If you’ve had even one eye on local news, you probably know that the first Buc-ee’s travel center in Tennessee opened a couple of months ago in Crossville. Heading east on I-40 last week, I stopped there. So did about a million other people.
At least that’s how it looked when I pulled in. Cars and trucks and campers (but no eighteen-wheelers, which aren’t allowed) were gassing up at the 120 “fueling stations.” I finally found a parking place at the far edge of the lot and made my way into the store. Talk about sensory overload! My first inclination was to turn and run, but that would have made for a very short newspaper column.
But how could I possibly take in this 53,000-square-foot store filled to the brim with stuff?
Buc-ee’s sells patriotic apparel. Religious apparel. Holiday apparel. Camouflage apparel. Apparel featuring Bucky the Beaver. They sell candles and coffee mugs and genuine cowhide rugs. Cookbooks and cutting boards and Christmas ornaments and “word art” and decorations to dangle from your rear-view mirror.
Of course, Buc-ee’s also sells food, from traditional snacks to sugary corn puffs called “Beaver Nuggets” to kolaches (a word I didn’t know but which I learned is a sweet bun with filling in the middle) to homemade fudge to dozens of varieties of $29.98-a-pound jerky to the chain’s most famous culinary offering: fresh brisket, chopped and served at the “Texas Round-Up” in the middle of the store. Most any kind of drink is available too, from bottles and cans in the cold cases to a whole wall of Icee machines to another wall of fountain drinks to another wall of coffee.
As I gaped in wonder, memories of childhood car trips–when there were no such things as “travel centers” or interstate highways in my part of the world–came rushing back. When the gas needle on our station wagon moved toward “E,” my daddy would start looking for a filling station where we could gas up and stretch our legs and maybe get a little something to eat and drink.
It would never have occurred to us that such a place would sell souvenirs, though they sometimes gave out free road maps. Snack choices usually consisted of stale Lance crackers or mangled Snickers and Milky Way bars. Drinks were whatever the station owner had loaded into his dented metal cooler in deposit-required glass bottles. Whichever drink–be it Coke, Dr. Pepper, Seven-Up or Orange Crush–my brother and I pulled out of the icy water first turned out to be exactly what we wanted. After we slugged the sweet bubbly goodness down, my mother would insist we visit the restroom, which meant getting the grease-caked key from the guy gassing up the car.
“Don’t touch ANYTHING while you’re in there,” Mother warned. She pulled a sandwich bag that held a sliver of soap from her purse and told us to wash our hands good when we were done but to not even think of drying them on the filthy ribbon of fabric that was almost certainly sagging all the way to the floor out of the cloth roll towel dispenser.
Flash forward sixty years. In addition to selling pretty much every snack and drink and silly souvenir known to humankind, Buc-ee’s also boasts—and deservedly so—that they have the cleanest public restrooms in America. Brightly lit and tiled from floor to ceiling, the restrooms have huge sinks and mirrors and plenty of diaper-changing stations. Word is that the toilet paper dispensers and paper towel dispensers and soap dispensers and hand sanitizer dispensers are never empty. The women’s restroom at the Crossville store has 27 private and spacious stalls, with doors that lock. The men’s restroom, I’m told, has 16 stalls and 13 urinals.
But here’s the truth. I wouldn’t trade my childhood car trips for anything Buc-ee’s has to offer.
(August 27, 2022)