Fifty years ago, travelers on American roads used to watch for trucks parked by roadside diners. Most people believed that truckers knew the best places to eat, and that any restaurant with trucks parked in front of it would serve good food.

Criss-crossing trade routes are as old as history. U.S. Interstate highways 57 and 70 join for a few kilometers at Effingham, Illinois.

Truckers still set the standards on American highways, but the diner with a half-dozen trucks parked nearby is a thing of the past. The modern American truck stop is a huge commercial complex, often covering several hundred hectares of ground and employing 100 or more people.

And it, too, is a thing of the past, in a different sense. Most people think of the truck stop as an American development and it is, but it is also a re-invention of an old idea.

For most of recorded history the greatest trade route in the world was the network of caravan trails that connected ancient Rome with imperial China, with branch routes to India and Africa. Now called the “Silk Road,” it was itself one of the great civilizations of history.

We think of Rome and China as centers of culture, but in fact they were the outer edges. The center was in Central Asia, where the trade routes — and the ideas — crossed.

Some Mexican truck stops retain more of the air of an old caravansery. Here, traffic at two different truck stops nearly blocks a main highway.

For nearly 1,000 years, Europeans thought steel came from secret Asian mines. In ancient times, some Europeans actually believed that Central Asian princes and sorcerers could travel on flying carpets, and that genies came out of bottles to grant their every wish. The stories were fantastic, but it was no fantasy that Central Asia held wonders. Even now, some of the underground canals that carried water to cities surrounded by desert are still in use and the names of cities like Samarkand and Tashkent and Baghdad are tinged with magic.

The caravan trade made Central Asia the center of the world, and the center of the trade was the caravansery. Even if they lived on the trade, the towns and cities of the Silk Road didn’t want caravans of several hundred camels in town any more than the caravan masters wanted to cope with crowded town streets. Over the years, most towns on caravan routes developed special-purpose complexes, called caravanseries, just outside the city limits.

The typical caravansery was a walled compound with a hostel, stables, a tavern and other amenities. It might have a detachment of troops stationed there, and perhaps tax collectors and other officials. The local ruler probably had spies and informants working there too, because travelers who stopped at the caravansery were the best possible source of foreign news.

In Russia, along part of the old Silk Road, truckers and travelers park for the night in a walled compound with armed guards.

Most caravanseries were also centers for dozens of local trades and businesses. There would be a tavern, obviously, and whores to comfort a weary traveler. There were scribes, camel traders, tinkers, smiths and leather and cloth workers to repair caravan equipment, as well as traders, moneylenders and probably a few thieves, cutpurses, con men, muggers and professional murderers. Even if the camel-pullers didn’t need a particular service, it would probably be available, because a big caravansery would also be a local business center.

Camel caravans still brought tea from China to Moscow until the opening of the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1901, but the glory days of the Silk Road ended in the 15th century.

Trade slowed when the decline of the Mongol Empire allowed robbers and robber barons to prey on caravans, but in the end, the Silk Road was a victim of its own success. Caravans brought the concept of the steering-post rudder — which made ocean shipping practical — from China to Europe over the Silk Road, and in about 1500, the Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama found a sea route from Europe to the Orient. Once the center of the world, Central Asia became a backwater.

North American caravans

Ships still carry most of the world’s freight, but trucks now swarm over six of the world’s seven continents. Some of the longest routes follow sections of the old Silk Road, but the busiest of the long routes, and the longest of the busy routes, are in North America. From southern Canada to central Mexico about 4 million transport trucks haul freight on runs that take up to three or four days each way. If he can’t get a load back to his point of departure, a North American trucker may be on the road for weeks at a time.

Like the camel pullers of old, truckers are a mixed lot. Some drivers work for companies that own the trucks, and some buy their own trucks and drive them on contract for big or small trucking companies. A few completely independent truckers own their own trucks and pull freight in their own name. In years gone by, when freelance trucking was illegal, some independents got around the law by buying a load from the shipper and selling it to the receiver.

And like the camel pullers of old, truckers need a place to stop. A place to rest, to buy fuel and have their truck serviced, to eat meals and shower and do their laundry. Even the biggest companies can’t have terminals everywhere, and about 3.5 million drivers every day stop at one of more than 5,000 truck stops in North America.

A North American truck stop is a modern version of a caravansery, serving the same functions, for the same market, for the same reasons. No town or city wants 100 or 1,000 big trucks in the downtown area, and no trucker wants to drive in a town if he can help it, but a big truck stop can be a source of wealth to a town and a real comfort to a trucker.

The main business of truck stops is the sale of fuel, to truckers who may take 1,000 liters or more at a filling. This U.S. fuel bar is typical of big truck stops worldwide.

The basic element of a truck stop is the fuel islands, for trucks that may take up to 1,000 liters at a filling. Because many trucks have tanks on both sides, some fuel islands have double pumps — with a “slave” to fill the right-hand tank while the “master” fills the left and records the fuel delivered to both sides.

Some truck stops have “cardlock” pumps, which can be turned on by the right credit card, and which record sales automatically on a computer. Some “cardlock” fuel stations are completely automatic, with no attendants at all.

But most fuel stations have attendants to pump the fuel or at least to take the money. Because it costs several hundred dollars to fill a truck, most truck stops also have a variety of credit facilities.

Many truck stops also offer security. The old caravanseries were walled and guarded, because a large caravan might contain more treasure than a small town. A transport truck may carry millions of dollars worth of goods, and most big North American truck stops offer a fenced and guarded parking area where truckers can park in safety.

In some parts of the world, truckers need personal protection because — like the caravan masters of old — they carry enough cash to cover the expenses of their trip. When I traveled with English truckers through Russia and Kazakstan a few years ago we spent nights in walled and guarded truck parks, or under the lights of a roadside police station. One English driver who met us in Tashkent had parked alone at a gas station and been robbed.

Wild West atmosphere

I’ve met other drivers who have been gassed and robbed as they slept in several countries in Europe. Drivers themselves are not in much danger in North America — probably because they carry credit cards rather than large amounts of cash — but trucks can be stolen and trailers can be hijacked. A driver for one big company told me recently that his company, which has more than 20,000 trailers, loses about 30 of them each month. The company issues a monthly list of missing trailers and offers drivers a $200 reward for any they can find.

Trucks in a compound are safe and the drivers have access to 24-hour restaurants, sometimes with a special section “for truckers only.” Most truck stops also have a “truckers store” that sells everything from truck parts to T-shirts, and most have sitting rooms, electronic games and television rooms for drivers, and a laundromat and showers.

A few years ago, most big truck stops also had bunkhouses, but now most truckers have their own sleepers. Still, many truck stops offer motel rooms and others have motels nearby. If the truck stop does not offer truck and tire repairs, tow trucks, truck washes and other services, they will be located nearby.

Pay telephones are an important feature of every stop. The video above the phones advertises loads available to independent truckers.

Most truck stops still have rooms full of pay phones for drivers who have to report to their companies or who just want to call home. The phones are less busy now because many drivers have cell phones and some trucks have satellite tracking and communications, but they are still there.

Most truck stops also have bulletin boards where truckers can post notices about trucks and other equipment they want to buy or sell and where drivers can advertise that they’re looking for work and employers can advertise for drivers.

Many big truck stops also have bulletin boards, TV monitors or perhaps complete offices for “load brokers.” Tens of thousands of American truckers are “independents” who use their own tractors to pull trailers owned by trucking companies, manufacturers or leasing companies. After an independent delivers a load several thousand kilometers from home, he needs another to go back with, and he will find it through a “load broker” who advertises, and who may have an office, at a truck stop.

Some truck stops have malls of stores which sell citizens’ band-radio and stereo equipment, knives, clothes and so forth. Many have barbers and other services, and at least one has an in-house chiropractic clinic. A few have chapels, and all have parking space for company chaplains and the freelance evangelists who cruise the highways in motor homes. Many invite local ministers to conduct religious services on Sundays.

And, like it or not, most big truck stops also have a cadre of con men, whores, thieves, drug dealers and other criminals. That’s no surprise, when you consider that a truck driver may carry $1,000 or more in cash, his truck is worth more than $100,000 and his load may be worth millions.

If 1,000 trucks a day pass through, that’s about $100 million worth of vehicles carrying several hundred million dollars worth of cargo and driven by 1,000 men who earn and carry more money than average. If a sneak thief can’t steal something from the truckers passing through, he may be able to sell a “hot” stereo, CB or perhaps even a truck, at a truck stop.

A truck stop is also a good place to make connections, because on any given day it’s a fair bet that trucks from every state in the United States and every province in Canada will pass through. If drug dealers don’t make some of their connections at truck stops, they’re missing an obvious bet. The police know this too, of course, and it’s safe to assume that many big truck stops are occasional hosts to undercover policemen.

And most truck stops have whores. Some use CB radios to advertise their services and to make dates, but others — often called “lot lizards” — walk from truck to truck tapping on doors. This used to cause problems when they tried to solicit women drivers, but now women drivers, and men who don’t want company or who already have it, often hang a brassiere in the truck window.

Most truck stops try to discourage prostitutes and some are serious about it — with private guards to hassle them — but prostitution has been around for a long time and nobody has yet found a way to stop it.

And as long as it does exist, what better place than a truck stop? When trade moved by ship, the working girls worked the ports, and on the Silk Road they worked the caravanseries. In modern North America, some work the truck stops.

18-wheeler oases

So do other businesses. Like the caravanseries of old, a modern truck stop is a business center, and for a small town it can be an important part of the economy. Effingham, Illinois, is a town of about 12,000 people on a short stretch where U.S. Interstate Highway 70 joins, for a few kilometers, with Interstate 57. Both are main roads, and a few years ago a traffic count showed that between them they carried about 25,000 vehicles a day.

Some of those vehicles are on local trips, but most are on long runs, and Effingham catches the traffic with a concentration of five big truck stops, 18 motels and nearly 100 assorted restaurants and fast food outlets. Dozens of other businesses, including a truck dealership and tire shops and truck washes and others, are there to serve trucks, and several small trucking companies are based in the town. The truck stops alone employ more than 500 people, and hundreds of other jobs depend on the trucks and on the cars that stop there.

The truck stops and their satellite businesses are an important part of the town’s economy and many businesses that may not stem from the truck stops came to town for the same reason the truck stops did. Where trade routes cross, ideas mix and cities grow.

And caravanseries and truck stops are built. Many Americans believe that truck stops offer the best meals on the road and that’s often true, but it’s not the only reason that truckers patronize them. Like the old camel pullers, modern truckers don’t want to face town traffic until they have to, and most times they will stop at the restaurant with the easiest access and parking.

The food at truck stops is often very good, but the parking and the other services are more important.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.