SRA, A Personal History

Nobody traveling the dog show circuits for very long can avoid visiting the safety rest areas known to us as rest stops.  Those ubiquitous icons of travel along the interstate highway system.  Rest stops offer a chance to mingle with fellow travelers and walk the dogs.  We have stopped at some of them every year for nearly forty years.  Some have interiors we envy and wish they were found in our home.  Rest stops add a familiarity to our routes.  Sometimes they bring an unexpected element, too.

I was four years old when the first rest area opened in Ohio.  The year before a Policy on Safety Rest Areas was established to standardize rest area construction.  In those early days, rest areas were primitive.  The toilet building was most often designed to be the architectural centerpiece of a rest area site.  Early designs were modest in form and materials, little more than out houses, growing ever larger over the decades.  These buildings reflect the popular architectural trends of the mid-century period and beyond.  In those early days it was hard to get much of an appreciation for the wonderful architecture or quirkiness of the picnic structures outside when you sat perched on a toilet worthy of San Quentin inside one of those building in the winter.  In those days many were unheated.

Some states seem to have more money to spend on these stops than others.  Usually, the grandeur of the roadside oases parallel the amount of money the state spends on road maintenance.  States like Colorado, Utah, Kansas and Nebraska have nice buildings with regional themes.  They are newer, brighter, climate controlled with terrazzo floors in various colors.  They are havens in inclement weather and have a low creep-factor.  Travelers through New Mexico, Texas and Montana fare less well.  There is a high creep factor in the older, darker and often waterless stops.  In New Mexico a large sign inside the toilet building proclaims: “Water Not Potable”.  This means there is no water in the sinks.  The soap containers hold new age gel hand sanitizer.  There are dryers on the walls but no paper towels.  The signs probably present a problem to the non-english speaking public as well as those educated here who missed several days of English class. Why even have a sign when there are no faucets in the sinks?

Flushing the toilets and turning off the water in the sinks was a major problem at rest stops.  About five years ago self flushing toilets began to appear in the better appointed rest stops.  This marriage of the low tech and high-tech taking place in the humble toilet rooms of Missouri has made rest stops cleaner.  No more peeking suspiciously into a stall to see if the previous occupant flushed.  The toilet, smarter than many of the people who use it, flushes at the appropriate moment and is ready for the next visitor.  Now, if there was just a way to eliminate the watering of the seat by kids and old ladies.

Sinks have undergone a similar metamorphosis in the forty years we have made visits to the roadside way stations.  Many sinks no longer have the handles for hot and cold.  Just a faucet jutting out from the countertop.  These come with no instructions but if you reach under them the water turns on like magic.  Warm or cold water emanating from the end.  These are an improvement over the faucets that turned on by pressing the top of the faucet. The water was always cold and never stayed on long enough.  Soap is dispensed now from automated dispensers, too.  Sometimes there isn’t any soap, just a foamy substance impersonating it.  It seems to work so much better than the gritty powder, cousin to laundry detergent, found in these same rest rooms when I was ten.  In many of the South Central states the water comes from little spigots hidden under the decking of a semi-circular sink taking up one wall inside the toilet building.  These are more ambiguous as to where to place your hands to activate the release of water.  In a bizarre game of whack-a-mole you move your hands in and out under each spigot until you find one that turns on when your hands are in place.  Usually, you just remove your hands, move on to the next place and the water comes on.  By the time you reposition your hands the water is off.  I used to feel the icy water in the sinks didn’t make your hands clean.  Last year I read an article from the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine that stated the temperature of water has no effect on transient or resident bacterial reduction.  That made me feel a little better.

This year we saw the debut of a new hand drying system with the terrifying name of Air Blade. It seems you insert your hands into a slot between two plastic pieces and the blades of air come on.  Your hands dry quickly.  Either that or your hands are loped off and there is no need to dry them again.  We declined to use this new scientific marvel.  I’m not putting my hands into anything called a Blade.

Turnpike rest stops are in another class all together.  Most roadside rest areas are really twins.  One nearly identical stop on each side of the interstate.  Sometimes we have stopped for years at the rest area on the north bound side but never its counterpart on the south bound side.  On our annual trek to Montgomery in October, we travel the turnpikes of the Eastern States.  The rest stops along these stretches are little cities in themselves, called travel plazas.  The stops lie between the inbound and outbound lanes accessible from both.  They contain a gas station and pavilion with fast food restaurants and cavernous rest rooms.  Their monochromatic tiled rooms are devoid of personality and smell vaguely of the usual bathroom smells mixed with grease from the frying burgers.  In Ohio, the birthplace of the safety rest area, there is a rest stop selling high-end candy.  Last year, both coming and going, we paid fifteen dollars for dark chocolate cherries and bark, making ourselves nearly sick with its richness.

Since we usually travel during the day, we rarely visit rest stops after dark.  There are usually people around and we aren’t fearful.  Travel after dark evokes images of wandering serial killers.  Once in Texas, we were traveling later than we should have been.  Unable to drive one more mile, we stopped for a brief nap.  It was high summer and the interstate landscape crews had been hard at work spreading a fresh layer of wood mulch at the bases of the shrubs.  We were alone in the parking lot.  I decided to venture into the women’s side of the building.  I trudged into the gloomy, dimly lit room and entered the third stall.  I brushed large pieces of mulch off the seat cursing the kids that probably had fun putting it there.  I squinted at my reflection in the wavy metal mirror and wished we were already in our motel room.  More of that damned mulch in the sinks!  I grabbed at the pieces to throw them on the floor and felt a squirming movement in my hand. The mulch was alive.  I screamed and scrutinized the wood chunks still left in the sink.  They were huge wood roaches, denizens of the nighttime Texas rest stops.  The germs on my hands seemed minor compared to facing the larger than life roaches.  Driving the rest of the way seemed easy after my encounter.  For weeks every time I closed my eyes in the car I saw the wood roaches.

As we start our show season and anticipate traveling the highways, I can’t wait to see the latest innovations in rest area technology.  I will also remember to pack bug spray.

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