Breezewood featured in Washington Post

Letter No. 272 | November 23, 2001

The November 22 edition of the Washington Post had an article about Breezewood, Pa., which most Pennsylvania Turnpike travelers are familiar with. I have stopped at this turnpike "oasis" regularly for over 40 years, and have seen it grow from its single Gateway Restaurant to a large number of motels and fast food restaurants.

Breezewood, also known as the "Town of Motels," has always served as a welcome resting location on trips between Cambria County and Alexandria, Va. The article has the surprising statement that the town "interrupts Interstate 70 and its 2100-mile passage between Baltimore and Utah." As described in the article, the business owners in Breezewood have been successfull in thwarting any attempt to bypass their town.

Frank Charney

The Town That Stops Traffic
By Manuel Roig-Franzia

BREEZEWOOD, Pa., Nov. 21— The lines of traffic here today stretched for miles.

Grandparents with station wagons full of presents and young mothers in minivans crept in on twisting exit ramps. Couples in tiny sport coupes shook their heads among the fumes pouring from 18-wheelers whose giant motors shuddered as they lurched forward a few inches at a time. The sport-utility vehicles that dominated suburban streets back home no longer ruled the road and appeared puny next to the massive trucks.

They had no choice. Their long, slow crawl through Breezewood has become a holiday rite, albeit an involuntary one.

"Breezewood is a joke," said Nancy Marconi, an insurance claims adjustor who left her Bel Air, Md., home at 5 a.m. in hopes of avoiding the monumental traffic jams she has encountered here on past trips to Pittsburgh to spend Thanksgiving with relatives.

Breezewood, which bills itself as "Town of Motels," sits strategically on a half-mile strip of land between two huge highways: Interstate 70 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which includes the next stretch of I-70. Logic would dictate that a cloverleaf interchange, like thousands of others across the country, would connect the roads.

Instead, Interstate 70 interrupts its 2,100-mile passage between Baltimore and Utah. It comes to an abrupt end in Breezewood and dumps its travelers into a gaudy, brightly lighted thicket of motels, fast-food joints and souvenir shops.

Each year, more than 6 million cars and trucks bound for the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area or headed in the opposite direction to Pittsburgh and the Midwest must pass through here.

Breezewood always rises in importance during Thanksgiving week, when legions set out to spend the holiday with their families. But this year, the little crossroads seemed even more vital because so many travelers made jittery by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks took to the roads instead of flying. AAA projected that 34 million Americans would travel today, with sharp increases in the number of people on the roads.

By dinnertime today, gridlock had taken hold and the town was a sea of stationary headlights and brake lights. Breezewood has spawned its own subculture of travelers and truckers, known in this town as "professional drivers." Burly men in lumberjack shirts traipse into the truck stops carrying leather toiletry bags and sit in restaurant booths equipped with phones and data ports for laptop computers. Gray-haired couples pull up to their regular motels, where roadside signs advertise senior-citizen discounts. Highway buffs, who call themselves road geeks, flock here to gaze in amazement, wondering how a huge road like Interstate 70 can be brought to a standstill in this obscure spot. It is the only place on the lengthy interstate where drivers are forced off the highway.

Knowing that crowded roads awaited them, a small cluster of truck drivers awoke early and assembled by 7 a.m. for Bible study in an upstairs lounge at the Gateway Restaurant, a Breezewood landmark that has been here since 1940 when the turnpike opened, becoming the nation's first superhighway.

"Breezewood is a crossroads," Bob Howard, a long-haul driver whose company is based in Richmond, told the men clutching Bibles around him. "Crossroads are places where we make decisions and turns."

By the time the Bible study broke up at 8:30 a.m., Glen Davis was standing a few blocks away, shivering, at the Sheetz gas station. Davis rousted his family at their home in Alexandria at 6 a.m. to beat the crowds on the way to his in-laws' home in Indiana, Pa., about 40 miles east of Pittsburgh. Davis has traveled this route for years and remembers spending hours in unwieldy backups.

"If there's an accident, you're done," he said.

Larry Heckstall thought he had beaten Breezewood, too—until his rented Ford Windstar minivan began to sputter and cough Tuesday night. The van ended up in a shop, and Heckstall found himself at the Quality Inn, one of Breezewood's oldest hotels and one of the dwindling number owned by a local, Don Felton.

As the traffic thickened through Breezewood, Heckstall was getting minute-by-minute updates about the sorry condition of his rented van. His 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Kee Kee, was preening in her leopard-print coat and gurgling to Felton's amiable daughter, Judy, who runs the place now.

Heckstall, who lives in Richmond, knows the road as well as any truckerhe has traveled for years as a member of the powerhouse funk band the Parliaments -- and he was taking it all in stride. Heckstall is among the many who have a certain affection for this place. He has lounged at the Gateway when he has been too tired to go any farther. He has prowled the shops with his wife, Lydia, and picked up knickknacks for their families.

"Really, this is one of my favorite spots," Heckstall said.

Judy Felton listened and smiled. She and her father were weary of hearing complaints about Breezewood. This is their home, after all. Don Felton, a wiry 77-year-old, is fond of calling Breezewood "an oasis in the night" and proudly boasts that you can get a steak at 3 a.m. here.

Every few years, it seems, someone talks about building a road around Breezewood. But Felton doesn't think it will happen. He is quick to point out that $4.5 million was spent in the early 1990s to widen Route 30 through the middle of Breezewood in hopes of easing traffic jams.

The project came at a time when pressure was mounting to build a cloverleaf around Breezewood. But Felton drew up some plans to widen Route 30 and showed them to the highway engineers. Local representatives in Congress pushed the plan through.

His argument was boosted by an old federal rule that banned toll roads from linking directly to free-of-charge interstates unless the toll authorities were willing to promise that they would eventually stop charging a fee for use of the road. The rule has been relaxed over the years, according to federal highway officials, yet Breezewood has remained as it is.

Felton and the others who operate the dozen or so motels here, along with the restaurants and shops, hope it will always be that way. Roads, to them, aren't so much a means of getting from one place to another as a means of generating business.

"The turnpike was created to supply jobs and economics for rural areas," said Bob Bittman, whose family owns the Gateway and several motels.

Outside Bittman's place, Heckstall tossed Kee Kee in the air as shadows began to descend across the parking lot. The missing part for his van had been found. "We're about to get going," he yelled in his deep bass voice.

But Heckstall knows he will be back. Breezewood stands between him and just about anywhere he wants to go.


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  Jon Kennedy 2001