There's one in particular that I'm thinking about. It's particularly big and ugly and so caters to this type of travel that it actually prints its own Atlas listing every single one of its stores in the nation along with the nearest freeway exit. Yes it's depressing. Yes, the lighting can be soul crushing. And yet, I own the atlas - because equally crushing are the wails of a child and an emergency Hot Wheels and a price-friendly flagon of chocolate milk can soothe a lot of wrongs. Restock the cooler, purchase a cooked chicken for an impromptu car picnic, replace the lost pacifiers, and you're on your way. Anytime you come across one of those exits that have six hotels and six fast food joints pictorially advertised (a 6-by-6 stop, we call it) there's going to be a big box discount store. It will have a bathroom, it will have crayons that haven't melted in the sun, and most importantly it will have the attachment you don't have to make the DVD player work.
10.) Ask Around. Pregnant, crabby wife, screaming 2-year-old, gas station just east of Nashville, Tennesee. Ask. The gas station attendant in this case: Is there a park around here? "Why sure, ‘bout a while down the road there, on the right." A giant park, with a stream, the best climbing structure I've ever seen and some shade. Even I, crabby and pregnant, wanted to play as soon as I finished my Kentucky Fry C pot pie. This by the way is another reason to eat breakfast in the car -- more time for actual fun on the road. The kids trade germs with children from all over the country. Mom can lie in the shade and wish she were dead, just for a little while. And then everybody is good for another 300 miles. In Atlanta we asked for BBQ -- we got a Southern family-style chain restaurant. Maybe not exactly the "authentic" we Yanks were looking for, but then again, we found our little bucolic family eating next to a sheriff and a chain gang. Really, the guy sharing his French fries with our 2-year-old son was attached to the guy next to him -- with a chain. Now that's authentic.
Which is the point of the drive. Yes, it's long. It can be hot, and crowded and slightly nauseating, but it's tradition. As American as largest ball of twine -- which I haven't seen, but I have seen the pancake restaurant in the shape of a two-story Aunt Jemima, and so have my kids.