Breezewood, Pa. — There was a period when I drove through here at least once a month. I lived in Michigan, a dilettante sort-of student at Hillsdale College, frequently cutting class to see friends just eight hours down the road in Washington, D.C. On these trips, Breezewood was a choke point through which I, along with most Midwestern traffic bound for the mid-Atlantic, had to pass.
The reverse was also true, of course. And still is. Every year, about 3.5 million cars and an additional 1.5 million trucks thread through this half-mile, glorified truck stop on their way down to Maryland or out to Ohio. The strip is bogged down by stoplights and turn lanes. It’s lined with motels, gas stations, and fast-food joints. Traffic jams sometimes stretch on behind it for miles.
There’s no way around it all if you’re coming from the east. Breezewood is the only connection from I-70 West to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Unless you’d rather take a roundabout, Updikean joyride over the Alleghenies, it’s the best path through south-central Pennsylvania.
The inconvenience is by design. When a federal project extended I-70 through Pennsylvania in the 1960s, state officials proposed linking the interstate with the turnpike, which had been open since 1940. But an arcane federal regulation prevented a direct connection. At the time, the federal government required that the state, to obtain funding for a connection, give drivers an option to exit to a free road. Otherwise, the state could join the two highways, but could not continue to collect tolls on the federally funded portion of the turnpike after the bonds issued for its construction had been retired.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike had no intention ever to stop collecting tolls, and in 1966 the corporation’s director of operations rejected proposals for a direct connection. Businesses of all stripes filled in the strip over the next few years. And so was born Breezewood, accidentally a federally manufactured tourist trap.
As federal highway regulations relaxed in the following decades, some Pennsylvania lawmakers asked the state to build a road bypassing the Breezewood circus. Never with any success. There are two reasons for this. The first is that for such a proposal to be taken seriously, it must originate locally — an unlikely event. The second reason is existential. Breezewood is one of post-industrial Bedford County’s top jobs centers. Good luck getting a community to commit suicide for a few minutes of travel convenience.
And yet there are still a significant number of people who would like to see Breezewood erased. Most don’t even know the place’s name, but they do seem to know all about this photo, which goes viral every few months. It was taken in 2008 by the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, and its meaning is remarkably pluripotent. He intended it as a comment on American oil distribution. But I have seen it recycled maybe ten times for other purposes.
Sometimes, socialists present it as proof of the evils of consumerism. Traditionalists use it in diatribes against modernism. Modernists lean on it in arguments against futurism. Americanists dish it out to condemn globalism. Globalists dish it right back to knock Americanism. The list goes on. Name an –ism, and Breezewood is likely the prime example of everything wrong with it.
Of course, as I’m driving through Breezewood today (I began this column at a traffic light), it’s hard to see what makes people so angry about the place. From the ground, it looks like any other truck stop, perhaps with a few more neon signs. This was Burtynsky’s experience as well. When he visited, he spent three days looking for the most shocking way to photograph the area. Eventually, he took a scissor lift up a hill and shot the picture with a slightly long lens, which compressed the gas and fast-food signs so that they seemed piled on top of each other. The result is dramatic, but it’s a hyperreal version of Breezewood.
The real Breezewood is not that much different from the hundreds of other towns, villages, and unincorporated areas not located near major cities. A lot of these places have been in decline for decades, and have been forced to embrace various affectations to stay afloat. For some, that means opening state-supported breweries and coffee shops. For others, it means rebranding their hollowed-out downtowns as arts districts. Anyway, most fail.
Breezewood at least has the good fortune to be wedged between two major highways. And who knows? Maybe that bizarre photo is drawing in more visitors. If it’s helping the place out, awesome. Keep on truckin’.