There's No Way To Breeze Through This Burg

As another vacation season approaches, let's take a moment to remember all the places that motorists must visit to truly appreciate. The Grand Canyon. Graceland. Big Sur. And of course, in Pennsylvania, there's Breezewood, perhaps the purest expression yet devised of the great American tourist trap.

If you've driven the superhighways from Chicago to Washington, or from Columbus, Ohio, to Richmond, Va., or from Milwaukee to Baltimore, you've breezed--or tried to breeze--through Breezewood. You have no choice. The Pennsylvania Turnpike never quite intersects with Interstate 70, the main route to Baltimore, Washington, and points south. Instead, motorists must drive through the self-proclaimed Town of Motels, a half-mile stretch of blacktop and buildings sandwiched between the two roads. Breezewood, population 180, is the Las Vegas of roadside strips, a blaze of neon in the middle of nowhere, a polyp on the nation's interstate highway system.

TAXIDERMY MUSEUM. "I've seen the whole thing happen," says Derril Wilt. From his office in his namesake Wiltshire Motel stretches an astounding panorama: 15 fast-food restaurants, 7 huge gas stations, 2 massive truck stops, 10 motels, a taxidermy museum, and an array of kitschy gift shops, all stacked three and four deep from the roadway. "The sewer project, that was big," he says. "We couldn't take on that Bob Evans Restaurant & General Store up there until we put in sewers." Although Wilt is one of the town fathers--and thus partly responsible for this mess--in the flesh it's hard to dislike such a genial, plainspoken man.

Wilt likes Breezewood just as it is. And who could blame him? In a part of the world that has never recovered economically from the decline of the railroads, Breezewood bustles. More than 3 million vehicles pass through it annually. Wilt and his four brothers own 25 acres of Breezewood and lease it to 11 franchises. This was his family's dairy farm before the turnpike was built. He went to school where the McDonald's now stands. The land he sits on is conservatively valued at $60,000 an acre, a fortune in these depressed parts. But retire? "I don't know what I'd do," says the 55-year-old burgher. "This is something we want to keep going."

That desire isn't shared by Joe Pellis, driving with his wife and daughter from Baltimore to his home near Pittsburgh. Pellis just spent 20 minutes in Friday afternoon traffic trying to get through Breezewood. "This place is a pain," he says. "If I could avoid it, I would."

There's the rub. Just the mention of "Breezewood" is enough to send shudders up the spines of travelers on holidays and summer weekends. Traffic backs up 15 miles south on I-70 the night before Thanksgiving, turning motorists traveling to Grandmother's house into raging beasts. People hereabouts are still talking about the miles-long Easter-weekend traffic jam. They had never seen anything like it so early in the season.

HOWDY, STRANGER. The locals are starting to wonder if maybe that's too much of a good thing. To understand why is to delve into the soul of this deeply transient place. Breezewood exists solely for people who want to leave it as quickly as possible. Ideally, they spend a few minutes, at most a few hours, to eat, maybe sleep, or fill up their tanks. "You see new faces every day. If someone stays for a day, you start to wonder about `em," says Shirley Stoner, manager of the Penn Aire Motel. It's not even a town, really. Oh, there's a post office, three churches, an elementary school, and the Breezewood Volunteer Fire Dept. But the awesome neon skyline belies the tiny population. There's no mayor, no sidewalks, no municipal water system, no zoning laws, no police, save for the Pennsylvania State Police. The Breezewood Tourist Assn. is the nearest thing the unincorporated Bedford County town has to a government.

Local lore tends to focus on the famous folks who have passed through, including Clint Eastwood, who somehow got a speeding ticket here in 1977, which locals claim he still has not paid. "We get a cross section of the world here," says Jack Boors, who opened his Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in 1971 and says he has served the likes of Willie Nelson and Ted Kennedy. Breezewood still buzzes about the murder of a transient prostitute behind one of the hotels two years back. Police in Florida just arrested a suspect. The only real controversy in town has been the unsuccessful efforts by the local churches to close a roadhouse that offers X-rated movies.

Breezewood's peculiarities can be subtle. The local Auto Wash looks like any other car wash in America, until you realize one of its portals is big enough to drive a Mack truck through. License plates from Wisconsin, Virginia, Ohio, New Jersey, and Ontario are far more common here than Pennsylvania tags. And it goes without saying there's a bull market in pennants, Elvis license plates, dolls, shot glasses, and magnets from each of the 50 states. "A lot of people would stop here even if they didn't have to," insists motorist Virginia Shar, who has just had a meal of apple dumplings and browsed through the gift shop at Gateway Plaza. (The Town of Motels also claims the title "Gateway to the South.") She pauses, reconsiders, and laughs. "No, most people wouldn't stop. Most people would just as soon skirt Breezewood."

She's right. The Pennsylvania Transportation Dept. has been getting a stream of letters complaining about the place. "Most people ask, `Why do we have to put up with this?' " says Asbury W. Lee, a spokesman at the department's Engineering District Nine headquarters. State highway planners have talked for years about building a direct connection between I-70 and the turnpike that would bypass the lurking Town of Motels, thereby completing a link missing since the 1960s, when it was federal policy not to connect free interstates with toll roads. But the Breezewood Tourist Assn. has resisted that effort, and they have a powerful ally, their local state senator, President Pro Tem Robert C. Jubelirer.

Lately, though, fresh thinking has entered the discussion. This crossroads finds itself increasingly plagued by the thing that brought it to life in the first place: traffic. Some Breezewood merchants are starting to question whether the congestion is making people a little too mad. "Folks get so frustrated they don't want to stop here anymore," muses Tammy Elbin, who operates Crawford's museum and gift shop. "We've got to benefit the motoring public," says restaurateur Boors. He and others worry about the opening in August of a new east-west superhighway just south in Maryland that they fear will sop up motorists who want no part of Breezewood.

WIDER ROAD. So a compromise has been struck. Beginning in June, the state will mount a $4 million construction project that will widen U. S. Route 30 through Breezewood from four lanes to six, with a continuous-movement center lane. Perhaps then there won't be any need to pay the local sheriff's department for extra duty by deputies directing traffic on holidays andweekends. The merchandisers of Breezewood hope this will soften motorists' hearts and open their wallets. "We'll play it by ear," says Exxon dealer Dick Ling, whose family ran the town Esso station when the turnpike opened in 1940. He's worried about the construction period: "Anything that messes up a smooth flow of traffic hurts us."

Could the road-widening be, as the sign says, a "Temporary Inconvenience--Permanent Improvement"? Well, town father Wilt sees the expansion holding off pressure for a bypass only for another five years or so. The Highway Dept.'s Lee says a bypass could be constructed in such a way as to still encourage people to stop in Breezewood for a burger--and maybe to duck in a gift shop and pick up an owl crafted from polished Pennsylvania anthracite coal. "I expect to see a bypass in my lifetime," says Lee. But Breezewoodians will be a tough sell. The place is situated on the old Lincoln Highway, which was the major thoroughfare across the mountains of Pennsylvania until the turnpike was built. And there are plenty of boarded-up restaurants and roadside attractions a few miles in either direction to remind the burghers of Breezewood what happens to towns like theirs when the traffic doesn't stop there anymore.