source: Flickr.com / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sign up for our newsletter

With the Covid-19 virus shuttering most of the country, we haven’t planned our annual summer road trip from Iowa to Wyoming, let alone our customary weekender jaunts and camping trips. But we do have one coming event that we once would’ve considered a mere errand, which now looms large. For us, an essential trip down the highway to the Quad Cities has us consulting the road map and planning ahead. 

Specifically, will the highway rest area be open, and if it is, is it safe to stop there? It’s a fairly inviting rest area, as these places go, with a large shady grassed section with picnic tables and shelters for lunch breaks, and a trail for dog walking that is pleasant and safe. I always have to remind myself that most folks in the ladies’ room or at the giant state map display aren’t used to my small town habit of eye contact and greetings. So, I make do with mere civility and am always grateful for the opportunity to stop.

This upcoming trip is necessary because one of my husband’s photographs was selected for a regional art show at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport. The show opened earlier this spring, but shut down soon thereafter when the museum was forced to close to the public. Now the time has come to retrieve his photograph. All artists have been told to report on Memorial Day, between 4 and 7 p.m., and queue up at the loading dock, to collect their items. 

My first thought was, Memorial Day, the kickoff to summer, during rush hour? What an awful time for small town rubes like us to have to get out on the interstate, then negotiate the one-way streets and parking meters of the city. And then I thought, what holiday crowd? What rush hour? There’s almost nobody working, and definitely nobody flocking into downtown Davenport. 

Now the short trip is nearly upon us. I worry, will the rest area even be open? And if it is, will it be gruesomely contaminated, coronavirus sloughing from the air vents and pooling around the sink faucets? Will travelers from New York or Chicago or the meat packing town of Waterloo pass us in the doorway, sneezing and vaporizing as we all try to keep our distance? 

Instead of freaking out completely, I rein in my galloping anxiety. I do some research. Unlike most states, Iowa currently has few travel restrictions. Although we are discouraged from non-essential trips, we should use the “Iowa common sense” our governor optimistically credits us with. 

According to the Iowa Department of Transportation’s website, all 38 interstate rest areas remain open, as of late April. However, all human-staffed welcome centers are closed. “To reduce the chance of contamination,” their website explains, “staff have increased cleaning and sanitization procedures in all our facilities, with extra attention to high-touch areas.”  They don’t explain what the baseline of cleanliness was previously, and to what degree that has been “increased.” But my mother taught me how to touch nothing in a public restroom—and I do mean nothing. I feel for the people who work there every day, and realize my concerns about a 2-minute pitstop are overblown, compared to their daily exposure to this particular virus, and much else, besides.

I feel good about our chances of getting to Davenport and back, uncontaminated and without contaminating anybody else. Then I think about my neighboring states, and about the states where in typical years millions of vacationers and truckers and families and guys carrying mattresses bungeed to the roof of pickups travel the roadways. And all the people and their dogs who, every few hours, have to stop somewhere and “rest.” What is the status at highway rest areas beyond Iowa? 

Here is a selection of how state departments of transportation are coping with the Covid crisis. For updated information on specific rest area closures, visit the Department of Transportation website for that state.

Nationwide

Several states including Massachusetts, Vermont and Pennsylvania enacted partial rest area closures due to the virus potentially affecting their workers. But truck drivers and others have pushed back, citing the essential nature of their work and the essential nature of needing to rest.   

In early April, the Federal Highway Administration gave “mobile restaurant” operators temporary permission to set up in interstate highway rest areas. Now drivers in states from California to Arkansas, Indiana to Connecticut are allowing food trucks operated by local vendors to set up in rest area parking lots. That way, truck drivers and others traveling for essential purposes have more dining options, and local businesses have customers. Of course, folks who operate commercial truck stops have objections. They want professional drivers, whose breaks often include showers and time with a washing machine, to know they are still open. 

Rest Stops in Illinois

Because the Quad Cities—where we’re bound—includes two towns in Iowa and two in Illinois, the latter state is particularly on my mind. I look at the Land of Lincoln every day, separated as I am from its 13 million people by what can feel like a too-thin strip of the Mississippi River. Illinois residents are under a stay-at-home order, through May 30. But that doesn’t mean other people aren’t driving through the state, stopping at rest areas on federal or state highways. Until recently that’s included us, headed east to see relatives. 

Illinois DOT maintains a system of 30 rest areas and 11 welcome centers on interstate and state highways. Most offer not just restroom facilities, but places to picnic, dog walk and park commercial trucks overnight. We’ve mapped our oft repeated journey based on the quality and comeliness of rest areas, and the safety they offer our dog. 

For a time, Illinois was one of several states that had at least partially shut down rest areas. But now, all rest areas remain open 24/7. Illinois DOT has realized that “now, more than ever, this is a vital resource for motorists, truckers and other travelers in Illinois.” They assure us that janitorial crews are diligently and frequently cleaning and disinfecting each facility. They encourage people to honor social distancing of six feet, which they ballpark as the width of a car, in case drivers need relatable context.

Rest Stops in Nebraska 

On our annual road trip west out of Iowa, we stay as far from interstate highways as we can. We prefer two-lane state highways, which typically do not offer public rest areas. We’re not in a hurry. We like the landscape. We enjoy small towns. We stop at convenience stores to gas up, use the restroom, and make a few courtesy purchases to supplement the snacks we’ve packed. We find the town park to walk the dog and stretch our legs. Then we motor on. But this preference doesn’t mean I haven’t spent plenty of time on Nebraska’s main thoroughfare, I-80. Over the decades, I’ve come to know the Nebraska rest stops along that highway’s 455 miles pretty well. The grassy hills and maple trees in the east give way to tabletop-flat cultivated farm fields in the center, then to gradually more rolling hills, leaner ground, and longer views of the sand hills in the west. 

The Nebraska DOT takes pride not only in keeping the interstate rest areas clean, but informing travelers of the local history or other points of interest that can be observed, or at least imagined, while gazing across the landscape during the rest. All of Nebraska’s rest areas are open, now. But for a few days in March, the unstaffed rest areas were closed, due to large-scale pilfering of toilet paper from the facilities. Truck parking remained open, however. Now re-equipped, they’ve pledged to keep a tighter grip on the supplies and an even more robust approach to sanitation.

Rest Stops in Wyoming

“The Big Empty” has plenty of miles of interstate, along I-80, I-90 and 1-25. There are at least as many miles of state highway, connecting people over wide stretches of frontier unsullied by travel plazas or chain-motel ghettos. Wyoming operates 37 rest areas, including tourist information centers. We have cause to visit a selection each year while there to see friends, or eclipses, or my employers at the University of Wyoming. 

Wyoming DOT says almost all their rest areas are now open, although there was a brief shutdown due to stolen toilet paper. Occasionally, there are water-related closures, which I know from painful experience when I’ve told myself I can hold on for another 30 miles until we get to that rest area, only to find it closed because a new well is being dug. Rest areas may also be closed for temporary weather or seasonal weather: if there’s a big gate across a highway that says Road Closed, there’s no point in trying to drive around that barrier. Yonder rest area isn’t happening. 

I’ve enjoyed decades of travel on virtually every road in the state, and Wyoming’s aesthetically appealing, passive-solar powered facilities have never given me cause to worry about visible travelers or invisible germs. But I do keep an eye open for rattlesnakes.

These days I still prefer highway rest areas to the hubbub of the fast-food and gas-station travel plaza, busy with road-zombie kids and rumpled parents, all of us vying to be first in to the gas pump, first in to the cheese-covered junk food queue. The idea that I could combine the elbow room of an interstate rest area with the surprises offered up by various food trucks does get me thinking, though. I’ve just learned that Wyoming’s rest stops are allowing food trucks, with permits. I bet I could rationalize a bit more “unessential travel” this summer. I almost wish they’d allow even more vendors to sell wares, like tie-dyed T-shirts, or giant stuffed animals, or wall hangings featuring cheetahs or cobras.

And yet. I think I’d rather just go back to the way it was. That is, sharing the roadway with families, and truckers, and guys with mattresses who don’t understand physics, and making awkward attempts at eye contact with all of them. When it comes to rest areas, give me a clean, well-lit place, with a pet area, and plenty of toilet paper, where together we can rest, in peace.

Julianne Couch self-isolates in Bellevue, Iowa. She knows how fortunate she is to work from home.