Van Plass is far from home. Far from his wife, their two dogs and the salt air of the North Carolina coast. It’s a crisp, clear Tuesday and, as on most mornings, Plass has woken up in another state. This time it’s Minnesota, smack dab in America’s heartland. Plass is a long-haul truckdriver and it’s been months since he’s been home. “When I do go home, it can be a hassle just to get in the door,” he says. “Sometimes I’m gone so long that the dogs have forgotten what ‘dad’ looks like.”
Trucking is the driver of the US economy. Seventy per cent of freight, from food to furniture, is hauled by trucks that carry about $700bn (€628bn) of goods across the nation every year. But a dwindling number of drivers is straining the industry. Despite the relatively brief training period and promise of solid wages, it’s estimated that the sector will be 100,000 drivers short by 2021. The reasons? Pay isn’t what it once was and life on the road isn’t easy. Younger generations are reluctant to spend long, lonely weeks on the road, sleeping on a stiff mattress in the cabin of their truck, sustained by a microwave and a mini-fridge. But for those like Plass who do brave the road, there are glimpses of home along the way in the shape of familiar faces, hearty cooking and fresh laundry. The best truckstops in the US are anchors in otherwise transient lives.
Plass didn’t spend the night parked beside the interstate. Instead he slept at one of the 300 trailer parking spots at Trail’s Travel Center, at the junction of Interstate-35 and Interstate-90 in Albert Lea, Minnesota. “You can’t get no better,” he says of the hulking, Viking-inspired truckstop founded by Rocky Trail and his father Bernard in 1998. It’s more than just a roadside convenience store with gas pumps attached. While motorists and families stop in for homemade fudge and local sausages, Trail’s Travel Center draws drivers for its chapel, laundry facilities, 24-seat movie theatre and sparkling showers. The two populations are separated: motorists enter through the front (past a crudely carved wooden Viking, axe in hand) and truckers through the back. In 1998, when Trail’s Travel Center opened, it was the only truckstop around – but times have changed. Love’s, the Oklahoma-based chain whose logo is a flurry of red and pink hearts, has a branch across the road. There’s also a Kwik-Trip, a Casey’s General Store and two other competitors a short drive away says Trail’s son Dustin, who joined the family business in 2013. Even Walmart poses a threat now thanks to its free overnight parking.
To top it all off, profit margins on fuel aren’t what they once were. “You have to broaden your horizons,” says Trail, overlooking his empire of waffle fries, corn dogs and warm pretzels from the shop floor. A tiered display flaunts their bestsellers: rows of smoked meat and summer sausages from nearby Nick’s Country Store. “We’ve tried to be a little piece of Disneyland along the road,” adds Trail. “We want to be a destination that people are willing to hold it in a little bit longer for.” Trail sees a near-even split between motorists and truck traffic, with an estimated 1,000 trucks filtering through his stop every day. George Barrett, a navy veteran sporting a long white ponytail, is one of them. He’s fuelling up here for good reason: customers who buy more than 50 gallons of petrol are rewarded with a free shower. The same goes for Kaitlyn Combs (one of the women that make up an estimated 6 per cent of truckers), who started driving while still knee-deep in student loans. Steve Neely, a soft-spoken former mechanic from near Pittsburgh, is making a much-needed laundry pitstop. “My wife hates when I fold it like this,” he says, referring to the T-shirt he’s holding, still warm from the dryer.
“Most people don’t know who the heck I am and that’s OK,” says Trail. “But they know who waits on them at the gas desk or the waitress in the restaurant. The Lord’s blessed us with some really good people and they’re what Trail’s is today.”
A comprehensive highway network was a long-held ambition of the US government but it wasn’t until the 1950s, under president Dwight D Eisenhower, that funding and construction for the interstate system took off. Oil companies were close behind, building gas stations and truckstops. In the early 1960s, Bill Moon, a veteran of the Korean War who worked at Standard Oil, was scouring the Midwest in search of the best locations for the firm’s next outlet. He came across a patch of farmland between Des Moines and Chicago, which he knew would soon sit next to Interstate-80. So in 1964, years before Interstate-80 was completed, Iowa 80 was built. Then just a small, run-of-the-mill gas station, Iowa 80 is now the world’s largest truckstop; its carpark has space for 900 trucks.
For the next two decades, Moon and his wife Carolyn ran Iowa 80 for Standard Oil but Bill had ambitions for something bigger. The 1980 Motor Carrier Act deregulated the industry, allowing more trucks on the road. Four years later the Moons bought Iowa 80 from Standard Oil. “The Motor Carrier Act was a gamechanger,” says Delia Moon Meier, Bill and Carolyn’s daughter and the current co-owner (with brother Will Moon) of the Iowa 80 Group. “With more and more customers, we kept growing bit by bit.”
Iowa 80 is much more than just cowboy boots, bumper stickers and souvenir registration plates: it supports every aspect of life on the road. The Super Truck Showroom, a blindingly bright palace of chrome, stocks more than 50,000 truck parts, from gearstick knobs made to look like an eight-ball to winged-pig hood ornaments. “That’s a cowcatcher,” says one employee, pointing to a particularly menacing chrome bumper guard. Rotating slowly on a large mechanic disc in the floor nearby – like a prize on the set of a gameshow – is a yellow Peterbilt truck called the “Cornpatch Cadillac”. There’s a chapel, a cinema that overflows when the Super Bowl is on, 24 showers, a dentist, a chiropractor and a barber. Nearby are a trucking museum and a huge truck wash, which has a pet wash next door for good measure. Iowa 80 employs 500 people to serve 5,000 daily customers 24 hours a day, every day.
“If you go back to the 1970s, trucking was glorified,” says Moon Meier. “But that died over the years.” The second-highest-grossing film of 1977 – just behind Star Wars – was Smokey and the Bandit, in which bootleggers Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed smuggle 400 cases of Coors beer from Texas to Atlanta, with the law hot on their tails. “But we like to think it’s still pretty glamorous.” On Iowa 80’s third floor, driver Clyde Green is sitting in a barber’s chair, his chin dropped to his chest. Terri Gaines runs a pair of clippers along the nape of his neck, just as she has for others for 28 years. On average, Gaines trims the hair of between 20 and 30 truckers every day. Green is travelling from Wyoming to Wisconsin but, he says, he came through Iowa 80 for a haircut. At dusk, 900 trucks are parked for the night. Pernell Young is seated at the steering wheel of his rig, leaning against the driver’s window. He has lived in Connecticut for 35 years but started driving in 2017 when his mother, who lives in Alabama, fell ill. He’s been on the road since, choosing routes that allow him to travel south to visit her. He doesn’t know where he’s off to next. “Truckstops are where you really live,” he says.
R Place roadside restaurant is two hours east of Iowa 80 in Morris, Illinois. A colossal slab of fresh ground beef is being moulded into a hamburger. “It’s two pounds of meat and two pounds of fixings, which is one pound of bread, one pound of lettuce, tomato, pickles and whatever,” says Kathie Romines, describing the Premium Ethyl Special, the star dish at the truckstop restaurant she founded with her husband in 1967. Back then it was The Chuck Wagon, a 100-seat joint with orange carpet, 10-cent coffee and walls dotted with cowboy vignettes. On average, R Place sells one Premium Ethyl Special a day. Today’s hungry recipient is Christian Robinson from Meridian, Mississippi. “Driving is good money but it’s not the best job for your health,” he says, as the four-pound burger is served. A nearby picture case commemorates those that “tried and died” the dish; a smaller case celebrates those who “survived” it. The current record time for devouring the burger is seven minutes. “Actually that was broken,” says Romines. “ This guy came in and did it in three minutes but we lost his picture.” Romines is 71 but still works seven days a week. She’s quick to find truckdrivers a seat at the counter or to fill a box of freshly baked puff pastries for businessmen heading home to Chicago. “We’ve probably sold two million cream horns,” she says. “Drivers drive way out of their way for them.”
In 2007, Romines sold the restaurant to Travel Centers of America, whose 271 locations span the US (she stayed on as R Place’s manager). “The one-offs didn’t work any more,” she says. “All the mom-and-pops have been bought up.” Truckstop restaurants are increasingly being converted to Wendy’s, Subways or other big-brand outlets where drivers know what to expect, no matter what corner of the country they’re in. R Place has changed ownership but its charms remain intact: the 80-year-old puppet show at its entrance still dances, the puff pastries and pot pies are still homemade, water is served in smoked-plastic glasses and coffee in white ceramic mugs. “We haven’t changed a bit,” says Loud Mary, a waitress who has worked here for 18 years. She’s wearing a crown to celebrate her birthday.
The future of truckstop restaurants is unclear. R Place might have barely changed but consumers have. For example, no one sits down to eat breakfast anymore, says Romines. Will all highways, state after state, soon be lined by the same chains? Or will autonomous vehicles negate the need for them entirely? As efforts to plug the shortfall in truckdrivers continue, the hope is that a fresh generation of drivers might breathe new life into roadside restaurants.
No matter which way it goes, R Place will be there, says Romines. Its grand sign will still loom high above Interstate-80, beckoning customers to take a break from the churn of the road. And Romines will be inside, ready to greet them. “Not until the grass grows three inches above my grave am I ever going to leave this place,” she says. “I used to have a fine-dining restaurant here in town; I’ve done that and supper clubs too. But this? This place is a lot more fun.”