We were a road-trip family. Every few weeks, no matter the season, my mother, little sister, and I would pack up the sedan and depart from the small north-central Illinois town where I was raised. Mom believed it was important to initiate us early into a world bigger than the tiny agricultural bubble that we called home. Our destinations were all over the midwestern map: Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home in Dixon, Illinois; Big Powderhorn Mountain ski resort on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; Amish country in northern Indiana; a rented lake house in Door County, Wisconsin; a Chicago hotel room with spectacular views of Fourth of July fireworks.
No matter where we were headed, at some point along the journey we’d manage to find our way to an Illinois tollway oasis. The unconventional rest stop consists of a building constructed atop a bridge spanning the width of the interstate, allowing convenient access to gas, food, shops, restrooms, and travel information. The plazas first opened as sit-down restaurants in the middle of the last century, when trips by automobile maintained a glimmer of elegance. Today, they remain a distinctive feature of the U.S. roadway system; the only similar structure is suspended above I-44 in Vinita, Oklahoma, and currently houses the world’s largest McDonald’s.
Illinois boasts seven tollway oases: four along the Tri-State Tollway, two serving the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway, and a lone outpost on the Reagan Memorial Tollway. In the mid-aughts, the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority moved to demolish and redevelop the sites, replacing the sleek but neglected buildings created by PACE Associates, the firm that was headed by Charles “Skip” Booher Genther, a frequent collaborator of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s. Even the Lincoln Oasis, a later addition built in 1967 and designed by one of Mies’s master disciples, David Haid, was razed.
The new, contemporary structures look more like floating airport terminals than anything you might see on the IIT campus, but they still live up to their promise as oases in a kind of desert. No mere gas station or truck stop, each veritable mini-mall functions as a patch of state-sanctioned abundance amid endless asphalt—a place to leisurely stretch your road-weary legs, to let the dog pee among the grassy knolls, to lap up the sweet nectar of free Wi-Fi, or to kick back on a picnic table and savor a smorgasbord of delicious empty calories that, were you not in transit, you’d feel guilty about putting in your face. The oases certainly don’t force decisions, something my mother always appreciated on road trips; under one roof, I could order a slice of pizza from one stall while my sister grabbed a sub sandwich from another.
But the centerpiece of any tollway oasis is the expansive wall of windows that overlooks the inbound and outbound traffic charging by on the interstate. I recall, on one occasion when I was a kid, pressing my forehead to the glass as vehicles in eight lanes, each occupied by people hurrying toward their own private destinations, roared past. It’s the first time I can remember being confronted, in panoramic scope, with the frightening size and speed of the world and my relative smallness within it. I’d eventually come to associate this shrinking feeling with any transcendent travel experience. That day at the oasis, however, the revelation sent my head spinning. I staggered over to a large map of Illinois hanging on a wall near the bathroom and put my fingertip on a red arrow, beside which a stabilizing reminder was printed: you are here. v