BREEZEWOOD — Rick Sheridan has been a banker, a factory worker, and a commercial truck driver. A Kent State University journalism school graduate, he has also worked as a reporter, editor, and photographer for local northeastern Ohio papers, dabbled in the dairy business, owned his own photography business, and worked in graphic design.
He also spent several years on a pit crew for nitro-powered Harley motorcycle drag racing.
Nearly every single one of those jobs, in one way or another, has taken him through this quirky south-central Pennsylvania crossroads to get to wherever he was going east or south of the Maryland state line.
For him, that one mile dropdown from the Pennsylvania Turnpike into this Bedford County patch of eclectic Americana is bliss. For others, like Michigander Rory Cooper, it is simply a guaranteed traffic jam, a tourist trap, and the perfect example of how government can really screw up.
Neither are wrong.
The truth is that the Breezewood exit literally forces a Turnpike roadster wanting to connect onto Interstate 70 towards a quarter-mile cluster of chain fast food joints, local diners, motels, hotels, gas stations, and trinket shops.
There is no cloverleaf, there is no smooth transition; you are literally forced to be tempted, charmed, or repulsed by the excess of stuff surrounding you.
Some consider it a rite of passage, a tradition, or even a pocket of blessings for truckers, weary parents, high-strung kids, and businessmen seeking an oasis that both forces and welcomes them to stretch their legs, relieve themselves, and grab a bite to eat.
Others, like Cooper, find the experience downright loathsome.
For Sheridan, it was a destination point, a marker, a place to get to. “Now growing up, I’d been to truck stops," he said. "But nothing prepared me for the size and scope of Breezewood. So many roads. So many diners, motels, lights, signs, and truck stops."
“It was like a rural Times Square to me at age 17. The lights. The non-stop action. I was alive,” he said.
For most American midwesterners heading towards Washington D.C., the shores of Maryland, Virginia Beach, the Carolinas, or further south, if you were piled in your family station wagon or minivan with your parents and a sibling or two, you had to pass through this unincorporated town in Bedford County.
If it was before 1940, you were on the infamous Lincoln Highway – that glorious picturesque American highway constructed in 1913 that stretched from Times Square to the Pacific Ocean. After the Turnpike opened in 1940, Breezewood began to take a shape as a modern-day crossroads.
By the 1960s, when two major interstate highways (the Turnpike and Interstate 70) were set to connect with each other, budgets and politics forced travelers from one highway to the other via a strip of land which swiftly became a place filled with nothing but things to cajole you to spend money. And it also forced people to stop at two red-lights instead of mindlessly speeding along.
Sheridan first saw Breezewood as an outsized American ambition realized; the sheer determination of this two-bit town to bring roaring traffic to its knees, to buy gas, trinkets, coffee, or perhaps spend the night, all the while employing hundreds of area young people, is genius.
He still does.
For the Rory Coopers of the world, not so much.
Cooper says he has driven between his hometown of Franklin, Michigan, and his adopted home of Washington, D.C., "a zillion times," and for him, none of them have been noteworthy. The restaurants don’t change, there is traffic during the holidays, and the one time he tried to bypass through the mountains during a blizzard turned out to be "hellish."
“It's a captive clientele, which explains why it sees no need to improve its offering. People have nowhere else to go. The highway just sucks you in there like a slightly clogged bathroom drain with no quick option to pay your toll and keep moving,” said the 40-year-old political and corporate brand strategist for Purple Strategies.
Breezewood has always been this honky-tonk symbol of American determination. It has defied its definition (it is still an unincorporated town), it has outsized political power (it is rural, it is nowhere, and literally no one lives there), and it is not particularly attractive. And yet, it just is.
It also has a colorful history. For ages, Native Americans traversed through here on an ancient trail. Before the Revolutionary War, fur traders and frontiersmen followed that same trail due west. Gen. John Forbes cut the along that same path to make the first permanent trail here during the French and Indian War. And as the new country began to form, a railroad made plans, dug tunnels, and cut mountains for a line that never came to fruition, all through this town.
When the turnpike was built, they used those very railroad tunnels and mountain cuts as part of their infrastructure. And when the traffic outgrew their size, they abandoned them and built newer tunnels and a bypass. You can still access those miles of abandoned turnpike for a day of biking and exploring right off the highway at the Breezewood exit.
In a culture divided along stark lines about everything from politics to entertainment to language to regionalism, it wasn’t really a surprise that a casual mention of Breezewood on Twitter launched strongly worded opinions of the town. It was certainly fascinating to see how so many people could see and feel such a mundane experience so differently.
For Cooper, it was why? For Sheridan, it was why not?
For Debra Waugh, it was salvation.
When the Northern Virginian’s Toyota died on the approach, she coasted down the hill into a repair shop and then walked over to a lunch counter to grab something to eat while she waited.
“I walked into the Dutch Pantry and had just enough money for Shoofly Pie and a coffee,” she said.
For syndicated radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, it was a tradition. “Big Breezewood fan here. The key stop between Warren, Ohio, and Washington D.C.,” the MSNBC host tweeted.
Breezewood pulls you into its realm because you have no choice – like a responsibility without a reason. Its existence is everything wrong with politics and regulations — yet there is something to be admired about its persistence, its history, and its endurance throughout the American experience.
In many ways, it says everything about where we are in the crossroads of our society as we reflect on our history, push back on our bureaucratic inefficiencies, seek ways to employ our rural youth, and allow ourselves to savor the fleeting romance of the American road trip as technologies stand on the brink of changing them.
It is not perfect, and it sure isn’t pretty. But there is something to be admired in its determination to not just survive, but thrive.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.