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Agoraphobia, schmagoraphobia.
July 1, 2008 6:05 AM   Subscribe

I'm going on a road trip this summer. I have weird fears about being in the middle of nowhere. What can I expect in terms of frequency of rest stops, etc.?

I'm particularly neurotic about never being too far away from a bathroom, but I also just don't like the idea of being hundreds of miles away from civilization. I think 90 percent of the battle is knowing what to expect, so I can mentally prepare myself (and the other 10 percent is resisting the urge to avoid beverages to the point where I get dehydrated).

We're going from Chicago to the Grand Canyon, traveling primarily on interstates through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Particularly states like NE, WY, and SD I tend to think of as totally desolate (I've never been anywhere between Chicago and California), but on the other hand interstates sound nice and accommodating. So what can I expect? Will there be hundred-mile stretches with no gas stations or rest stops to be found, or is there really nowhere in this country that hasn't been blighted by civilization?
posted by pluckemin to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I was born and raised in Wyoming. While I-80 is pretty darn barren, it's not a scoured no man's land. As long as you stick to interstates, there's something every 50-ish miles at the most. The exact character of that something will vary alarmingly, but there is definitely something.

Off the interstate is a different story, but as long as you're on the interstate, you'll be fine.
posted by Nelsormensch at 6:45 AM on July 1, 2008

I live on the Great Plains and have been all up and down it and through CO/NM/AZ, often far off the beaten path. Though I'm not a fan of consumer culture, I've rarely been further than 30 miles from modern conveniences like Wal-Marts, McDonalds, and Shells. Interstate 80 is a corridor of civilization, and due to all the trucking and cross-country SF-CHI driving, there will be oodles and oodles of services, along with full cell phone coverage (looks pretty good, huh?). Servicewise it's not much different from driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Where it might be a problem is getting into southwest Wyoming and in Nevada, where civilization does dry up a bit, but that will just take a little planning on your part as you go. Still, according to this document the most barren stretch handles about 6500 vehicles per day, so it's not going to be like a "no services for next 200 miles" deal.

Anyhow don't sweat it... it will go fine.
posted by crapmatic at 6:51 AM on July 1, 2008

If you're on the interstates, you'll be fine. I once drove from NYC to Las Vegas solo and went on smaller roads, and still was able to find services pretty easily; bigger Interstates generally come with ample rest stops.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:03 AM on July 1, 2008

I'd say that you should plot your route. Grab some maps, or do a printout from Google Maps for each state.

Practically every state's transportation department has a list and/or map of their rest stops along various highways. Each is findable in about five minutes. Typically rest stops average about every hundred miles. Of course, there are gas stations, restaurants, truck stops much more frequently than that.

While you're planning these out, you can find out various fun places to stop. I'm not talking about Third Largest Ball of Twine, but maybe beautiful locations, graves of famous authors, and so forth. Plotting out these trips can be a lot of fun and you can learn something in the process.
posted by adipocere at 7:04 AM on July 1, 2008

traveling primarily on interstates

You'll be fine. You won't go even six hours without passing a large, brightly lit restroom-and-fast-food facility. You will always be within a couple hours' reach of a WalMart or grocery store (not that I recommend shopping there, but you're not going to be out on the trackless prairie). Plan to stop at least every 3 hours. When there are cities along your route, make a point of stopping there - at the very least, you can drive around a little and then say "Hey, I was in Rapid City for an afternoon," while at the most, you can eat, pee, do laundry, get some food, and move around. Just make sure that you're looking ahead to plan stops - don't go hell-for-leather. With the long distances you drive out West and the lack of traffic, stopping for half an hour somewhere is not going to make or break your timetable.

The only trick to driving out west is that there are long distances between settled areas. A Trip-Tik or the like can really help you assess what's at the upcoming exits (some have absolutely nothing other than a rural road, while some are commercial strip areas, and some are towns). Make it a practice to take care of all of your needs when you do stop. Never turn down a chance to pee. Get cold drinks and snacks to keep in the car.Take a cooler and get ice and stock it at the rest station so you can keep your drinks cool. Stretch your legs - take a Frisbee and throw it around when you stop (works wonders). Look at the maps and guidebooks.

Don't be freaked out by truck stops; they're much nicer out west than they are in the East. Sometimes these are the main option at an interstate exit, as opposed to a a more I-95-like HMS or Marriott rest stop. They're mostly clean and decent places to stop (but maybe not to eat). If one looks shitty, move on and avoid it - some truck stops attract various types of sleaze, but good ones will be shiny and pleasant.

The cheesy tourist attractions (Corn Palace, Wall Drug, etc) are so well-designed as breaks to the monotony that you should stop at them. They are very, very cheesy, but at the same time, they're fun, unique, air-conditioned, and full of oddities.

State parks and national parks have showers and bathrooms and vending machines.

resisting the urge to avoid beverages to the point where I get dehydrated.

Don't do that. It sounds like you aren't especially outdoorsy, but this might be your chance to get a little more relaxed about it. Bring a roll of TP. One advantage to being in the middle of nowhere is you can just pee outdoors if you need to. The hard part (for females) is finding some cover, but an open car door can work, if you and your traveling companions are okay with that. As for guys, I can't tell you how many guys I've seen on the road just answering nature's call in the open air. I guess this is up to you - you won't have to go terribly long without a restroom, but sometimes al fresco is a fine option, as well.

I approached the Grand Canyon from the North when I roadtripped there, and that was actually the most resource-less part of my whole trip. I seem to remember that we were mostly on old state highways, rather than interstates, and the businesses were spotty and small and closed on Sundays. It's a good idea to have plenty of water and food in the car, and keep your tank of gas from getting near empty whenever you leave the interstate.

The interstates, by the way, are also good about warning you with signs like "LAST SERVICES FOR 72 MILES."

It's always natural to have pre-trip anxiety, but you'll have the time of your life. The roads are designed for travelers and road-trippers. You aren't going to the moon, and there's plenty out there to sustain you!
posted by Miko at 7:07 AM on July 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

Take a look at this picture. If you can find Des Moines and Omaha, you should be able to follow I-80 all the way to California. There's a reason the blobs of lights are patterned they way they are. I agree that if you stick to the Interstate system you'll definitely be fine. You should be ok on the US Highway system, as well.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:13 AM on July 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you have an AAA membership, get their trip-tix. They really lay out all options, rest stops and amenities. Really helps with answering "what's the best place to stop to take care of X".
posted by Arthur Dent at 7:37 AM on July 1, 2008

West of Chicago, there are really good and well-spaced rest areas in almost every state. Many even have WiFi, hot coffee, and other goodies. Get one of those RandMcNally road atlases; those will have rest areas marked on each state's map. The spacing of rest areas can be really erratic, with none for 100 miles and then you pass three 20 miles apart. The states you are thinking of as the most desolate actually have some of the best rest stop spacing, though -- it's a major safety issue in the rural west (especially in the winter), so the rest stops are regular and quite nice.

As mentioned above, truck stops in the west are great places to stop -- the food is usually fine (in that greasy diner kind of way), the bathrooms range from so-so to really good, there are showers for about $5 which is nice if you have been camping or sleeping at rest areas, and a lot of them now have free wifi in the parking lot. Every gas station next to an interstate will have public restrooms; so do fast food restaurants, state police substations, and some other buildings. One benefit of Starbucks' rapid expansion is that you find their cafes with their free bathrooms in all kinds of surprising places, too.

Here and there you might find an 80 mile stretch with "no services," but that will be signposted. And even then there are ranch exits and farm roads where you can pull off and use the bushes. Fundamentally, being away from a bathroom only really matters if there are people around. Much of your drive is going to be in rural areas where you can pull off on a small exit or even off on the shoulder and disappear into the bushes, clutching your roll of toilet paper. (Be polite and bury your poop and TP so the person coming after you doesn't step in it.) Peeing can be done behind a car door (opening the front and back passenger-side doors gives a pretty good screen, even next to a busy road), behind a tree, in a ditch, behind a utility building, etc -- it's genuinely not a big deal.
posted by Forktine at 7:38 AM on July 1, 2008

Responding to you from South Dakota, about a mile off of I-90. Don't worry. You'll be fine. I like to think that we have plenty of civilization out here, too.

I'd like to echo the aforementioned point that truck stops are nicer out here. Indeed, they are. I lived in the east for a while and feel I can safely confirm that there is a significant difference. In South Dakota, most of them are family-friendly and clean.

There are fairly large towns along I-90 at regular intervals. You'll never lack for restaurants, restrooms or tourist attractions. You can do the cheesy stuff, but we also have quite a few options for tourists interested in nature, the arts, history and more.

I talk a lot about South Dakota, but I live in Minnesota. You'll find even more stops and options along the MN I-90 corridor. Have fun!
posted by bristolcat at 8:24 AM on July 1, 2008

I often say that South Dakota was the biggest surprise of my trip out West. I expected desolation, and I found an incredibly beautiful landscape, totally interesting cultural history (settler, Native, gold rush), and plenty of neat places to hang out.
posted by Miko at 8:28 AM on July 1, 2008

Humans survived for thousands of years without indoor plumbing. If you really are that far from a bathroom...well, let's just say that's why God made bushes.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 8:29 AM on July 1, 2008

If you see a sign in Utah that says three hundred some odd miles to the next gas station believe it, use their restrooms and gas up. When you gas up and two guys come running out and start looking under your car and tell you that unless you get a $500 repair something is going to shoot out of the hood of your car don't believe it.

Other than that, there are hundreds of truck stops, rest areas etc in the areas you are traveling. I've driven cross country 6 times now and never once had a problem finding a place to pee. You will be fine - have fun!
posted by a22lamia at 8:39 AM on July 1, 2008

I also just don't like the idea of being hundreds of miles away from civilization
is there really nowhere in this country that hasn't been blighted by civilization?

Look, an interstate freeway is essentially civilization. Giant roads built at great expense, forming the backbone of a transportation network that delivers products you buy at the grocery store in Chicago. That road you are driving on out in the middle of Nebraska or wherever is connected by an unbroken string of asphalt and concrete to your front door. Those trucks you see driving by? One of those very trucks might be delivering a box of processed food that you will buy at the grocery store next week. Alongside the road run wires and fiber optic cables and pipes -- and what wonders of civilization are here! The magic of electric light, natural gas that provides heat without the need to go out and cut wood to burn, wires that let people speak with a loved one on the other side of the continent, and the backbone of the internet.

So you´re never far from civilization on the interstate. If you start to feel alone, imagine some little packets zipping by on the fiber right that instant, little packets that say pluckemin, everything is going to be just fine...
posted by yohko at 9:59 AM on July 1, 2008

We did pretty much the same road trip (MN to Grand Canyon) and it was not at all desolate. There are rest stops regularly, especially at state borders, so you should be fine. Nebraska is flat, so it's a good option to do that drive at night, whereas Colorado is full of mountains so it's best viewed, and probably safest, during the day. And don't go through Durango because even native Coloradoans (?) told us it was a tretcherous route. And Four Corners is dismissable.
posted by LiveToEat at 11:21 AM on July 1, 2008

hey .. whats the big deal?!

Just bring enough food / water and emergency supplies (think spare tire , fix a flat , cell phone , blanket , etc..)

and use nature!! there is always a place to pull over for a moment.

have fun!!! you only live once. If anything DOES happen , it will just become an amusing story .. because trust me, you WILL live through it :)
posted by Ryaske at 11:36 AM on July 1, 2008

Bring a cell phone and maybe an emergency thing to pee in in case you get stranded and you will be fine. AAA is always helpful and then you know you're not going to get stuck at the side of htee highway for too long. I have travelled those roads alone lots and have even, as a single young woman, slept in my car in most of those states and never ever once got hassled at all, ever.

I was very nervous about my first trip alone but I sort of think that had more to do with a lot of media "omg don't go anywhere alone! Nevar leave the comfort of your home!" scaremongering. I found that people on the road are either standoffish [i.e. you don't bug them, they won't bug you] or friendly in a companionable but not creepy way.

That said, don't get too dehydrated to avoid peeing because that's bad for you health and sanity wise. If you don't pound the caffeinated beverages and beer and stick to water and juice and whatnot, you should be fine. Also eat something saltyish and don't just eat carb-y sweets and that will help you pee less. Bringing a small cooler in the car can keep you with some tasty food/drink nearby and keep you from being beholden to whatever is at the quickie part. Have a really good time!
posted by jessamyn at 11:54 AM on July 1, 2008

Definitely do not let yourself get dehydrated. Along with not moving for hours on end while sitting behind the wheel, it is a risk factor for deep vein thrombosis. So get out of the car, stretch, look at the crazy roadside attractions and drink lots of water.

Most of all, have fun. I travel to the Grand Canyon alone once a year. I absolutely love it. ENJOY!
posted by Sophie1 at 12:14 PM on July 1, 2008

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