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Tag Archives: On the Road

When I rode bike across the country in the first half of the 1980s, I would often stop at gas stations, to fill my water bottles, and to buy a can of cold soda from the vending machines that were almost always out front by the gas pumps.

 

Gas Station, North Carolina, 1983

 

At that time, a gas station had two or three gas pumps, (one for each grade of gasoline), a coke machine, maybe a vending machine with few candy bars, and an owner/mechanic who could fix a tire or replace a fan belt.   As a child, I remember when a service station attendant would come out of the gas station to pump the gas—most stations had a rubber hose across the front that would ring a bell to let the attendant know that there was a customer out front.  My dad usually paid cash for the gas, handing the attendant a few bills, getting change back, often from a metal coin holder on the attendant’s belt.  I don’t think my dad had a credit card then, but when credit cards did come along, the transaction required a paper form that would take an imprint of the card, and required a signature on paper.   Sometimes the attendant would offer to check the oil, or clean the windshield.   Mostly the gas station attendants were high school kids—the mechanic was often busy working on cars inside the garage.

 

Richmond, Indiana, 1981

 

I can’t remember when gas stations became mostly self service—I think it was about when I began to drive—and a big part of the reason we didn’t need attendants anymore was the advent of the auto shut-off valve that cut the gas flow when the tank was full.  The self service station meant that a single attendant could manage more gas pumps while sitting next to a cash register.  At the beginning of the self service age, you had to pre-pay for the gas—the pump would shut down when you hit your limit—or leave your credit card with the attendant.

 

Eastern Oregon, 1985

I recall the evolution of the convenience stores back in Pennsylvania—Turkey Hill started small stores to directly market milk and ice cream to customers—over time they added junk food and packaged sandwiches.  I recall when they first added gas pumps to their new stores—they needed a larger lot to handle the extra cars.  In the beginning, you needed to go to the clerk to pay for the gas at the pump, which often meant standing in line behind people buying cigarettes and lotto tickets.  The advent of the credit card pump meant that you didn’t even have to enter the store to get your gas.

 

Florida Panhandle, January 2020

Florida Panhandle, January 2020

 

On the trip my wife and I took in December and January, we bought gas at convenience stores almost exclusively.  In the mornings, we bought coffee on the same stop.  In most of these places, the coffee stand is huge—lots of choices of fresh coffee, plenty of cream to add.  Sometimes we bought a breakfast sandwich from the hot deli.  In the Midwest, the chain we used was Casey’s, in the south it is Circle K.  The Circle K stores have coffee machines with computer interfaces that grind beans and brew the coffee fresh into the cup, a far superior product compared to the aged and burned coffee from the glass pots of years ago.

 

Gatesville, Texas, January 2020

 

Illinois, December 2019

 

In the smallest towns there are now unattended gas stations (locally known as “kiosks”)—gas stations that require a credit card, and have no attendants.  These gas stations sell only fuel—no oil, no coffee, no candy bars.

 

Mississippi, January 2020

 

Occasionally, there are problems at a gas station—like when the credit card reader doesn’t work.  My response is usually to drive off—why reward a station with business when they can’t keep their pumps running.  And on this last trip, I had a gas pump where the auto shut-off failed to work—I was adding oil to the engine—and several gallons of gas spilled on the ground.  When I told the attendant about the spill he brought out three absorbent pads—not nearly enough to absorb the spill—I left as quickly as possible—wanted to get away before a fire started.

 

Texas, January 2020

 

Driving across the landscape, it’s apparent that in most places, the small independent gas station is gone as a functioning businesses.  The ruins of old gas stations dot the landscape.  Some have been converted into other businesses—coffee shops or antique stores—and a few have become tire shops—but the mechanic running a gas station is mostly gone.   One reason why the old gas stations have disappeared is the problem of leaking underground gas tanks from these small gas stations.  Typically, a steel tank will rust out after a few decades, releasing gasoline into the local water table—not a good idea—so the EPA began requiring double walled tanks for underground storage.  However, the investment required to dig up the old tanks and replace them with the new ones is significant—which provided the opportunity for consolidation of the market.

 

Abandoned Gas Station, somewhere in America, 2019

 

 

 

On the Road—Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois

The Van trip continues—my last blog post was from a hotel room in Rock Springs, Wyoming—a town full of empty hotel rooms, located between the national parks of Utah and Wyoming. The hotel we stayed at was cheap—a nice room for $45—with a special discount based on the fact that the building heat wasn’t working properly—we had a small electric space heater to keep the room warm.

 

Wyoming December 2019

The worry in Wyoming was the wind. Gusts up to 60 mph, warnings about blow over potential for high, light vehicles. Our van doesn’t do well in the wind, so we got off of I-80 and followed the lower, slower Route 30 through Medicine Bow.

 

 

Wyoming, December 2019

Out of Laramie, we decided to head south, into Colorado, to meet up with my old bicycle trip route from 1984, which began in Denver and headed into the high plains east of town. The road between Laramie and Fort Collins had a few patches of blowing snow, and a few cars and trucks in the ditch, but we made it through safely. Fort Collins and Greely were crazy—traffic—and we noticed that we were getting a pronounced wheel vibration—perhaps a thrown wheel balance weight—but perhaps warning of a tire failure—the tires were new in 2002. We stopped to have the tires checked in Fort Morgan, and decided to have them replaced at a Walmart there. The ride was much smoother after that.

 

 

Colorado, December 2019

 

Colorado, December 2019

After buying new tires and fretting about why we didn’t do that before the beginning of the trip, we realized that when we began this trip, we weren’t sure how the trip would go, and the possibility of needing to abandon ship along the way is something we discussed. When I first tried to start the van last summer, the van wouldn’t start—dead battery. I bought a new battery, still wouldn’t start, spun over without catching. I bought a can of starter fluid—and it started—drove it a quarter mile to the end of the driveway, then back to the house. The van was covered with decaying leaves and moss from years sitting idle. The windshield had a crack, but we weren’t sure it was worth replacing. In early November, we drove the van down the hill so it wouldn’t get snowed in at the farm. We weren’t sure the van would make it to Spokane, but it did—so we took it to the car wash and got the worst of the accumulated grime off the outside, and vacuumed most of the mouse poops out of the inside. The fan belt failure was a warning about how old this vehicle is—and how the rubber parts especially were aging.

 

 

Western Nebraska, December 2019

After the new tires were installed, we noticed that the van seemed to be running quite well. In Hastings, Nebraska we stopped for coffee at a Casey’s and met a man who seemed shocked to see the old van still on the road—he had been a dealer for them back in the 1980s—“we sold a ton of those rigs”—and told us that people were restoring the campers and selling them for a lot of money. Looking on the internet, I’m not so sure that there’s a real market for them—all the older units I can find are priced low—I think we’re still in the “junk” stage of collectability. Which is fine, as long as it runs…

 

Nebraska, December 2019                      Western Nebraska, December 2019

 

When I rode bicycle through eastern Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa in the mid 1980s, the towns seemed to be emptying out, a process that seems to have continued. Most of the small towns are now filled with empty main streets, the exception being the county seats where there seems to be enough work to keep a viable community going. Even there, though, it seems that Walmart and Dollar General have replaced the local department stores, and most of the businesses are small and fragile—Mexican restaurants, antique stores (almost always closed, please call this cell number), real estate offices, insurance salesmen…

 

Bloomfield, Iowa, December 2019

The grain elevators are bigger—huge steel tanks, ground piles, always next to a rail line. The smaller elevators are abandoned and decaying. Many of them have already been demolished, but a few ghosts remain.

 

Illinois, December 2019

The small towns in Iowa seemed to be doing better than the places further west, maybe because there seems to be more small scale manufacturing scattered among the farms.

We were stopped by snow in central Illinois—got a room at a motel with a whirlpool. It’s good to be in a warm, dry place when the snow is falling…