Thursday, May 04, 2006


When I'm away, I tend to muse about all things related to travel. There's something about being away from home that gets the mind thinking. When I'm away on my own, as I am now, I often think about the trips I've taken with my family. It helps close the distance a bit.

Highway 401 cuts through Ontario from its eastern border with Quebec all the way to Windsor in the extreme southwest. It's the busiest highway in Canada and, through its Toronto sections, is considered the most congested stretch of road in North America.

It's a stretch of road that we cover often as we try to bridge the distance between us and friends and family. Since we moved to London nine years ago, we've come to know the roadway on an almost curve-by-curve basis. We've also come to know and rely on the rest stops along the way.

On the surface, the typical highway rest stop or service area is little more than a fast food restaurant attached to a gas station surrounded by a large parking lot. But when your little one has to go, your middle one needs to blow off some steam and your eldest has been hungry for the last hour, the looming fluorescent presence is a welcoming sight to a tired and transient family.

The 401 has a network of them along its entire length. Once upon a time, each one had a cool-looking domed roof. The unique shape stood out on the unending landscape, and gave the kids something neat to talk about as they waited their turn for Mommy to buy the inevitable box of TimBits. These domes weren't fine architecture and they weren't going to become heritage buildings anytime soon. The design suited the purpose. And they were just unique enough that they were not forgotten.

Now, the service stations are gradually being rebuilt. One by one, the turtle-like domes are giving way to larger buildings that hold more restaurants. The new buildings look pretty much like any other: nondescript boxes made of concrete and glass. We can still buy TimBits and let the kids be kids before we get back in the car and hit the road once again. But something's missing.

The kids don't talk about these places. They're not different enough to merit discussion. They're just like the buildings back home. They're no longer signposts of the great adventure to their grandparents' house.

So I thought I'd post a picture of the interior of one of these domes. I don't know how much longer they'll still be around. And I don't want my kids to ever forget what it felt like to be in a building that made them feel just a little bit more special.

Maybe someday, the folks who design public service buildings like these will listen to kids like mine and once again give them an excuse to look up, and to connect with their surroundings.

Your turn: I hope you'll tell us about an icon of your own travels. Why does good design matter to those who are just passing through? Does it really matter at all?


Prego said...

I am strictly utilitarian when it comes to rest stops. In fact, I unexpectedly dropped $49 for a roadside meal that consisted of sh*tty microwaved pizza, fridgy tasting tuna fish and a 'Caesar' chicken wrap that would have made Caesar himself vomit uncontrollably without the aid of emetics.

Nah... those places don't really make an impression. Maybe they would, if they housed something a little more interesting than a Starbucks, a Sub shop chain and a shop that sells M & Ms for $2.50.

I'll connect to my surroundings once the trip is over. Until then I'm just satisfied that the urine puddles have been properly mopped up.

Happy trails.

Jef said...

When I travel, I like to use my freshly-exposed perspective to the fullest extent by looking at the ordinary surroundings in a different way. However, what I notice the most seem to be the where man and nature come together to build something that is functional, yet seamlessly seems to be part of the environment. Somtimes this is as simples as wildflowers along the highway, other times it's an old farmhouse being reclaimed by crawling vegetation.

Cora L said...

When I was young, our family trips always involved travel by car. I was fortunate enough to see the vast majority of Canada and the States that way.

What stands out most in my memory are the unique rest stops (gas stations with gift shops) and roadside attractions. My parents made an effort to purchase an embroidered crest for every province, state, and attraction we visited.

I didn't appreciate it at the time, but they sure do bring back some fond memories now.

AverageMom said...

They are rebuilding the domes?! I think I've peed in every reststop along that highway.
Our main landmark right now is "the cut-off". It's the corner where the Alaska highway continues on south, and the klondike highway turns off toward Carcross and eventually Skagway. Girl Terror knows that when we take that corner, it's time to close her eyes and take a nap!

kenju said...

Good design inspires awe in us, it restores our souls and our bodies when we need rest. Most of what passes for rest stops these days is crap that wouldn't inspire anyone.

Karen said...

My favorite travel memory? Hmm...well, when I was a kid, it would be sitting on the floor in the back seat of the station wagon. Of course, you can't do that now, but back then I loved it. And back then, back seats were HUGE!

Hi Carmi! Hope the trip is going well.

Grins said...

It matters to me but I'm an architecture nut so that is to be expected. As long as it isn't the stereotypical building erected between 1950 and 1980 I can pretty much find something beautiful in it.

Carl V. said...

Great thoughts Carmi, I agree totally. I'm all in favor of modernising to a certain degree but I wish people would be more conscientious about using existing structures, leaving trees, etc. when they decide to update. It may take a little more work and cost a little more but designer often seem to underestimate the value of aesthetics and ones attachment to things as they are.

Kross-Eyed Kitty said...

I like to look at the moon, and think that it is the same moon that people all over the world see. Years ago, when I lived in the Middle East and was feeling homesick, I'd look at the moon and feel not quite so far away.
Here through Michele, again!

Mick said...

Yeah, I am pretty familliar with the stretch of the 401 just east of Toronto. What a hell returning through Toronto on a Sunday afternoon. You say its the busiest stretch of road in north America. Its time they did something about improving that intolerable situation. Put in extra lane or something. Mick