Publisher’s letter: Spitting distance

Ashley Sexton Gordon. Photo by Jeannie Frey Rhodes.

It’s been a long season of sheltering in place. The same four walls. The same semblance of home-cooked meals served night after blessed night. The same shows. The same games. The same people’s faces (our people) seen through a new lens. An intense lens. A loving, judgmental, exhausting lens.

And while we should be thankful for the meals, and the shelter, and the people, we become weary and weak and bored. And like the Israelites who were brought out of bondage in Egypt, we grumble about the manna. What, manna again? I’m so tired of manna. Yes, dear, they were out of chicken breasts at the store. Be thankful for the manna.

I’m here to tell you to hold on a little longer. You’ve almost made it. I’ve been to the promised land, and I’ve tasted of the milk and honey. These days of wandering in the desert are coming to a close, and what waits on the other side is worth the wait. Have faith.

That’s right. I’m talking about Buc-ee’s.

Alabama opened its beaches before Louisiana even opened its restaurants and boutiques. So a small group of us headed to the Gulf Coast for a long weekend last month. Figured a change of scenery could do us some good. While I was used to being given a wide berth in grocery stores and gas stations back home, I found that the good people of Alabama saw no reason to steer clear of one another. Condo guests crammed elevators with me on the slow rise up to the 15th floor, and there was nary a face mask to be found. The beaches were packed, and scantily clad adults parked their rears within spitting distance of my toes in the sand. (Has spitting distance ever been so scary?)

But it was my foray into the Buc-ee’s Travel Center off the Baldwin Beach Express that gave me a glimpse into a heavily populated paradise. It’s all I ever wanted, and more.

First things first: If you have never pulled your car into a Buc-ee’s while traveling through Texas, then you are missing out on an experience. They claim to have the cleanest bathrooms in America, and while I haven’t sat on every gas station toilet in our country, I will agree that theirs seem stellar. But Buc-ee’s opened this location—with a whopping 52,000-square-foot store and 120 gas pumps—last year in Alabama, and it has become a destination for travelers going to and from the beach.

This is no surprise given what Buc-ee’s offers. Namely, everything you’ve ever thought you wanted and might possibly want if given time to think about it, with their signature beaver stamp on it. Plus they have crushed ice and Styrofoam cups. So if you can think of any reason not to pull off the road and circle the barricades for a parking space, then you are a different bird than me.

But on this particular day—on the cusp of the country being up in arms on how, when and why to open up businesses—I was flabbergasted by the crowd. At the Texas Roundup station in the middle of the store, patrons were waiting in line for their brisket tacos and the cooks couldn’t make them fast enough. Lines fanned out from the fountain drink stations. And hungry travelers were grabbing and snatching the 15 different kinds of jerky off the wall.

It was like we hadn’t been out in a while.

I got caught up in the commotion, suddenly scared that I didn’t know when my next vacation might be, and I loaded my basket with things I deemed vital: Buc-ee’s roasted nuts, a stainless-steel tumbler with the gas-station logo, a pair of pajama pants in an Aztec print, and a set of barbecue grill tools with a lifetime guarantee. I felt human again. I felt vital. I felt like a consumer. I waited in a line 12 people deep to purchase these essential items, and no one was standing six feet apart. I felt alive.

This is what it looks like on the other side. I’m here as an ambassador to give you hope. To give you purpose. To say yes, you are eating manna today and you should be thankful for it. But on the other side—once road travel becomes the norm again—there is a brisket, egg and cheese taco with your name on it (your name and a beaver’s face).

So don’t despair. We will all go back to normal in time. When we can stand side by side, within spitting distance, and not throw a mask across our nose. And there, my friend, I will meet you in the land of milk and honey.