Opinion

Haircuts and cheese curds: 10 hours at the world’s largest truck stop

Everything, everywhere all at once

Reporter Natalie Compton visited the Iowa 80 Truckstop — billed as the world’s largest truck stop — in Walcott, Iowa, off interstate 80. The destination boasts a home-style eatery, fast food franchises and a vintage truck museum. (The Washington Post/Natalie Compton)
Reporter Natalie Compton visited the Iowa 80 Truckstop — billed as the world’s largest truck stop — in Walcott, Iowa, off interstate 80. The destination boasts a home-style eatery, fast food franchises and a vintage truck museum. (The Washington Post/Natalie Compton)

WALCOTT, Iowa — It had been a while since I had a proper haircut when I sat down at an Iowa truck stop barber shop.

My sister usually gives me a trim every six months while we're both standing up in her bathroom and my 4-year-old niece runs around. I forgot the intoxicating calm of a professional shampooing and the soothing sensation of someone brushing your hair.

It's a luxurious experience, even at a truck stop. But this isn't just any truck stop. It's the Iowa 80 Truckstop, which, according to every sign and souvenir on its perimeter, is the largest truck stop in the world.

Part-trucker base camp, part-wacky tourist attraction, Iowa 80 is so much more than a place to get gas. It's a 24-hour megacomplex that opened in 1964 and hasn't closed its doors since. It has eight places to eat and all your standard truck-driver necessities like showers and fuel, plus a dazzling array of amenities like a museum, barber, dentist, dog wash, gift shop, chiropractor and movie theater. Every July, the complex hosts its Walcott Truckers Jamboree with live music, a pork chop cookout and truck beauty contest.

Unless you're one of America's 3.5 million truck drivers, you likely wouldn't spend enough time at Iowa 80 to enjoy all its spoils. You'd never know what it was like to take a truck stop shower or get a truck stop haircut.

But I do. A few weeks ago, I spent a marathon day at this "Trucker's Disneyland" exploring its many treasures.

7:29 a.m.

There are tractors in the parking lot at my hotel, the Days Inn by Wyndham Walcott Davenport. It's about a half mile from the truck stop, both just off Interstate 80 but on opposite sides. The problem is I don't have a car, and there are no sidewalks between the two. There are also no Ubers out here; just Iowa fields. I can't call a taxi to the middle of nowhere for a three-minute drive.

So I bundle up in a long black coat, jeans, white T-shirt and leather boots (I'm going for an ambiguous look) and walk, then run across the freeway overpass, toward the giant "World's Largest Truckstop" signs with bright red arrows directing drivers (or runners) to the megacomplex. I do not recommend this method of getting to Iowa 80.

7:38 a.m.

Given its "world's biggest" title, I expected the truck stop would be colossal and buzzing. But it's less Disneyland and more convenient place to stop on a road trip. From the road, it looks like your average rest stop — just bigger. The Iowa 80 complex is made up of several structures and parking spots for 900 trucks.

I leave the roaring sounds of the freeway and head to the main building — think bigger than a Cracker Barrel but smaller than a Costco — which is home to the most food options, shopping and amenities.

I'm confronted with an endless array of kitsch: Gnome statues. "Ladies' Choice" stun guns. A soldier mannequin wearing a shaggy ghillie suit. A Denver Broncos totem pole. Animal skulls. Whiskey-scented body wash. Cowboy boots. Jewelry. Swords (plural). "Unicorn Poop."

And decorative signs — so many decorative signs. Like: "Let me get this straight — MY GRANDCHILD IS A CAT?" and "Changing the toilet paper roll will not cause brain damage."

Downstairs, the Super Truck Showroom has a similarly overwhelming vibe, with a hint of Home Depot. I walk the aisles of trucking essentials — and not-so-essentials.

There's everything from gear shift covers to CB antennas; sunglasses to guitars; "truck balls" (in many sizes) to snow globes; Israeli paratrooper bags to tube socks; "butt buckets" for extinguishing cigarettes in your cup holder to, inexplicably, a baby bib that says "I'm too sexy for my diaper."

I opt for a handful of postcards.

8:30 a.m.

You can spot some truckers by their headsets, which look like a heftier version of what customer service agents wear in call centers. Even away from their truck cabs, many stay connected (wirelessly) to their CB radio, traffic updates and weather reports. There are headset-wearing men and women, a range of ages and ethnicities, although the primary demographic today seems to be 30- to 60-year-old white men.

I wonder if I stand out as a civilian. Did anyone see me run here?

8:34 a.m.

It's breakfast time at the Iowa 80 Kitchen, the truck stop's 300-seat family-owned restaurant and buffet, open 24 hours. I settle in at the diner-style counter where two truckers are in the thick of a conversation about eminent domain. The buffet is fully stocked, but I opt to order off the menu instead.

The trucker next to me has a good-looking plate of eggs, hash browns, bacon and toast. I have buyer's remorse getting the half order of biscuits and sausage gravy.

"It ain't like it used to be," one of the older truckers says. I listen to them talk about the industry as I work on my soupy plate. The server refills my coffee every 10 minutes.

I overhear that one's been doing the job for three months, two others since '72 and '86. They swap laments over crowded roads, automatic transmissions and the 55-mph speed limit. But they tell me the real bummer is the state of the truck stop. Once upon a time, truckers would set up grills outside and socialize. Now truck stops seem focused on tourists, and too many drivers eat in their cars.

Counters like these are one of their few places left to gather. It's like the airport bar, without the laptops. You can casually fade in and out of conversations, or pour your heart out to a stranger.

By the time I leave the counter, I've learned one man's credit score, the ins and outs of another's custody battles and how one adopted his grandnephew. I learn the difference between being a company driver versus owning your rig. They told me stories of times tires have blown off and running into "bears," which I learn is not referring to the mammal; "smokey bears" is trucker slang for state troopers.

10:08 a.m.

After breakfast, I post up in the food court near a replica covered wagon, a display for Iowa Smokehouse meats. There's a Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Dairy Queen, Orange Julius, Caribou Coffee and a 24-hour Wendy's. There's also more shopping. My favorite discovery is a $26 pair of flip-flops shaped like trout. My least favorite is the grab-and-go sushi.

"Hey!" A woman holds up a New York Giants steel tumbler, showing her two girlfriends who respond approvingly. "I'm going to get one for Robert."

The women are probably tourists. If I had to guess, it's about 70/30 truckers to non-truckers here. I also spot a group of Mormon missionaries at my neighboring table, several older couples, some families — all perhaps weary travelers stopping for a bite during a road trip.

But I can't sit too long; there's too much to see. I get an iced Caramel High Rise from Caribou and explore.

  photo  Natalie Compton awaits her haircut at Irene's Barber Shop, a feature of the "World's Largest Truckstop" — the Iowa 80 Truckstop in Walcott, Iowa. (The Washington Post/Natalie Compton)
 
 
12:44 p.m.

I leave the tchotchkes behind for some fresh air to visit the Iowa 80 Trucking Museum across the parking lot.

It's awkward trying to cross the parking lot full of parked and actively parking semis. I'm convinced truckers are judging me from their sleeper cabs, suspicious of an awkward outsider.

Joke's on me — the trucking museum isn't open today; it's closed Mondays and Tuesdays. So I do the next best thing: go buy stamps at the truck-service center on the other side of the humongous parking lot.

1:24 p.m.

The "Trucker's Loft," also known as the third floor of the main building, is where you'll find the most exotic amenities. I'd been given orders from my bosses and loved ones not to visit the chiropractor — although getting a Department of Transportation physical is tempting — and the dentist specializes in emergency dental care. So I head to the barber.

Michele Martin, 54, sheaths me in an American flag barber cape. She's been cutting hair since 2001 and has worked here for a year. I ask for a two-inch trim, wash and blow dry. The price is $30, a steal compared to big-city prices.

"King of Queens" plays in the background, and we discuss men's haircuts, like the guy who insisted on getting a comb-over cut but with the sides shaved off so he was left with a long flap over the top but nothing else. Most of her customers at the truck stop are men, she says, but she does get women sometimes.

A young trucker with a mustache appears. "You have time for a cut?" he pops in and asks.

Michele was about to go to lunch when I walked in, so another cut would be pushing well past her break. She eyes the clock.

"A five-minute cut?" she asks. He agrees and takes a seat. I could fall asleep as she brushes and snips at my dead ends.

I leave with my hair feeling healthy and shiny. Score: 10/10; would recommend.

  photo  Fried cheese curds can be had at the Iowa 80 Kitchen. (The Washington Post/Natalie Compton)
 
 
3:16 p.m.

Back to haunting the halls of the gift shop. More novelty items including miniature traffic cones that say things like "DON'T MAKE ME GET OUT MY FLYING MONKEYS," and "FIREMEN KICK ASH."

For lunch, I return to my beloved Iowa 80 Kitchen counter. A few people are piling items from the buffet high on their plates — shrimp, mashed potatoes, fried chicken. Remembering the livestock trailers I saw in the parking lot, I go with the deluxe grilled cheese minus the bacon, plus an order of fried cheese curds.

A few stools over, a trucker orders a Bud Light. I perk up. "Can I have a Bud Light, too?" I ask the server.

Devastatingly, the guy's order was a joke I didn't catch. Iowa 80 doesn't sell alcohol, which makes sense.

I offer some curds to the Bud Light joker and introduce myself. His name is Craig Daniels, a 55-year-old trucker from Ohio and Gulf War veteran. We talk about the trucker pets he's seen on the road — dogs, cats, snakes, even a domesticated squirrel; he shows me a picture.

Daniels offers to show me his truck, so we go out to his 18-wheeler and he explains which gadgets do what. It has a military-themed wrap — American flags, camouflage print — and is covered in signatures from veterans, as well as names of those who've died. "A couple of them are friends of mine," he says. It's part of his #signthetruck campaign to thank veterans for their service.

5:09 p.m.

My last hurrah will be a truck stop shower. Insert your own jokes here.

The lore of truck stop showers is they're bad, but everything else at the Iowa 80 Truckstop has been nice so I'm not worried. At the customer service counter behind a vintage Jeep, they sell me a shower pass for $16. There's a two-minute wait; a couple of men are gathered near the screen where your number pops up once it's your turn, like we're at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

All up at nearly the same time, we walk down a hallway to our assigned showers; I lock the deadbolt behind me.

It's spotless! It's basic, but feels safe and clean, which makes me feel a little better about being barefoot. Why didn't I buy the trout slides? I rinse as quickly as possible, not wanting to hold up the shower for real truckers.

  photo  Not only can you get a haircut at the Iowa 80 … for $16, you can shower, too. (The Washington Post/Natalie Compton)
 
 
5:34 p.m.

The sun is setting, and I need to go home soon. Don't want to do my freeway overpass sprint in the dark. This must be what Cinderella felt like with her high-stakes curfew.

But it's sad to leave. I'm just starting to scratch the surface of the trucker universe, and there's still so much I could do, like go to the movie theater or eat the truck-stop sushi.