Bid a fond farewell to the mom-and-pop truck stops that once guarded the nation's byways. Say so long to homemade apple pie and the owners' wives who poured the coffee and the blonde cashier who knew your first name and the best route to El Paso.
Today's fourth-generation truck stops--as the industry likes to refer to them--increasingly are part of corporate chains. They are called travel plazas, and some, like the one in Gallup, N. M., are so big that golf carts are used to shuttle the drivers from their rigs to the restaurant.
Here on I-95, just north of Richmond, the Virginia Travel Plaza offers drivers of the nation's 1 million long-haul trucks a chapel with four pews, two restaurants, a Wednesday night shrimp feed, a motel with swimming pool, a pond stocked with bass, around-the-clock wake-up service for those who sleep in their trucks and, soon, a free movie theater with first-run films.
The Travel Plaza has a payroll of 140 and sprawls over so many acres that cashier Faye Derricotte uses binoculars to make out the license plates of rigs filling up at the pumps.
From his second-floor office overlooking the pumps and parking lot, plaza general manager Creg Strock watched a fleet of $100,000 rigs rumble off the interstate at dusk. From Deer Park, Tex., and Liberal, Kan., and Laurel, Miss., they came, driven by men whose journey had no final destination.
Strock, a former trucker, mused about how times had changed: The creation of the interstate system had made the job more isolated and impersonal; deregulation had put some unfit drivers on the road; stories about excessive drug and alcohol use and unsafe equipment had tarnished the romantic image of truckers as the Last American Cowboys and Knights of the Road. Even the truck stops, he admitted, were badly in need of the face lift that is now under way throughout the industry.
"Twenty years ago, if you'd asked me if I'd have let my daughter work at a truck stop, I'd have said, 'No way!' " he said. "The image of a truck stop was a place with rowdy, vulgar guys and a bunch of lot lizards (prostitutes) running around. The industry's come a long way since then, but unfortunately the public doesn't realize that."
"Tell you what ruined the truckers' reputation," said George Finney, who drives a blue Peterbilt with chromed wheels and fuel tanks, double stacks and an extra-wide sleeper bunk. "It was the CB. People drive along the highway and they hear truckers talking filthy on the radio, talking about beer and dope and women, and it's no wonder people don't think highly of 'em."
When Strock took over as general manager in April, the Virginia Travel Plaza had gotten so ratty that business had fallen off 60% and several Southern trucking companies had ordered their drivers not to use the facility.
Now, the upstairs bar that offered live country music--and caused many of the problems--is closed. Alcohol is banned. Prostitutes have been chased away. A private security force patrols the parking lot, and the restaurant offers a soup and salad bar and low-cholesterol meals that, at least in part, represent an awareness that nowadays 6% of the nation's truck drivers are women.
Business at the Virginia Travel Plaza has shot back toward the levels of a decade ago, when the truck stop was known as Jarrell's and was one of the most popular way stations on the East Coast.
Efforts to free the facility from drugs and alcohol and to tidy up a tarnished image are being duplicated by many of the 4,500 diesel fuel outlets that stretch from coast to coast.
One operator in Ontario, Calif., has spent $500,000 on a chain-link fence around his huge parking lot, and in Carlisle, Pa., a sign lets truckers know that undercover drug agents are prowling about. "If you're selling, we might be buying, and if you're buying, we might be selling," it warns. The message is signed by the district attorney.
In the Virginia Travel Plaza, as Strock surveyed the parking lot from his office window, the Driver's Den restaurant, which has a pay phone at each table, was filling up. The dinner special was beans and franks, at $2.99, and the truckers sat alone, some talking on the phone between forkfuls of dinner.
Truckers came and went, but it was nearly midnight before the crowd in the busy restaurant started to thin. In the parking lot, trucks stood side by side like a formation of tanks, engines rumbling. One by one they headed out into the night, the drivers bound for the next truck stop and their only respite from the long, lonely open road.