Breezewood PA, thanks to a picture taken over a decade ago, has become a thing the internet shits on.
A place representing what is wrong with capitalism and small town America: a landscape of ugly franchises feeding fat people obsessed with rampant consumption.
It has turned the town into a nasty image of fly-over America.
The push-back to this has been equally fierce, with the other side arguing Breezewood is a misunderstood icon of “real Americas” can-do spirit.
I spent a decade driving around the US defending the stigmatized, so I quickly got pulled into the debate, pointing out that places like Breezewood have deep communities despite the transience.
As a photographer I also knew you shouldn’t trust a picture. Especially one using a long lens to flatten things, creating an image of a neon pile of ads, gas stations, and fast food.
Like all online fights, nobody bothered to considered what Breezewood though about all of this, or was like. So I went to walk a ten mile loop there, most of it rural, because Breezewood is actually only a single mile long strip of development, wedged in a rare flat stretch of rural Appalachia.
For two hours I walked up and down that one-mile stretch, lined with hotels, fast food franchises, truck stops, and gas stations, dodging traffic. Looking for the community I was sure I would find.
But Breezewood isn’t your normal truck stop town. Its an awkward connector between a toll road (I-76) and an interstate (I-70), that only exists because of an old law saying they can’t directly connect. The result is millions of vehicles that don’t want to be there are funneled through a short stretch of a two lane road, with some stopping at stores that sprung up to cater to them, and others trying their best to zoom through as quickly as possible.
The result is constant chaos, noise, and traffic. A never-ending stream of semis turning here or there, zipping past without care, downshifting, breaks squealing. It is a fierce stretch of road that, despite my best hopes, had me thinking Breezewood was the hell the shit-posters online had made it out to be.
Despite that, there were moments of beauty and humanity. Sweet moments of decency, like the playful banter in the truck stop arcade between a trucker and his young child along for the ride, or nods of connection at the McDonald’s between staff.
But they were drowned out by the parade of trucks, cars, and semis, trying to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible.
After a few hours it started raining, ending the walk, which made me happy, because I was depressed and bored.
I went to my hotel, changed, and then found a small bar a mile outside of town where I sat for the night, drinking and talking about whatever with the regulars who came and went.
After a few drinks I mentioned why I had come to Breezewood. Despite living all their lives in the area, nobody knew what I was talking about, or had seen the picture.
When I showed them the picture, they all starting laughing and shouting at me
“It is a fucking exit off the turnpike, what they expect it to look like? Heaven”
“Ha! If it wasn’t for Breezewood people would be shitting on the side of road, running out of gas, and out of stuff. Also it gives people jobs. Shut the fuck up.”
“I used to work in Breezewood, at one of the gas stations there. Everyone comes through Breezewood. I met Carrot Top. Met Dave Mustaine. Met John Cena. We used to tell each other when a famous person's bus showed up and we would rush out and try to spot them.”
A little “duh” light bulb went off above my head. The were completely right. That is what Breezewood is. It isn’t a political symbol for this or that, it isn’t the evils of capitalism incarnate, it isn’t some romantic real America. It is a fucking exit off the turnpike where people can shit.
Of course they were right, because this is their life. Unlike us smart thinkers sitting in front of our computers fighting, turning everything into some high faluting stuff, they are not completely removed from reality.
That we can sit all day fighting about Breezewood, because places like Breezewood exist, is lost on us. That we can comfortably get from our homes in A to our conference in B, without having to see the rest of America, because ugly transportation hubs like Breezwood exists, is also lost on us.
All of that is lost on us because deep down we don’t want to see the rest of America. Don’t want to know how our sausage is made.
That is especially sad because there is a lot of pain and suffering that needs to be seen. Not along the one mile strip in the photo, but just outside Breezewood.
In the bar, after everyone stopped laughing about the picture, I heard stories of addiction, death, and joblessness. I heard stories filled with hopes, prayers, and long tales of wrongs and injustices. Stories like I have heard all over America.
The next morning, after a night sleeping in a bed rumbling from passing semis, I walked to an empty McDonald’s past a hotel that rents by the month, its parking lot filled with busted up cars, and its rooms filled with people who looked like life had been hard on them “for a minute.”
Every direction I went beyond the strip was ruggedly beautiful rural landscape, but one I knew all too well — Hills, creeks, farms, pastures, fields of corn, old arched bridges, small ranch homes, Dollar General stores, and all the signs of crack, heroine, and meth.
When I posted online were I was, people suggested I go to an abandoned turnpike just out of town, that was now a nature trail. So I drank my coffee, and headed past a beautiful old Cemetery, to the trail.
At the entrance were two cars, one with a busted up window, its inside filled with garbage. The other was a dented up old Accord, with a couple inside smoking meth. I awkwardly waved and they blankly looked at me, then started hacking coughs.
I turned around, walked past the cemetery, then back down the strip as semis zoomed by, got in my car, and drove away.
That is the Breezewood I wish the internet saw. It is even more depressing than the famous picture, because it isn’t just a fucking exit.