This part of the country does not get many tourists. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area was built around coal mining and offshoot heavy industries. The cities have been losing population for the last fifty years.
I chose Wilkes-Barre specifically as a starting point because it is right on I-81 which comes up through Virginia. I was able to drive to Wilkes-Barre from Chapel Hill in a little over eight hours.
This trip would also give me an opportunity to bicycle up to Binghamton, New York; a city on the skids that I have also been wanting to visit for a while. Why, I am not sure. I guess it just seems exotic to someone from Virginia and North Carolina.
I parked my car in the lot of a Walmart on the northern fringes of Wilkes-Barre. Walmart is fundamentally American in its outlook and Walmart projects a tired American creed: parking should be free and available to anyone, anytime. I feel safe leaving a car for three or four days in a Walmart parking lot. I pulled the bicycle out of the trunk. My parking space was catty-cornered between the Walmart and a Cracker Barrel restaurant.
The Wilkes-Barre / Scranton area is built in an area called the Wyoming Valley, and the cities are strung together in a line between mountains. For there to be space to build a Walmart and other suburban sprawl, Wilkes-Barre has grown north into the steep slopes of a mountain on the south side of town. I biked out of the Walmart parking lot and descended a couple miles downhill into Wilkes-Barre. The first big building I saw was this impressive abandoned brewery.
I descended a little further into downtown Wilkes-Barre. This used to be an important city.
The hour was later than planned, and I decided to not try and bicycle further but just stay here in this city. Luckily I found a nice motel right downtown.
Even checking with Yelp, there did not seem to be many fine dining options here in downtown Wilkes-Barre.
On this warm and pleasant evening I stumbled onto this bar downtown that was spilling onto the sidewalk. It was quite the scene, even if my dinner was just bar food.
I strolled around in the dark alone after dinner, and discovered that Wilkes-Barre (and Scranton, and Binghamton) have something that Raleigh, and Durham, and Charlotte, and Richmond, (and probably Atlanta) no longer have: an old-school multi-story department store downtown. From searching the web, I learned that the regional chain Boscov’s is privately held; this may be its saving grace. If it was publicly owned I am sure shareholders would have insisted someone cut the cord. Here in downtown Wilkes-Barre it stood impressively open at 8:45 PM.
I went inside and was confronted with the obligatory first-floor cosmetics department. There were several floor levels, and escalators. I found the men’s department and looked for something to buy, just to do my part. Sadly, I could not find anything I liked. I admit, I am picky.
The next morning my plan was to cycle upriver towards Scranton and then, I hoped, head off in the direction of Binghamton. The Scranton / Wilkes-Barre area has enormous amounts of walkable neighborhood that I wished we had more of in the Raleigh/Durham area. In the linear strip along the river and Main Street, Wilkes-Barre to Scranton and beyond; early twentieth century residential areas go on continuously for over twenty miles.
I have noticed in my travels of struggling white working class areas people reach for that last stretch of entrepreneurialism: drag stuff into your front yard and try to sell it. On this sunny Saturday morning the Garage Sale scene was humming.
It is about twenty miles from Wilkes-Barre to Scranton and I got to downtown Scranton about eleven in the morning.
Scranton is named after the mid-nineteenth century businessman who founded the place; more or less a company town. The city grew up around what became one of the largest steel works in world. There are also coal mine tunnels running underneath this entire area. The coal mining industry here came to an end with a mining disaster in 1959; a coal mine punched through to the Susquehanna River, drowning twelve people.
Now unfortunately the steel industry is pretty much all gone. Among other industries Scranton had an enormous railroad maintenance facility that also closed many years ago. In 1986 this area’s congressman got federal funding to make a national park out of that maintenance facility; it is called Steamtown. It is perfect for old guys like me to walk around and gaze at huge machinery. They even have a crew on the payroll here who rebuild and maintain working steam locomotives.
I could have spent all day at Steamtown, but after walking around awhile I got back on the bicycle and headed through the northern part of Scranton. I found an Italian deli and something called antipasto salad. Three twenty somethings were at the other table and while I ate lunch I surreptitiously listened to them talk about their lives and careers.
It all sounded optimistic. The young woman had just gotten a nursing degree. The guys had jobs and all sorts of plans. It was comforting to know that not all educated young people with a future were leaving Scranton.
Americans have always romanticized about certain parts of the country; Bob Dylan sang:
I had a job in the great North Woods, working as a cook for a spell. But I never did like it all that much and one day the axe just fell. So I drifted on down to New Orleans where I happed to be employed. Working for a while on a fishing boat right outside Delacroix.
But very few people have romantically escaped to Wilkes-Barre, or written a song about it. I suspect people do leave town, but very few come here, especially educated young people.
After lunch I headed further through the valley, through more of this this linear city, municipalities with names like Dickson City and Blakely.
All these towns had signs on the utility poles honoring veterans, from all wars since World War II, dozens and dozens of signs. I knew that there had been a lot of immigrant groups settling here a hundred years ago, particularly from Poland. I made a point of surveying the names on these war memorials; in one stretch well over 50% of the last names on the memorials ended with “ski” or “sky.”
As I biked further up the valley I had thoughts of where I was going to stop that night. I called the one hotel listed in Carbondale and they said they were full. A wedding. Nothing seemed available on Airbnb either, so I had to turn around and head back to North Scranton, where I had found an Airbnb.
I chilled in the room for a while before looking for a place to eat dinner. I particularly like to eat Italian when I am in the Northeast.
Casa Bella is really nice restaurant. On a Saturday night people were dressed up for an Evening Out. I do not mean to be snide, but there are key differences in what I will call Red America Restaurants, and those in Chapel Hill (or New York City, for that matter.) The principal one is that prices, even at quite nice places, are lower. And almost always the salad is included, rather than having to order and pay for an appetizer and an entree. The wine prices are six dollars a glass, rather than nine or ten or eleven.
As an Italian restaurant it had the obligatory signed photo by an aging rock star, and higher-ups in the Catholic Church.
The wait service here was top notch, middle aged professionals who were always available but never hovering. And the food was really good.
The salad came already dressed Italian style. Sure, there was a lot of iceberg lettuce, but that is my only complaint.
My body was craving a good tomato sauce. Homemade three cheese ravioli was delicious.
After dinner I walked in the dark back to the Airbnb.
The next day I did something that (I swear to you my readers) I have never done before. It was almost seventy miles, over a mountain range, from my North Scranton Airbnb to an Airbnb I had already booked in Binghamton NY. A huge mountain loomed over Scranton. So, my bicycle and I took an Uber at 7:30 AM on a Sunday morning.
The Uber was just to cover the first six miles, but six miles that were almost continuously uphill, a mountain climb to a Scranton suburb appropriately called Clark’s Summit.
It became apparent that a large proportion of what is upscale in the Scranton area is up here on the mountain of Clark’s Summit. I saw a Talbot’s women’s clothing store, for example. There is a Starbucks’s. There is also a really nice locally owned coffee house called Duffy’s. They make a mean breakfast sandwich.
The baristas were fooling around.
US Highway 11 more of less parallels a railroad that was put in relatively lately, about 1915. Crossing these mountains, when it was built it was considered an engineering marvel. Of course, today, it is abandoned. Senator Chuck Schumer is trying to get it re-started as a commuter rail line to New York City; a way to bring progress to Scranton and Binghamton.
Another rail bridge, even longer and higher.
Most of this bike ride was through woods. There is not much out here. I did go through two or three very small towns.
Compared to other parts of the country, the Northeast has a lot of small independent old-school ice cream places, usually out on a highway. I stopped for a chocolate swirl just outside of the town of New Milford.
Back on the bicycle I rode through a mixture of woods and small towns. It all felt very remote until US-11 crossed I-81, where there were many more cars and strip shopping centers. I stopped at a Subway for lunch.
Just north of I-81 my highway (US-11) crosses the Pennsylvania / New York State line as it passes through the quaint small town of Corbettsville. Pennsylvania must be a better place to buy guns.
Binghamton has a current population of 47,000, about the same population as it was in 1910. The population was 80,000 in 1950. I read that in the 1950’s over 15,000 people worked for one shoe manufacturer (E-J). Binghamton’s current economic engine, if there is one, is the SUNY campus, called Binghamton University.
I had booked an Airbnb the previous day. It is in an older neighborhood about two miles from downtown. This duplex house is the nicest on the block.
I hung out in the room for a while. It is pleasant where houses frequently do not have air conditioning, so you can sit in a room with the windows open. I eventually biked downtown to have some kind of dinner.
A brewpub downtown that looked quite new had a few people at the bar. The old guy with the white beard was quite talkative.
It turned out the the old guy, his wife, and me had something in common. We were all tourists in a city that certainly does not get many tourists. The retired married couple were from Australia. (Tasmania!) They had only been to America once before in their lives. This trip they had spent a week in San Francisco and a few days in New York City. The wife wanted to see Niagara Falls. They thought that ten days driving around New York State would give them a good slice of what American life is like. I thought, is this true?
The next morning I biked all over the Binghamton area. Similar to Scranton, Binghamton looks gray and down on its luck. It does NOT look completely abandoned like a Detroit or Bridgeport CT. This lovely 1930’s looking building was behind a warehouse.
I had found a good deal on a one-way Enterprise car rental for the drive back to the Scranton airport. Two hours later I dropped the car off and then had a couple hours to again bicycle around Scranton and Wilkes-Barre before going back to the Walmart, to get my car and the drive home.
In downtown Wilkes-Barre there is this huge building that looks like a mosque. It was built in 1907 as a Masonic lodge (Shriners!). It is currently empty and decaying.