Interstate I-81: Trucker Highway — Lifeblood of America

Interstate I-81 that runs down the US Eastern corridor inland by 100 miles from the coast is chock full of truckers in both directions — 18-wheelers carrying assorted goods to their destination.

It is trucker highway.

It is an amazingly romantic ride — because you are in amongst the truckers who are the lifeblood of America; this highway a main artery carrying that lifeblood.

Truckers who drive for hours on end; days on end. Sleeping at local hotels or in their cab in rest spots alongside the road.

Swarms of trucks in each direction non stop — truck after truck after truck after truck.

I drove I-81 for 6 hours each direction from Pennsylvania down into Virginia every week for 2 years — 2021 and 2022 — and have since traveled even further down I-81 — from Pennsylvania to Tennessee, on two family-vacation road trips — and fell in love with the highway. In the distant past I drove I-81 from Binghamton, NY to Watertown by the Finger Lakes several times.

I-81 is in my lifeblood.

I would much rather travel I-81, amongst packs of truckers all the way — than take a parallel route such as the Thruway system near the coast.

Here’s the skinny on an I-81 roadtrip:

1. The Stretch from Allentown to Harrisburg

My trip every week from NYC to Winchester, Virginia actually started on I-78 heading south thru New Jersey and then Pennsylvania, starting in Allentown and then connecting with I-81 just before Harrisburg (and on return trip, the opposite).

This stretch was INTENSE during the 2 years when I drove I-81 weekly from 2021 thru 2022 because of a 10-mile construction zone that narrowed the highway with concrete walls on either side.

1.1 Running the Gauntlet

Ten miles of construction makes for a long time to be stuck behind a slower-moving 18-wheeler so you regularly had to pass the big monsters on this narrow 2-lane highway in each direction — with zero room for error as you had a concrete wall close to both the left and right lane of the roadway.

Then do it with a guy up your ass doing 70 MPH behind you. It became an amazing obstacle course that I both dreaded and looked forward to each week in each direction — running it during sunset on the way South on a Tuesday night, and then at around 10pm on a Friday night.

1.2 Stop off at Pennsylvania Chocolatiers — Hershey’s & Boyers

In Harrisburg you pass over the mighty Susquehanna River as you drive on I-81 and then, driving south, you enter Dutch Country, with Lancaster Pennsylvania to your East and the Alleghany Mountains to your West.

This is farm country, with lots of dairy cows and it is also milk Chocolate country — Hershey’s has their headquarters here and there is the Hershey Park amusement park. A 30-minute detour off I-81 will get you to Boyer Candy headquarters in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Both are covered in an article we did on Pennsylvania Chocolatiers.

There are grain farms as well. There is an amazing-looking chicken-feed grain farm just north of Chambersburg that always amazed me, driving past, and stopped off at once (leisurely heading north on a Friday night) to catch video of a Norfolk Southern freight train picking up grain.

Video of the Norfolk Southern freight train:

1.3 Next Stop Chambersburg

For me the next stop heading south after Harrisburg was always Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. There’s a Texas Roadhouse there and driving down on a Tuesday night I’d always try to get to Chambersburg by at least 9:30pm as the Texas Roadhouse closes at 10pm. So my Tuesday night drives south were always all-business — had to get to that Roadhouse by 9:30pm. My return trips started in Winchester at 6pm on Fridays, and were more leisurely (I’d get home at midnight to 1am).

1.4 Stop off to See Civil War Battlefields — Gettysburg & Antietam

As you hit Chambersburg you are in Civil War country. You can take a 20 minute detour drive on Route 30 East at Chambersburg to get to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

South of Chambersburg on I-81 gets you to Maryland which you pass through in 10 minutes as it is only a snippet of Maryland at Hagerstown, and then it’s also a quick drive through a snippet of West Virginia (that extra piece that the state has overhanging Virginia). which includes Martinsburg.

At Martinsburg you can take a 15-minute detour drive East to Antietam.

At either Gettysburg or Antietam the entire battlefield is preserved as a national park and museum.

Antietam was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. During my two years working at Winchester I visited Antietam twice. It is a chilling experience.

1.5 Stop in at Shepherd’s Field Air Force National Guard

At Martinsburg, West Virginia you can take a 5 minute drive off I-81 and visit Shepherd’s Field — a US Air Force National Guard base.

You are free to enter the main building, which has a cafe, and view the museum they have on the first floor. Business operations and a view of the field are on the 2nd floor. Shepherd’s Field began operating in 1922 and is still very active today. It has seen biplanes to jets and its museum and photos and artifacts reflect this.

Paintings on the wall in the museum of the main building at Shepherd’s Field in Martinsburg, West Virginia

2. Thru Shenandoah Valley to Knoxville, Tennessee

Driving south from Martinsburg on I-81 gets you to Virginia in 15 minutes. The first major town you will encounter in Virginia is Winchester — a historic Civil War town and considered the capital of the Shenandoah Valley.

Alleghany Mountains in the distance.

2.1 Stop off at Winchester, Virginia

Winchester itself exchanged hands between Union and Confederate forces a record 72 times during the war. You can visit the headquarters of Robert E Lee, now a preserved museum building, or the headquarters of General Philip Sheridan only 6 blocks away — which is now a clothing store.

George Washington got his start in Winchester, as a colonel in the French Indian wars. There is a an old fort in Winchester that he was in command of — Fort Loudoun — that is preserved as a museum.

Winchester is a wonderful town with an “Old Town” area that itself is rich in Civil War lure — the hotels on the block served as hospitals for both Union and Confederate soldiers in the war, and the town hall was a prison — now a museum. “Old Town” features nice restaurants and in the summer, the occasional musician playing on the main street.

You are in Apple-growing country. Winchester is the headquarters of the yearly Apple Blossom Festival. And a CSX train goes thru Winchester several times a day.

2.2 Visit Local Wineries of the Shenandoah

A 20-minute detour off I-81 at Winchester gets you to some terrific wineries of the Shenandoah.

2.3 Drive through the Shenandoah Valley

Heading south from Winchester on I-81 you go past the magnificent Shenandoah Valley (to your East) with Blue Ridge mountains behind it, and then to your West the Alleghany Mountains.

The Shenandoah River snakes thru the valley. In the summertime you can take canoe and raft rides on the river at certain spots.

It is a magnificent, scenic run.

Note that locals do not swim or fish in the Shenandoah River as eColi bacteria levels in recent summers have been super high due to agricultural runoff, including manure from livestock and poultry farms.

2.4 Take Skyline Drive

There is an alternate route you can consider once you get to Winchester — driving Skyline Drive thru the Blue Ridge mountains. The road starts in Front Royal, which is 30 minutes south of Winchester. It is an incredibly scenic, winding mountain road and continues for a few hundred miles. You can take it from Front Royal and get off at Route 33 and get back onto I-81 — it’ll take an hour at least, depending on how often and for how long you stop off to view the scenery. There are campsites in the park.

You can continue on Skyline Drive or get back on I-81.

2.5 Stop in at the Luray Caverns Outside of Harrisonburg

South of Winchester comes Woodstock (not to be confused with Woodstock, NY) and then Harrisonburg (not to be confused with Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). Just north of Harrisonburg you can take a 20 minute-drive detour and visit the Luray Caverns. Price at this writing is $35 a person.

2.6 Drive into Tennessee

I-81 runs in a southwesterly way past the Shenandoah Valley to Knoxville, Tennessee. Once you hit Tennessee you are heading into Smokey Mountain territory, with Cherokee National Forest. Another trip writeup for another time.

3.The Rest Stops

All the Rest Stops along the way in either direction are full of Truckers. At night many sleep in their cabs.

There are the typical Rest Stops with a building housing bathrooms, soda and candy machines, and maps on a wall — and then there are Rest Stops without any of that — Truckers just pull off to rest. There are no bathrooms — truckers must use the potty in their cab, and if you’re not a trucker you take to the woods.

3.1 Love’s

And then there is Love’s. I fell in love with Love’s during my 2 years of weekly travel between NYC and Winchester, Virginia — and the family fell in love with Love’s on subsequent roadtrips between NYC and Nashville and NYC and Dallas — both of which included long drives on I-81.

Love’s is a Trucker’s rest stop — catering to trucker needs and trucker diesel gasoline. When you enter Love’s, you will hear on the loudspeaker constant notice of “Shower now available for #32” etc — signifying a shower stall is ready for a trucker waiting.

The merchandise in the store caters to trucker needs.

As you are driving, and running low on gas — you will drive a little bit farther than you should just to see that big Love’s sign above I-81 and stop in.

3.2 Flying J

Love’s has competitors — Flying J and Pilot. I visited Flying J’s headquarters 20 years ago to try and sell them an architecture tool. Their headquarters is 2-hour’s drive north of Salt Lake City, Utah — a romantic drive at 2am and an interesting trip so Flying J has a place in my heart.

Flying J is nice but it is not Love’s. Flying J does bill itself as having the Best Coffee on the Interstate.

3.3 Pilot

And then there is Pilot, also same business model as above — catering to Truckers.

3.4 Sheetz

Another favorite of mine is Sheetz — which is all over Virginia and southern Pennsylvania. Sheetz does not cater to Truckers per se — but it is a terrific stop off with a terrific assortment of food including fresh yogurt cups and hot cashews.

4. The Hotels

There are many good hotels to stay at along I-81. Here are the ones I chose during my 2 years of weekly travel along the route, and then the two family road trips that we took with 2 dogs traveling with us:

4.1 Travelodge

Where better to stay on a Trucker route than a Trucker hotel.

Travelodge is a Truckers hotel if there ever was one. In my 2 years of traveling to Winchester, Virginia, I stayed almost every night — 3 nights a week — at the Travelodge in Winchester, Virginia. The price was right — one of the moderately cheaper hotels in the area — it ran me about $50 to $65 a night during those COVID years. It is clean, offers a pretty nice breakfast, is pet friendly, and is family run — a wonderful Indian family. I felt like I was part of the extended family.

Some people live in the Travelodge — those who may be settling into the Winchester area for a new job and haven’t found a place to rent or buy yet. A school bus picked up several kids every morning in front of the Travelodge, with their mothers waiting by their side.

And the Travelodge is full of Truckers — the parking lot full of Trucks. And if a hotel is a place where Truckers gravitate to — it is a hotel where I will gravitate to.

4.2 La Quinta

La Quinta hotel chain is a step above Travelodge, in both price and luxurious surroundings. I stayed at La Quinta several times during my 2-year stint when the Travelodge was sold out. La Quinta in Winchester is a very pretty hotel and was running $105 to $130 a night and is also pet friendly.

La Quinta room in Winchester.

During family road trips to Nashville and Dallas we stayed at several La Quinta’s along the way and they all were good except for one in a small town that hadn’t been renovated in some time. It offered a spectacular view of the Blue Ridge Mountains from its parking lot and the staff there were super friendly, so I’d stay there again.

View of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the front of the La Quinta in Wytheville, Virginia

4.3 The Highlander in Radford

On the way back from Dallas up I-81 at midnight with 8 inches of snow still falling we booked a hotel in Radford, Virginia — The Highlander — which got rave reviews on Expedia and was only $100 a night. Also pet friendly.

Radford is a college town, residence of Radford College.

The hotel is brand new — and was amazing. It seems to be a converted factory (but isn’t) — with loads of new artwork on the walls of the lobby, forming an art gallery. The rooms were beautiful — finely designed in some sort of nuevo art deco style. The cafe in the expansive lobby had espresso machines. I highly recommend a night here. It is not a Trucker’s hotel — but when with family and dogs — was a really nice stay. Full coverage of the hotel is here.

Rooftop Cafe at the Highlander Hotel in Radford, Virginia, with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background.

5. Things You’ll See on the Highway

Part of the experience of a road trip is things that you see on the highway while you are driving. People doing all kinds of things.

Must have to put the Queen Size bed in diagonally?
Nothing beats a log truck.
Salt — used in food, for solar power, and to melt ice.
Fish Hatchery truck — how lakes are populated with fish.

6. I-81 in a Snowstorm

I drove I-81 in a snowstorm once and do not recommend it. It was one of the most white-knuckle events of my life.

I was staying in Winchester and a big snowstorm hit that dumped a foot of snow in February 2021. I should have left the night before — but stayed overnight and left my hotel at 7am to drive the rental car back to Union Station where I would get a train home.

The rental car was a Ford Fiesta — small car. I figured the best way to Union Station would be to take I-81 south to Route 66 and take that East. This seemed a better idea than taking the smaller highway Route 50 East to intersect 66 East — since I-81 was a major thoroughfare it had a better chance of being plowed.

Boy was I wrong. I-81 was not really plowed — although the 18-wheelers had forged a path in the middle of the 2-lane highway. I drove the 15 minute stretch from Winchester to Route 66 on I-81 with my Fiesta slipping and sliding under me, with a foot of snow on the ground and coming down hard, driving at about 25 MPH with 18-wheelers howling at my back, then passing me in the tundra of snow to my left.

WHITE KNUCKLE experience. Route 66 was a tamer experience as there were no truckers and the road had been plowed in most spots.

7. From Pennsylvania thru NY State to Watertown

I-81 from Pennsylvania up thru NY State to the Adirondacks is another amazing run. Instead of breaking off onto Route 78 just North of Harrisburg en route to NYC — you go straight North on I-81 thru the heart of Pennsylvania to Scranton, and then North to Binghamton in NY State.

7.1 Stop Off at Local Wineries of the Finger Lakes

Driving North from Binghamton you go thru Cortland, NY — a wonderful town I spent a summer there in college working as a Shelter Survey Technician for FEMA. Between Binghamton and Cortland you can branch off of I-81 and take Route 79 at Whitney Point and drive 15 miles to Ithaca — which features so many wineries along Lake Seneca.

7.2 Syracuse

North of Cortland is Syracuse — a hilly town that features some great restaurants.

7.3 The Adirondacks

And then after Syracuse is the long drive up I-81 to Watertown NY — you are right next to the Adirondacks — a writeup for another time.

7.4 See the Thousand Islands

After Watertown on I-81 comes Alexandria Bay — or “Alex Bay” as the locals call it. You are at the main town of The Thousand Islands — a wonderful vacation spot along the St Lawrence River.

There are literally over 1,000 islands in the St Lawrence River here — many people live on these islands, and you can buy one (and the house on it) — check out Zillow.

On Friday and Saturday nights, local teens take the family boat out to party, not the car.

Boldt Castle and Thousand Islands’ Dressing

You can visit Boldt Castle, which is on an island — that is the castle that George C. Boldt, millionaire proprietor of the world famous Waldorf Astoria Hotel, had built for his wife — but she passed away before it was completed. He halted all construction of the castle, leaving it unfinished. Boldt is famous for having his chef concoct a salad dressing that he served at the Waldorff Astoria, and named it Thousand Islands’ Dressing.

The castle lay in dilapidation for years and local teenagers would take the family boat to the island and hang out — littering the inside of the castle with grafitti — that was the castle I saw in the 1980’s. It has now been cleaned up and made into a first-rate tourist attraction.

The Thousand Islands also includes Clayton to the south (where Abbie Hoffman had his “Save the River” office).

Clayton NY and Abbie Hoffman

I spent a summer in the Watertown area — living in a cottage by a lake outside of Croghan, NY — again working as a Shelter Survey Technician for FEMA — “surveying commercial and public buildings for their applicability as a shelter in case of a natural or ‘man made’ disaster.” That last part was a kicker. I accidentally wandered into Abbie Hoffman’s Save the River office, and he and his partner threw me out — although Abbie was very friendly. A writeup for another time.

And thus you have I-81 — Trucker Highway — Lifeblood of America.

I-78 near Allentown — heading towards I-81.
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