My earliest memories involve shopping. Like any red-blooded, corn-fed, God-fearing American, unabashed consumerism has been a long-practiced rite of passage throughout my life.
Shopping as a boy with my grandparents on the town square in the little farming community where I grew up are some of my fondest memories. We’d ride into town where there was a hardware store, a grocery store, a feed store, a post office and one good diner. Our last stop was always the pharmacy in the back of the five-and-dime with a long counter and red vinyl stools that would spin. The pharmacist’s wife and I’d pick out a comic book from the tall metal rack in the corner by the greeting cards. Grandma’s soft, wax paper hands and Grandpa’s easy, chipped-tooth smile remain big parts of those memories. It wasn’t just about buying the comic book. It was the people I was with who made it so special.
As a teenager, I watched sadly as the shops on our town square closed to make way for attorneys and real estate agents. The locally owned stores and eateries were replaced by national chains that occupied space in the mall, which became the new beacon of consumerism, located minutes from our suburban homes with plenty of parking. The stores were all under one roof with a food court at its heart and a fountain for loose-change wishes. The fountain became a place to rest if you were old and a place to kiss and hold hands if you were young.
Around this time, there was another popular consumer destination to pop up along city blocks and busy shopping centers: the now ubiquitous convenience store.
While I can certainly recall exactly where I was on 9/11, I can also give remarkably vivid detail about the first time I stepped into a 7-Eleven.
My first five minutes were spent watching the hot dogs roll deliciously in that most amazing of all modern culinary appliances: the hot dog roller grill. Sweating like Brazilian bathing beauties under the heat lamp, those golden, all-beef hot dogs embodied desire. At that moment in time, I wanted a 7-Eleven hot dog more than anything I’d ever wanted in all my life.
Convenience stores are aptly named for having what everyone needs all in one place: milk, bread, beef jerky, beer and toilet paper. Everything else on one’s grocery list is just a frivolous luxury. They also have every candy bar and junk food known to Middle America, a teenager’s fever dream.
We have now migrated from the town square to the suburbs to the freeways. But don’t call Buc-ee’s a truck stop. They are, as advertised on their website, simply “The World’s Largest Convenience Store.” Their numbers — and reputation — back up the claim.
Founded in 1982 during America’s convenience store boom, most of the stores are in Texas where it all started, but Buc-ee’s now counts Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, Missouri and Georgia among locations, with more stores in the works.
The largest Buc-ee’s, incidentally, is in Sevierville and boasts 74,000 square feet with more than 120 gas pumps and EV charging stations.
I first heard of Buc-ee’s at a dinner party in 2019 when a friend came wearing a T-shirt with a cartoon beaver on the front. I asked her about it. Her eyes got wide as she spoke about this “magical place.” “It’s huge!” “Beyond belief.” “A shopping experience like nothing you’ve ever seen.”
I hadn’t heard this kind of excitement from adults since our county allowed beer sales on Sunday. It was akin to hearing children talk about Disney World.
But kids clearly love this place, too. My neighbor, Esme, is 9 years old. When I told her father, Niles, that I was doing a story on Buc-ee’s, he said, “Esme is obsessed with that place.”
When Niles and Esme showed up later, she was in full Buc-ee’s regalia and carrying a Buc-ee’s plush toy.
“I’ve never been to Buc-ee’s,” I said, “What do you like about the place?”
She didn’t hesitate. “It’s big.”
“Do you like the food?” She nodded, “Especially the sweet, cinnamon stuff.”
The Crossville location of Buc-ee’s is nestled off Exit 320 on Interstate 40, just a stone’s throw from Stonehaus Winery and The Crossville-Cumberland County Visitor Center — Gateway to the Big South Fork, a beautiful part of the state in Volunteer Energy Cooperative’s service area.
I pulled off the freeway around 9:30 a.m., just in time for breakfast, and followed a line of cars. I realized I was part of a pilgrimage now and that I was entering a finely tuned shopper’s playground.
I walked in with a friendly couple on their way to the Smoky Mountains from Arkansas. They must have noticed my childlike wonder and asked, “First time here?” I replied affirmatively and they said, “Oh, you’re gonna love it! Just wait until you get inside.”
I felt the uncontrollable excitement of my inner child as I was bombarded immediately with bursts of color, happy music and soft, plush things hanging on hooks. They were beavers — hundreds of stuffed beavers — all smiling at me with wide-eyed, caffeinated glares. They wore little red caps and little red sweaters bearing the beaver’s own face, so as not to forget, I suppose, who was boss around here. Make no mistake: It’s the beaver.
The Buc-ee’s mascot is everywhere, on everything from boxers to beef jerky. The beaver was smiling at me from every piece of swag imaginable: refrigerator magnets, stickers, buttons, T-shirts, hoodies, briefs, pajamas, caps, coffee mugs, water bottles, backpacks, boxes of fudge, endless bags of snacks, sandwich wrappers and shopping bags. Every possible surface where a beaver’s face could be positioned has been done so with superhuman thoroughness.Being a convenience store and not a truck stop, the only place to eat comfortably was in my car, which I did — although I did sneak some food into the fitting room at one point. Needing a little sustenance while trying on some hoodies, I brought my purchases in with me and nibbled on some Bohemian Garlic jerky and a bag of Beaver Nuggets, which are not made from actual beaver as the name might suggest but rather are tasty corn puffs.
I met a nice couple just outside the world’s cleanest bathrooms (true!), retirees from Georgia who arrived pulling an Airstream and confessed to having red pins in a map to commemorate each Buc-ee’s stop, along with other pins marking state and national parks. Their goal is to visit every Buc-ee’s in their travels. They’d been to eight. Fifty more to go.
They spoke excitedly about having visited Buc-ee’s No. 1, located in Lake Jackson, Texas, about an hour south of Houston. It’s about the size of a typical convenience store but serves as a destination favorite for deep-dive devotees driving through south Texas along the coastline.
I was most intrigued by the art gallery in the entrance of the bathroom. An original painting of tigers was priced at $699. A large, foggy landscape photo was $349. I wanted to keep looking, but I was in the way of the busy bathroom traffic, so I went back to the home section where signs told me that unless I was George Strait or God, I had to remove my boots. Glittered cow skulls hung among T-shirts announcing “Never Mind the Dog, Beware of Wife,” and another shirt declaring its wearer as a member of the Grumpy Old Man Club.
I was startled every 10 minutes or so when the meat counter staff would yell something in unison that I couldn’t quite understand. I asked the nice lady helping me with my fudge purchases (blueberry cheesecake, peanut butter and banana pudding — don’t judge me) what they were saying, and she smiled and said, “They’re announcing the latest rack of brisket coming out of the smoker. We’re known for our brisket, so they yell it out to let everyone know.”
“Like the town crier,” I replied, “yelling out the important news of the day.”
“And what’s more important than brisket?” she said with a wry smile.
I looked around at the families coming in and out. I saw their smiles and the Disney World faces on their children. A little girl in front of the candy counter. A little boy with his grandfather. Some things never change, and magic is what we make it.
I grabbed the last brisket and pulled pork barbecue sandwiches. It was 3:15 p.m. I had been at Buc-ee’s for about six hours. I’d eaten twice and was about to eat again. I met some really nice people and spent more than $130 on must-have items like grilling forks; 8 pounds of fudge; some sweet, cinnamon things (per Esme’s astute recommendation); five bags of jerky; and a hat.
I looked back over my shoulder as I made my exit. “Yes, Esme,” I thought, “it’s big, all right.”
As I drove home, I kept the radio off and thought about hardware stores and diners. I daydreamed of red vinyl stools and ice cream. My stomach was content, and I had a full tank of gas.
But more importantly, I think the kid inside me got fed a little, too. I was light-years away from that little farm town where I grew up, but I felt like I was home, like I had just spent the day with my grandparents.
Now, where can I buy a comic book?