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The truck stops here

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The truck stops hereIn South Africa, our long-haul truckers are lucky to get the use of a shower and a breakfast at a Wimpy, or some other franchised outlet, when they pull into a truck stop. But, in the United States, a veritable industry has sprung up alongside the network of highways traversing the huge continent. KIM KEMP (metaphorically) climbs behind the wheel of a North American long-haul truck and looks at what’s on offer at the myriad facilities dotted along the major trucking routes.

The vision of an eighteen-wheeler thundering through the great Midwest region of the United States (US) – the grizzled driver talking on his CB radio while a dancing hula girl gyrates on his dashboard and endless rows of corn march in columns alongside the highway – is synonymous with trucking as we have come to know it, thanks to Hollywood and its plethora of trucking movies.

By the time the 1930s rolled around, an increase in paved roads enabled the trucking sector to gain foothold and by the late 1950s and 1960s, the construction of the Interstate Highway System, linking major cities across the continent, saw the trucking segment evolve into the giant industry it is today.

I have always thought how romantic it must be to have only the open road as your companion and the next stop along your route as your goal for the day; no endless chatter or intrusive noise, just turning up the radio when you need contact with the outside world and switching it off when you don’t.

However, while the life of a nomad may sound appealing, the confined space of the massive vehicle serves as the driver’s home, his refuge and his workspace. Although it is normally equipped with a bunk bed, onboard computer systems, GPS and more, it is quite different from living in a suburban house or apartment – it’s more like a walk-in cupboard on wheels, but with a view. And, although some items may appear frivolous (namely a TV, fridge and microwave), if you consider that the driver has to live in the truck twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, these basic amenities are a necessary prerequisite to his or her productivity, mental health and simple human comfort.

Sometimes driving twelve-hour stints means eating “on the run” and truckers are notorious for devouring anything that can be held down long enough to be slapped between two slices of bread and washed down with a fizzy drink. Their diet usually consists of fast food, junk food and artery-clogging diner specials.

Actually, isn’t that an eating profile of most Americans? But I digress…

The point is, truckers have to get sustenance along their route, often covering hundreds of kilometres with no rest facilities in sight.

Enter the truck stop.

The once humble truck stop is now a burgeoning industry in the US.In the early days of trucking, mom-and-pop stores sprang up along the major routes, where Mary-Lou baked apple pie and Junior pumped gas. As long-distance truck travel increased, the diners were soon followed by other retail outlets climbing onto the bandwagon, sounding the death-knell to the age of nostalgia.

Sentiment has been replaced by convenience and quality, turning home industries into interstate shopping malls, some replete with movie theatres, concert halls, barbershops and even chapels. (The nearest we have to the latter is the Llandoff Oratory – a chapel with only eight seats – along Van Reenen’s pass, now sadly sitting forlornly on a piece of abandoned land that was once a thriving stop between Johannesburg and Durban.)

In the US, many of the modern establishments are up to 20 times bigger than their original counterparts and, like all things American, the truck stops boast bigger offerings, bigger parking areas, a wider variety of services and even healthier meals as their continued popularity grows. In Iowa, for example, regulars are welcomed to the World’s Largest Truck Stop, where everything from souvenirs to a museum lure patrons in, while the opportunity to attend a Truckers Jamboree at the venue is simply not to be missed …

For convenience, there are numerous websites and GPS Map apps (for tablets) where drivers are able to search for the best truck stop. For example, TruckStopGuide.com allows the trucker to select from a variety of default settings, including location, state, chain, interstate and route. Others include searches for weigh stations, rest areas, fuel prices and technical support, to name a few of the ever-growing list of enticements clustered around the (once humble) truck stop.

On its database, www.findfuelstops.com boasts 7 288 truck stops and promises to find truckers the cheapest facility in his area, along with a list of “desired amenities” that include hygiene showers (don’t quite know what that is, as I thought all showers were hygienic?), entertainment, internet, truck wash, medical facilities, lodgings and the mandatory store.

Hey, even a rock band has named itself after the institution, viz Truck Stops Across America.

And not all truckers are grizzled “bandits”, many are women – and no, not grizzled women – as the fairer sex takes to trucking. The truck stops have cottoned on to the different needs of this new sector of the market and some pander to the delicate sex, offering complimentary bath mats and two towels in the shower.

This has become such a burgeoning industry in the US that there is even a cookbook out – The All American Truck Stop Cookbook – regaling the properties of a variety of recipes gleaned from some of the more famous establishments, complete with a “Truckers Glossary”. “Besides history, photos and food, we have interviews with several truck-stop waitresses who have been serving meals to hungry Americans for decades,” the publication interestingly brags.

While the interstate truck stop is not new, and in fact is as ingrained in the American culture as apple pie and grid-iron football, it appears to be getting more and more sophisticated by the day and one can only but wonder what will they next be offering to lure in the custom of the long haul trucker?

 

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