An Ode To Trucks Stops & an RV How-To For Staying At Them

I sort of love truck stops. I love how they’re self-contained cities that come together and apart every day. I love that you can buy nearly everything you ever dreamed you might need or never knew you always needed at them. And when driving around the country in an RV, I just love that they exist.

When navigating life in an RV, you encounter all kinds of things that don’t come with instructions. I want everything to have a sign, all the time, telling me how it all works. But life isn’t like that. RV-centric places aren’t like that. And truck stops certainly aren’t like that.

So if you’re an RVer intimidated by truck stops, read on for instructions. At least according to what I’ve been able to figure out so far. And you too, can enjoy a sunrise over a truck stop.

flying j

Tips for Choosing a Truck Stop

You’ll see throughout this post that my best tip is to choose a Flying J or Pilot as I have found to them to be by far the most RV friendly, but you can get a lot of great info from the AllStays app. Entries look like this and tell you not only how a location has been rated (mostly by commercial drivers) but what amenities it has (probably don’t go to that second one):

allstays truck stop review truck stop review

Tips on Staying Overnight

truck stopYou can totally stay overnight. Especially if you stay at a Flying J or Pilot (which is now one company called Pilot Flying J, but their locations are still separately branded). They are totally friendly to RVers. The web site very explicitly confirms it:

“Had enough driving for one day? Pull in to one of our RV reserved parking spots or any other open parking space. Grab some dinner, stock up on supplies, and spend the night to get ready for that long drive ahead of you tomorrow.”

I love staying someplace I am explicitly welcomed.

I have found that other truck stops have signs stating parking limits of 4 hours or less. I pulled into a Love’s that had signage restricting parking to one hour. I called and the manager said I had to come in and get special approval to stay overnight. (She followed that by explaining she had to make sure I wasn’t going to block her handicapped parking in front on the store, although I’m not sure why I, or anyone else, would be in danger of doing that.) Which didn’t sound welcoming at all.

truck stopIf the truck stop you plan to stay at is not a Flying J or Pilot, you should probably call ahead or ask a desk clerk, just to be sure, unless you see signage or an online notation that RVs can park overnight.

I’ve stayed at lots other truck stops (including lots of Love’s and many independent places), and most of the time when I asked, they seemed confused I even asked first, but then there are those places that said I needed special permission, so you just never know.

It’s much easier for me to sleep if I’m not worried someone is going to bang on my door at any second yelling at me, and it only takes a minute to ask. (I tend to call vs. go in as you’ll see later in this post.)

truck stopDon’t park where a truck would park or block where trucks might need to drive through or in any way get in the way of the trucks. They get grumpy.

This isn’t really an issue for an RV like mine that can fit in any parking spot, but I often see larger RVs that can only park in the truck areas. If you ask inside, they’ll often steer you towards parking lengthwise in normal parking spots on the edges of the parking lot if it’s big enough, but this isn’t always an option, so depending on your length, you might not have a choice.

The AllStays app generally notes the number of (truck) parking spaces each truck stop. If you have a long rig, you might want to avoid truck stops with less than 50 spaces and the ones noted not to have much space. AllStays is used by commercial drivers as well as RVers so the truck stop comments have a lot of information about the lots that are stress-inducing. (To see this in action, just check out YouTube, where drivers love to post videos of crazy lot situations.)

truck stopIt might be noisy. As you’ll see from the next tip, I drive around a little and try to find a quiet spot, but I honestly have never been bothered by the truck noise. Mostly I have my fan or furnace on and the white noise totally blocks out the trucks. But even without that, the trucks are mostly white noise themselves.

Once, I stayed at a truck stop that played music on the outside speakers all night. I couldn’t make it through the entire night. (I even went inside to ask about it, and they said the music was just on all the time and there was nothing at all they could do about it.)

truck stopDrive around and scout the place out before settling on a space. I often have found quiet spots out of the way, on the edge between the car section and the trucks section. I try to back into a spot with a wall or hedge behind it so that people and cars aren’t coming and going right next to my bed while I’m sleeping.

Here’s an example of where I’ve parked just on the other side of the truckers. (Although this isn’t ideal; I should have backed in. But this was one of my earlier truck stops.)

truck stop parking

This is a much better parking place:

truck stop parking

And this spot is just about perfect:

truck stop parking

Look at how peaceful my view is:

truck stop parking

 Tips on Truck Stop Showers

As I have written about here before, I love truck stop showers. They are by far the cleanest, most luxurious showers I have found anywhere on the road, fancy RV parks included.

Truck stop showers, unlike a lot of RV park and campground showers, never have bugs or cold chills or only cold water or open pipes instead of shower heads or a rope that you have to hold down to keep the water on. Yes, that last thing only happened once, but still. I’m still bitter about it.

You get a huge, private bathroom with great water pressure and shower heads and plenty of hot water, and most even come with a towel! (Here’s a YouTube video someone made of a Flying J that begins with the shower.)

truck stopTruck stop showers are $12. Everywhere. $12. I happened upon a $6 shower at an independent truck stop once and I was completely in shock. Because no matter where you go, you’ll always pay $12. (Unless you buy more than $500 a month in gas at a Flying J/Pilot, which gives you free showers for a month, but as much gas as you might go through in an RV, that much gas is probably unlikely.) If you react to the price with “$12! That’s crazy! I’ll just go someplace else!”, the clerk will be highly entertained.

Bonus updated tip: During a discussion in the Roadtrek Facebook group, we started talking about whether a couple can take a shower together ($12 total) or not ($24 total). And generally, couples can shower together! (Which doesn’t mean they have to be in the actual shower together. They can just go into the room together.) You can ask for extra towels in that case and some truck stops have “team showers” (for instance a married commercial driving team), which are larger.

truck stopWear flip flops. This isn’t really a dis on truck stops. I recommend flip flops for showers at campgrounds and RV parks too. Always pack flip flops in your shower bag.

truck stopSpeaking of, have a shower bag! Again, this isn’t really truck stop-specific. I have a little travel toiletry bag (with duplicate items from my RV shower) so that I can just grab it and go and don’t have to pack and unpack anything every day just to take a shower. I keep it out of the way on my bathroom floor.

truck stopYou don’t need to bring in a towel, but you may as well, just in case. I’ve never encountered a truck stop shower that didn’t provide at least a bath towel (and sometimes a whole set of towels), but I always have a back up with me.

Most of the time, you can just leave the towels in the room when you leave, but one independent truck stop I stopped at had a towel drop near the front counter.truck stop shower

truck stop shower

truck stopYou probably need your own toiletries. Most truck stop showers provide soap, either as one of those little wrapped travel soaps you might get a hotel off the highway or in a bulk pump in the shower, but not always. I’ve gotten a little bottle of shampoo once (I still used my fancy shampoo instead) and I’ve never gotten conditioner.

truck stopThe private bathroom is really secure. Flying J/Pilot generally has a 4 digit code printed on your receipt that you use to unlock the door (you sometimes have to wait for your name to be called/displayed on a monitor that tells you which room number is yours), but other places just give you a key.

 Tips on Coffee

I dunno. I’m just not a coffee snob, especially in the morning. Sure, I can tell the difference between bad and good coffee, and one time, I stopped to get coffee at McDonald’s and they accidentally gave me someone else’s with 4 sugars in it (so said the side of the cup, I realized way too late) and I had to throw that right away (obviously, blech), but mostly I just need drinkable caffeine.

truck stopTruck stops always have tons of coffee choices, with names like “morning thunder” and “extra extra bold buzz this coffee will really keep you awake and bouncing around and can you tell we are drinking this coffee right now as we brainstorm coffee names”.

truck stopIf you use a travel mug (which I do anyway to keep my coffee hot and to keep the bugs out when I’m wandering around a campground in the morning), you get the refill price, which tends to vary in price (based on who is ringing you up and how large she decides your cup is) from $2 to 50 cents.

truck stopMany truck stop chains have loyalty cards (and Flying J/Pilots take Good Sam cards in lieu of theirs), which either give you a discount on each cup or build up to a free one.

truck stopMostly, you’re going to find powered creamer and maybe some weird pump-driven non-dairy creamer liquid. I try to keep milk in my refrigerator to add once I get back to my RV.

Tips On Getting Gas

I realize I’m sounding like a Flying J/Pilot commercial about now, but I promise I don’t know them and they are not paying me for this post. (Although, if anyone from their company is reading this, feel free to randomly send me money!) But you can use your Good Sam card at their pumps for a gas discount. Other chains give gas discounts with their loyalty cards, probably. But I’m loyal to them, so I wouldn’t know (ha!).

Presumably truck stops have lower gas prices because they buy in some serious bulk to cater to all those trucks. I don’t know if that’s true, but at the very least, they tend to be a lot easier to get in and out of since they’re a lot bigger than regular gas stations.

Propane and Dump Stations

Many truck stops have these! I use the AllStays app to find out. Again, some chains have loyalty cards that give you discounts on the dump station. I’ve paid as little as $5.

Wifi

I have a monthly plan with Flying J/Pilot, which typically works great (and often five or more different wifi points are available to accommodate the traffic). Many trucks stops have fast food restaurants (like McDonald’s or Denny’s) attached to them with free wifi. Of course, I sometimes just use the hotspot on my phone.

Laundry

I’ve never done my laundry at a truck stop (I generally do that once a week or so at a campground or RV park) but most trucks stops have laundry facilities.

Business Services

Many trucks stops have printing/scanning/faxing and mail services, along with services like Western Union and ATMs.

Gyms/Game Rooms/Haircuts/Lounges/Etc.

Yeah, some have massage services that I’m not too clear on. And I’m too vain to get a haircut at a truck stop. I saw a post about one truck stop with a dentist! But mostly, I’d suggest asking the staff about use of things like the gym. At times I’ve seen notations on AllStays for particular locations that certain facilities are for commercial drivers only.

Shopping

This is the best. I love wandering around and checking out all the random stuff for sale. It’s like walking around Amazon.com.

truck stop shoppping

truck stop shopping

Tips On Being A Woman Alone At a Truck Stop

Not long ago, a guy said to me that surely all the commercial drivers who saw me at truck stops just assumed I was a prostitute. Um, thanks? But seriously, I have never gotten that vibe at all. (Although I see a few YouTube videos show some places that do have that vibe.)

I mean, be careful, sure, just as you would anywhere.

I will often pull into a place late at night and not get out of my RV at all. That way, I know for sure there’s no random serial killer or axe murderer hanging out who has seen that I’m a woman alone and has followed me back to my RV, waiting for me to fall asleep. I wait until morning to get gas and stock up on groceries.

But I feel safer staying at a truck stop than I feel staying most places. It’s open 24 hours a day. It’s well lit and well staffed. I don’t park in the middle of the trucks — I park on the non-commercial side — so I’m never alone and hidden away. Mostly the showers are right off the main store area, but even the few times I’ve had to walk through the TV lounge area to get to them, no one has paid any attention to me. Everyone is watching the game, or getting food, or doing whatever in the little time they have before they have to get back on the road.

There’s no reason commercial drivers would be more dangerous than anyone else we might encounter in the world. My grandpa was a truck driver and he was just about the awesomest.

Bonus Tip!

Bobtails are trucks without trailers. So you can totally park where you see these signs.

bob tail parking

 

Peach Ice Cream Is Finally Here

One of the great joys of driving through the United States is the vast variety of billboards and signs: hand written diatribes, blinking traffic directives that warn of wildlife, the absolute assurance to you, the captive driver, that the attraction at this exit is nothing you have ever seen and to miss it would be the aching loss of your life, your haunting regret, the ultimate betrayal to your children, so patiently sitting in the back seat in hopes of only petting a buffalo or walking beneath a real teepee.

My great regret is that by the time I see the sign, it’s almost always too late to take a photo. Almost always, but not always always.

Of course, this trip isn’t the first time I’ve wanted to capture the wonderment of road signs. For instance, I came upon this great sign when driving around Iceland last year (in a rental car; not in an RV). In case you can’t tell, those two cars are about to hit head on at the top of that hill in a fantastic imitation of every great three stooges sketch, but with cars instead of each other:

iceland road sign

I took this picture at a rest area in California last year. It’s still one of my favorites:

rock throwing

Here’s one of my least favorites, at a rest area in the south earlier this year:

snakes

This isn’t exactly a sign, and it’s not exactly on the road, but it entertained me, nonetheless (this was at my very first parking lot overnight).

parking

Some signs are direct, if inexplicable (this was my welcome to Nevada):

murder

You learn about lots of cash making opportunities you had no idea existed:

antlers

I like when whoever writing the road signs takes a more personal approach:

2014-08-14 14.47.43-1

Stillwater, Oklahoma must be the only place where video rental stores are “growing”, right?

video stores

Oklahoma also has dueling trash cans:

fish only

no fish

You learn about things you never knew were all you ever needed:

frito pie

You pass places you’re too afraid to venture into alone:

precious moments chapel

I admired the childlike enthusiasm:

peace ice cream

Sadness!

water trampoline

This isn’t so much a sign as a cornerstone for a hopeful life against all evidence to the contrary:

blind faith

More snakes in Florida: a kinder, gentler set of signage:

snakes

And then there are the signs, such as in Savannah, which teach you about city laws you otherwise would never have even dreamed existed:

fireworks

And then other times you learn that not every town has the same kinds of street names as you do:

street signs

I did not have time to stop:

pork center

I tried to stop. If only time weren’t ever stretching away from us.

porter sculpture park

s

 

A Life of Quiet Contemplation. And Taylor Swift. Also Hank Williams. And Night Vale.

I’ve driven over 11,000 miles in 4 months. Surely plenty of time for quiet contemplation. Just me and the road. The vast skyline. The mountains. Rolling hills. Endless fields. Coastline.  Long stretches and winding curves. Woods and lakes and bridges and silence. The perfect foundation for pondering life and sundry related life-type topics.

the road

Well, yes.

Just one tiny problem: I can be a slight bit obsessive. Just a little.

Like for instance, maybe I’m driving down the road and I need something different to listen to, so I put on some classic country and pretty soon, I’m rolling along to the sounds of Hank Williams. And then I think, huh, Hank Williams. What exactly was that guy’s story? I mean, like I know he died young and I’ve seen Hank Williams Jr. in concert back in the day, so I know he had a kid, but like, why don’t I know more about him?

So then I listen to every song Hank Williams sang ever, and then also every Hank Williams Jr. song just for good measure and I think, wow, Hank Williams Jr. really had a fixation on his dad and on explaining over and over that he was his own person.

So then I have to download biographies of Hank Williams and Hank Williams Jr. and Hank the third to my iPad and read them all. And I find out that Hank Sr. died when Jr. was just a baby so he never really knew his dad, but his dad’s nickname for him was Bocephus (ah, so the Bocephus stuff I remember from the 80s now makes a lot more sense) and his mom used to dress him up like his dad when he was a kid and have him sing his dad’s songs in his dad’s style and he got super popular doing that and all of country music who missed his dad gathered around him (and OK, all that “sorry I’m not my dad stuff” makes more sense now too) and then he went all rockabilly rebellion.

Then, once I know everything there ever was to know about the Williams family, I start listening to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast. You’d think I’d listen to educational podcasts so I can learn as I drive, or relearn Spanish but no. Night Vale. (I mean, also yes. But mostly not yes.)

So I listen to every single Night Vale podcast in order, plus the live shows, which if you’re counting, is around 60 episodes. And then I am bereft. So I have to listen to them all again. And privately mourn that I didn’t learn about the show earlier when they were not quite so popular and were still accepting submissions for show scripts.

night vale

(source: http://nightvalequotes.tumblr.com/image/57464480116)

But then sometimes I’m on a pretty long stretch of road with no cell coverage. So I fall back to whatever songs are downloaded, which at the moment mostly consist of those on Taylor Swift’s new album. I construct a a complicated narrative for Tay and Harry, two paper airplanes flying. Which I’m happy to describe in meticulous detail if I get overwhelming requests.

Track 12 #1989lyrics #TS1989 #5DaysTil1989

A photo posted by Taylor Swift (@taylorswift) on

So now you see why I don’t spend much time on quiet contemplation. My mind is WAY too busy with other things.

If I Believed In Puns, I’d Write Something Clever About the Badlands Here

I know. You think my life is all miracles of nature and a life fully lived and exhilarating freedom and adventure. Majestic vistas, interesting strangers, the glory of sentence fragments.

But no.

I mean, yes.

But also no. Sometimes it’s not any of those things at all.

I’d been wanting to check out dispersed camping: that is, driving up to the beauty and isolation of public lands and staying as long as one likes. Lots of national forests have free camping at what they call “primitive” sites, which are designated RV sites but with no hookups. Dispersed camping is a step beyond. You just drive out onto public lands and stop anywhere.

I drove out to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in South Dakota, admired the beauty and splendor, etc., and drove down a dirt road that ended with grasslands, a no hunting sign, and a group of white-tailed deer.

ft pierre grassland dispersed camping

I had been driving away from the malevolent cold, and it was a fantastical 68 degrees. I had full bars of 4G. The sun was setting. Life is wonderful.

Grasslands boondocking

I checked the weather and saw that the cold had decided to chase me down and temps were going to plunge overnight. I figured I should turn on the propane so the furnace would be ready when I needed it. I walked outside, scaring the deer who adorably bounded away, and turned on the propane. I heard a faint hiss. And the vague smell of propane. Wait, is that right? I turned off the valve and the hiss continued. For about ten minutes.

Dear readers, truth is hazy and shifting and ethereal but one truth never changes: it’s difficult to enjoy nature when mixed with terror of a propane explosion.

I asked the ever-reliable Roadtrek Facebook group what they thought. They did not think much that was good. I called a nearby RV repair place. The guy I talked to said it was probably a leak but it should be fine if I just left the propane off. I could have it looked at in the morning.

It’s not as easy as you might think to have a restful night’s sleep with the looming threat of explosion and/or slow poisonous death.

I thought I might make the evening more peaceful by removing the skylight covers so I could enjoy the night sky (mostly void, partially stars). A couple of days earlier, I had been driving down the highway and heard what sounded like a great shattering above my head. Which is weird, right? I pulled over at the first exit and checked everything. Nothing was out of place. Nothing was broken. So who knows, I drove on.

Only now I removed one of the skylight covers and found this:

roadtrek skylight

Well at least the loud shattering sound made sense now.

The next morning, I drove to an RV repair shop in Rapid City. And here’s where I start making snap judgments based on little information and skewed experience. Because I’m sure Rapid City is a lovely city with lovely people if I just get to know it, but Rapid City did not endear itself to me.

The guy at the repair place said he couldn’t fix either problem and gave me the addresses of two places that could. He said the propane leak was in fact a leak, but had to be taken care of by a propane dealer and the place he was sending me to would fix it for sure. He said he was also sending me to a glass place that would appear to me as though it dealt with residential glass, but that actually was great with all kinds of crazy sizes of windows on RVs and he sent people there all the time and they were the best. They’d have me fixed up in no time.

Well, sounds good so far. What a wonderful day!

“Wait, who sent you here?” Said the propane guy, hostile and aggressive, clearly irritated that someone was interrupting his day. “I don’t have anyone here to work on that.” Well, OK then. I asked if he had any recommendations. He called a guy. The guy declined to help. Propane guy number one I guess assumed I could hear the voice on the other end of the phone because he didn’t relay this information. He just looked at me with the kind of stare that means “why are you still here?” or maybe “how did I get saddled with this lady’s problems?”

Onward to get the glass fixed. Maybe the propane guy called ahead because the glass guy was in solidarity. “We don’t work on RVs.” I tried to explain that I didn’t actually seek him out to cast evil into his life, but just that the RV repair place had sent me over. He said maybe someone could put repair tape on it only everyone was at lunch until 1 (it was 12:50), so…

I was in the middle of asking if someone would be available at 1 to do that if I waited when he got a call. Without a word, he started talking on the phone as though my mouth were not open in mid sentence. I waited a few minutes until it was pretty clear he was going to stay on the phone until I left.

Dejected, I trudged on. I called another propane place, a bit down the road. They tried to patiently explain that I had an RV. I needed to call an RV repair place to get my RV repaired. They gave me a number. I called the RV place. They patiently explained that I had a propane issue and needed to call a propane place to get it fixed. I tried explaining the infinite loop I had found myself caught up in. The person on the phone seemed sympathetic, but ultimately unhelpful.

I drove on, fueled by a new goal: to get out of Rapid City. I really needed to get some work done and my whole morning was taken up in futile wandering so I figured I’d drive on a bit, find a place to work and once I was caught up, evaluate my best next step.

I spent the next five hours driving down a lonely road with no cell signal and no towns. After a couple of hours, I stopped worrying so much about the impossibility of getting work done and started worrying I would run out of gas. I finally followed a sign to a gas station at some point off the endless road, so at least I was able to continue on.

The point I’m trying to make here is that I left the infinite loop of Rapid City only to end up in the hundreds of endless miles of no propane repair, no cell service, and no handy public libraries. So I kept driving.

(If you wondered why I was late in returning that email, well, there was the infinite loop and also the endless road. I have wifi now. So expect to hear from me soon.)

Mostly, it all looked like this:

Montana

Although sometimes, it looked like this!

montana elk

I finally made it, in the dark and cold, to a truck stop. And discovered that my down comforter keeps me surprisingly warm on cold nights.

Before all of the infinite and endless, I drove through the Badlands, where I saw lots of prairie dogs and whatever these guys are:

badlands

Also the actual badlands:

badlands

The thing about working while living on the road is that you still have to do the actual work. You can’t just flit from propane dealer to RV shop to National Park no matter how attractive that proposition might sound.

Which brings me to Bozeman, Montana. Or, that’s what brought me here I mean. I found this little resort in the middle of nowhere with great wifi, lots of comfortable rooms for working from, a fireplace in my room, and — get this — a soaking tub. I immediately booked a second night. I’m the only guest here. I got here in the middle of the afternoon, starving, and they made me soup and salad and hot tea.

Sure, that whole propane and glass situation still needs to be worked out, but for now, I’m going to take a bath and enjoy the view from my window.

bozeman mt