I don’t know that I’d ever seen so many people packed into one building at the same time.
Mandy, never one for even small crowds, turned to me and made vocal what I had already suspected.
“I just stepped into my nightmare,” she said.
At least, I think that’s what she said. Although I could see her mouth moving, and the two of us have been together long enough that we can, when the stars are aligned just right, sometimes telepathically transmit thoughts to one another, I didn’t actually hear a single word she said. Her voice had been swallowed by the cacophonous babble of the roughly 17,000 people who — like us — had dropped by the Buc-ee’s in Leeds, Alabama, at that particular moment on that particular day.
For those unfamiliar with Buc-ee’s, the growing Texas-based chain of kaiju-sized convenience stores are what you might get if a Love’s mated with a Walmart and gave birth to a small theme park … which was then exposed to a blast of gamma radiation. These sprawling compounds feature super-sized selections of standard gas station fare — sodas and coffee, snacks and various other road trip essentials and impulse-purchase memorabilia — while also offering up a full deli’s worth of meats, clothing, hunting supplies, toys and shelf after rack after bin packed with merch featuring the store’s beloved mascot: A grinning, bucktoothed beaver named Buc-ee.
People seemed to move about the store with no sense of purpose other than to create anarchy. It’s as if the store drained any sense of personal space from anyone who entered, leaving its customers to careen haphazardly toward whatever’s caught their attention at a given moment.
In just about any other situation, we would have jumped ship. Faced with such an oppressive number of fellow humans, Mandy and I usually make for the door faster than one of us can mutter the words, “We’ve got to get out of here.”
But this time was different. This time, we’d traversed roughly 153 miles — enduring a seemingly endless series of bathroom breaks and other emergencies — specifically to visit this gargantuan monument to the modern road tripper as one of those why-the-heck-not day trips on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Neither of us were quite ready to admit we’d undertaken a fool’s errand and turn tail without first picking up a few nonessentials with which to memorialize our pointless journey.
Even if we had wanted to skedaddle immediately, our child had other ideas. Despite her constant stream of complaints from the moment I floated the idea of the adventure to the second we stepped from the car into the expanse of vehicles and concrete that was the Buc-ee’s parking lot, as soon as we entered the sliding doors, our 5-year-old was desperate to vanish among the dense forest of legs.
“Stay with us, Arlie,” Mandy commanded, snatching our daughter away from a family of oblivious gawkers hellbent on crushing tiny, equally oblivious children.
Just in case our kid had suddenly been struck blind, Mandy added, “There are a lot of people here.”
“OK, Mama,” Arlie promised, then immediately began to wander off again.
“We’re with you,” Mandy told me as she snatched our child back to her side. For the life of me, I couldn’t recall being put in charge of the itinerary of this journey. Failing to find a tree I could climb to get a better understanding of the lay of the land, I motioned toward the heart of the store, where throngs of people had gathered.
“I want to snag a brisket sandwich before we leave,” I yelled. “And maybe some stickers.”
I’m not certain if either of them heard me, but as I forced my way through the crush of people, they followed.
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