As gas stations go, there are few chains that have managed to capture the attention of travelers — and eaters — like Buc-ee’s. The Texas-born chain is a highway oasis, boasting a slew of clean bathrooms, a dizzying array of snacks and prepared foods, and tons of merch emblazoned with the chipper face of its mascot, a beaver named Bucky.
Founded in 1982, the chain slowly built a local cult following and in 2001, owner Arch “Beaver” Aplin expanded the convenience store into a full-fledged travel center in Luling, Texas. More locations popped up across the state in the following years, and by 2019, the chain expanded outside of the state with a location in Robertsdale, Alabama. Buc-ee’s has continued expanding at an impressive clip since then, opening locations in Georgia, Florida, and soon, Tennessee.
Is it possible, 40 locations later, that we’ve hit peak Buc-ee’s? I think so. I’m a former Buc-ee’s enthusiast, but my last several trips to the store have been much more of an annoyance than a salve on my road-weary bones. As I drove the highways in Texas during the holidays, heading back east to visit family, basically every highway I encountered had its own Buc-ee’s location. Now, you can scarcely drive more than a hundred miles down the state’s major highways without seeing those cheeky billboards emblazoned with slogans like “Stopping the pee dance since 1982” and “My overbite is sexy.”
Back when there were only a few Buc-ee’s locations in Texas, visiting this massive gas station felt like an actual treat. One could easily drop a hundred bucks on different types of gummies, jerky, and fudge. The clean bathrooms were an incredible alternative to the broke-down gas stations and occasional truck stops that dot the landscape along I-35. Now, though, there’s a Buc-ee’s on every single highway that passes through a major city. It’s no longer a concrete oasis appearing like a mirage to parched travelers; it just feels like the magic has dissipated.
But the demand hasn’t. Perhaps this is just my version of snottily enjoying a band before everyone else thought they were cool — now that everyone has realized the wonder of Buc-ee’s, it no longer feels like a secret known only by wanderers of the Texas roadways. When I went to visit family in Louisiana over Christmas, where the nearest Buc-ee’s is a full two hours away, I saw more people wearing Bucky the Beaver T-shirts in one trip to the dollar store than I had in the past year in Texas. Buc-ee’s has become a tourist destination in its own right. First-timers gawk endlessly at the array of Buc-ee’s merch on offer — from bikinis to onesies for both infants and adults to home decor — and that really clogs up the works when you’re just trying to go to the bathroom and grab a snack for the road.
My disenchantment with the chain might also have something to do with the fact that founder Arch Aplin is a financial supporter of some of the state’s most loathsome politicians. He’s given more than a million dollars to Gov. Greg Abbott, who signed the country’s most restrictive abortion ban into law in 2021, and donated to the campaign for Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is currently under indictment for alleged securities fraud. The donations sparked a minor controversy, with some Democrats vowing to boycott the chain, but the boycott never gained much traction.
Still, it’s hard for me to justify putting money in the pockets of a man who’s willing to support politicians that actively spend their days thinking of new ways to marginalize people of color, trans people, women, and disabled people. Every time I’m annoyed by having to wait for a bathroom stall in a crowded Buc-ee’s or they’re out of the chicken salad I like, my irritation is compounded by knowing that I’m going through all this trouble just for some of that money to end up in the hands of people who actively want to harm me.
And while this ethical dilemma is true for so many places of convenience — like In-N-Out, Chick-fil-A, and McDonald’s — it’s much harder to avoid Buc-ee’s when you’ve been on the interstate for six hours and desperately need to pee. The other options (read: normal gas stations) are universally worse, both in terms of cleanliness and food options. I go to Buc-ee’s only as needed now, but its ubiquity makes avoiding the chain harder as each new location opens its doors.
Honestly, I’d still be turning on Buc-ee’s, even if Aplin was a hardcore leftist. As the chain becomes more ubiquitous, its locations have devolved into absolute shitshows. The parking lot is packed, and because the place is so crowded, it’s not uncommon to see drivers cussing each other out over parking spots. Even though the stores are tens of thousands of square feet in most cases, they’re still somehow too small to fit all the people who want to take a selfie with the bronze Bucky out front before grabbing lunch.
The vibe is just anxious, whether that’s because people are just really intense about finding the perfect gummy worms off the massive Wall of Gummies, or simply because they’re crammed together like sardines (sardines that are often mask-less) in the middle of a pandemic. Once a sanctuary for weary travelers, Buc-ee’s has become yet another bump in the road.