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After following the adventures of Kevin McKague on his Twitter account, I approached him for the job of covering for my ignorance of exploring as a trucker. He rose to the challenge. Not only did he turn out a heck of a blog post, but he’s also one of those nice guys on Twitter who can make you laugh, even if you totally disagree with the subject of the tweet. That’s a rare thing, so if you all aren’t following @KevinofMI on Twitter, you should start cutting yourself in shame right now. Or you could just click the link and avoid the inevitable pain. I hear blood stains are a bear to get out of clothing.
Since I’m a lazy bum who rarely goes exploring, I doubt I’ll be back after his post with any of my own thoughts. After reading this post, I will say that I felt more of a desire to see what I’ve been missing all these years. I’m not sure if I’ll follow up with any action, but hey, at least it tempted me. Maybe one day I’ll go out on a limb and try something I’ve heard about in the past. I think they call it “taking a walk” or something like that. I trust that y’all will enjoy this guest post as much as I did. So with that, I’ll shut my turkey-hole. Take it away, Kevin.
You Can’t See America from the Trucker’s Lounge
By Kevin McKague
I became a truck driver in my mid-thirties, after years of hating my career in retail management. I wanted a job that offered more security, that could withstand the ups and downs of economic tides, and that couldn’t be outsourced. Most of all, I wanted more adventure. I had always loved to travel, but I didn’t enjoy the kind of travel arranged by travel agents and tour guides. I love spontaneity, and the serendipitous moments of finding things you didn’t know existed. I love getting on a highway and literally taking the road you’ve never taken, just to see where it went.
I often run into drivers who believe that it is impossible to really enjoy a spontaneous travel experience while behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler. While it’s true that many places are off limits to us, (you won’t find truck parking or any truck routes to the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty) you can find plenty of adventure if you are willing to walk a few blocks from the truck stop Subway shop. These opportunities are not hard to find, if you want to find them. In the days before smart phones, I would simply consult my Rand-McNally truck atlas, and start walking towards the closest interesting looking town or neighborhood whenever I was stuck in a truck stop for 34 hours. Today, there are apps for that! By the way, the Google Maps mobile apps include a lot of trails, and the “directions for bikers/pedestrians button” can point you towards them. Or if you don’t have a mobile device, AllTrails.com is an excellent way to find places to explore.
One of my favorite stops along my current dedicated run is the Western Maryland Rail Trail in Hancock, Maryland; just off of exit 3 on I-70. Park at the Liberty Truck Stop, and walk across the street to the C+0 park entrance. You can also access the trail at exit 12. Look for the brown traffic signs by the side of the freeway stating “Rail-Trail access”. There you will find over 20 beautiful miles of paved trails built on a former rail line that travels along the Potomac River. I carry an inexpensive bike in the passenger seat of my truck for such a location (see the picture at the top of the post). The trail has plenty of wild life, in fact, twice while riding I’ve been joined by deer that have come right up to me when I wasn’t looking. One fawn ran alongside me for a few yards and then sped off into the woods as soon as I looked directly at him.
Casinos offer another opportunity for side trips. Even if you don’t like gambling, many casinos offer truck parking and shuttle buses. The drivers of these busses, by the way, don’t know or care if you don’t actually stay in the casino. Once during an extended layover in Moline, Illinois, I took advantage of a shuttle offered by the Rhythm City Casino in Davenport, Iowa, just across the Mississippi River. There I found walking and biking trails that followed the river, and crossed over in two spots allowing you to shop and eat in two states. The Davenport casino is also within walking distance of Modern Woodmen Park, the home of Minor League Baseball’s Quad Cities River Bandits, an affiliate of the Houston Astros.
The Ameristar Casino in St. Charles, Missouri offers truck parking, and while walking nearby I noticed that the parking lot is right next to the Katy Trail, another rail-trail that runs across nearly the entire width of Missouri. To the south of the casino is a nice wooded area with smaller dirt pedestrian trails that remind me of something Huck Finn would’ve found comfortable. Just to the north about a block is the historic city of St. Charles, with some good food and interesting architecture. Next to the Missouri River in town is a sign marking the location of an early campsite of the Lewis and Clark expedition. I don’t normally gamble, but the casino offers free fountain drinks inside (DIET COKE? Yes, please), and a cool Dean Martin themed slot machine that plays “Ain’t that a kick in the head” when you win.
In 2011, just a few days after we killed Bin Laden, I visited the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The official memorial site had not been built yet, but was completed in time for the 10 year anniversary of 9/11, and I’ve been told that trucks are still allowed in on weekdays. As always, I would recommend that you call first to make sure this policy hasn’t changed before making the trip in. The roads to the site from the Pennsylvania Turnpike are legal for trucks, but depending on which way you come in, some are very hilly and challenging for those with heavy loads. If you’re comfortable with dropping your trailer, there is a truck stop with a big lot in Somerset, at exit 110, (look for the National Memorial signs off of the turnpike) so you can bobtail in. Somerset also has plenty of good restaurants and some nice architecture. I recommend the Summit Diner, on 791 North Center Avenue, just a short walk away from the truck stop. If you feel comfortable approaching the subject with strangers, most of the people in Somerset and the surrounding areas have stories about what they saw the day when the world almost literally fell on them; 9/11.
Don’t forget to consider using mass transit when you can. Los Angeles offers a $5 pass which allows you to travel any city bus or subway (yes, LA has subways, who knew?) for the entire day. Early in my driving career, while stuck near Commerce City, a simple call to the LA Metro office got me all of the info I needed to get a map and make my way down to Long Beach. There I found plenty of nice restaurants, shopping, and beautiful boats to look at down by the docks. The beach there is sandy and clean, and it’s a good spot to have a picnic lunch while watching boats and tourists. From Long Beach I went up to Hollywood to look at the Walk of Fame. Like the casinos, Hollywood was never on any of my lists of things to do or places to visit, but once I got there I had a blast.
Now that the T/A Travel Center in Nashville, Tennessee has been re-built after that devastating flood in 2010, you can park there, walk across the pedestrian bridge, and visit one of the nicest, most entertaining cities in America. Even if you’re like me and don’t like Country music, it’s quite a different thing to see an up-and-coming artist live. By all means, just walk into the first bar that has live music drifting out of the door. Many of these shows are free. (Stick to the Diet Coke, you have to drive in the morning.) The library has a nice art display and will allow non-residents to use their computers and Internet. The State Capitol allowed me to roam freely when I was there. I wandered onto the House floor and into the Supreme Court Library. Ask the guard about the marble staircase handrail with the bullet hole. I won’t ruin the story for you, but let’s just say there is more than one way to stop a filibuster.
The key here is to expect the unexpected, and look for adventure each and every time an opportunity presents itself. Use your smart phone apps, and maybe keep an extra fully charged battery with you in case you get lost. The older I get, the more I have come to understand that the sayings that sounded like silly clichés when we were young are true. You truly only live once. While you’re sitting in a truck stop listening to drivers complain about the same things you heard drivers complain about in the last truck stop, eating yet another Subway sandwich and watching another repeat of Law and Order, you could be discovering something.
By the way, what is it with Law and Order? Is there a 24/7 Law and Order channel? Does the Department of Transportation actually require that Law and Order play non-stop in every single truck stop in America? But I digress.
This is a beautiful country we live in, my friends, it would be a shame to only see it from the freeways.
Kevin McKague is a father of three and a truck driver, and is probably somewhere between Flint, Michigan and Baltimore, Maryland at this very moment. He is a recovering elected official, having briefly served on the Davison, Michigan, city council. He is a media junkie, a social-media addict, avid reader, traveler, and optimist. He does not want to buy anything from you. He can be found online at Twitter.com/KevinofMI, at Flickr (http://flic.kr/ps/wg49J), and his Instagram ID is Kevin_McKague.
Photo by Kevin McKague