Rest areas: I-5 asylums

Even at the busiest highway rest area in the state, the man looked suspicious.

Dave Harris recalls how the man hung around an Interstate 5 rest area in Smokey Point far longer than most visitors, apparently waiting for someone or something. Harris, who works for the state Department of Transportation (DOT) as an attendant at the site, finally asked him to leave.

The man did but returned a few minutes later and handed his business card to Harris.

The card, which Harris still carries in his DOT truck, identified the man as a U.S. Customs agent.

It turned out the man had been working on an undercover stakeout in the rest area's parking lot. Drug smugglers were using one of the garbage bins as a transfer point, with one group dropping off drugs and other couriers coming to take them out, leaving payments behind.

Harris shook his head while recalling the incident.

As one of three DOT attendants for the bustling Smokey Point rest areas on both sides of I-5, he figures he's seen nearly everything.

"I know too much," he said.

For millions of motorists, the state agency's 43 rest areas are oases along the major highways that crisscross Washington. They're pit stops, leg-stretching outposts and saviors for weary travelers in need of coffee, candy bars or restrooms.

Rest areas were mandated by the federal government as the interstate highway system was being built. Most of the rest stops were built during the 1960s with significant amounts of federal money.

It is Harris' job to be janitor, maintenance man, landscaper and troubleshooter at the Smokey Point rest areas. In 13 years on the job, he's been threatened and thanked, dumped tons of trash and been asked, he reckons, at least 1,000 times for gas.

About 2.1 million people stop at the Smokey Point rest area on northbound I-5 every year, making it the busiest in the state. The second-busiest is the Maytown rest area, in Thurston County south of Olympia, which gets about 40,000 fewer visitors a year.

By comparison, Boeing's 747 center in Everett, considered Snohomish County's most popular tourist attraction, gets about 110,000 visitors a year.

There are two other DOT-operated rest areas in Snohomish County: one on southbound I-5 in South Everett and a small stop at Startup on Highway 2.

The northbound Smokey Point rest area has amenities similar to other roadside stops: restrooms, vending machines, trash cans, grassy areas. But it is also the site of "The Stump."

That's what brought Guy Forbes and Lorraine Bjorklund from Lake Forest Park with their granddaughter, Chelsea, 7, one recent afternoon to pose for photos.

"I've got to take a picture of Chelsea," said Bjorklund, a retired Greyhound bus driver. "Local people should see their local area."

The Stump is what's left of a 20-foot-diameter Western red cedar. Its history is described on a DOT sign at the rest area.

The sign says that the tree burned in 1893 and that two men cut an archway through its base in 1916. In 1922, horse teams dragged it 150 yards and put it on a concrete base. In 1939, it was moved next to then-new Highway 99, where those who drove through it included Crown Prince Olav and Princess Martha of Norway.

The Stump was moved to its present site along Interstate 5 in 1971.

Groups covet coffee duty

One mainstay of highway rest areas is the free coffee distributed by community and charitable organizations.

Though giving away java to red-eyed truckers and all-night drivers sounds less than glamorous, it's a privilege that many groups covet.

More than 300 nonprofit organizations each year apply to give coffee at the rest areas in Snohomish County, said Dave Pierce, maintenance-operations superintendent for the DOT in Everett. In fact, it has become so popular that the department has used a lottery for more than 20 years to allocate the available time slots, he said.

The organizations aren't allowed to advertise or sell services, but they can accept donations. For many groups, this can be quite lucrative.

Chalmers and Joan Brittain and their daughter, Jennifer Green, spent a recent day handing out coffee at the northbound Smokey Point rest area on behalf of Grace Bible Church in Marysville.

"Boy, things are just hopping," Chalmers Brittain said. "They're all so happy to get something."

Most people notice the donation jar, he said, and make a contribution. A good morning can bring in several hundred dollars.

Crime not a big concern

Crime has been an occasional problem at rest areas. But the DOT's Pierce noted that there are generally enough potential witnesses, in addition to the nearly full-time department staffing, to deter crime.

The biggest problems developed more than a decade ago, when sex between consenting males began being reported at rest areas, prompting the State Patrol to begin a campaign to reduce the episodes. On one day at the Silver Lake I-5 rest area in September 1992, for example, troopers made 13 sexual-misconduct arrests.

Since then, the problems have been curtailed. Troopers periodically drive through the rest areas, said Trooper Lance Ramsay, a public-affairs officer in Marysville.

"With the show of force when we drive through once an hour, we feel we've it pretty well-handled," he said.

That's not to say things are quiet, Harris said.

Some problems stem from visitors who decide to stay, despite signs warning that rest-area parking is limited to one hour. Harris said he sometimes lets homeless visitors hang around a bit, trying to show sympathy for people in tough times.

"Usually, by the fourth or fifth day, they usually take off," he said.

Others aren't so amenable.

Harris recalled times when his advisories to move on were met with silent but less than courteous responses.

"They clean their fingernails with a stiletto, and I've had people lay a pistol on the dashboard," Harris said. In such cases, he has called the State Patrol.

The chief problem these days is trash. People commonly use the rest area as a place to dump household garbage, and on Monday mornings, the trash bins are usually filled with drywall pieces, roofing shingles and other waste. People looking to dump debris from remodeling jobs have zeroed in on the rest areas, Harris said.

Some travelers stranded

Harris sees them come and go while making his rounds. On a recent day, a decaying 1982 Ford van pulled into the parking lot at the northbound Smokey Point rest area. A cardboard sign in the windshield read, "Need gas."

Inside were Susan Hills and her daughter, Leeanna, and son, David, plus a dog and a ferret. They were on their way to Sumas, Whatcom County, after a visit to Redding, Calif., for a funeral.

Susan Hills said the van had about a quarter-tank of gas left, not enough to make Sumas, so they put up the sign. They had been pulling into rest areas all along I-5, displaying their sign, she said. That allowed them to get back from Redding.

"Or we take cash," Susan Hills said.

"That way I can put it in at the pump."

They also stop at rest areas for the free coffee and sometimes a free meal of doughnuts and cookies.

Bob and Ginn Short were on their way from Vancouver, Wash., to Burlington, Skagit County, in their 32-foot recreational vehicle to see a soccer tournament. She said Smokey Point figured as the second-best rest stop they've seen, after one south of Portland.

"They're beautiful," she said. "We really appreciate having a place to pull off. They do a beautiful job. There's no question about it."

Peyton Whitely: 206-464-2259 or