Rest stops are a necessity of road trips. There are the recognizable chain restaurants and gas stations, of course. But writer Catherine Jagoe prefers a different type of stop for what it tells her about the area.
When I’m on a road trip, I’m often grateful for quirky, small-town convenience stores. Corporate America knows that we find travel alarming, and aims to reassure us by making this vast country seem identical every time we step out of our cars to buy food or gas. But I find places where there is no sense of the local depressing, and I have fond memories of rest stops that were not completely generic, that had their own particular flavor: places where I knew I was not where I started.
There’s a BP store in Valmy that had fresh raspberries by the cash register the day I stopped in. They were still warm, and dusty with a little Door County dirt. In the cooler was the best smoked salmon I have ever eaten. Then there’s a place near Black River Falls that had a real birch-bark canoe, ribbed with white cedar, hanging upside down from the ceiling next to the restrooms. There was a button I pressed to hear the weather forecast and a big map of the state on the wall: Wisconsin as a mitten with its thumb sticking out into Lake Michigan.
There was a gas station off Highway 90 that sold cranberry wine, with a photo of the family that make it, as well as cranberry body lotion, cranberry chocolate frogs, and a handmade soap called “Hunter’s Camouflage,” containing oils of white oak, birch and spruce—the woodland trees growing nearby. There were shelves full of enticing Amish candy. The woman who makes it drives 30 miles to deliver her goodies to the store. I imagine her pulling up opposite the gas pumps and SUV’s in her horse-drawn buggy. It is a place of intersecting worlds.
Lately my favorite has been the one in Rosendale that I originally read as “Blue Mike’s Food Mart” but on closer inspection turned out to be Bluemke’s. They sell taco-flavored cheese-curds. On the wall there are baby bibs in Pepto Bismol pink bearing the logo “I’m a Baby Packer Fan” and camouflage fleece PJ sets for toddlers. There are even camouflage onesies for infants. The girls’ have pink trim on the legs and sleeves and white broderie anglaise round the neck. There’s a local in-joke on the T-shirts for sale—a police car and the slogan “Rosendale—Just the ticket!”
On my last stop at a store that shall remain nameless, I bought a bottle of milk. I have a peculiar craving for it when traveling. It feels reassuring, safe, wholesome; it makes me feel at home. When traveling in Wisconsin, it feels like my patriotic duty, a vote for the dairy farmers, not the multinational soda companies. I was 37 cents short when I got to the cash register. I told the clerk I’d run out to my car to get the change. “Don’t worry,” she said, smiling at me. “The till’s a little over today. I’ll make it up. Safe travels!” I went on my buoyed up by her small act of simple, small-town kindness. I’ve never forgotten that store.