Pennsylvania: Harrisburg to Philly, Oct 23-26, 2016

Geography students: there is a reason the Battle of Gettysburg happened where it did; if you were a Southerner and wanted to invade the North, Gettysburg would your go-to place, the soft underbelly of Yankeeland, only about ten miles north of the Pennsylvania border which is also called the Mason-Dixon Line.    And only thirty-five miles north of Gettysburg is Harrisburg, the capital of the state of Pennsylvania.   Bottom line: Harrisburg is not that far from Chapel Hill;  if you drive (as I did in reverse on the way home) I-85 to Richmond / I-95 to DC Beltline West / I-270 to Frederick, then US 15; you can get to Harrisburg in less than seven hours.    I also knew that Amtrak has about seven trains a day from Philadelphia to Harrisburg.    The weather was a conundrum; predicted to be beautiful except for a very hard wind blowing west to east.  I could bicycle with a tailwind the 125 miles from Harrisburg to Philadelphia in two or three days.  I could then take Amtrak back to the car.

I had not fully made these plans when I left home with the folding bicycle in the trunk of the car at six o’clock on a Sunday morning.   I was going somewhere, but I needed to adapt to the strong west-east wind.  I came up with the idea of Harrisburg / Philadelphia while driving up I-81 in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia.   At about two in the afternoon I parked our white Honda just west of downtown Harrisburg in this parking lot, where I trusted it would be OK for three days.


I had bicycled several pieces of this Harrisburg / Philadelphia route before but not all at once.  I now realize that this 125 mile ride is one of the better urban rides on the East Coast.     Leaving Walmart,  I arrived at this art deco bridge to cross the Susquehanna River into downtown Harrisburg.


There are quite a few bridges running parallel across the river.


The area with government offices around the state capital building seems vibrant.  Otherwise, Harrisburg is worn and depressed.    There used to be heavy industry here, like steel making.  On the train ride three days later I saw the huge Steelton mill, just outside of Harrisburg, essentially abandoned since about 1980.   It looked to be more than a mile long.

Image result for steelton

Riding east from downtown Harrisburg I did not enter farmland.  Rather, I passed through a series of older towns that ran one into another.    Even in the year 1895 it must have been one continuous city.   I find it interesting and somehow beautiful; North Carolina looks nothing like this.




I did not ride far the first day.    I could have gone further, but Hershey (Chocolate City!) seemed to be a more pleasant place to overnight than towns further on.  In Hershey I found a low cost chain motel on an in-town tree lined residential street.  (Imagine a motel next to our old house on Poplar Avenue in Carrboro.)   You could hear the roller coaster from the amusement park several blocks away.


It was a Sunday night and a lot of the restaurants were closed.  I ate at Fenicci’s (since 1935!) old school Italian-American right on Chocolate Avenue in Hershey.   There are no restaurants like this in Chapel Hill and I find the whole Italian-American food thing interesting.    I like to cook Italian style and read cookbooks about it.  When southern Italians arrived in America a hundred years ago, they were accustomed to putting tomato sauce on their spaghetti because tomatoes were pretty much all most people had.   Suddenly in America they had access to meat.  Diets got richer.  It became spaghetti and meatballs.   Have lasagna at Fenicci’s and you get an award for just eating the whole thing.   From their menu:

Homemade Lasagna

– Our House Special. Layers and layers of
Mozzarella, Ricotta, Provolone, Sausage and Meatballs. Finish it and
get a special certificate

And you wonder why the average American is fatter than the average Italian.

The bartender steered me instead to pasta with calamari, shrimp, and mussels.   I would not have picked that, but it was a good choice.  Eating at the bar the scene was genial.


The next day I bicycled town to town on US 422, a two lane highway generally wide enough for bicycling.  When the highway bypassed a town I took the old road down main street.



I will try to keep out of politics but this is Trump country.    For the first eighty miles of this trip, until you got to the Philadelphia suburbs, Trump signs were everywhere; Hillary Clinton signs almost nonexistent.


At a different house earlier in the day, maybe these are genuine “Deplorables.”


Cycling from town to town, Lebanon was the second largest town of the day.   It had the look of somewhere that was rich and important eighty years ago.






What made this day special was that the towns were so close together; there was always something interesting to look at.






The only real city I passed through between Harrisburg and Philadelphia was Reading.   I have been here once before.   I know that it ranks among the poorest cities in America.   I had never been through the leafy suburbs on its west side; there still was some money in this town.   In these wealthier suburbs at a fairly nice restaurant half filled with mostly older people, I sat at the bar and ordered a Reuben sandwich.   ESPN Sports was on the center TV but they had dueling Fox News going on both sides.


Demographically I had not hardly seen any non-white faces the whole day.    When you enter Reading it suddenly changes;  pretty much everybody looks Hispanic or African-American.


Beyond Reading the bike ride became more rural.    I wanted to get as far as Pottstown, twenty miles past Reading.    One special aspect of the entire 125 mile Harrisburg / Philadelphia ride is that much of the second half is covered by a bike trail along the Schuylkill River.    There was a paved trail part of the way to Pottstown.


In other places it was easier to ride on Route 724 on the south bank of the river.


The day brightened as I rode through cornfields.


Downtown Pottstown seems like it has seen better days.  Even so, one block off the main drag there are lots of pretty buildings.



I stayed at a perfectly acceptable low cost Quality Inn on the fringes of downtown.   Dinner was more difficult, there were just no choices.   In downtown Pottstown more than half of the thin selection of restaurants were closed on Mondays.    I really tried, but “dinner” ended up being a steak and cheese sandwich, eaten at the counter of Ice House Steak and Pizza, next to two old guys in cammo.



Pottstown is not a happening place.    For the sake of comparison, fast forward to lunch the next day in the Manayunk neighborhood on the western outskirts of the Philadelphia city limits.     It felt like another planet.  Delicious acorn squash, cheese, and arugula on flatbread, served by an African American bartender with effeminate mannerisms.  But then, the arugula pizza was almost twice the price of the sandwich in Pottsville.


Getting up on a cold morning in Pottstown, it was forty-five miles to Center City Philadelphia.    As the ride began I thought of The Simpsons with the Limerick nuclear power plant in the distance.


The final thirty-eight miles of the Schuylkill River Trail are a truly delightlful bike ride that takes the bicyclist all the way to Center City Philadelphia.

Along much of the way it seems like you are in the wilderness, just the woods on the left and the river on the right.   The trail is either paved or covered with very fine gravel.



In the early part of the ride on the bike path I ran into these people on horses just as I heard loud barking of beagles as I have never heard before.  Yes, they were on a fox hunt.


As the path got closer to Center City one could finally sense the growing urbanism.




The path continues until right in front of Amtrak 30th Street Station.  I looked back.


I had checked the day before about Philadephia hotel rooms.  They seemed either not available or insanely expensive.   I then looked at Airbnb.    A room in a woman’s townhouse in south Philadelphia was only seventy-two dollars including tax and the booking fee.

Philadelphia is a vast sea of row houses, stretching on for miles. From 30th Street Station pictured above, I bicycled through over three miles of continuous row houses until I got to this block in South Philadelphia.  From a distance it looked vaguely Dickensian.



Up close it was quite nice, even friendly.    My hostess’ house seemed new both inside and outside.


She showed me inside and I put my bicycle in her back yard.   I was fascinated that the “alley” behind the houses is only a few feet wide, way too narrow for any vehicle.


This neighborhood was once apparently almost completely Italian,  even though it is over a mile of dense city from the touristy area called Little Italy.

Dinner that night was amazing; very different from Fenicci’s back in Harrisburg.    I found this restaurant at random:  L’Angolo Ristorante was exactly one block from the Airbnb.   Tiny sign, no parking, no liquor license, bring your own wine.

On this Tuesday night the place was full; I was lucky to get in without a reservation.   It was the kind of higher end Italian food that I almost never get in a restaurant.  I had eggplant parmesan as first course, then seared tuna second course.    Plus decaf.   All accompanied by an eight dollar bottle of wine that I brought myself.


I had booked Amtrak the next day leaving at 9:00 AM.     I bicycled through the city in the gathering light of morning.



There was an Italian bakery;  I stopped to get something to eat on the train.


30th Street Station is a beautiful art deco building that opened in 1930.


I folded the bicycle and got on the train;  departing Philadelphia on time and arriving Harrisburg station less than two hours later.  (Note: Amtrak rules about bicycles are complicated and vary from train to train.   The Harrisburg / Philadelphia trains do not have a baggage car and you cannot take any kind of bicycle on this train except folding.)

I biked to the Walmart parking lot; our Honda was still there.   I got home in Chapel Hill in time for dinner.

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