Opinion

The Intersection of Tradition and Cronyism

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Posted: Jan 09, 2018 12:01 AM
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The Intersection of Tradition and Cronyism

BREEZEWOOD, Pa. -- 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, an editor and a 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 as a member of a pit crew for Harley-Davidson nitro-powered motorcycle drag races.

In one way or another, nearly every single one of those jobs 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, the one-mile drop down 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 to Interstate 70 to drive toward a quarter-mile cluster of chain fast-food joints, local diners, motels, hotels, gas stations and trinket shops.

There is no cloverleaf, 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 reach. "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."

He added: "It was like a rural Times Square to me at age 17. The lights. The non-stop action. I was alive."

For most American Midwesterners heading toward 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 that swiftly became a place filled with nothing but things to cajole you to spend money. And it 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 and coffee, or perhaps spend the night, all the while employing hundreds of local area young people, was genius.

He still sees it that way.

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."

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The 40-year-old political and corporate brand strategist for Purple Strategies said: "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."

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.

For Cooper, it was "why?" For Sheridan, it was "why not?"

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 it.

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 to thrive.