by Kelsey Willis
Driving West down I-10 from New Orleans is to be accosted by wide billboards, some announcing that “Jesus is alive!” and the rest
plastered with botoxed faces of personal injury lawyers.
From the highway, aside from the
mile-marker countdown between towns, there is little to distinguish one swampy stretch of highway from another. In Louisiana, many rural
towns exist today as a few old one-story homes scattered widely with a gas station at the center. In the wet, overpass-crossed landscape, the concrete barriers between the road and the rich swamp turn car travel into a countdown between Beaumont, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, and, finally, the widening highways of New Orleans. From the road, the rich small-town culture of South Louisiana seems to have dispersed, lost to a series of aggressively advertised highway stops featuring exotic animals, replica state capitol buildings, and many a swamp-themed roadside casino. These stops are everywhere and become the only
place-markers for much of Louisiana highway.
Through the suburban sprawl of Houston and San Antonio (two million residents apiece and you still can’t spot a downtown), the highways become a spaghetti bowl of elevated lanes metered by a seemingly endless rhythm of chain restaurant signs.
These signs are raised at huge expense forty feet into the air to remain at eye level with highway drivers, even though there are hardly sidewalks on the streets below. For a driver passing through, these cities all seem the same and you avoid getting off in these tangled neighborhoods at all costs.
For a driver passing through, these cities all seem the same.
Here, you get to play a game with your fuel tank, betting on how far you can make it in stop-and-go traffic and whether you can gun past the outer reaches of the eight-lane highways of suburbia, suddenly back into the welcoming road-trip land of truck stops and quick, soulless pump stations (and also the sensory overload that is Bucc-ee’s). In central Texas, these strange mini-malls are everywhere with larger parking lots and glossier signs than in Louisiana, though they exist in roadside isolation, independent of actual towns.
But about 10 hours to the Southwest, in the vast, dry expanses of West Texas, gas stations need not advertise. There, the highways are two lanes with not a car in sight. Speed limits, if they exist, are set at an unflinching 80. Aside from the occasional passing border control agent, the massive distances are solitary. Towns listed
on the green highway signs are often hundreds of miles apart, and usually contain little more than a gas station,
a shuttered store or two, and a Dollar General (icon of “eking by”). But, rather than a highway annoyance, these fuel stops are absolute necessities. Out in the prickly agave-filled hills of West Texas, running out of gas is a very real possibility, cell service is spotty, and water is hard to come by. While beautiful, the landscape is also harsh and remote, meaning that these little emptying ranch towns are oases of resources. But instead of water, of course, the road mirage you’re seeing is oil. Hiking in the backcountry of West Texas means
carrying with you any water you might need.
As a hiker, you rapidly become aware of how reliant you are on casual access
to running water, and your single gallon jug quickly starts to feel dangerously light.
Similarly, for a driver, the constant checking of the gas gauge becomes a ticking reminder of our fragile reliance on fuel resources, calling to mind Mad Max-style frenzies over remaining drops of oil.
Abandoned gas stations, underground tanks empty, become Thunderdome as drivers face off for the reserves to get out of Junction, Texas. Thinking of this, it’s almost like we should thank these holdout gas stations for staying open–their job can’t be a fun one.
Mid road-trip, it’s a hard realization that we’re at the total mercy of our access to these resources. The varying vernacular array of highway gas stations are private, but centrally necessary, elements of a deeply screwed-up, and deeply American,
road infrastructure system. In our cars and in our lives, we’re encouraged to keep driving, to keep searching, because the highway of possibility never ends. We – individuals, industries, governments - don’t know when to stop, and aren’t expected to. Unless, of course, you want to follow those signs to see a “Real Live Truck-Stop Tiger”.