Our Story


by Mark Watson

Mark Watson

In 1958 my sister announced her intentions to marry in September. At the suggestion of our mother, my brother and I sent off mail requests to several oil companies for maps that showed us the best way to get to the wedding in California. Trips of that magnitude - from South Carolina to California - were new to us. When Esso responded by sending a folded paper atlas with both scenic and regular routes highlighted, our excitement built and time seemed to slow to a crawl. As the weeks chugged by we repeatedly poured over the maps displaying the iconic slogan across the bottom, Happy Motoring! I was only eight years old, but this outing would influence my life forever.

We opted for the scenic route on the way out, meandering for a good two weeks through Missouri, the Badlands, Mt Rushmore and Yellowstone. After the Tetons and a visit with relatives in Idaho, we floated in the Great Salt Lake then rolled into Southern California late one night on a freeway, the likes of which we had never before seen. There were no stoplights nor intersections, just ramps and concrete bridges which superseded both. All of these experiences made a mark in our memory, but it was the first night out in Georgia that stuck with us the most. After unloading and reloading the trunk of the car to get to our spare tire, my father looked for a place to clean up. Besides, us boys needed a restroom break.

Happenstance afforded us a little country store that sold gasoline. While my father filled the tank, we asked the lady behind the counter for directions to her facilities, to which she responded “Sure boys! There’s 40 acres of restroom right out behind this building!” We sheepishly but gratefully availed ourselves of ten square feet of her property in the dark and continued along our journey. We recounted this incident for 65 years, marveling at the easiness of those times and places, but the lesson never went away: travelers need to know where the conveniences are.

If necessity is the mother of invention, who is the father? Blood, sweat and tears mostly, held together by focus. And even though it might be a shotgun marriage, the timing of the whole affair needs to be right. After all, to everything there is a season, yes? The American Landscape is covered with humanity’s tinkering to improve our lives and many of these gadgets appeared just in the nick of time.

How does an idea transition from a thought into a physical product with usefulness and value? The solution to a problem begins in the imagination and progresses into the real world as the pieces are gathered up and fitted together like a puzzle. Ideas are metaphysical things and can be transformed into reality by ingenuity and skill, but mostly by determination and a refusal to quit. This is true whether we are discussing a massive project such as the USA Interstate Highway System or considering its blueprint of instructions, the Next EXIT. Both were good ideas, required years of development, and solved some of the problems inherent to road travel.

The story of the interstate highways is well-known. As an army lieutenant in 1919, Dwight D. Eisenhower took part in a transcontinental convoy from Washington, DC to Oakland, California, which required over two months. While in Germany near the end of WWII, “Ike” was impressed with the early Autobahn and its limited access ramps and grades. Realizing the need for better transportation in his own country, and after winning the presidency in 1952 he commissioned the plan for a new US highway system which passed into law in 1956. Construction began shortly thereafter, continued for nearly 50 years and is still going in areas where new roads are needed.

Slightly less famous is the history of the Next EXIT which actually began as a notion to create a clean restroom network for travelers, especially those with families and children. To our growing family of the 1970’s, any trip longer than a couple of hours presented challenges common to most groups like ours, i.e., frequent rest stops. It was an article of faith that on any such excursion there would be multiple uncoordinated visits, and usually at inconvenient times. In that day, rest areas were infrequent, rudimentary and public restrooms were uninviting. You always felt like you were taking a chance entering one.

“What if there was a clean bathroom guide, where the facilities listed were held to a high quality of cleanliness?” we asked. “Yes, and then people would have a publication that told them where these services are located and what a wonderful world this would be!” Then the logistics of such an ambitious project across our large nation produced serious questions: whom to list, how to enforce the sanitation standard and devise a plan to distribute the information. We were, after all, only one family but we were sure others felt our urgency. If it was unfeasible to locate all of the suitable latrines in America, perhaps there was another way?

We found that there were several well-known branded businesses with locations nationwide that provided serviceable restrooms for their customers. Nearly everyone in America knew these companies and shopped in their stores, but not everybody knew where the next one was located along their route of travel. Listing these in a book would be valuable, but broadening our perspective to include all services clustered around every interstate highway exit in the country might create a tool beyond useful.

So, in the early 1980’s, we set about organizing a matrix of the interstate highways, sequentially numbering the exits in descending order, something that no one, not even the US Department of Transportation had done before. The information of each exit began with the name or number of the intersecting road, then listed the categories of services...gas, food, lodging and other - in alphabetical order. The next step was to identify the establishments located there which is when the real work began.

As the late 1980’s progressed, we added information several ways. Any trip we made was a chance to observe and record services, and we took different routes on the goings and comings of a journey just to see what was there. We enlisted help from others who also drove the interstate - truckers with payloads to deliver, students out of school for the summer, friends and family members sympathetic to the cause. As our data mounted, so did our concern for the deficiencies we recognized in so large an undertaking. It was one thing to amuse ourselves with a hobby that took us to places we had never been, entirely another to present our findings to the public as a commercial finished product.

At length, the shortcomings had to be addressed. The truckers delivered their loads hundreds of miles short of the end of a complete interstate highway, students went back to school and relatives moved on to other pursuits, leaving numerous gaps in the continuity of the exit listings. It became increasingly apparent that the only reliable way to gain complete, dependable, and updated information on nearly 16,000 exits spread out over 47,000 miles in the continental United States was for me to hit the road, so I did. There were problems to overcome here too, since we had nine children at home and a Chiropractic practice to run. I was accustomed to long hours, but now consummation of the project required that I leave the confines of home to go mining for exit information on my own.

Mark road kill

Then the natural course of life intervened. Our older children started leaving home for college providing more opportunities for us to drive to the farther reaches of the continent, always recording and varying our course. As we became more serious about getting published, I began flying to distant cities on Thursdays, renting a car and working through the weekend as I surveyed exits in places we didn’t pass through in our normal travels. By and by, critical mass was reached wherein we felt that our collected data was sufficient to offer to the traveling multitudes. We had also learned that updating the material, meant doing it all over again periodically! We finally went to print for the first time in the late spring of 1991 and by then had physically surveyed exits for seven years, some as many as three times.

To our good fortune, the first edition sold out, then the second and the third. Word began to spread among satisfied customers and more came calling, both to buy and to suggest improvements, many of which were implemented. We started producing an annual edition, complete with updates. Competitors popped up. Nevertheless, as time went by, they ceased production and the Next EXIT continued to thrive.

The next thirty years passed quickly. By the late 1990’s most of our children had left for college, so I retired from Chiropractic and our family moved out west. Travel for updating became a way of life and we never went anywhere without a recording device in my hand. It was not uncommon to travel in Maine, Florida, California and dozens of other states all in one year, alone or with the family. Whereas in the beginning my wife Debby and I had driven nearly 10,000 miles in one 10-day period, working around the clock recording exit numbers and visible services, now we began fine-tuning our efforts and finding lodging for the night, still clocking 16-hour days.

It wasn’t all mundane work. There was periodic excitement as we accidentally drove off and left a child here and there. Once we even misplaced Debby at a service station in rural Utah for several hours! The need for stitching up a head wound required us to search for a hospital one afternoon. There was always the possibility of running up on something that was totally out of the ordinary in normal, daily life. America is grand that way, there is frequently something new, useful, and interesting ahead. We became familiar with many famous venues in these years. Places which other people planned excursions to see were as common to us as drinking water.

In the 20-mid-teens, emerging digital technologies prompted us to add identifying markers to our information. We first geocoded the exits, then the services located at every off-ramp nationwide, a project that required several years and exponentially increased the workload. These challenges were addressed with the same tenacity we had employed since the beginning when the Next EXIT had been nothing more than an idea. We continue to iterate on the printed book, and tinker with versions of mobile companion apps which house and present the massive scope of the data in new and exciting ways that integrated with the book.

As the 2020’s appeared in the windshield, several things became clear: the “most complete USA Interstate Exit Highway Guide” had helped throngs of road goers find much more than a clean restroom, placing pressure on the next generation of competing publishers. Sure, there are other travel guides these days which direct motorists to a litany of destinations. the Next EXIT however was the first to include the entire US Interstate Highway system in a single volume of print. Remarkably, the book you hold in your hands remains the preeminent offline authority on locating useful services convenient to each US Interstate Highway Exit.

They say that hindsight is 20/20, and if that’s true, our rearview mirror is fully blanketed with over ONE MILLION MILES worth of memories, experiences, work and joy. Foresight on the other hand seems constantly and terribly overdue for a visit to the optometrist. Because of this, human nature drives us to exercise on what we do know, today. We know that our commitment to you, the road warrior, remains unfettered in keeping this information as current as possible, all while as researching and providing new and exciting ways to help you plan better stops on your way. This is our primary goal; especially If we’ve helped avoid the need to find relief in an empty field behind a service station in the dark of night. Many approaches to the usefulness and presentation of this information remain yet undiscovered. The future is exciting in that way, now isn’t it?

We are honored you’ve allowed us to share some space on your vehicle’s dashboard. We hope you will continue to find this collection of information helpful, just as we did, in creating new adventures and making precious memories on the big road. Happy Motoring!

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