Archive for September, 2018

I loaded the Surly Long Haul Trucker bicycle in the back of our inherited 2005 Toyota Prius and started driving north and northwest from Chapel Hill at 6:45 AM.     I had plotted that I could drive on Interstate highway all the way to Wheeling, West Virginia in about seven hours, mostly on I-77.     About an hour into the drive, somewhere near Winston-Salem, not using the brakes,  I noticed that a bunch of warning lights were on; how long had these been on?   BRAKE / ABS / VSC, what does that mean?

I got off the highway and pulled the owner’s manual out of the glovebox.    The instructions for each of these lights was pull over to a safe place, stop the car, and call your Toyota dealer.    The warning lights were something to do with the brakes.    The brakes seemed to work fine.  On the Interstate I would hardly use the brakes at all.   It was a Saturday morning, if I turned the car around now my trip would have to be cancelled.   What would I need brakes for?   So I crossed my fingers and drove on.   (Spoiler:   I completed the bicycle ride and drove back home three days later with these warning lights still on.    I dropped off the car at Auto Logic near my house in Chapel Hill.  It is an expensive problem with the ABS anti-lock braking system, not the brakes themselves.)

 

 

Founded as a frontier outpost of the state of Virginia on the Ohio River in the 1769, Wheeling is across that river from the state of Ohio and only eleven miles from Pennsylvania.   Today it clearly it is more tied to the Pittsburgh area than the rest of West Virginia.   I drove around the Wheeling Island neighborhood looking for a place to park the car for a few days.    This spot looked as good as any.

 

It was across the street from a Chinese restaurant.

Wheeling is a place of faded glory.  Its current population is 27,000,  fewer than the 30,000 who lived here in 1880, and much fewer than the 62,000 in 1930.   I first biked around Wheeling Island, which sits opposite downtown.

 

 

 

 

The Wheeling Suspension Bridge crossing the Ohio River from Wheeling Island to downtown Wheeling was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it opened in 1849.    I am amazed that it still allows cars to cross.

 

 

Downtown Wheeling is largely abandoned, with a few spots of life.

 

 

 

 

I biked around downtown a little before heading north along the Ohio River, on the West Virginia side.   There were more older residential areas.   In this one block these houses are stunning.

 

Other areas looked a little worse for wear.

 

 

 

Eventually the city thinned out and I was heading north along the Ohio River, pointing towards the similar city of Steubenville, Ohio.   I had not planned on it but found a delightful bicycle trail along the river almost all of the twenty five miles from Wheeling to Steubenville.

 

 

I passed through a couple of small towns.   These people gathered in a Baptist church parking lot.

 

 

Arriving into Steubenville, I bicycled back across the Ohio River.

Forty-four years ago in the early seventies when I was about nineteen years old I worked as a bellhop at Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge in Virginia Beach.   A desk clerk named Bob was older, maybe twenty five, higher in the pecking order and thus something of an authority figure.   He told me numerous times he had grown up in a place that I succinctly remember him describing as “the armpit of America”; Steubenville Ohio.   He said it was the worst place in the United States.   I have had that memory stuck in my head all these years; now I could cross this bridge and see what it would be like.

Like Wheeling, the downtown was mostly abandoned.

 

 

 

Further on there were attractive nineteenth century homes in a leafy neighborhood north of downtown, other than some of the houses were boarded up.    There is one bed and breakfast there and surprisingly they told me over the phone that they were full.   I would have to find lodging elsewhere.

The decrepit downtown sits near the river and behind it a steep hill rises to newer neighborhoods.    Most likely Steubenville’s one growth industry in 2018 is Franciscan University, a two thousand student Catholic college apparently specializing in religious conservatism.   It is in a suburban location halfway up that steep hill.   I spent the night at a brand new Best Western that sits opposite the college.   The Best Western must have been co-sponsored by the college as there were religious slogans on the walls.

In the strip mall by the Best Western there was a pizza place.   I walked over to check it out and I just could not get excited about eating there.   I could do better, I thought, as my map indicated a nicer sounding Italian restaurant called Scaffidi’s in the newer part of Steubenville.   To get there I would have to bike up the steep hill in near darkness, circle through some neighborhoods, and then after dinner bike back to the motel in complete darkness.   Sure, why not?

I had showered and changed clothes at the motel.    At least there was a sidewalk to bicycle on when biking up and down that steep hill as it was just starting to get dark.

 

 

At the top of the hill I turned left and biked through neighborhoods for about a mile.

 

 

The restaurant was at the back of a strip mall.

 

 

 

I sat at the bar with a bunch of other old guys.  The one next to me was talking to various friends about his upcoming 1970’s high school reunion.   He seemed like someone who had lived in this town all his life.

One key difference between Steubenville and my usual part of America is the price.    The lasagna for $ 9.95 includes first course choice of soup or salad; the wedding soup seemed homemade.    Wine is $ 5.50 a glass.

 

 

It was all delicious and I enjoyed just sitting there awhile, soaking up the atmosphere.  I eventually climbed back on the bicycle in the dark and headed back to the motel.   I stopped along the way in a neighborhood just to stand there and feel the night.

The next morning I checked out of the motel and continued my ride.   My original plan had been to bike along the Ohio River.    On Google Maps this morning I discovered a rail trail starting just across the river from Steubenville that extended east away from the river, straight across the foothills for 29 miles, two thirds of the way to Pittsburgh.    It seemed too good to pass up.   I emailed Airbnb to book a low cost place that evening in Pittsburgh.

To get to the bike path, I first biked back across the Ohio River and through the grimy industrial town of Weirton, West Virginia.

 

The Panhandle Trail is a delight.   The West Virginia portion is gravel.

 

About the time it crosses into Pennsylvania it becomes paved.

 

 

 

 

Further on it passes through small towns.

 

 

It was all good, and the trail ended just before the Pittsburgh suburb of Carnegie.   It was 1:00 PM on a Sunday, time for lunch.

LeoGreta in the rough looking town of Carnegie is a fancy place, but the gourmet-ish roast beef sandwich is a good deal at $10.00.   It was garnished with pieces of pickled cauliflower.

 

After Carnegie it was biking on city streets for ten miles further into Pittsburgh.   There were a lot of steep hills.

 

My  Airbnb was in a neighborhood called Mexican War Streets, because the streets are all named after battles in the 1835 Mexican War.   I find WMS attractive because it is clearly gentrified but also still partly working class and African-American as well.   It is beautiful nineteenth century housing, close to downtown, but in the un-cool direction from downtown, not near the other more upscale areas of Pittsburgh.

There is street after street of unspoiled mid-nineteenth century row houses.

 

My Airbnb was on Alpine Street, near the top of the hill.   It is the house on the left shown below, the house before the striped awning.   Room with a private entrance and bath, $54.00 including tax.

 

The MWS neighborhood still has space for the artsy and the weird, like Randyland, whatever this is.

 

I ate that night at a newer food court called Federal Gallery.   Nice setup, a shared bar area surrounded by four or five independent food vendors.    This ambitious dish was invented by the chef who cooked it, a young man who was happy to talk with me about it.    Blackened swordfish in a tomato broth with fresh corn, sausage, and tomatoes.

 

I walked back to the Airbnb in the dark.   It felt much safer than this photo seems to suggest.

 

It had been a fascinating two days but I decided to cut the trip because hard rain was predicted for the next three days.    The rain did not start before I was able to bike around Pittsburgh for a couple hours in the morning.   I would the pick up a one-way rental car in downtown Pittsburgh to drive back to Wheeling.

I had to cycle through all sorts of clutter to get the half mile down the hill to the riverfront.   There were other bicyclists as well.

 

 

Because it is at the juncture of three rivers, there is a lot of riverfront in Pittsburgh.  I followed a bike path up the Allegheny River for about eight miles.   Steep cliffs soared above the riverside.

The paved bike path eventually turned into gravel, then into double track.

 

The double track turned into single track.

 

I really thought this path would go all the way to the town of Sharpsburg, but the path just stopped.  I had to turn around and go back the way I came.

I bicycled through a Pittsburgh neighborhood called the Strip District, then into downtown.   These 1960’s parking garages were interesting.

I had heard that Pittsburgh was ground zero for testing of self-driving cars.   On at least three occasions I saw these blue Fords.   They went by so fast I was not able to see if any person was in the car or not.

 

The young woman at Enterprise in downtown Pittsburgh was helpful.  Wheeling WV must not have a great reputation around here as she snickered when I said where I was going.   She helpfully and for no extra charge gave me a minivan so I would not have to take the bicycle apart.

 

An hour or two later I turned in the car at Enterprise in downtown Wheeling.  Wheeling is one of the poorest looking American cities I have ever visited, yet on the street downtown was a group holding out buckets to collect money for the Red Cross, to donate to my home state of North Carolina that had been devastated by a hurricane.

I dropped a ten dollar bill into a guy’s bucket, then bicycled back across Wheeling Suspension Bridge to my car, for the drive home to North Carolina.  It was just starting to rain.

I wanted to leave my house and bicycle somewhere, but had no idea where to go or when to go there.  I had no agenda.  Early Sunday morning I just left, by bicycle.   Just in case, I took along my bicycle “trunk bag” with one night’s change of clothes, in case I wanted to spend the night someplace.

Tootie was reading the paper when I left the apartment about 7:45 AM

 

I keep my bicycle in a rack on level P1 of our condo building Greenbridge.

I looked back at the building from the street.    Our apartment is on the top level of the tower on the left, at the center of the photograph.

 

For those of you not from Chapel Hill, it is a relatively nice town.   The main drag is Franklin Street, which looked really empty on this Sunday morning.

One block later Franklin Street passes along the northern boundary of the University of North Carolina campus.

Until two weeks ago, a statue colloquially known as Silent Sam had stood about thirty feet to the right of the above photo.   Put up in 1913, it is of a Civil War Confederate soldier.  To quote my friend Andy Jones:  Silent Sam…was never silent. He shouted at every person of color that walked onto that campus. The photograph below is taken from Wikipedia.

 

A large group of students and others surrounded Sam three weeks ago and pulled him down.     The Republican appointed University administration does not know what to do about the situation; it is currently dithering.   On this Sunday morning I biked by Sam’s pedestal.

 

 

There had been a small riot here just the night before, two weeks after the initial tearing down.  Hundreds of anti-Sam demonstrators seemed to be picking a fight with scores of police who were protecting a tiny group of Rebel flag carrying pro-Sam demonstrators.    Sam has been controversial for years; I am not sure what there is to demonstrate for or against since Sam is gone.  I cannot image the riot that would ensue if they tried to put him back up.

At 8:00 AM the morning after the police were still here.

 

Just a few hundred hards away I passed by Old East, from 1793, the oldest state university building in America, and Old West, from 1822.

 

Lacking somewhere else to go, pointed the bicycle towards Raleigh, about thirty miles to the southeast.   After descending the hill which Chapel Hill sits on, there is a bike path along NC 54.

 

I turned down Barbee Chapel Road.

I have bicycled past this house on Stagecoach Road many times.  The house is hidden behind a fence.   The house and compound are less than ten years old, fronted by a yard much larger than is shown in this picture.     There are other large outbuildings in the same Gone With The Wind style.   I got off the bicycle, walked up to the fence, and raised the camera over my head to take this picture.    There are so many liberals in Chapel Hill and Durham that this guy must feel insecure.    Back in 2016 he had huge Trump signs on his fence.

I eventually ended up on the American Tobacco Trail greenway.

 

I could have taken the Tobacco Trail much further but instead I headed off towards Raleigh, weaving through miles and miles of subdivisions.   Many but not all are in the city of Cary.

This looks like Georgetown but these houses are less than ten years old, built on former scrub woods and abandoned tobacco farms.

The newer neighborhoods of Cary are a lot more multicultural than Chapel Hill or even Durham.    I stopped in a Starbucks to refuel and about half the people in there were Asian.

 

Later on I was weaving through this neighborhood of expensive tract mansions and these two dark complexioned women were speaking a language I could not recognize.

 

 

I crossed over NC 540, an almost new toll road to nowhere.   The road was recently written up as being “successful” in that it the tiny levels of traffic were still enough for it to make its bond payments.

 

On the western edge of the Raleigh city limits I biked by the state fairgrounds, including Dorton Arena, a modernist gem from 1952.   I was disappointed with the photo I took so I lifted this one from Wikipedia.

 

I was early for lunch but one should never pass by really good food.   Neomonde Bakery, near Meredith College in Raleigh, has the best Middle Eastern food in the Triangle.    Hummus, baba ghanoush, stuffed grape leaves, pita bread, and tabouli salad all exuded freshness.

 

What to do now?   I spent quite a while lingering over my lunch and reading The New York Times on my I-phone.   It was already thirty miles back to Chapel Hill.   Should I keep going further on?  Naah.

I left Neomonde and biked back to Chapel Hill.

 

 

Chapel Hill is not exactly sea level but it is near enough to sea level that the heat of the summer is oppressive.   There is a reason the wealthy used to spend months “summering” in The Mountains.  (Some still do!).    Elevation cures the illness of hot weather.  Because we could not really go outside here in Chapel Hill,  Tootie and I went to the mountains for one night.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the great bicycle rides in America.  However, to spend the night or even eat a meal,  a cyclist almost always has to descend about a thousand feet to a town of a much lower altitude.   At an elevation of 3500′ Little Switzerland NC is one of the very few spots on the entire 469 mile long Parkway where a bicyclist can stop, spend the night and have dinner right on the Parkway.   Neither of us had ever been to Little Switzerland before so we wanted to see what it was like.

This would be an up and back one night bike trip.   Leaving early, we drove our Prius three and a half hours to the Parkway and then up to an elevation of about 4000 feet, a spot on the Parkway near the town of Linville Falls.  We parked in a place that looked reasonably legal to leave our car for twenty-four hours.   We unloaded and headed out by bicycle, carrying with us all the luggage we would needed for one night and to have a picnic lunch along the way.

Biking the Blue Ridge Parkway in the summer is glorious.    Even at this peak season there is not that much car traffic.   The weather was sunny but refreshing, with temperatures in the seventies.

 

 

 

At lunchtime we could not find a picnic table so we ate while sitting on a guard rail.

 

Two or three hours after starting we pulled into the Switzerland Inn where we had made a reservation.

 

I really like this place.    Clean rooms, lovely view, good food, even a decent bar scene. They have lawn games out front.    A nice cross section of America was staying there, including a sizable contingent of sixty-something motorcyclists.

 

When there is a view this big everybody just stares at it.

 

 

We walked around.   Dinner that evening was really old school; we split a $ 33.00 chunk of meat entitled “King Cut Prime Rib au jus 14 0z.”    Delicious.

The next day we bicycled back to the car.     The views were stunning.

 

The Parkway went up and down, but the last seven miles were straight uphill from 2700′ to 4000′.   Tootie is turning sixty in a few months and she does not bicycle all that much.  She was very proud to have completed such a sizable climb!