Va. Truck Stop Owner Irked At Washington Politicians

Corey Berkstresser's father bought the Lee Hi Travel Plaza in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains in the mid 80s. The family has worked hard to build up the business. But these days, gas prices are up and the effects of the bad economy are showing up everywhere. Even the tips the waitresses get are down. Everyone is blaming Washington for the mess.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

NPR's Andrea Seabrook is also on a road trip. She's exploring parts of the country that aren't getting so much attention. Like the town of Buena Vista, Virginia - nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Yesterday, Andrea went to a place you could call a microcosm of the American economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

ANDREA SEABROOK: It's called the Lee-Hi Travel Center. It claims to be one of the oldest roadside stops in the eastern U.S. And its general manager is Corey Berkstresser.

COREY BERKSTRESSER: Well, we call ourselves a travel center. We try to serve all traveling needs, whether it be the passenger car, the minivan, you know, getting down the road going to visit somewhere. Or whether it be the motor home. Just really try to suit the traveler's needs. You know, we have a restaurant here, a nice restaurant, it's not fast food.

SEABROOK: The name of the restaurant is Berky's. The motto? If you leave Berky's hungry, it's your own fault.

Corey Berkstresser's father Bobby bought Lee-Hi in the mid-'80s and the family has worked hard to build it up this past quarter century, says Corey.

BERKSTRESSER: We're a little bit off the interstate. And we're kind of a mom and pop organization. You know, we're a single truck stop. So we've always felt we have to do everything better. Our restaurant has to be better; our employees have to be friendlier; our facilities have been cleaner. You have to do something to make people remember you so that they come back.

SEABROOK: But it's hard these days, says Berkstresser. Gas prices are up - that affects everything here. Truck drivers stop less often and buy fewer things in the store. And given all that, says Berkstresser, what really irks him is Washington. He says he watches ideas that might actually help get beaten in the political wrangling of Congress.

BERKSTRESSER: Every Republican votes one way and every Democrat votes another way. You know, you're just - you're pulling my leg that everybody feels the same way about something. No one feels differently on individual issues.

SEABROOK: They're just professional politicians, he says.

BERKSTRESSER: I don't think people stand for anything. They don't vote for their hearts. You know, they don't go with their hearts. They're more concerned how it's going to appear to the voting public than what - maybe the difference it may actually make.

SEABROOK: Berkstresser goes off to tend to customers and leaves me to roam about the place.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISHES CLANGING)

SEABROOK: Inside Berky's, I meet a waitress. Her name is Cheyenne Worth. She just started a few weeks ago.

CHEYENNE WORTH: I do have some kind of money somehow coming in the house. Like gas prices were going up and everything like that, so - and I had to help my family, 'cause they don't make a lot of money either, so...

SEABROOK: Cheyenne is 16 years old going into 10th grade. She's trying to help support her family.

WORTH: Right now, it is four of us and every other weekend it's, like, six. It's my aunt, me, my mom, and my stepdad, and then my aunt's kids come every weekend, so...

SEABROOK: Over by the kitchen, waitress Donna Grinell watches over the place. She's 67 years old and has worked at Berky's for five years. She says the last couple have been hard.

DONNA GRINELL: Some people just don't leave tips. They say gas has gone up, I can't afford to leave a tip. I mean, I'm speaking of the truck drivers, yes.

SEABROOK: By law, waiters' wages can be as low as $2.13 an hour, says Grinnell.

GRINELL: So if you're not in a place where you can make decent tips, you're, forget it, you know, you're just not making anything.

SEABROOK: Back outside, a big man sweats in the sun by a group of two or three tractor trailers. This is Darren Potter of Ogden Farms and Equipment.

DARREN POTTER: We just run a small fleet here in the state, just general commodity freight, whatever we can find to haul.

SEABROOK: Potter has business plans, but the economy is holding him back.

POTTER: I'd like to increase the size of my fleet. I don't have the money and I'm scared to go borrow more, so I don't do it. I make do with what I got.

SEABROOK: You said you're too scared to borrow money, why?

POTTER: Well, it just - who knows what's going to happen tomorrow?

SEABROOK: Potter too is frustrated with Washington.

POTTER: And I think you ought to clean house and get rid with every politician there is and start over with some more - with more simple- minded people.

SEABROOK: Really? Get rid of Republicans, Democrats?

POTTER: Get rid of everybody up there - start at the top and go to the bottom.

SEABROOK: Potter thinks that government should be simple: take in more money that it spends, save for a rainy day, like his business, he says. And with that, he locks up his trucks for the night at the Lee-Hi Travel Center.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Southwestern Virginia.

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