Considering how fuzzy some of my vacation memories are, I’m surprised at how many details of the numerous highway rest areas I’ve visited I can still recall. That doesn’t shock Joanna Dowling, a historian who created the Web site www.restareahistory.org.
“I have a very strong memory of a rest area that we would stop at as kids,” she said. The Northern California stop in Weed, near Mount Shasta, had interpretive panels explaining the geology of the volcano, she said. Reading them became something of a tradition.
If you’re one of the tens of millions of travelers expected to hit the road for Thanksgiving, you’ll probably need to take a break at some point, and chances are that you’ll take it at one of the country’s ubiquitous highway rest areas. Occasionally maligned as dirty magnets of crime and other illicit behavior (see: “There’s Something About Mary”), the stops are evolving from small, flypaper-plastered restrooms into airy, high-tech travel plazas and welcome centers.
Some are tricked-out enough to become attractions in their own right. Let’s detour to just south of Cheyenne, Wyo., where a new $16 million welcome center on Interstate 25 opened to drivers at the end of September.
The 27,000-square-foot building hosts a variety of exhibits representing every part of the state. There’s a re-creation of a dinosaur dig site, complete with the pinging of metallic tools and audio of researchers talking about their finds.
Another popular feature is the replica of Butch Cassidy’s jail cell, said Shannon Stanfill, visitor services manager for the Wyoming Office of Tourism. Road-trippers can test their mettle by trying to escape from the pokey. “Even our retirees that are coming through, they are kids at heart,” Stanfill said. “They want to bust out of jail, and they want pictures with Butch Cassidy.”
Is it a wonder that travelers ever make it to their destination at all?
End of the road
The Wyoming welcome center and other 21st-century highway rest stops have come a long way since their rustic predecessors. There’s some debate about where the first such facility sprang up, but Dowling said that a likely candidate is a roadside picnic area in Michigan. The story goes that in the late 1920s, an engineer dismayed at the sight of families having meals next to the road started building picnic tables to give them a safe place to sit.