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.
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