Uniformity, sugar, and fast food fuel my road trips

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The gas station convenience store is uniform in America. No matter where you visit in the contiguous 48, the gas station convenience store is relatively similar to one a couple thousand miles away.

They’ll have different names. In Pennsylvania you’ll find Wawa and Sheetz, and in New Jersey Wawa turns into Quick Chek. In New York the Quick Chek morphs to Stewart’s. And these places will peddle slightly different specials. Some places spotlight ice cream, while others may have a larger deli counter. Other places might have a robust drink selection. But at their core, these places are rather homogeneous American staples.

You’ll notice the shelves will be filled with most of the same candies and bags of potato chips. Another shelf will carry canned goods. Another will have the travel gear and car tools. The drink coolers will have very little variation. While you can’t get a Big Red in Delaware or a Mr. Pibb in Connecticut, you can get every kind of mass-produced soda, juice, water, and electrolyte-packed extreme drink at these places. The variations are tiny reminders that these small locales are all a little different, but the bigger picture is that 98 percent of America is actually pretty baseline.

Two weeks ago I walked into a gas station convenience store in western Virginia, eight hours through a 14-hour crawl up the western interstates of the eastern America empire. As my car hugged the Appalachian mountain chain on an arduous drive home from a 10-day adventure in visiting small towns and national parks, I had to stop it once in a while for a fillup, or just to keep my sanity. So the western Virginia gas station convenience store – whose name and location I completely forget and don’t want to recall right now by sifting through receipts – was my stop.

I walked in and, fueled by hours of mindless driving spiced only by the occasional Mike + the Mechanics appearance on my Spotify shuffle, immediately gravitated to the sugary and rich sector of the store. “Where’s the Swedish Fish?” I asked, and not quietly, because mindless driving only allows my thoughts to swirl, resulting in a very loopy temperament that begs for strangers to join in with me. In this instance, nobody did. After searching for what seemed like 10 minutes, I finally pinpointed the Swedish Fish (my go-to road-trip treat), then moved like a hawk to the soda dispenser.

The soda dispenser is a perfect example of a place where convenience stores are at once homogeneous and teaspoons of their individual locations. All of the dispensers, as far as I know in America, carry the same beverages: Coke or Pepsi products. That’s it. But there’s just enough room for character, because at this western Virginia dispenser, all the cups were made of Styrofoam. There was no UFC branding to make me gag. There was no catchy name for the convenience store cup family. Just Styrofoam, which my wife – who’s from Central Texas – believes is the best way to consume soda (“It stays cold!”). Also, this convenience store audaciously set a baseline price for all dispenser soda, adding just a 0.10 charge for each bigger size. This means people likely go for the biggest size all the time, another way in which we Americans shoot ourselves in the diabetic feet.

Diatribes aside (because, remember, I bought one of these sodas), I also bought a bag of extreme-flavored Doritos, a cheese stick and a Jack Link’s Teriyaki Beef Steak, which is another one of those guilty pleasures that’ll only make me regret decisions when I’m much older. Actually, all of these decisions feel regrettable, but when I’m on a 14-hour, one-day drive, every bet is off.

The cashier agreed.

“Hey, when you’re on a road trip, anything goes,” she said. Well, not everything. But food? Yeah, anything goes there.

This is Reason 4,119 I love and live for road trips. I was raised on junk food – my family frequented fast-food establishments, I spent years bathing in Herr’s Salt & Vinegar Potato Chips, and every single morning as a kid I’d use 0.10 cents to buy a Blow Pop. Years later, my dentist would wonder what the hell I did that turned one of my back teeth into the Parthenon. The answer: That’s the tooth – the only tooth – that I used to bite down on my daily Blow Pop.

I don’t eat that much junk food anymore, but whenever I have the opportunity to revisit my plump youth, I cave. For the last two years I’ve asked my wife and friends to cooperate with a “party” that is headlined by a mammoth order of KFC and/or Taco Bell. I always publicly talk about how I don’t go to McDonald’s, but come on, at least once every March I visit for a Shamrock Shake. And every few months I’ll get Chicken McNuggets there. I recently convinced my wife to have a dinner of Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwiches, mostly so I could polish off the night with a chocolate Frosty.

Again, I don’t do this much, but when the opportunity presents itself, I’m there.

So the 14-hour road trip checked off every box. I literally thought about what junk food I’d buy during the trip in the days preceding the trip, because anticipation is one way that I fend off giving into temptation in the present. If the idea of three Taco Bell Taco Supremes (my all-time favorite fast-food item) in the future can stop me from eating anything unhealthy for a couple days, then I’ll let my mind torture itself.

I tore through the junk food, which was lunch. I kept my hunger at bay between lunch and dinner by snacking on salt-and-vinegar popcorn that I ordered two nights before in Atlanta (it kept really well). It was my first ever taste of salt-and-vinegar popcorn, and now I need it all the time.

But soon dinner approached, and I literally made sure to take the time during a stop to find the closest Taco Bell to where I’d be in two hours. I pinpointed it and made that my mission. Two hours and a smattering of traffic later, I was at the Taco Bell ordering three crunchy, beef Taco Supremes.

And one beef Chalupa.

Look, the driver also needs fuel.

There are few things I appreciate more on road trips than the opportunity to do, see or eat something I’ve never experienced before and may never experience again. During those 10 days driving south I did just that, striking up conversations with kind, passionate people, and trying new things that expanded my appreciation for America. From comfort-driven and homey breakfast nooks to restaurants that pulled in ingredients not native to New York or the northeast, I was able to eat a host of interesting food and learn a little more about how people live and enjoy life. That keeps me going. That makes me want to tell more stories.

But at some point I just have to hop in the car and drive for a long time. At when that time comes, there’s something calming and necessary about the uniformity that saturated my youth, linking me to the road trips I experienced as a kid and the shared experiences that so many in America can seize because there’s a McDonald’s in every state, a Taco Bell off every highway, and wherever you may go, a gas station convenience store that isn’t very different from the one before.

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