Joe Scarborough says that, politically, the state of Pennsylvania is “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in the middle.” I set out to find what I could find in central Pennsylvania. We have a new car, a Ford Escape Hybrid, but Tootie was using the new car this week. I drove up north in the 2004 Honda that we inherited from her late mother; my Bike Friday folded in the Honda trunk. Because the car is so old I did not want to push my luck by driving too far. I chose Harrisburg PA as a spot far just north enough that I had left The South, both to see something different culturally and to escape summer heat.
In the 1960’s my father had an ultimately unsuccessful business as the AMC Rambler dealer in Virginia Beach. Amazingly, somewhere on I-95 I passed an AMC Ambassador station wagon, similar to the one my parents used to haul us on family adventures in the late sixties/early seventies. We had two parents, four not-small kids bickering at each other, and a well behaved miniature poodle named Inkie. Our car sometimes hauled a travel trailer, the Zipper.
I like to drink coffee while driving and am a big supporter of small independent competitors to Starbucks. These coffee houses have opened all over America, frequently in otherwise neglected downtowns. They are easy to find by searching “coffee” on Google maps. I knew of a place in Petersburg VA really close to I-95. I wanted a latte-to-go, but Demolition was not open.
By car, Harrisburg PA is a little over two hours north of Washington DC and six to seven hours from my home in Chapel Hill NC. On my trips I frequently park in Walmarts for extended periods but on this one I got all cautious and paid to park in a commercial lot in downtown Harrisburg. I pulled my bicycle out.
This is the 200+ mile loop I would bicycle over six days, making up my route as I went along. In North Carolina the geography is pretty simple; there are mountains in the west, rolling hills Piedmont in the middle and flat coastal plain in the east. Pennsylvania geography is much more complicated. Mountains are strewn all across the state, most of them running in ridges from the southwest to the northeast. My first three days in Pennsylvania I cycled north from Harrisburg to Lewisburg to Berwick along the Susquehanna River and the bike ride was mostly flat, but with hills or mountains rising steeply from both sides of the river. Coming back through Hazleton and Pottsville I had to bicycle over real mountains.
It was already after 3:00 PM by the time I got underway. My cycling destination this afternoon was a motel called the Halifax Inn that I had located on my phone and made a reservation at, twenty-six miles upriver.
Harrisburg is the state capital of Pennsylvania and its downtown fronts the Susquehanna River. There is a bike path along the river and I could see the historic houses that line the riverfront.
North of Harrisburg the landscape is squeezed where the mountains fall down to the river. After the bike path ended the first five miles of cycling were challenging as I was forced to deal with heavy car traffic on the four lane highway. Eventually the traffic thinned out and the countryside and the cycling along the east shore of the Susquehanna River became quite delightful. Highways in Pennsylvania generally have wide shoulders.
I was in the mountains but the Susquehanna River cut through them.
I bicycled through several small towns, houses built close to the sidewalk, very different from North Carolina.
The Halifax Inn sat by itself on a rural two lane road.
I met no actual person while staying at this motel. After paying over the phone the motel texted me a room number and numeric lock combination; a Covid procedure that I can see becoming permanent, both here and elsewhere. The room was quite nice. I made my own dinner that night in the room with the mini-rice cooker that I had brought, polenta and ham.
The next morning I cycled through the cool morning. Sitting in an empty parking lot, clearly for sale, this early 1970’s Lincoln is the same model that was used to smuggle white bags of hard drugs in the 1971 movie The French Connection.
Just a few miles down the road was Millersburg, population 2,500. I had an almond milk latte and a roll at the local coffee house Peace of Mind Cafe.
Some of the best preserved commercial mid-century architecture in America is at VFW Halls, Elks Lodges, and the like.
Heading out of Millersburg it was a pleasant morning cycle north through countryside interspersed with small towns, buildings right up to the street.
Lunch was at the larger town of Sunbury PA (population 10,000.). Because the taco place had no outdoor seating I took my tacos to a park downtown.
After lunch I cycled the additional twelve miles along the river to where I planned to stay the night, Lewisburg PA, (population 6,000) home of Bucknell University and a town with a lovely historic center.
I got a spot at the historic Lewisburg Hotel downtown, somewhere that should have been nice but the room was dumpy and musty, with beat up old furniture, and a noisy window air conditioner. At least the room had cost less than $ 100.00.
Dinner down the street was nicer, a somewhat fancy restaurant called Elizabeth’s. There is so much Red America out her that Blue America stares you right in the face. During this pandemic the lower cost places mostly had only crowded indoor seating but restaurants catering to a Blue America clientele had outdoor seating that was usually full. I only got a table here only because I had called a couple hours earlier to reserve.
The next morning I cycled away from my depressing hotel room into the comforting soft morning light. I would get breakfast in the next big town, Danville PA, fifteen miles to the east.
At 7:30 AM, for the first time in my life, I cycled across a covered bridge. This one was built in 1830.
The beautiful landscape continued.
Danville PA (population 1860: 6,500; population 2020: 4,500) had an attractive but decaying inner city. I could not find specifically a coffee house but Old City Bagel Company worked fine.
It was twenty something miles further to Berwick PA, passing through a series of decaying towns that line the Susquehanna River.
Mid afternoon I cycled into Berwick PA. Berwick. (population 1920: 12,000; population 2020 10,000) is a town built around heavy industry, much of which is no longer viable. Berwick is the birthplace and home of Wise Foods, maker of Wise potato chips. I cycled up to Berwick Brewing Company. The seats at their indoor bar were all taken at 3:00 PM on a weekday but I was able to take my porter out to their delightful rear terrace, which overlooks both the rail line and the Susquehanna River.
While chilling at the Berwick Brewing Company I assessed my situation. There was almost nowhere to stay except a bed and breakfast here in Berwick, and nothing if I continued cycling. I booked a room at the White Birch Inn.
I was able to check into the White Birch Inn totally by cell phone and I was given a numeric key code by text.
That evening there were two or three restaurants within walking distance. Everyone in town seemed to be eating at the Forge Pub & Eatery.
Inside it was jam packed with unmasked and I assume some unvaccinated people. There were two or three tables outside, they were also taken. Next to the outdoor tables was a wooden counter overlooking the parking lot. I took a seat and the host graciously agreed to serve me there. I realized after a while that this spot was frequented by those stepping out of the bar so they could smoke.
The Forge Pub & Eatery has good food and service.
I walked back to the B&B through the streets of Berwick in the fading light.
The next morning I discovered that the White Birch Inn had been full the night before, and the included breakfast service was crowded. I shared a table with a woman about my age (sixties) who lived in suburban DC and was in town for a relative’s funeral. She told her mother grew up Ukranian-American in Berwick with a life centered on the Ukranian Orthodox Church here.
We have all seen those wooden boxes in neighborhoods where people invite strangers to share books. In front of the B&B was a similar box, but it was to share food.
While I was in my room upstairs packing up I saw out the window a man come up and take food from the box.
The White Birch Inn proudly gives two bags on local Wise snacks with their room, I packed them for the road.
To cycle back to my car in Harrisburg without retracing I was going to have to cycle over mountains, three days with only a limited number of towns with hotels. I did see a bunch of chain hotels at the Interstate interchange just before Hazleton, only fifteen miles away but the ride would be entirely uphill, gaining about twelve hundred feet in elevation.
I cycled through downtown Berwick and over the Susquehanna River.
I cycled along the floodplain for a short time before the road turned sharply uphill.
The road became very steep, for miles at a time. I stopped and rested in the shade and sat on the guardrail.
I continued my lowest gear, chugging slowly up the mountain. I was still carrying my mini rice cooker and I had planned to cook my own dinner in a hotel room that evening. I had seen signs for fresh local corn all during this trip and halfway up the mountainI finally stopped for corn. They were shocked that I only wanted one ear of corn for fifty cents.
I stopped for lunch (my peanut butter & jelly sandwich) at a public park in West Hazleton. In Central Pennsylvania reminders of our veteran’s sacrifice are constant.
Afterward I cycled over to Walmart to get groceries + a bottle of wine.
I stayed that night in a chain hotel that overlooked the freeway.
Candlelight suites had an actual kitchen included. I made dinner there that night.
I had breakfast included with my hotel and set off the next morning. The hotel had been in suburban West Hazleton; I set off for Hazleton proper.
I have learned that anthracite is the cleanest burning and most valuable type of coal, with a value of two to three times that of regular coal. Underground anthracite was discovered in what is now Hazleton in the 1830’s. The Lattimer Massacre of 1897, when a sheriff’s posse shot and killed nineteen striking miners, helped inspire the United Mine Worker union. By 1940 the mining boomtown of Hazleton had a population of 38,000, comprised mostly of immigrants from places like Italy, Poland, and Lithuania. The town’s current population is down to about 24,000.
I cycled on this Sunday morning up and down a hill on a wide highway before turning to cycle through the street grid of Hazleton.
In a city that has had a falling population for decades one strategy might be to welcome immigrants. Or maybe not. It seems that the arrival of Hispanics freaked Hazleton out. According to Wikipedia, Hazleton PA made national news in 2006 when the city passed the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, making it illegal for landlords to rent to illegal immigrants. A law passed at the same time made English the official language of Hazleton. Many newcomers to Hazleton have come from the Dominican Republic, most first through the New York City area. In a short period of time Hispanics have come to comprise about half of the population of Hazleton. While cycling through Hazleton neighborhoods I saw multiple Hispanic looking grocery stores, seeming to be the only viable businesses in town. WEST Hazleton is now listed as having a population 97% white.
I cycled back onto the highway for the mostly downhill twenty-eight mile ride to Pottsville PA, another city built with the riches from anthracite coal. First I passed through miles of coal landscape and several smaller towns.
I was reminded how many Eastern Europeans had moved here about a hundred years ago.
Twelve miles down the road on this Sunday morning, it was a respite to sit outdoors in Tamaqua PA with an almond milk latte at a nice place called the Hope & Coffee. Hope & Coffee clearly has a mission to help the recovering.
Biking out of Tamaqua towards Pottsville I passed through miles of what I assume is strip mined land. It was not as apocalyptic looking as I had thought, maybe because trees have had time to grow.
While the wide two lane highway had little traffic there was an older road with virtually no traffic paralleling the main highway. It passed through a series of tiny older coal towns two to three miles apart.
I was startled when I read that the population of Pottsville PA was only 13,500; it feels like a more substantial city, a bigger and formerly wealthier place than the towns I had previously stayed in; Berwick PA and Hazleton PA. Pottsville was also built with mostly coal money.
Pottsville is famous for being home of the Yuengling brewery. I never actually saw it but knew I had read it was closed on Sundays. Pottsville has a local microbrewery open on Sundays, the Black Rock Brewing Company and I could sit outdoors. I stopped for a pint.
I saw only one place to stay in-town Pottsville, The Maid’s Quarters Bed Breakfast and Tearoom, owned and operated by an energetic thirty-something woman who told me she does all the cooking by herself. The front room was filled this Sunday afternoon with matronly looking women doing tea: tea and pastries.
Small privately owned museums of any topic are my sure thing. Down the street from the hotel I spend eleven dollars on visiting Jerry’s Classic Cars & Collectibles. He has a lot of stuff. I found the car collection only meh.
I walked around town
Later on downtown: small town amateur theater projected a sense of community. Outside before the show actors in makeup mingled with the audience; everyone seemed to know each other.
My hostess specifically asked if I wanted breakfast earlier than the normal 8:00 AM the next day. What could I say but yes! It was going to be a hot day I had to get an early start. I was by myself in the dining room at 7:30 AM. Fresh fruit + eggs with spinach and smoked salmon, all cooked solo by the proprietor.
I cycled off into the morning light. It was sixty miles back to my car in Harrisburg.
I had not planned what to do about lunch as I neared the military base Fort Indiantown Gap. The temperature was already climbing up to near ninety. On the highway just outside the base was inviting outdoor seating at Moose’s LZ Bar and Grill. Many of the patrons were in uniform. One should not pass up such an opportunity.
I eventually got back on the road, now in even more intense heat.
It was too hot to bicycle all the way to Harrisburg. I stayed in the very nice hotel Mainstay Suites at the freeway interchange. The one restaurant near there said they were short staffed and could only do indoor seating. My hotel had a real kitchen, I cooked myself supper that night and watched sports on TV.
I got up the next morning and cycled the seventeen miles to Harrisburg. Just before I arrived at my car in downtown Harrisburg I stumbled upon this Brutalist monolith, the Pennsylvania State Archives building.
Our car was still there. I was home in Chapel Hill NC in time for dinner.
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