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i26

I26Hold onto your seat … it’s a ROADTRIP! As Leigh and I took off on Friday to drive for a weekend up into the mountains of North Carolina. Which gives me another chance to whine on about my current obsession about the USA – their roadsigns.

First – an odd fact about the ’26. Interstate roads that run West/East in the USA have got even numbers, whilst those that run North/South have got odd numbers – which is why it winds me me up that the I26 that goes between Charleston and Johnston city runs (as you can see) more North/South that it does West/East.

Anyway. When you do five hours on the road … you do of course need to stop to eat, drink and go to the loo.

Now – from what I can remember – here’s what happens at a UK motorway service station:

You come off a slip road to find some 1960’s built concrete monstrosity and a place where there are a lot of queues. Queues for the Burger King where the prices are 10% higher than what they are on the high street, and queues in the newsagents style shop that sells the following intruiging items:

• Country music by artists you’ve never heard of on CD for £13.99
• Tins of tartan decorated Scottish Shortbread (Remember, you’re on the the M5 in Wiltshire)
• Porn magazines where the “no-nipples” cover breast shot anyway is still covered up by an-almost-but-no-quite translucent wrapper, that only goes four fifths up the sleeve thus leaving the masthead on view

An arcade area where for £2 (£2 coins only) you can play “Mega laser quasar zap”, or perhaps a few gambling machines where a pikey man called with greasy sideburns has been all morning giving scary looks to anyone innocent who wanders up wanting to have a go.

There’s another food area (a ‘step up’ from Burger King), where a small plate of hot food can be purchased, but only once you’ve gone into the banking centre next door to arrange a second mortgage to enable you to pay for it.

On the way out, there is a BP gas station where again, petrol costs you 20p more per litre than it would than the one just around the corner from your house. A disinterested girl with a tatty name badge that says ‘Tara’ doesn’t even make eye contact with you as she swipes your credit card, and you pay £239.73 to fill up your tiny cars 1100cc fuel tank.

And in the USA? Well … THEIR INTERSTATES DO NOT HAVE ANY SERVICE STATIONS!

Stay with me – I said that for effect, because here’s what happens:

GasThere are official ‘rest stops’ along all the interstates – but they are very non commercial. Instead they are literally a place for you to get out, stretch yours legs, take a break, go to the loo, let your dog pee too, and there’ll be a few vending machines selling drinks and sweets, but that’s it.

At some of the larger ones they’ll have local tourists info – an informations centre – but there’s no fast food, no shops, no Little Chef and no Travelodge.

FoodInstead .. if you want all the commercial shmuck, you have to come OFF the interstate onto the highway instead, where little communities have sprung up almost seemingly to serve the traveling public.

And so that you know what’s going to be at each junction, each is served by a series of blue signs that tells you in advance of what Gas, Food and Lodgings (in that order) is going to be if you exit off at that point.

And in a country where I find a lot of American roads to have poor, wonky and hard to understand signage, these signs shine through like a beacon of success of telling you what you’re going to get.

LodgingsI’m still amused by the fact that though that (say) if there is NO food (just gas) at a particular junction, then there’s NOT a sign saying ‘No food’, or not even a food sign at all .. instead, there’ll be a blue FOOD sign, which is then devoid of any of the regular food establishments that you’re used to seeing, thus indicating that there is nothing there to eat.

And I like these blue signs – I really like them. In years ahead when I’m back in England and have adjusted again to logical, meaningful, consistent road markers and road signs that are far enough in advance to be helpful, the one endearing memory I’m going to have from the US road system are these blue signs – and nothing else.

A final tip: If you stop at a gas station use their toilets, don’t stand too long looking at the helpful ‘you are here’ style map right outside that points to where in the wilderness you are. As I did this for so long some time, that another guy came up and lingered with me, as he thought I was queuing for the toilet, and it was a good 5 minutes until he realised that I was just map-studying and that the bathroom was free. Heh.

Leighs dad chips in with an additional comment about US interstates: A lot of them are built with mile long straight sections on purpose, so that in times of emergency (and war!?) they can be used (when empty) as emergency landing strips. Cool.

18 responses to “i26”

  1. Tina (G's Mum) says:

    Hey I’m first! Yes found these little reststops very useful on the Charleston to Savannah Road when we came over, choice of food outlets, and a service station too.

  2. Leigh: Conversely, UK motorways are designed with bends to stop drivers falling asleep.

  3. Chris M says:

    The South is woefully inadequate when you think of infrastructure, and funding for the same. Up North there are rest areas that are very similar to those described in the UK…but those are often on toll roads. If you ever take I-95 up North, you’ll find the rest areas start springing up in Virginia. In NJ, they are somewhat frequent on both the turnpike and the Garden State Parkway.

  4. David - Lightwater, UK says:

    Yes know the feeling of looking for gas, sorry petrol stations off the I5 in solcal. Grrrhh. Also I hate it when you can’t turn left at an intersection, so you need to take a really odd route around the block to get there! But one thing I do like is cruise control! Ah, it was so good along the I84 in Oregon!

  5. Jon Allen says:

    The Korean motorway service centres all follow a very similar pattern to each other.
    They all have small restaurants, a small convience store, a petrol station, lots of small stalls selling take away food and a coffee shop,
    huge toilets and some space where you walk a few meters to stretch your legs.
    If you take a coach from Seoul they have rest stops every 3 hours and you get 15 mins to get out for ‘a pit stop’ at one of the service areas.

    I wish I’d taken a few more photos, we could have compared details!

  6. Chz says:

    Yup, it’s just the South. Up north, you get the joy of having a Texaco and a Roy Rogers at your rest stop on the Interstate. (Okay, the second one isn’t a plus…)

  7. Allan Williams says:

    When I was in Washington State a few years ago I was amazed to pull into a rest area and be offered FREE coffee from a charity whose purpose was to help travellers and encourage them to rest. In the UK I’m sure many people avoid stopping, even though they are tired, because they don’t want to spend a fortune on a drink.

  8. Jono says:

    Hey Geoff, fancy explaining to your new father-in-law what an urban legend is?

    Apparently the landing strip tale is just that:

    http://www.snopes.com/autos/law/airstrip.asp

  9. Geoff's Mum says:

    Is there snow in the mountains this time of year? Any bears?

  10. Brent says:

    Contrary to what this snopes.com and Jono says, the interstates were designed with the intention of serving as emergency landing strips. Now, what the snopes.com article says is true, also, in that the idea was scraped later and those roads have never (that I know of, and I know a fair amount of useless American history/lore) been used for those purposes.

    However, growing up in Northwest Ohio (where the ground is so flat you can see for at least 6 miles straight in front of you), I know for a fact that there are sections of the 80/90 highway that are straight and long enough for airplanes to land on 🙂

  11. greatkingrat says:

    Well Jack Bauer landed a plane on a freeway in 24 so it must be true!

  12. Garion Allen says:

    Ian: That is true except for the M4 between bristol and Bath and the A47 between Peterborough and Wisbech where you lietrally have miles and miles of straight roads.
    Geoff: Not all service stations are 1960’s monstrosities. Go to Hopwood Park on the M42 😉

    I’ve noticed that France has a similar scheme of ‘rest stops’ randing from huts (wood or metal) with a toilet to proper full-on service stations with shops, restaurants etc. I prefer our service stations though. I love my fast food 🙂

  13. I remember a plane landing on the A40 at Northolt. I don’t think it meant to though.

  14. geofftech says:

    Well Leigh’s dad reads my blog! (and presumably the comments) so he’ll see that for himself Jono! heh. except that Brent disagrees with you, snopes and is going with Leigh’s dad. indeed – what DOES make snopes the definitive guide on what’s what? it’s just another reference/source.

    No bears or snow in the mountains mum, no 🙂

  15. Jono says:

    OK, if you don’t believe Snopes, how’s about the US Department of Transport’s Federal Highways Administration:

    http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/rw00b.htm

    There was a plan to build airstrips alongside some highways, but even that never came to pass.

    As for why Snopes is a good reference — they explain thoroughly why a myth isn’t — and often can’t be — true, they cite their sources, and are prepared to say “we don’t know”.

    If you still think the airstrips tale is true, find me some evidence!

  16. geofftech says:

    I’m giving Leigh’s dad your email Jono – then the two of you can slug it out…!

  17. jaq says:

    It must be just down south. I’ve been on I-90 (to western Mass.) and I-95 (to Maine), and both have services/rest areas which are not so different from the ones in the UK. (Though the I-90 ones seemed to all be Exxon/McDonalds).

    Perhaps more amusing is when you cross the border into New Hampshire and there is a massive ‘State Liquor Store’ right on the I-95.

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