The Fine Art of Foraging: Convenience Stores and the Hungry Cyclotourist by Tamia Nelson

Life on the road has its ups and downs. That’s especially true in the lives of cyclotourists. I’m not talking mountain grades here, however. I’m talking food. The general store has all but disappeared from the rural landscape, and the few that remain are mostly—there’s no polite way to say this, I’m afraid—tourist traps, trading kitsch for cash. The locals all drive 40 miles to the nearest HyperMart to buy their groceries, leaving the general store to visitors willing to pay champagne prices for three-year-old maple syrup put up in tiny plastic dispensers shaped like log cabins.

But the picture isn’t quite as bleak as I’ve painted it. In some places, the void created by the demise of the general store has been filled. Sort of, at any rate. Many rural hamlets now boast convenience stores. These are the modern counterpart to the once ubiquitous ser-sta-gro, enterprises that formerly dispensed the two fluids without which life in rural America would be impossible: cheap gas and cut-price beer. The ser-sta-gros were usually mom-and-pop businesses, and they had an aesthetic all their own, one relying heavily on pinup calendars and flypaper. The toilet—if there was one—was often just a hole in a plank in a shack, located somewhere out back among piles of discarded tires and rusting engine blocks.

Today’s convenience stores, on the other hand, are tidy, corporate, and family-friendly. The pinups are gone, and artfully applied poisons now eliminate the need for flypaper. Gas and beer are still what brings in the trade, but convenience stores often have much more than this on offer. And that’s a good thing. Cyclotourists don’t need gas, and while we certainly drink beer, we don’t do much beer drinking on the road. Moreover, the 18-packs that form the bulk of the convenience stores’ stock aren’t exactly easy to fit in a pannier. But we need to eat and drink, and if we don’t fancy riding 40 miles out of the way to visit the HyperMart, we’re left with no alternative but to forage for what we need along the aisles of a convenience store.

At first glance, the prospects aren’t promising. Beer and Cheez Doodles do not a balanced diet make. But don’t give up. There’s a world of possibilities hidden behind the leaning towers of Pilsner. So let’s see what we can find:

Snacks and Beverages  Jerky. Cookies, including Fig Newtons. Gatorade. A variety of juice drinks, some of which actually contain fruit juice. And water, in bottles ranging in size from 12 ounces to a gallon or more. Better yet, there’s probably a reasonably clean bathroom somewhere on the premises, and you may be able to drink what comes out of the cold-water tap. (Ask, to be sure.) A hint: If you can’t squeeze your water bottles under the tap, use a cup to make the transfer. You can usually find paper cups near the coffee machine.

Breadstuffs  Sandwich white. Whole-grain wheat. Sub rolls and English muffins. (You might even get lucky and find some bagels.) Crackers.

Shelf-Stable Foods  All the essentials: Peanut butter. Grape jelly. Strawberry jam. Spaghetti, macaroni, egg noodles, and rice. Quick-cooking oatmeal. A colorful kaleidoscope of cold cereals. Powdered soup mixes, ramen noodle soups, and Hamburger Helper. Mac and cheese in a box. Packets of pasta and sauce. Dried potatoes. Flour, Bisquick, and pancake mix. Coffee (both ground and instant), tea bags, hot cocoa mix, and powdered lemonade.

More? Sure. Canned pastas, stews, tuna, soups, vegetables, and fruits. Tins of deviled ham and chicken. Retort packages of tuna and dried beef. Small plastic bottles of honey and maple syrup. (Some of them molded to look like log cabins!) Crisco and cooking oil. Salt and pepper. Soy sauce, Tabasco sauce.

Deli, Cooler, and Frozen Foods  Cold cuts and cheeses, sliced to order at the deli counter. And from the cooler? Fresh eggs. (Yes, these travel well if properly packed.) Butter and margarine,. Small bricks of cheese, including Cheddar, Monterey jack, and grated mozzarella. Half-pint bottles of whole and low-fat milk, plain or flavored (strawberry and chocolate, usually). These make great pick-me-ups, by the way. Sometimes you’ll find “meal kits” in the freezer, too. Pick one up for supper, but be sure to double-bag it before you stow it away in a pannier.

Fresh Food  Some convenience stores even offer a selection of fresh foods, a least during the summer tourist season. If you’re lucky, you’ll find ground beef, steak, and marinated chicken, along with heads of iceberg lettuce and bags of carrots, potatoes and onions, plus bell peppers, cucumbers, bananas, apples, and oranges. What did I tell you? There’s a world of good eating at the convenience store. But you have get past the leaning towers of Pilsner first.

My John Wayne

The moral of the story? The general store may be history, but convenience stores are stepping in to fill the gap. Their prices will be higher than you’ll find in the HyperMart, but you’ll still eat for less than the cost of a meal in a greasy spoon, and you won’t have to ride 40 miles out of your way to shop. Which is very good news at the end of a 100-mile day!

After publishing my article, Aaron Whaley wrote with a tip I hadn’t considered—shopping at Dollar General:

I have noticed (at least here in the Deep South) a huge influx of Dollar General stores into many of the small towns that had lost their general stores. They carry quite a few food items at very reasonable prices.

Thanks, Aaron!

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This entry was posted in Bike Touring, Bikes & Cycling, Let's Eat: Provisioning, Food, and Cooking on by .


For half a century, Tamia Nelson has been ranging far and wide by bike, boat, and on foot. A geologist by training, an artist since she could hold a pencil, a photographer since her uncle gave her a twin-lens reflex camera when she was 10, she's made her living as a writer and novelist for two decades. Avocationally her interests span natural history, social history, cooking, art, and self-powered outdoor pursuits, and she has broad experience in mountaineering, canoeing, kayaking, cycling, snowshoeing and skiing.