It’s weird being over fifty, remembering how different things used to be thirty-five to forty years ago. But the weirdest part is realizing that more than half of the population doesn’t have the same old memories simply because they’re much younger and the world has changed. Does that make me old, thinking about the way it used to be?
We “old” people complain about how easy kids have it today, and in the next breath we’re nostalgic for the old days when things were, well, easier. When I think about what it was like to go on vacation as a kid, to ride cooped up in a car with my parents and three siblings for hours, driving two-lane highways, it’s definitely the former. (If this reminds you of The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963, just be aware that, while the timeline and location is nearly identical, my travel experiences were way easier than the Watsons’. If you haven’t read that book, add it to your tbr list!)
In the sixties, the expressway system in the U.S. was in its infancy. When you traveled, you often drove the back roads, because they were the only roads. Highways didn’t have nice, clean, air-conditioned and heated rest area buildings with vending machines, restaurants and flush toilets. Oh, no. Often, all there was at a rest stop was a gravel turnoff, with a place to park, a path leading back to an outhouse or two, maybe a water pump, and of course, picnic tables.
First thing once you parked, there’d be the dreaded trip to the bathroom. You’d have been complaining for the last 15 miles that you really had to go, but then when you were walking back into the woods and remembered what lay in store for you, you’d wish you had never mentioned it.
While Michigan wasn’t the only state with primitive rest areas, it was the state we traveled in most often. Hence the map.
The outhouses at rural rest stops were a great source of anxiety to me, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Many of them were nothing more than a ramshackle wooden or corrugated aluminum shack with a creaky door. Inside would be a toilet of sorts, basically a bench or metal bucket that was built over a hole in the ground. There was usually a window high up on the side, covered with a torn and rusty screen, that let in a little light–just enough to see down into the watery, lumpy pit into which you were about to add your own contribution. Imagine the smell, especially in the heat of summer. Now imagine the flies. You’d have to brush them off the dirty toilet seat (if there was a seat) before you could sit down. There were no rest stop attendants (unless you count the flies) so the unsanitary filth could get pretty repulsive as the travel season wore on. But if you had to go, you sucked it up and sat down.
Okay, now I’m not in the mood to talk about the fun lunches we used to enjoy at the rest area picnic tables and the nice, nostalgic part of “the old days” on the road. That’ll be in two weeks.