From Our Readers
August 15, 2015 8:45 am

If you have ever driven on the New Jersey Turnpike, you’ll notice two things: 1. All the rest stops are named after famous people and 2. They all contain the same fast food options, facilities, welcome centers, and picture of the governor’s (now Chris Christie) jolly grin.

These attributes are not new to me, as my family has been making the same drive from DC to Rhode Island for at least ten years now. But a road trip this past summer actually made me consider why these people were getting the rest stops named after them, who actually decides what goes inside these rest stops, and why everyone generally looks miserable inside them. I know, I have a lot of time on my hands while traveling.

If I had to go on names alone, my favorite New Jersey rest stops are Walt Whitman and Clara Barton (there is nothing more amusing to me than eating a Nathan’s Hot Dog inside an establishment named after a prolific American poet). Of course, one has to wonder why these people are being remembered on a rest stop façade. Upon further intense Wikipedia research, I discovered that Whitman died in Camden, NJ. His connection to New Jersey is more or less justified. However, I could not seem to draw as obvious of a connection to New Jersey for Barton. I later discovered that she opened the first free public school in New Jersey. So, as long as the individual had some connection to New Jersey, they get a rest stop.

Since Walt Whitman and Clara Barton are no longer with us and the rest stops are older than Chris Christie, who is the authority figure on the contents of rest stops? Obviously, bathrooms are necessary. Welcome Centers featuring key chains with your name in a Jersey license plate? Necessary. I understand that the paradoxical point of a rest stop is to actually do what you have to do and leave. But since when do travelers want to rest in a mall food court?

I think there is a strong correlation between everyone’s attitude at a rest stop and what is being offered at the rest stop. In European rest stops, travelers can find authentic restaurant food, hotels, and structures designed by actual architects. The rest stops themselves become destinations, rather than just a place to relieve yourself. The reputations that succeed them boast more than just utility or nutritional value: they become sources of culture and entertainment. Can you imagine a rest stop like that on the NJ Turnpike?

If I owned a rest stop, specifically on the NJ Turnpike, I would turn it into a desirable experience. First, my rest stop would not be named after anyone. I think that imposes too many expectations and impedes the reputation of the historical figure. But my rest stop would feature a wax figure of Meryl Streep at the entrance because she is always relevant and born in NJ. I would also have more organic and local food options; options that bring some pride to the state, and get IKEA to donate beds to rent for naps. I’m sure there is some way to make that hygienic. Plus, it would reduce the number of drowsy drivers.

While rest stops are places of “service” for travelers, I truly feel like they should offer more than that. They have become synonymous with highways: places of consumerism, state pride, and toilets. While I do admire their frequency on the Turnpike, I feel like they could offer more to the average traveler. Otherwise, I’ll just open my rest stop and hope Chris Christie smiles about it.

Lauren Lauzon is a quippy hypochondriac (self-diagnosed, of course) who spends her Sunday afternoons at the Whole Foods olive bar. Her favorite album to listen to when she’s anxious is the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. She has her Master’s in Literature and has interned at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and HarperCollins in NYC. You can worry with her on twitter (laurenlauzon) and instagram (laurenlauzon).

[Image via iStock]