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By Scott Jacobs

We were on our way home from Wisconsin––vacation memories all packed up in the car trunk––when my wife suggested one last adventure, a roadside picnic. “Why not? We have all the fixings in the cooler,” she said. “We’ll just pull over at the next wayside.”

Well that sounded just fine . . . until an hour later I turned to her and said, “Where did all the waysides go?”

Potty Stops, Dog Walks and Garbage Dumps

When I was growing up, waysides were the all-purpose potty stop, dog walk and garbage dump of a summer vacation. We went every year to a small lake outside Iron Mountain in the upper peninsula of Michigan, and I can tick off half a dozen places where we used to stop on the way up or back.

As we drove home this year, I noticed that a good chunk of the old highway has gone from two to four lanes. Coleman, Lena, Pound were quaint little towns we used to pass through. Now they are just another exit ramp along the expressway. And waysides? Forget about it.

Finally we stopped at a “Park and Ride” outside Port Washington. We spread our towel out on the asphalt and ate our sandwiches––and deposited our garbage in a Home Depot trashcan in the mall across the street.

For the remainder of the ride home I mulled over in my mind what happened to those idyllic waysides of my youth. Clearly, picnicking has slipped a few notches as America’s favorite pastime. But dog walking, garbage dumping and children’s potty stops are as popular as ever, if not more so. So what happened to the waysides? Were they done in by budget cuts? Supplanted by fast food joints? Or maybe in an expressway culture nobody has time to eat. Maybe in America today, the goal of every traveler is to go as far as we can as fast as we can so when we get there we have more time to relax.

Relics of a Time Gone By

When I got back to Chicago, I called the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to confirm my suspicions. Bob Spoerl, the roadside facilities engineer in charge of waysides, said I was right. Over the last decade, the number of waysides in Wisconsin has gone from 111 to 73 and the number of “rest areas”––the more well-to-do roadside stopovers along 4-lane highways––has dropped from 32 to 30 just in the last year.

“Waysides are becoming a thing of the past,” Spoerl said. Today’s travelers want fast food, wi-fi Internet connections and easy on-off ramps to food and gas. Mowing the lawn, emptying latrines and picking up garbage on a regular basis is an expense cash-starved states are loathe to continue, and private companies haven’t figured out a way to make money off of them. “It’s kind of sad,” he added, “but waysides are a relic of a time gone by.”

“One Step Ahead of the Woodsman’s Axe”

If my route home had gone north of Iron Mountain along U.S. Highway 2, I would have come across the first wayside in the nation. It’s a small tract of land with an historical marker just outside Iron River, Michigan. The marker says that in 1919 a young highway engineer named Herbert F. Larson purchased the first swath of public land here for roadside picnicking.

Larson was concerned about the huge tracts of forest being harvested by the lumber companies. In an attempt to stay “one step ahead of the woodsman’s axe,” he later wrote in his diary, he bought the land to preserve “a living forest memorial of virgin hardwoods so that posterity could see and enjoy what nature had bestowed upon us.”

Within a few years, he established another wayside in nearby Crystal Falls. The state governments of Wisconsin and Michigan took up the cause.  Soon enough, his idea was replicated hundreds, if not thousands of times across the nation as automobile touring became the rage in the 20’s.

Most waysides consisted of little more than picnic tables, a pit toilet and a fresh water pump. But that wasn’t important because they weren’t tourist destinations, they were waysides for people to stop and “enjoy what nature had bestowed upon us.”

The Commercialization of Leisure

Beginning with the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the late 30’s, waysides turned into rest areas––with a distinctly commercial twist. To offset highway construction costs, tollway authorities licensed restaurant concessions to private food chains. When Dwight Eisenhower inaugurated the Interstate highway system in the 1950’s, rest areas became a key part of the financial equation.

Howard Johnson’s, purveyor of fine restaurants and blue and orange hotels everywhere, was a prime government contractor. One of its most daring restaurant designs dotted the Illinois tollway at what was deemed an “oasis” where patrons could partake of their meal while watching the flow of traffic beneath them.

In the late 60’s, local merchants near the expressways prevailed on the Federal Highway Administration to curtail roadside rest areas because they were hurting business. They wanted passing travelers to get off the highway to sample their wares, but travelers rarely got that far.

The land around exit ramps soon became highly prized real estate, filled with fast food joints, gas stations and convenience stores. For the convenience of travelers (and a small fee), the highway authorities agreed to put their logo on blue panels leading up to the exits.

No Place for Picnics

There is no place for a picnics on today’s expressways, nor should there be. When Herbert Larson built the first wayside in 1919, there were few alternatives. The first fast food restaurant did not come along until 1916 when the first White Castle opened in Wichita, and it wasn’t until 1921 that A & W Root Beer awarded its first franchise. For decades, waysides were the only place a hungry traveler could stop and enjoy a meal.

But today, there are over 100,000 fast food joints in America. McDonalds alone has 13,700. One in every four Americans visits a fast food restaurant every day, and the most profitable franchises are closest to expressways. Besides their convenience, fast food restaurants have cleaner restrooms, bigger dumpsters and dogs can pee anywhere. So all we are missing with the disappearance of the wayside is peace of mind.

Fast is how we live, and fast is how we travel. The faster the better. It’s nice to think there was a time when we could all stop and smell the roses. But if you choose to picnic near an expressway these days, roses are the last thing you’re going to smell.


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