Gas stations: then and now

gas stationsOnce upon a time, gas stations gave away all kinds of cool stuff, most of it targeted at kids. As a child of the 70’s, I clearly recall of our Exxon “NFL Helmets” drinking glass collection, and my miniature Noah’s Ark collectible series (What genius ad team decided that was the perfect gas station promo?). The point is, these giveaways worked. My parents would bribe me not to annoy my older brother on road trips by promising me a new plastic animal for my Ark. My brother didn’t have to punch me in retaliation, my parents didn’t have to pull over; everyone was happy.

I’m not exactly sure when the freebies stopped, but that’s not the only thing that’s changed in American gas station culture over the years. Prior to the opening of the world’s first dedicated gas (or “filling”) station in St. Louis in 1905, hardware stores and mercantiles had gas pumps. The price of gas when the first “drive-in” filling station opened in 1913? Twenty-seven cents a gallon.

As I write this, I’m in Oregon, on the final leg of a 10-day road trip from my home in Seattle to San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. The cost of gas in Truckee, California, where my brother lives is $4.09 a gallon. I paid $3.59 in Mt. Shasta today, and thought myself lucky. Oregon also reminds me of another way gas stations have changed between then and now.

[Photo credit: Flickr user iboy_daniel]gas stationThere were still full-service station attendants when I was a kid: clean, smiling, uniformed pumpers of gas who cleaned the windshield and checked the oil for free. Today, however, Oregon is one of the few states that prohibits the pumping of gas by motorists. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been yelled at in this state for absentmindedly getting out of my car and touching the pump. I actually enjoy pumping gas, but I’m not going to fight about it. I just think southern Oregon might want to look into hiring gas jockeys who look as though they haven’t spent time in a federal prison or crawled out of a meth lab, especially when they don’t even bother to wipe down my windshield. “Here, take my debit card, please.”

I think the trend toward enclosing urban attendants in bullet-proof booths is something that’s fairly recent. That makes me kind of sad. No one should really have to risk their life working the graveyard shift for close to minimum wage, but being a gas station attendant is definitely a high-risk occupation in a lot of places. If nothing else, the temptation to snack on the plethora of chemically-enhanced food and beverages in the workplace creates a hazardous environment.

Although a dying breed, I’ve seen some pretty sweet, old-school gas stations in the rural Southwest, South, and California’s Central Coast that sell regional bbq, Indian fry bread, or biscuits and country ham. I once visited a gas station in Tasmania that sold artisan bread, local cheese, butter, and milk (in bottles, no less), and local wine, jam, and honey. I really wish gas stations/local food markets would catch on the States…it would make getting gas less painful, even if it further depleted my bank account.
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Gas station design has changed drastically over the years. Many rural stations in the fifties and sixties sported kitschy themes, such as dinosaurs or teepees, and were roadside attractions in their own right. Today, we have mega-stations like the Sheetz chain, which is wildly popular in the northeast for made-to-order food, all of it annoyingly spelled with “z’s” (If you need coffeez to go with your wrapz and cheezburgerz, you should check it out). There is something to be said for one-stop mega-station road shopping, however. It’s incredibly convienient when you’re short on time or in the middle of nowhere, and in need a random item.

I love dilapidated old filling stations, but I’m also lazy, so it throws me when I can’t use my debit card at the pump. It’s kind of a moot point, because I possess a bladder the size of a walnut. The cleanliness of gas station restrooms, while still an advertising hook, used to be a point of pride. These days, I feel like I should be wearing a hazmat suit when I use most small chain station toilets. Seriously, if you’re not going to going to clean or restock your bathroom, ever, please don’t post a sign telling me to report to the management if it needs “servicing.”

As for those fun giveaways disguised as advertising? I think that maybe the Happy Meal is what killed it for gas stations. Once fast food outlets started giving kids toys, the ad execs had to come up with a new plan. Which I suppose is why most gas companies target grown-ups now, even if they still use cartoon graphics. Does the sight of anthropomorphized cars dancing atop the pump actually sell gas and credit cards? I’d rather have a set of drinking glasses.

[Photo credits: Magnolia, Flickr user jimbowen0306; DX, Flickr user Chuck “Caveman” Coker;

Teen sailor Jessica Watson barred from race

Jessica Watson banned from sailing raceJessica Watson, the Australian teenager who made headlines earlier this year by becoming the youngest person to ever circumnavigate the globe, has been barred from sailing in an upcoming yacht race because she doesn’t meet the age requirements for the event.

Watson, who completed her round-the-world voyage back in May, had hoped to compete in the Sydney to Hobart sailing race that will get underway on December 26th, but her application was denied because she is just 17 years old. The organizers of the race require that all participants be at least 18 years of age.

The annual race, which is a popular event in Australia, begins in the Sydney Harbor, and plays out over the Tasman Sea and Storm Bay before coming to an end in the city of Hobart on the island of Tasmania. This will be the 66th running of the yacht race, which typically takes about three days to complete and crosses through 725 miles of treacherous waters. Just how treacherous? Back in 1998, a deadly accident occurred during the event which killed six sailors and prompted officials to institute the minimum age policy.

While Jessica has expressed disappointment in not being able to sail in the event, she says that it will give her more time to prepare for next year’s race. She had hoped to set out with a crew of young teenage sailors who could join her on her latest adventure on the high seas, but instead she’ll watch from the sideline as 99 other ships, some as long as 100 feet and sporting crews of more than a thousand, will race for the championship.

[Photo credit: Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race]

Stonehenge, Machu Picchu top ‘most threatened’ wonders list

U.K. travel magazine Wanderlust has released their second annual list of the world’s most threatened wonders, with eight very popular attractions earning this dubious distinction for 2010.

Perhaps the two most eye catching destinations on the list are Stone Henge in the U.K. and Machu Picchu in Peru. The magazine actually describes Stonehenge as a “national disgrace” and rips the stone monument for being so detached from the rest of the ancient ruins in the area that loses some of the historical context. In the case of Machu Picchu, it seems the lost city of the Inca is a victim of its own popularity, with large crowds and over zealous tourists blamed for the sad state of affairs there.

The other destinations to make this year’s list include Wadi Rum, Jordan; Yangshuo, China; Tulum, Mexico; Jaisalmer, India; Timbuktu, Mali and the Bay of Fires, Tasmania. Each has their own unique issues to deal with ranging from too much tourist traffic, a lack of security and governmental struggles over access to the places.

Fortunately, Wanderlust doesn’t just point fingers, but also suggests some ways to solve the issues facing these popular attractions. For example, in the case of Stone Henge, they endorse a plan that has been put fourth to build an underground tunnel that wold link the stone monoliths to other nearby sites that are part of the same ancient compound. And as for Machu Picchu, they put the onus on the tour operators to ensure that their groups tread lightly and leave little trace of their passing on the fragile mountain environment and the centuries old citadel itself.

This list does a good job of drawing attention to the fact that many of these locations are suffering from being too popular. Perhaps good discussions about these issues will help make us all more aware of the problems and help preserve these sites for future travelers to enjoy as well.%Gallery-64352%

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Australia’s Macquarie Island

Have you ever had an obese, wild baby elephant seal drop its head in your lap and slobber nose love all over you? It melts a heart faster than a Snickers in a microwave, really.

Macquarie Island (pronounced mak-worry) is Australia’s southernmost point, a tiny spit of an island some 940 miles (1,500 km) southeast of Tasmania. For you mariners out there that’s a three-day sail from Hobart-past the roaring 40s and into the furious 50s. The island is only about twenty miles long and two miles across-a lonely scrap of sub-antarctic landscape consisting of pointed grassy slopes and rocky beaches where mist lingers all the day long.

Discovered in 1810 by wayward sealers, Macquarie was kept a secret in order that they get rich quick from the magnificent seal colonies living on the island. In 1811, the first ship to arrive in Sydney from Macquarie carried almost 57,000 seal skins. Today, the descendants of these piles of skins still tumble along the salt and pepper sand, bellowing out the unique throaty growl of the adult elephant seal. It’s quite a sight. Forget all your images of Australia’s man-eating crocodiles and creepy snakes and spiders. Here is a different kind of nature reserve where the local attraction grows to 20 feet long, weighs more than three tons, and spends most of the day sleeping on the beach.Macquarie is not your typical vacation destination–there is no permanent human population and there are no hotels or restaurants (though the chef at the Australian meteorological station bakes terrific scones). Also, it rains pretty much constantly and on most days, the wind blows hard enough to knock you down.

What Macquarie does have is wildlife and a lot of it. Thanks to extreme isolation, very little human contact and strict conservation rules, the animals on Macquarie harbor no fear of humans whatsoever. While guidelines instruct keeping at least 30 feet from any wild animal, the sheer abundance of living breathing cute cuddly things makes it impossible. You try hard not to touch or interfere, but if they come to you, then just let them. Sit down on the beach and the baby elephant seals will flop their way towards you, sniff you out, then curl up beside you begging to spoon. Likewise, brown fluffy balls of baby penguins come teetering up to check you out, then start screeching for mom and dad. The cuteness factor trumps a million sneezing panda vids.

Four kinds of penguin live on Macquarie. The largest and most vivid are the elegant King penguins who are the slightly smaller cousins to the iconic Emperor penguins (the ones you and your kids know and love from Happy Feet). As a self-certified, card-carrying member of the penguin craze, I went berserk on watching all the action that goes on in Macquarie’s penguin colony. Even more amusing were the royal penguins, who waddle to and from shore shaking their bushy yellow eyebrows. The species is only found on this island and number well over a million pairs.

We later traveled to Lusitania Bay, Australia’s largest protected penguin rookery. From out of the white fog, the shore appeared like a dream sequence. At first I saw nothing except a buzzing black and white screen beyond the mist. Suddenly our little boat lurched forward and the beach came into focus: not hundreds, not thousands, but a hundred thousand or more penguins. An unreal sight and an unreal sound, that of an infinite chorus of nasally seabirds calling out in almost-unison. Penguins were diving and swimming all around us as well, bulleting through the golden ripples of waves. I’ve never felt so outnumbered in my life.

In the distance, a pair of old-fashioned rusty steam cookers sat on the beach as an eerie reminder of the island’s exploitative past. Once upon a time, men gathered up penguins and threw them in the pot to boil up some penguin oil, used to make rope and twine back in the day. The penguins triumphed, thank goodness, and today the island is a vital breeding spot.

I sailed to Macquarie on the MV Orion, an Australian expedition ship which–in the spirit of Gadling’s motto, goes there–or in other words, goes to the places where few ships ever go. (If you’re going to travel to one of the least habitable islands in the world, it helps to be traveling on one of the world’s most habitable ships.) As tourist interest broadens, the government still limits visits to under twelve ships a year. Extraordinary bird life attracts all the gung ho bird nuts out there, while map nuts like me are eager to get to such a remote place and see what we can see.

I feel immensely lucky to have traveled to this forgotten map crumb of Australia. I loved the penguins and friendly elephant seals and the giant killer whales swimming in the shallows. The brown-green kelp and chunks of ice on the beach added an extra twinge of exoticism, however it was the island itself that attracted me-a rare and lonely place at the bottom of the world that few know and even fewer ever visit.%Gallery-79934%

Get out and go: Events around the world (December 2-5)

It’s time to look at the festivals and events happening around the world, and this week has a particularly international selection of happenings. If you’re close and have time, then you have no excuse to get out and go!

  • AlaskaThe Talkeetna Winterfest will take place in Talkeetna, Alaska throughout the month of December. The month long celebration features various activities, including Taste of Talkeetna, Broom Ball and Bachelor Auction.
  • Hobart – It may be winter in the States, but it’s summer in Tasmania, and the Hobart Summer Festival will be held for the whole month of December in Hobart.
  • British Virgin IslandsThe Fireball Full Moon Party will take place today (Wednesday, December 2) in Trellis Bay, British Virgin Islands.
  • Seattle – Seattle’s Winter Beer Festival takes place at Hale’s Ales Brewery this Friday, December 4. More than 30 Washington State breweries will be pouring their winter brews. There will be a vintage beer tasting featuring favorites from years past. Pub food will be available as well as a selection of fine chocolates and holiday gifts for sale.
  • Aberdeen – We Americans may not “get it” but curling is a real spectator sport in some parts of the world. The European Curling Championships will take place this Friday, December 4 in Aberdeen, Scotland and will last through the week until the 12th.
  • New Jersey – Annual Festival of Trees will begin this Friday, December 4 in Basking Ridge and will continue for over a week through the 13th.
  • St. Lucia – Jade Mountain will hold its annual chocolate festival this weekend, from December 4-6. It is a delicious, interactive and exotic introduction to the world’s favorite aphrodisiac. Cacao has a history in St Lucia that dates back to the 1700’s.

If you make it to one of these events, let us know how it was, or if you know of an event that’s coming up, please let us know and we’ll be sure to include it in the next “Get out and go” round-up.