Like Starbucks and national pharmacy chains, fast-food restaurants and suburban model homes, gas stations, by and large, share a quality of near-universal uniformity. You only need to step into them a few times before you know intuitively where everything is: there’s the cash register, the refrigerated drinks, the all-important bathroom. For drivers and travelers on the road, the relationship with this space — a familiarity built up five minutes at a time, stop by stop — is a necessity and a banality. It’s a fact of life, in the same vein as death and taxes.
But gas stations, for all their mundanity, still carry a whiff of possibility. (Or is that just the smell of petrol fumes?) You can thank the idea of the road trip for that, and all the senses of nostalgia, adventure, and boundlessness that it engenders. Cast under the warm glow of the Great American Road Trip™, gas stations become a supporting player. Not just a waypoint to take a piss and fill up the tank, but to refuel in all senses of the word. Here, there are unexpected pleasures to be found, whether in the kinds of people you come across, the idiosyncratic souvenirs you might find next to the Band-Aids, or the bounty that awaits in the second-most important spot in a gas station.
I’m talking about the snack aisle, of course. That’s where the magic happens, especially when you’re just setting out on your journey. There’s always so much packed onto the shelves, an entire universe of snacking, despite the limited space inherent in the phrase “gas station mini mart.” Chips and pretzels, cookies and crackers, nuts and bars, jerky and fruit leathers, the gum and mints that provide some semblance of freshening up during hours on the road. It can be a place of similitude across city and state lines, or a site of discovery, depending on whether the gas station stocks regional specialties.
For me, the sameness of the offerings — unsurprising, comforting, guaranteed — while on a journey to somewhere new is half of the appeal. Having grown up in car country and logged a cumulative total of a couple hundred thousand miles (at least) in 20-plus years’ worth of family road trips, I know exactly which snacks to reach for each time I find myself in a gas station.
And now I pass along this arcane knowledge, a time-tested combo, on to you: Gardetto’s and Sour Punch Straws, never one without the other. The Gardetto’s, a proudly Chex-less medley of rye toasts, pretzels, and miniature breadsticks, provides crunch and the salty-savory umami that is a telltale gift of MSG; the Sour Punch Straws (think that puckering, baby-shaped candy in tubular form) offer a vigorous chewiness and bright, mouth-puckering tartness tempered by sweet corn syrup. Consumed separately, in one mindless stream of hand-to-mouth coordination, the onslaught of salt and sugary acid, respectively, is too much. But eaten in alternating mouthfuls, they somehow balance each other out, creating a particular kind of gustatory harmony only achievable through the mad-scientist melding of artificial flavors and preservatives fine-tuned to the nth degree.
Pure junk, pure treasure. Even though I know with certainty that this combination will leave me feeling terrible in approximately 20 minutes, teeth squeaking from the straws’ corrosive cocktail of sugar and citric acid, body weighed down by no less than five servings of flour, oil, and seasoned-by-the-heavens rye chips (those elusive gems of the pack).
But you take the bad with the good. That’s the promise of the gas station: mostly nondescript, sometimes shitty, but not without the odd high here or there. I was reminded of this recently when I went to a nearby gas station in search of my signature Gardetto’s and Sour Punch Straws. One glance and I knew where to go for my snacks: in one aisle, the last pack of Gardetto’s; on the other side, my favorite blue raspberry Sour Punch Straws, the only flavor offered. I paid at the counter, through a plexiglass divider that went nearly all the way up to the ceiling. The cashier, a man my dad’s age, face obscured by a mask, watched me struggle to open the plastic bag for my purchase. My usual method of surreptitiously licking my thumb to better separate the pressed folds of the bag, now incredibly unsanitary in hindsight, was rendered off-limits in COVID times.
“Want to know a trick to open it?” he asked me, just when I had managed to finally get the bag unfolded.
He took out another bag, pressed flat from the pack, and showed me the seam along the right. Just slide your finger under that line, and the bag should open, no spit required. “I learned that from TikTok,” he said, sounding pleased with himself. “You know those hacks? At least that’s something I learned from them.”
I couldn’t help but laugh, caught off guard by the pleasure of this encounter, the first one I had shared with a stranger in a long time. We wished each other a good day as I left the store, snacks and newly acquired knowledge in hand; I think we enjoyed the exchange, a rarity among interactions between retail workers and customers, typically full of automatic niceties. The unexpected delight of our conversation followed me all the way home, where I opened the bag of Gardetto’s and a pack of sour straws. They tasted just as I remembered. Maybe even a little better. At the gas station, you always find what you’re looking for, and then you find what you didn’t know you needed.
Naya-Cheyenne is a Miami-raised, Brooklyn-based multimedia illustrator and designer.