get to live in the filth of an immeasurable number of burned assholes who are trying to kill me.
“No,” I said instantly to the girl who desperately wanted to be Not From Here. “No way.” I’m just not going to stay in a room like that under any circumstances.
“Are there any other hotels that take pets here?” I asked.
The girl didn’t know, but her male equivalent offered to call around. He struck out on the first option but then had success at the Motel 6, informing them he was sending me over for their no smoking, pro pet room.
Exiting the Days Inn with my nerves becoming increasingly frayed – I just wanted to stop, why was it so difficult to find a room in this nowhere town? – I decided to stop at the Holiday Inn Select next door before venturing over to the Motel 6. I had fears that the Motel 6 would be even worse here than it was in Council Bluffs, and the Holiday Inn was clearly the newest and nicest building in the area. I went in and launched into my routine.
“We have one room left in the hotel,” the personable, heavy-set woman informed me.
“I bet you don’t take dogs, though, do you?”
“Yep, we do,” she replied and for a moment I had my hopes raised, but then she added, “but it’s a smoking room.”
Fuck you, Rawlins, Wyoming.
“Can you point me in the direction of the Motel 6?” I asked, because I will not, under any circumstance, stay in a smoking room.
“Oh, you don’t want to go to that part of town,” she said with an honest look, shaking her head as if I had asked for directions to the local crack house-slash-hostel. If this hotel had been half-empty, I’d have thought she was just playing me, but given how packed the parking lot was, I had little doubt they were at near capacity for the night and figured she had little reason to keep me from Holiday Inn’s competition.
“Screw it,” I decided. “I’ll take it. What’s the rate?”
“It’s $165, plus $15 for your dog.”
Knowing I needed to stop for me and now for Darwin, too, I bit the smoking and expensive rate bullet and took the third floor room, making this the first time Darwin had been in an elevator. He was so fried and anxious that he barely even gave the experience any notice other than one curious, quick look at the walls when the lift started to rise. Once inside the room I was instantly hit with that godawful stench of overcooked ass. My eyes burned and my stomach lurched; when you make a point to stay away from that smell, the presence of it comes at you like Thor’s hammer. When I go out to a place that coats that smell onto you, I immediately remove those clothes when I get home, stick them in the corner of the bathroom away from all of my other clothes, and then douse them with Febreeze and light however many candles I have in my place. I took a long shower, ate dinner, watched a bit of ESPN, and climbed into bed, burying my head beneath all of those clean pillows and sheets, desperate to avoid the stank of old nicotine.
It didn’t work.
I will never stop in Rawlins again.