Driving to Pennsylvania, then biking to Altoona; May 23 – 26, 2022

I made plans to bicycle through an area of mountainous central Pennsylvania I knew nothing about, an area that seemed remote. Say what you will, but Pennsylvania looks exotic for a guy from the South. The bizarre name Altoona beckoned me. It was only about a seven hour car ride from my home in Chapel Hill NC to a place called Bedford PA. I started packing my stuff.

I have realized on recent trips that making my own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches is a healthier lunch than what I could buy on the road. My friend David taught me way back in high school that the only peanut butter worth eating is the kind that separates. I packed peanut butter into a Tupperware-like container to carry with me on the bicycle. May is strawberry season. I thought it ridiculous to bring canned strawberry jam when we had delicious local strawberries lying around our kitchen in Chapel Hill. I sliced up strawberries into a Tupperware box, sprinkled them with sugar, and mixed it around. I would carry this concoction with me the entire trip, to spread with peanut butter between two slices of bread each day.

Here is a map of my cycling trip. I cycled one day from Bedford PA up to Altoona PA. I took one day to cycle around Altoona and cycle up to the Horseshoe Curve, then one day back to Bedford PA. Note how the mountains from northern Virginia up into Pennsylvania are a series of parallel ridges. If you stay between the ridges you can minimize cycling up mountains.

I drove our Ford Escape up to Bedford PA but left late, and did not arrive until five or six in the evening. It was raining. I decided to skip cycling that day and instead looked for a place to stay.

1950’s motels can be nice if they are lovingly maintained, but they usually are not. Judy’s Motel on the outskirts of Bedford PA looked to be one of the good ones. Its online reviews were excellent. The edges of the parking lot were neatly lined with colorful flower beds. Someone cared about details. There were no unsavory characters hanging about.

The genial owner even dressed the part with a Judy’s logo shirt.

In our inflationary environment hotel prices are skyrocketing. In remote Bedford PA sixty dollars plus tax for a clean, quiet, and comfortable room with a TV that works was a very good deal.

It was a Monday night and dining options in Bedford were limited, especially downtown. I found The Bedford Tavern. The front entrance was locked. No one seemed to be around but signs directed me down some stairs on the side of the building.

It felt creepy to open the door down there. I discovered a few people inside. Some of them were actually eating and I was greeted with smiles. I ordered a beer and eventually dinner: barbecue salmon with choice of two sides (I chose fries and broccoli.) This low ceilinged basement had a pleasant vibe.

I woke up the next morning excited to start biking north towards Altoona PA. The motel graciously allowed me to park my Ford Escape there for three days.

My destination of Altoona PA is about forty miles north of Bedford. I first had to cycle one mile back to downtown Bedford so I could get some breakfast. The town (population 2,800) looks exquisite, the buildings of its nineteenth century downtown so much more elaborate than a similar sized town in North Carolina. There clearly was money here, back in the day.

HeBrews is a friendly local spot. I got an oat milk latte with one pack sugar, plus some kind of pastry or bagel.

my bicycle in front of HeBrews

After breakfast I headed north by bicycle. I rode much of the way on the two-lane-with-a-shoulder-and-not-much-traffic US220.

Where possible I deviated off onto smaller parallel roads, which frequently ran through various settlements. In Pennsylvania they built their houses close to the road.

I like looking at small commercial mid-century modern buildings but they are slowly all being torn down; wonderful bank branches, dry cleaners, and car dealers are one by one biting the dust. Buildings that house non-profits are more likely to still hang around, especially Elks Clubs and VFW halls. I passed one of these north of Bedford PA.

I suppose A-frames seemed like a good idea at the time.

Guns must sell well around here, I guess it takes a rifle to sell real estate.

Two thirds of the way to Altoona I stopped for my peanut butter and strawberry sandwich. I couldn’t find a picnic table so I just sat on a guardrail and did a little reading.

Further on and just south of Altoona is the town of Duncansville PA. I had just eaten but I could not resist Inlow’s Drive-In, specialists in foot long hot dogs. They had inviting outdoor tables. I realize COVID is now less of a risk but I am much more comfortable sitting outside.

foot long with ketchup and sauerkraut

Altoona PA, population 44,000, is a railroad town. Its population has been declining for years, there were 82,000 here in the year 1930. Like Roanoke VA, Altoona was founded in the nineteenth century by a railroad. Roanoke was founded by the Norfolk & Western, Altoona was founded in 1849 by the Pennsylvania Railroad. By the turn of the twentieth century tens of thousands worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad in Altoona. Altoona sits at the base of the hundred mile or more long north/south Allegheny Ridge. Trains from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh must get over this ridge. In 1854 the Pennsylvania Railroad built the famous Horseshoe Curve as a way for trains to climb this mountain, and Altoona served as the perfect location for steam engine switching and maintenance before the steep grade. I would bicycle out to the Curve the next day.

This day I cycled through the streets of Altoona. In some places the city is quite hilly.

There is one chain hotel in downtown Altoona, a Wyndham. I booked a room. It was great other than the windows do not open. I could still see and hear the main line of the railroad out my window, trains passing by almost constantly. That evening I bicycled over a hill about a mile away to a neighborhood for what TripAdvisor deemed the best restaurant in Altoona. There was no outdoor seating so I took my COVID chances and ate inside. There were white tablecloths.

Salad first course, house dressing. Out here in real America salads are usually included with the entree.

my entree; eggplant parmesan. Delicious. Even though it was enough for three I ate almost all of it!

Cycling back to the hotel in the twilight I passed by Altoona’s Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, built in 1923. I do not know what that parking garage looking thing is next door.

The next morning I noodled around the town of Altoona by bicycle. For a such a small city it looked quite urban.

Mid morning I cycled to the Horseshoe Curve, about five miles uphill from town. The road ran along some lovely reservoirs, with almost no traffic.

I like trains but I am NOT a true train fanatic. Actual train enthusiasts take vacations just to come to places like Horseshoe Curve. The couple of guys seen on this video sat at a picnic table here at the center of the curve, going over handwritten notes of what I assumed to be railroad minutia. It was a lovely day in a mountain setting. I did not know if a train would come by during my visit or not. After standing around for about half an hour I got ready to leave, and just then a huge long train came up the horseshoe curve. The Pennsylvania Railroad that built these tracks in the 1850’s has gone through a series of mergers and reorganizations over the past sixty years. Most of it is now part of the Norfolk Southern conglomerate. The long train had what seemed like hundreds of double stacked containers and took about half an hour to pass. On this steep grade there were three locomotives pulling and two pushing. This video is only seven seconds long.

I waited until the train circled around the horseshoe.

end of the train

I got back on the bicycle and headed back downhill towards the southern Altoona suburbs and looked for somewhere to do a late lunch on a Wednesday. In the town of Hollidaysburg, eight miles south of Altoona, I found the Allegheny Creamery & Crepes. Not only was the vegetarian hamburger and a lemonade delicious, but the shaded outdoor seating was relaxing. Everyone in town seemed to be eating there. I read The New Yorker on my Kindle.

The courthouse was across the street. About a hundred miles north of the Mason/Dixon Line I guess monuments like this one are NOT coming down. It looks so much like the Confederate monument that was recently taken down in Chapel Hill, except these are Yankees!

That night I stayed in another cheap motel, the Wye Motor Lodge a few miles from Hollidaysburg depressingly out on a highway. I could find no other place to stay. At least the windows opened and one could get fresh air. Nights in late May are still refreshingly cool up here. Like Judy’s Motel back in Bedford, I took it as a good sign that they carefully maintained their shrubs.

The only place to eat dinner out here on the highway was a chain Italian place called Marzoni’s. I had low expectations but they cheerfully served me outdoors, even though no one else was doing that. Wine by the glass was something like four or five dollars. Pizza on the patio was all quite pleasant and the waitress conversational. I left her a big tip.

The next day was Thursday. I have a group of friends that meet each week near my Chapel Hill home at the outdoor patio of Weaver Street Market at 5:15 PM on Thursdays for social interaction. I really wanted to make that meeting. I would have to cycle thirty something miles back to my car in Bedford PA and then drive at about seven hours. To arrive at my meeting on time I started cycling very early the next day, peanut butter and strawberry sandwich in hand. It was light outside a few minutes before actual sunrise at 5:50 AM.

Gun store, 6:00 AM

A few miles down the highway, not really in any town, I was surprised to pass a bakery that opens at 6:00 AM. I stopped and bought a cherry danish.

It was a lovely day to be bicycling.

A couple of hours later I sat on a guardrail and ate my peanut butter and strawberry sandwich.

Late morning I arrived back at my car at Judy’s Motel in Bedford PA, and drove home to Chapel Hill NC. I arrived in time for my 5:15 appointment with twenty minutes to spare.

7 responses to “Driving to Pennsylvania, then biking to Altoona; May 23 – 26, 2022”

  1. Paco – as always, thanks for the inspiration, but you left me hanging on the HeBrew coffee shop. I know you did your research, was it owned by a Jewish guy or not? 🤓

    I had always assumed the Pirates AAA affiliate in Altoona were named the ‘Curve’ after the curve ball. I like trains, but I hadn’t ever heard of the Altoona Horseshoe Curve until today. Thanks

    1. HeBrews in Bedford PA was a friendly coffee place but I did not converse with anyone. I would not say I am antisocial but I just did not want to start a conversation. The whole rest of the trip I regretted that and wished I had asked if they or someone was Jewish.

  2. Paco, Really enjoyed commentary and photography of signage. Good eye. Randy, I was fantasizing that the coffee shop had to be owned by Alfie Solomon, the amazing gregarious Jewish gangster from the Peaky Blinders Netflix series. Not familiar with the series, check it out. Chow!

    1. HeBrews in Bedford PA was a friendly coffee place but I did not converse with anyone. I would not say I am antisocial but I just did not want to start a conversation. The whole rest of the trip I regretted that and wished I had asked if they or someone was Jewish.

  3. Looks as if you had a good time. I have one question or comment. Do you think that those houses close to the road were built when the road was much more narrow? I suspect this might be the case.

  4. A wonderful short tour. You always seem to find wonderful “inexpensive” motels. Yes, inexpensive is now more expensive than 2 years ago.

    HeBrews is a coffee [roaster?] company in San Antonio Texas. I’m not certain if the shop in Bedford PA is a franchise; company owned; or only serves HeBrews coffee. The HeBrews website doesn’t give details of stores selling their products.

    The name of the coffee company might be an internal ethnic joke by Jews after being referred many times as the “Hebrew people” or “Hebrews” by Christians. This terminology is usually a reference to a visualization of Jews in the Old Testament of the Protestant Christian Bible by non-Jews. It is not a slur other than making a point that “they (Hebrews)” are not “one of us.” Thus the irony of a busy coffee shop in a village which might not have any non-Christian residents. There are several synagogues in Altoona. As is/was true in most major cities along railroad routes

  5. I love everything about your trips. You are writing about a landscape and way of life which is on the wane. You are an historian and an artist with your lovely descriptions of small town America. cindy

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