Some Observations From The Road

We were on the great American highway a bit this weekend, traveling to and from a wedding in Pennsylvania. Here are some observations from the first big road trip we’ve taken this year.

• Lots of Americans are on the road this summer. Traffic was heavy on Friday, when we drove to the wedding, and Sunday, when we returned. It was even bumper-to-bumper in Maine. And the traffic wasn’t all semis or FedEx or Amazon delivery trucks, either: we saw lots of passenger vehicles, including many campers and RVs. (You tend to notice those big boys slowing down traffic on the hills.) That meant some long lines and frustrating stop-and-go traffic when we hit road work areas on Friday, so on Sunday we left early enough to breeze through those areas in light traffic. If you’re taking a road trip this weekend, see if you can identify highway work areas and time your travel accordingly.

Gas prices are definitely up, but there is a lot of variance in prices. In case you hadn’t noticed, the price of gas has increased. In some places, the price of a gallon of regular unleaded was more than twice as much as it was last fall when we drove from Maine to Columbus. But there’s a big range in prices as you roll from one area to another, whether due to supply problems in some areas, local taxes, or price wars. If you pay attention and are willing to stop before your fuel indicator hits “E,” you can save a few bucks.

Toll booths are an endangered species. Highways in the eastern U.S. used to be riddled with toll booths, and the long lines they caused. Now the toll booths are going the way of the dodo, and many of the toll booths we passed are in the process of being decommissioned and torn down. It’s not because states and highway administrations have given up on tolls, however: they’re just charging through EZ Pass and license plate photos followed by a mailed bills. Privacy advocates must hate this development, because it means detailed photographic records of American travel are being compiled and stored, somewhere. I’m not quite sure how the photo-and-bill approach makes economic sense, given the cost of postage, but I’m sure the tolls have been adjusted to reflect that. And in the meantime, states have cut toll collector salaries and related costs from their payrolls.

•. Gas station coffee quality continues to improve. If, like us, you like to hit the road early, here’s some good news: the coffee quality at the random gas stations you find along the highway is vastly improved. In the past, gas station coffee was either swill that tasted like it was dredged from the local muddy river or a thick, black, metallic-tasting sludge that had boiled down at the bottom of a pot that was kept on the burner too long. Now you can actually get a quality cup of coffee pretty much wherever you go, and all kinds of food and snacks, besides. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a service station with actual service bays—they’ve all been glassed in and converted to roadside convenience stores. You won’t be able to get your tire fixed or your radiator checked by a guy named Hank wearing a grease-stained shirt, but you can enjoy multiple coffee options and hazelnut- or french vanilla-flavored creamer.

Hydration Nation

IMG_5192Driving home today from Russell’s show in Detroit, Kish and I stopped at a Speedway somewhere along Route 23 to gas up.  I went inside to use the facilities and there, strategically located on the path to the restrooms, was this extraordinary shrine to hydration.  An entire section of the interior was devoted to every non-alcoholic form of refreshment you could possibly imagine — and this picture doesn’t even include the coffee station that included eight different kinds of coffee and a mocha java machine.

Are Americans really so thirsty that a random gas station stop needs to include a Quench Quad that features so many different kinds of soft drinks in sizes that include large, giant, and suitable for use as a swimming pool?  Is it any wonder that so many Americans are struggling with obesity issues when they are guzzling king-sized cups of sugary beverages and spooning down frozen concoctions every time they stop for gas?

Life’s Little Irritants (Cont.)

Why is it that we can (or could, at least), land a man on the moon, but can’t invent a gas station hose that doesn’t loop around?

When I was a kid, gas stations were staffed by guys in clean uniforms who would run out, fill your tank, clean your windshield, check your fluids, and send you on your way with a cheery wave.  (Of course, my memories might be a mixture of reality and Texaco TV commercials.)  I never got to trust my car with the man who wore the star, however.  By the time I started driving, the uniformed guys had vanished, and every filling station was self-serve.  Just an early example of how businesses have adopted models that cut employment costs by requiring the consumer to shoulder part of the workload, but I digress.

I don’t mind pumping my own gas if it means I pay a lower price.  But can’t the oil companies at least sink some of their money into developing a gas pump hose that doesn’t immediately become twisted?  If I’ve got to put up with that gaggy gasoline smell and a surly employee behind a plexiglas shield barking at me over a cheap loudspeaker, is that too much to ask?