Editor’s note: Last in an occasional series on 24/7 operations in Wise County.
The Golden Express Truck Stop, just north of Alvord, is more than what its name suggests.
Although it does offer a one-stop shop for truck drivers trekking across the state, and even nation – showers, a tire shop, a lounge, a restaurant and snacks – the first and oldest truck stop in Wise County is also a place to stretch and grab a cup of coffee for those passing through on their travels. It’s also a regular pit stop for residents picking up breakfast on their way to work in the morning and a soda and candy bar on their way home in the evening.
During the dead of the night, the buzzing sound of the neon lights and rumble of parked 18-wheelers, their drivers fast asleep inside the cabs, presides over the station.
Every now and then, weary drivers straggle in to refuel with gas for their vehicles and coffee or energy drinks for themselves.
As the only truck stop along U.S. 81/287 between Alvord and Henrietta, the harsh, fluorescent lights of the service station offer tired drivers a much needed respite from their monotonous journeys.
Exhausted drivers like Paul Schneider of Garland making his way home from visiting his sister in Boulder, Colo., stopped for a cup of caffeine at midnight. He was making the last leg of his 14-hour drive to be at work at 9 the next morning.
“There’s not a whole lot to see once you drive out of Wichita Falls,” he said. “These blinding lights and cup of coffee were just what I needed to wake me up enough to get home.”
Mara Canava of Garland stops to walk her dog, Angel, as her friends: sisters Amber and Brooke Tsosie and Justin Chaney, Brooke’s boyfriend, wait in the car.
“We’re on our way home from visiting my husband in Wichita Falls,” Canava said. “He’s in the Air Force, and we decided to take him cookies and hang out for lunch. I don’t like to make the drive by myself, so I brought them along.
“He’s been in Wichita Falls for about a year,” she continued. “I go visit him just about every weekend and stop by here almost every time. It’s a safe place to stop and rest before driving that last hour.”
At 4 a.m., a bleary-eyed Dustin Wise of Houston stops just long enough to pump gas and stretch his arms. After being on the road for more than 20 hours, he wants to waste no more time to get home.
“I’m in the Coast Guard,” he said. “I’m coming from Kodiak, Alaska, coming home for a little bit before heading to Miami.”
Inside, employee Jason Horner keeps busy stocking shelves, cleaning the showers and organizing the counter space.
“You see a lot of weird things so that keeps things interesting,” Horner said. “But for the most part, it’s a pretty boring shift. Absolutely nothing goes on at this time of night.”
But just before the dawn of the day, that atmosphere changes.
“That’s our morning rush, from about 6 to 9 a.m.,” truck stop manager Pam Rogers said. “That’s when we get all the people stopping in on their way to work.”
Drivers snoozing in the cab of their 18-wheelers wake to have a flat repaired before continuing on their haul. And the bustle begins in the kitchen of the Hot Skillet, a popular eatery adjacent to the store.
Although the cafe opens at 5 a.m., preparation begins long before as employees whisk gravy and brew coffee for the stream of hungry customers from near and far. For employees, the array of travelers provides a global perspective.
“You get to meet new people from all kinds of places like New England and Australia,” said Tara Penney of Alvord, who has been a waitress at the restaurant since February. “I think it’s neat.”
But despite the exposure to new customs, some like the traditional elements.
“I like the very mild, very traditional feel of this place, which I find almost soothing,” said waitress Deborah McGregor of Bowie. “You see older truck drivers holding the door open for older people, waiting for a lady to come through then pull out her chair. I find that very, very nice. It’s nice to see that some of those traditions have not gone away like most have.”
Throughout the day, customers trickle in for their helping of the day’s special, to grab a candy bar and soft drink or – past 5 o’clock – an alcoholic beverage of choice. Most are greeted by the truck stop’s unofficial mascot, Jennie the Guinea.
As the day winds down, so does the rush. But customers continue in and out the door.
“It’s hit or miss around here,” Rogers said. “Some days we are swamped from sun up to sun down and beyond. Some days it’s not as busy.”
But regardless of the volume, people, each with a unique story, stream through and leave a lasting impression on the place and its employees.
“The people, I really enjoy the people,” McGregor said. “I have one of those odd memories that remembers the details. I may not remember their names, but I can remember what they were wearing or where they were going or coming from. People are very, very polite. The older people touch my heart. They are just as glad to see you as you are to see them. And they don’t mind if their food takes a little longer. This place is very nice, very laid-back. I know quite a few people from working here, and I love that.”