Q: As a Texan, I have traveled my fair share of Texas’s beautiful interstate highways, state highways, farm-to-market roads, and back roads. Often, as I gaze out the window during my travels, I have noticed something that puzzles me: What’s up with the grills at roadside parks and rest stops? When in the history of Texas travels did folks load up for a trip to Grandma’s or Padre Island with luggage, a bag of charcoal, and five pounds of raw meat and hot dogs for a cookout on the side of the road? Did the kids dodge traffic while Dad spent an hour trying to get the charcoal to light? I am confident you have friends at the Texas Department of Transportation that can help solve this mystery. What gives?
Curtis Watson, Grapevine
A: Texas, as the Texanist has noted in this space on multiple occasions, is home to more roadway than any other state in the country, some 80,000 centerline miles of it according to the Texas Department of Transportation, the agency that is tasked with the construction and upkeep of much of that blacktop—as well as occasionally assisting the Texanist in his professional endeavors.
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With all of those 80,000-plus miles of highways and expressways and byways and thruways and thisways and thatways and whichways and back roads and the like, Texas is, to put it mildly, not lacking when it comes to opportunities for motoring. To illustrate the point, it’s fun to remember that, following the most direct route, there’s 854 road miles between El Paso, which is located snug against the Texas-New Mexico and Texas-Old Mexico borders, and Orange, which sits right by the border of Texas and Louisiana. And, oddly, there’s 845 miles between Port Isabel, which resides at the very southern tip of Texas, and the Panhandle town of Perryton, which is situated just a wee bit shy of the Texas-Oklahoma border. And, just so you know, from Perryton to Orange to Port Isabel to El Paso and back to Perryton via a route entirely within the state’s borders (cutting across New Mexico on the leg from El Paso to Perryton would be cheating) constitutes a trip totaling 2,705 miles, which is, to punctuate the point, the equivalent of a drive that begins in Austin and finishes in Belize City, Belize, down on Central America’s beautiful Caribbean coast. How about that?
Like you and many of our fellow countrymen and countrywomen, the Texanist loves few things more than a good road trip. Such sojourns, no matter the destination, are good for the soul. Whether he is hopping over to East Texas for some lake fishing, down to the coast for some beach time, out to far West Texas to take in some deserty desolation, or up to the Panhandle to marvel at the beauty of Palo Duro Canyon, the Texanist is always happy when he has the opportunity to saddle up and hit the trail.
Sometimes, though, the Texanist is loath to admit, he can become so bent on getting to where he’s going that he can overdo it a little bit with the fervency of his driving. The pupils of his eyes become two tiny specks reflecting a fast-moving conveyor belt of highway stripes. Like Fritz Von Erich applying a vicelike “Iron Claw” to an opponent’s cranium, his grip of the steering wheel tightens, until his knuckles turn white. The Texanist experiences a keen regret over not stopping to relieve himself at any of the last four opportunities. Beads of sweat surface on his forehead. This is not safe driving and the Texanist is not proud of it.
But if the Texanist is lucky, he comes to his senses before long. And this is when he thanks his lucky stars for his friends at the Texas Department of Transportation. (As well as their predecessors at the Texas Highway Department, which was the agency’s appellation when it was born more than a hundred years ago. The Texanist also appreciates the fine work done by the THD’s successors at the State Department of Highways and Public Transportation, which is what the agency was called after it merged with the Texas Mass Transportation Commission in 1975, and continued to call itself until 1991, when it merged with the Department of Aviation and the Texas Motor Vehicle Commission to form TxDOT, an organization that was only slightly diminished in 2009, when the Legislature decided to take away some of its powers and give them to the newly formed Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. But the Texanist digresses.)
Getting back on track, you’ll be glad to know that the Texanist did reach out to TxDOT for you, and in doing so learned a whole truckload about Texas’s safety rest areas, which, owing their main purpose, is how they are known officially. The first of these little respite spots were constructed in the sixties, after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, aka “Lady Bird’s Law,” as highway beautification was one of her pet projects. Today, there are 77 such rest stops sprinkled along our beautiful and occasionally not-so-beautiful waysides—and that’s not counting a dozen larger “travel information centers.” The main feature of most of these stops, next to the restroom facilities, of course, are the picnic areas, each one unique in design. Who could forget the iconic teepee-style structures found in Lajitas? Or the 6666 Ranch barn-style found in Guthrie? Or the Lone Star flag-embellished “longhorns” in Flower Mound? Or Wynona’s kitschy oil derricks? All of these, by the way, are featured in frequent Texas Monthly photography contributor Ryann Ford’s 2016 coffee-table book, The Last Stop: Vanishing Rest Stops of the American Roadside.
Now, all of this said, not every safety rest area features grills, but many of them do. And, the TxDOT folks tell the Texanist, grills continue to be installed at newly constructed rest stops. So, yes, the grills are indeed seeing some use. Much of it, though, is done not by folks on their way to Grandma’s or to Padre Island, but by residents of the surrounding communities, who often put the rest areas to use as parks. TxDOT tells the Texanist that they are aware of at least one wedding having been performed at rest stop.
Alas, as we near the end of our journey, the Texanist would be remiss in not offering a reminder of the safety rest area’s main purpose for being, which is not roadside grilling but, as the name suggests, safety. Sadly, just as Texas has more roadway than any state in the country, so too do we have the most traffic accidents caused by driver fatigue (of course, the fact that Texas is the second most populous state in the union probably has something to do with that). The safety rest areas, it turns out, are essential safety features of our sprawling road system.
The Texanist has to get on down the road now, but on behalf of his friends at TxDOT, he’ll leave you with these fatigue-fighting tips:
1. Get a good night’s rest before shoving off.
2. Keep driving to maximum of eight to ten hours a day.
3. Crack a window. Carbon monoxide (and, ahem, other noxious gases) can build up inside the car and exacerbate fatigue.
4. And, finally, take advantage of the numerous safety rest areas provided to you. Heck, go ahead and pack some charcoal and meats. Roadside grilling is still grilling, and grilling is never a bad idea.
Happy trails, fellow traveler. And remember to always drive the Texas way, which is to say, friendly.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.