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Photos by Joanna Dowling and Cheri Wolf

The Wolf family at Texas Canyon Rest Area, which is now one of just five open rest areas in the state.

Cheri Wolf and the family Airstream at Texas Canyon Rest Area.

I-10 Eastbound, Mile Marker 181.

Wickenburg-Hassayampa Rest Area on US-60.

I-10 Westbound, Mile Marker 389.

I-10 Westbound, Mile Marker 389.

The Texas Canyon Rest Area, which features unique rock formations and natural caves.

Published by Times Publications, May 2010

Cheri Wolf remembers the first time she ever saw “the boulders,” as she and her family have lovingly come to call the Texas Canyon rest area on the stretch of the I-10 snaking across southeastern Arizona.

“It was back in 1998, and we had stopped there for the night on the way to Vegas to pick up a teenaged niece who was about to join the RV journey,” says Wolf, a full-time RVer whose husband, James, runs a mobile business installing Wi-Fi in campgrounds that keeps the couple crisscrossing from Florida to California in their 31-foot motor home.

In the dark of night, Wolf recalls she saw little more of the rest area just west of Wilcox than some welcoming parking spaces and restrooms, and quickly pulled in for some much-needed shuteye before taking off on the last leg of the trip.

But upon being awakened the next morning by the sun peeking over the majestic Dragoon Mountains, the 25-mile range of natural granite spires and boulders where the legendary Apache chief Cochise was known to hide out from Confederate soldiers in the 1800s, Wolf felt like the fabled Alice waking up in the camper’s own unique version of Wonderland.

“I had no idea what the area looked like when we pulled in, but was completely amazed at what I saw in the early morning,” she says. “I was just knocked out by how beautiful it was. I had to grab a camera. I was like, ‘I gotta draw this! I’ve got to paint this!’ It quickly became our favorite rest area in the country, and we’ve been stopping there every year since on our way from California to Texas.”

Now traveling with a 2-1/2-year-old son, Wolf says she and her husband look forward even more to their stops at the Texas Canyon rest area, where young Cooper has been climbing the unique rock formations and burrowing through the natural caves on the eastbound side of the Interstate since he was barely three months old. “Now every time we travel, he can’t stop talking about ‘the boulders,’ and asking when we’re gonna get there again,” Wolf says. “It’s always a highlight.”

It’s also now, unfortunately, the one and only rest area the Wolfs stop by on their trips from Las Vegas all the way down to Arizona’s southeast border. Last October, in a move to address the $100 million in state budget cuts dealt to the Arizona Department of Transportation, 13 of the 18 ADOT-operated rest areas were closed. The action has spawned concerns from the Arizona Trucking Association, which worries that non-rested drivers pose a safety issue, as well as Governor Jan Brewer, who, in a letter enlisting help from the U.S. Department of Transportation, worried that the blockades at rest-stop exits “may convey an inaccurate and unfortunate image of a state that is closed for business.”

The Wolfs, who, like many out-of-state visitors, hadn’t heard the news of the closures, gathered an even harsher assessment of the state’s troubles after seeing blockades from Kingman all the way to Benson.

“I figured it had something to do with the economy,” says Cheri. “But I thought it was to keep the homeless out, because people losing their houses might start living in them.”

After Googling an article detailing the state’s budget woes, Wolf admits she wasn’t surprised to learn the rest stops were among the first services taking a hit. But she feels officials have underestimated the importance some of these respites hold for traveling families.

“I tell you, I was totally disappointed not to be able to use an area off of Route 93 near Wickenburg this past October,” she says. “I really needed to pull off, and the kid really could have used a little nature hike.

“It’s so great when you find a place where the kids can get out and just blow off a little steam,” she adds. “Especially when there’s something really incredible there to explore.”

Aced out by the Arches

Fortunately for families like the Wolfs, the Texas Canyon stop remains one of the five rest areas ADOT is committed to keeping open — although even those aren’t guaranteed to continue operating indefinitely.

“On average, it costs approximately $300,000 a year to operate a rest area,” says ADOT spokesman Doug Nitzel, countering a common misperception that all the department needs to do is send someone out periodically to refresh the toilet paper. “Given their remote locations in most cases, they are much like small cities that require the delivery and operation of electric, water and sewer utilities.”

While Nitzel says ADOT remains hopeful that the 13 closures already in effect will be temporary, he also allows that the situation could get worse before it improves, noting that even the ones which have remained open are being deprived attention, thanks to a bout of severe winter weather upstate that diverted available funds to rescue and snow and ice removal. “We estimate our rest-area system is in need of at least $100 million in repairs.”

One solution that’s been proposed is to allow private investment in the rest stops, turning the job of maintaining the areas over to, say, Ronald McDonald or Colonel Sanders in exchange for permitting fast-food restaurants or gas stations to be built along the highways — something federal law currently prohibits (to date, such commercial operations must be built off the exit ramps, well outside highway rights-of-way). Both ADOT director John Halikowski and Governor Brewer have petitioned U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to consider a change in such regulations, put in place during the creation of the first Interstate Highway System rest areas in the late 1950s, which were designed to provide motorists basic comfort amenities and short-term parking on the taxpayers’ dime.

Ironically, however, the fact that the off-ramps at highway interchanges are already crowded today with burger joints and gas stations has weakened the case for maintaining rest stops along the shoulders.

“The ones that ADOT has kept open are the most frequently visited and also the ones that have the fewest private alternatives nearby,” stresses the governor’s press aide Paul Senseman, lamenting that the rest areas nearest the Golden Arches or an ARCO sign were the first to receive the orange safety barriers. “They looked for places where there would be ready alternatives for people to use the facilities. And in most cases, there were private alternatives not too far away.”

Try telling that to a trucker, however, who by law is required to pull over and rest for at least three hours out of every 14-hour haul, and who simply can’t wedge his rig into a Burger King parking space or find a Quik Mart manager receptive to overnight parking.

“There are a lot of places that have signs up saying, ‘No commercial truck parking,’” says Karen Rasmussen, president of the Arizona Trucking Association. “Many of the small towns have ordinances prohibiting truck parking. Also, truckers can’t legally park on the side of the highways, or on the off-ramps. So where do they go?”

Truck stops, or the more modern “travel plazas” like the Flying Js, remain the trucker’s friend, but usually for a price.

“Most of them require that the driver purchase fuel or a meal there in order to park on their lot,” Rasmussen says. “Some of them charge for parking. They’re in business, and it’s to be expected that they would want to be compensated for that space.” Besides, Rasmussen adds, most of the truck stops fill up fast at nightfall — particularly since the rest areas have closed. “And none of them are adding more parking, because of the economy.”

As it happens, about the only thing so far saving the Arizona Interstates from becoming a slam-fest of sleepy semi drivers is, in fact, the slow economy.

“Because of the recession, there simply haven’t been as many trucks on the road,” says Rasmussen. “But that’s changing. Freight volumes are picking back up again.”

With 95 percent of everything shipped in and out of Arizona moving by truck, according to the ATA — and, says AAA, 20 percent of highway crashes caused by drowsy drivers — Rasmussen feels the rest-stop closures complete a blueprint for disaster.

“As more and more drivers go back on the road, it will become harder and harder for them to find a place to rest,” she says. “That’s a serious safety issue.”

Americana at Rest

Aside from road-warrior RVers, professional truckers and the particularly incontinent motorist, does anyone really care about our vanishing rest stops?

Joanna Dowling does — and she’s betting many more of us will, if our rest stops continue to disappear. A cultural historian from suburban Chicago who wrote her master’s thesis on the architectural significance of America’s mid-century rest areas and subsequently created a website, RestAreaHistory.org, as a resource for other pit-stop lovers, Dowling considers rest areas a kind of ambient Americana motorists absorb almost without realizing it.

“I think they’re places we’re not consciously thinking about most of the time, but they fall into our travel experience,” she says during a recent trip through Arizona to visit relatives in Queen Creek. “They’re these subconscious, below-the-radar things that really do have a solid place in our travel experience, but they don’t necessarily come to the forefront of how we think about travel until maybe they’re gone. And I think these closures are finally bringing that to light.”

Dowling, who admits she can find architectural beauty in what many consider bland roadside trappings around Arizona — the Stonehenge-like monoliths of beige brick that suspend the picnic table coverings at the Mohawk rest area on I-8; the circular informational signs at the Wickenburg/Hassayampa rest area on US-60 that stand like a series of modified Navajo sun symbols — says part of the original plan for rest areas was to convey some sense of the places motorists were speeding by.

“Prior to the creation of the Interstate system in the ‘50s, you could just stop at a roadside stand and experience the local culture,” she says. “The rest area kind of took over that role of providing a taste of the landscape or culture that you might not get if you didn’t get off the freeway. And I think that will be lost if all we’re left along the highways are generic gas stations and fast-food places.”

Cheri Wolf would agree. On the mobile mom’s YouTube page, a 27-month-old Cooper crawls through a pint-sized cave formed by two toppled boulders at the Texas Canyon rest area and climbs an ice cream bowl-like mound of giant rocks until the toddler sits high above the I-10, his unruly shock of blonde hair, knotted from “all the bed-head his car seat could muster,” explains mom, blowing in the breeze.

For a moment, the young lad stares off into the horizon, towards southeastern Arizona’s Madrean “sky islands,” and rubs his hands together, as if capturing the wonder for the rest of the trip.

Good luck recreating that experience in a McDonald’s ball pool.

“Look at you,” Wolf narrates, as dad stands close beside him, ready to carry Cooper back down to the parking lot. “On top of the world!