Gas stations tend to just be stops along the way on a road trip. On Cody Esser's journey, they were all destinations — the 33 Texas locations (at the time) of the Buc-ee’s chain.
A well-seasoned road tripper, the Austin man decided to embark on the ultimate Buc-ee’s road trip last summer for his blog, Impulsive Traveler Guy. As that name suggests, Esser writes about his spontaneous trips across the state and the country that he’s been taking since 2012, from “a musical tour of Texas” to casual jaunts up to Canada. Esser estimates he’s traveled about 300,000 miles by car since he started. He has the will, the patience and an unparalleled tolerance for being confined to a Ford Focus.
“For me it’s relaxing when you’re out on the open road,” Esser said. “Kind of like how other people have hobbies, like playing guitar or something, for me it’s just taking road trips, discovering stuff.”
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Esser first saw a Buc-ee’s soon after he moved to Texas from Wisconsin in 2014. On his way to San Antonio, he passed the Buc-ee’s in New Braunfels. His jaw dropped.
As any Texan can (and will) tell you, a Buc-ee’s can elicit a few reactions: awe over the seemingly endless gas pumps, enthusiasm for the snacks (sweet corn puffs called Beaver Nuggets, barbecue sandwiches, fudge) or just pure delight over finding consistently clean bathrooms off Interstate 35. Pop singer Pink is a fan, judging from an Instagram photo she posted during her recent Texas tour. So is ESPN commentator and former Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, who in March called Buc-ee's the "greatest pit stop, supersize gas station known to man."
Founded in 1982 by Arch “Beaver” Aplin and Don Wasek, the first Buc-ee’s opened in Lake Jackson. The company built its legacy in Texas and is now expanding outside of the Lone Star State, opening its first location in Alabama this year.
Buc-ee’s doesn’t need much to attract travelers and locals alike. The official Twitter account, @bucees, hasn’t tweeted since January. Its Instagram account contains mostly photos reposted from fans. But Buc-ee's billboards dot Texas highways, announcing the arrival of everyone’s favorite travel center almost 100 miles in advance.
“I always like to find something unique to the area, (and) Buc-ee’s is something that’s uniquely Texas,” Esser said. “Usually, when I’m on a road trip, I’ll make it a point to stop. Why not make it a road trip?”
He was intrigued enough by Buc-ee’s and its mystique to map out three days on the road, for a total 1,600 miles of driving and about 30 hours in the car. After a week of minimal planning, he was ready.
On June 19, 2018, Esser headed north on I-35 for the first round. The plan was five locations on day one, 21 on day two and seven for the final day. He established a routine from the beginning. Stop. Get gas, if needed. Go inside, maybe grab a snack or some caffeine. Get back on the road. Return to Austin each night.
The second day, he hit 21 stops around Houston, including the original Buc-ee’s in Lake Jackson. This is where Esser was introduced to the “baby Buc-ee’s,” or smaller versions of the stores, which most think of as sprawling gas stations with more than 100 gas pumps. The smallest Buc-ee’s, one of two in Brazoria, boasts only six pumps.
“Obviously, Buc-ee’s image that they’re trying to portray is this massive huge thing, so it’s all in contrast to what you’re used to,” Esser said. “It’s like a normal gas station with Buc-ee’s branding.”
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Also on day two, Esser’s credit card was declined after repetitive charges. The trip was getting repetitive, too, until he made a detour to the beach.
Day three was more of the same. His trip ended at the New Braunfels Buc-ee’s — you never forget your first Buc-ee's — where Esser purchased a bottle of water, steak and chop rub seasoning, and rib and barbecue rub seasoning.
And after three days of travel, a backseat full of Buc-ee’s-branded plastic bags and a couple hundred dollars spent, nothing about the trip seemed that shocking.
“There was never a dirty bathroom. Everything was really consistent,” Esser said. “The only thing that surprised me was the first time I went to one of the baby Buc-ee’s.”
Esser told a few employees what he was up to and said he tried to get in contact with Buc-ee’s, to no avail. Esser hasn’t heard of anyone who has attempted a trip like this. He also hasn’t been to the travel centers that have opened since his trip.
Now, he’s looking for his next trip around Texas or the country. Esser has seen most of the state, but he can always take a trip with a twist. Every national park, perhaps, or 50 famous barbecue joints.
If the trip involves Texas at all, it will probably include a stop at Buc-ee’s.