Interstates, Rest Stops, Service Roads, Old Asphalt, and Coffee

Often, we of the preservation vein will proclaim “Avoid Interstates!” in a voice so full of passion and conviction, that we cannot imagine why people choose the interstate over another road. Choosing an interstate alternative makes sense when you’re traveling out in the Midwest and the mountain states and you have a leisurely road trip planned; however, when you have one day to drive 600+ miles from New York to North Carolina, the interstate is your only option. Here, on the east coast, I understand why people choose the interstates: there is not another way that is as efficient to travel such a long distance. Granted, traffic on I-95 is inevitable, especially in Virginia, but traffic on the local highways would be worse. (I know this because I have tried).

So what is a preservationist to do on an interstate trip? Take delight in the rest stops, coffee, and service roads, of course! When I say rest stop, I am referring to rest areas, the kind situated just off the interstate with bathrooms, picnic tables, dog walks, soda and coffee machines, and welcome centers. If you check out the website Rest Area History, you will see that rest areas are often times wonderful examples of roadside architecture and key piece to the automobile craze in the United States. (It is a great site – thanks to Kelly Timmerman for sharing it!)

There is a stretch of interstate in southern rural Virginia that always intrigues me. South of Petersburg, there are few towns visible from the interstate, except for the outskirts of these tiny towns. One is Stony Creek, Virginia, and you can see the volunteer fire department building facing the interstate. Along this stretch it is easy to imagine how the interstate divided a town. Small ranch houses sit on either sides of the road looking incredibly lonely. Other scenes include abandoned service stations and small greasy spoon restaurants. The structures do not resemble the modern styles, which often receive the reaction “who would buy a house there?” Rather, the smaller dimensions and less grandiose features seem to be of the 1940s-1960s. The service road, perhaps, used to be the main highway, not nearly that of an interstate, and it was still peaceful to look out one’s front windows. Now the interstate noise and lights must deter owners from sitting outside.

Other scenes beyond the service roads are old farmhouses, their vernacular styles and tin roofs hidden beneath the overgrowth of vegetation, long abandoned. In a car you pass by too quickly to get a good look or photograph. I always want to stop, but it would probably be trespassing which is a) illegal and b) very obvious along an interstate. But shouldn’t one of us take on the task of documenting what is left along the service roads, whether former commercial strips, farm houses and outbuildings, or other? When passing “through” a town on the interstate, it is easy to think that the “town” consists of two houses, when really the interstate is the outskirt and the town is tucked behind those houses, with its own main streets. Do people in these bypassed towns take the responsibility of documentation? It is difficult to know, but something that we should address. What do you think?

I love when the asphalt no longer looks newly poured and it turns more grayish than black, with sparkling glass mixed into the surface. It just looks like more fun than a boring, new interstate. The “old” road surface with service roads to awake my imagination and of course, a hot mug of coffee can make even interstate traveling amusing for the preservationist.

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