Archive for the ‘Pennsylvania trips’ Category

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.

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.

I got back on the bicycle and heading down the road on highways through the mountains.

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.

Geography students: there is a reason the Battle of Gettysburg happened where it did; if you were a Southerner and wanted to invade the North, Gettysburg would your go-to place, the soft underbelly of Yankeeland, only about ten miles north of the Pennsylvania border which is also called the Mason-Dixon Line.    And only thirty-five miles north of Gettysburg is Harrisburg, the capital of the state of Pennsylvania.   Bottom line: Harrisburg is not that far from Chapel Hill;  if you drive (as I did in reverse on the way home) I-85 to Richmond / I-95 to DC Beltline West / I-270 to Frederick, then US 15; you can get to Harrisburg in less than seven hours.    I also knew that Amtrak has about seven trains a day from Philadelphia to Harrisburg.    The weather was a conundrum; predicted to be beautiful except for a very hard wind blowing west to east.  I could bicycle with a tailwind the 125 miles from Harrisburg to Philadelphia in two or three days.  I could then take Amtrak back to the car.

I had not fully made these plans when I left home with the folding bicycle in the trunk of the car at six o’clock on a Sunday morning.   I was going somewhere, but I needed to adapt to the strong west-east wind.  I came up with the idea of Harrisburg / Philadelphia while driving up I-81 in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia.   At about two in the afternoon I parked our white Honda just west of downtown Harrisburg in this parking lot, where I trusted it would be OK for three days.

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I had bicycled several pieces of this Harrisburg / Philadelphia route before but not all at once.  I now realize that this 125 mile ride is one of the better urban rides on the East Coast.     Leaving Walmart,  I arrived at this art deco bridge to cross the Susquehanna River into downtown Harrisburg.

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There are quite a few bridges running parallel across the river.

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The area with government offices around the state capital building seems vibrant.  Otherwise, Harrisburg is worn and depressed.    There used to be heavy industry here, like steel making.  On the train ride three days later I saw the huge Steelton mill, just outside of Harrisburg, essentially abandoned since about 1980.   It looked to be more than a mile long.

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Riding east from downtown Harrisburg I did not enter farmland.  Rather, I passed through a series of older towns that ran one into another.    Even in the year 1895 it must have been one continuous city.   I find it interesting and somehow beautiful; North Carolina looks nothing like this.

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I did not ride far the first day.    I could have gone further, but Hershey (Chocolate City!) seemed to be a more pleasant place to overnight than towns further on.  In Hershey I found a low cost chain motel on an in-town tree lined residential street.  (Imagine a motel next to our old house on Poplar Avenue in Carrboro.)   You could hear the roller coaster from the amusement park several blocks away.

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It was a Sunday night and a lot of the restaurants were closed.  I ate at Fenicci’s (since 1935!) old school Italian-American right on Chocolate Avenue in Hershey.   There are no restaurants like this in Chapel Hill and I find the whole Italian-American food thing interesting.    I like to cook Italian style and read cookbooks about it.  When southern Italians arrived in America a hundred years ago, they were accustomed to putting tomato sauce on their spaghetti because tomatoes were pretty much all most people had.   Suddenly in America they had access to meat.  Diets got richer.  It became spaghetti and meatballs.   Have lasagna at Fenicci’s and you get an award for just eating the whole thing.   From their menu:

Homemade Lasagna

– Our House Special. Layers and layers of
Mozzarella, Ricotta, Provolone, Sausage and Meatballs. Finish it and
get a special certificate
..

And you wonder why the average American is fatter than the average Italian.

The bartender steered me instead to pasta with calamari, shrimp, and mussels.   I would not have picked that, but it was a good choice.  Eating at the bar the scene was genial.

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The next day I bicycled town to town on US 422, a two lane highway generally wide enough for bicycling.  When the highway bypassed a town I took the old road down main street.

 

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I will try to keep out of politics but this is Trump country.    For the first eighty miles of this trip, until you got to the Philadelphia suburbs, Trump signs were everywhere; Hillary Clinton signs almost nonexistent.

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At a different house earlier in the day, maybe these are genuine “Deplorables.”

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Cycling from town to town, Lebanon was the second largest town of the day.   It had the look of somewhere that was rich and important eighty years ago.

 

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What made this day special was that the towns were so close together; there was always something interesting to look at.

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The only real city I passed through between Harrisburg and Philadelphia was Reading.   I have been here once before.   I know that it ranks among the poorest cities in America.   I had never been through the leafy suburbs on its west side; there still was some money in this town.   In these wealthier suburbs at a fairly nice restaurant half filled with mostly older people, I sat at the bar and ordered a Reuben sandwich.   ESPN Sports was on the center TV but they had dueling Fox News going on both sides.

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Demographically I had not hardly seen any non-white faces the whole day.    When you enter Reading it suddenly changes;  pretty much everybody looks Hispanic or African-American.

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Beyond Reading the bike ride became more rural.    I wanted to get as far as Pottstown, twenty miles past Reading.    One special aspect of the entire 125 mile Harrisburg / Philadelphia ride is that much of the second half is covered by a bike trail along the Schuylkill River.    There was a paved trail part of the way to Pottstown.

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In other places it was easier to ride on Route 724 on the south bank of the river.

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The day brightened as I rode through cornfields.

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Downtown Pottstown seems like it has seen better days.  Even so, one block off the main drag there are lots of pretty buildings.

 

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I stayed at a perfectly acceptable low cost Quality Inn on the fringes of downtown.   Dinner was more difficult, there were just no choices.   In downtown Pottstown more than half of the thin selection of restaurants were closed on Mondays.    I really tried, but “dinner” ended up being a steak and cheese sandwich, eaten at the counter of Ice House Steak and Pizza, next to two old guys in cammo.

 

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Pottstown is not a happening place.    For the sake of comparison, fast forward to lunch the next day in the Manayunk neighborhood on the western outskirts of the Philadelphia city limits.     It felt like another planet.  Delicious acorn squash, cheese, and arugula on flatbread, served by an African American bartender with effeminate mannerisms.  But then, the arugula pizza was almost twice the price of the sandwich in Pottsville.

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Getting up on a cold morning in Pottstown, it was forty-five miles to Center City Philadelphia.    As the ride began I thought of The Simpsons with the Limerick nuclear power plant in the distance.

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The final thirty-eight miles of the Schuylkill River Trail are a truly delightlful bike ride that takes the bicyclist all the way to Center City Philadelphia.

Along much of the way it seems like you are in the wilderness, just the woods on the left and the river on the right.   The trail is either paved or covered with very fine gravel.

 

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In the early part of the ride on the bike path I ran into these people on horses just as I heard loud barking of beagles as I have never heard before.  Yes, they were on a fox hunt.

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As the path got closer to Center City one could finally sense the growing urbanism.

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The path continues until right in front of Amtrak 30th Street Station.  I looked back.

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I had checked the day before about Philadephia hotel rooms.  They seemed either not available or insanely expensive.   I then looked at Airbnb.    A room in a woman’s townhouse in south Philadelphia was only seventy-two dollars including tax and the booking fee.

Philadelphia is a vast sea of row houses, stretching on for miles. From 30th Street Station pictured above, I bicycled through over three miles of continuous row houses until I got to this block in South Philadelphia.  From a distance it looked vaguely Dickensian.

 

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Up close it was quite nice, even friendly.    My hostess’ house seemed new both inside and outside.

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She showed me inside and I put my bicycle in her back yard.   I was fascinated that the “alley” behind the houses is only a few feet wide, way too narrow for any vehicle.

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This neighborhood was once apparently almost completely Italian,  even though it is over a mile of dense city from the touristy area called Little Italy.

Dinner that night was amazing; very different from Fenicci’s back in Harrisburg.    I found this restaurant at random:  L’Angolo Ristorante was exactly one block from the Airbnb.   Tiny sign, no parking, no liquor license, bring your own wine.

On this Tuesday night the place was full; I was lucky to get in without a reservation.   It was the kind of higher end Italian food that I almost never get in a restaurant.  I had eggplant parmesan as first course, then seared tuna second course.    Plus decaf.   All accompanied by an eight dollar bottle of wine that I brought myself.

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I had booked Amtrak the next day leaving at 9:00 AM.     I bicycled through the city in the gathering light of morning.

 

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There was an Italian bakery;  I stopped to get something to eat on the train.

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30th Street Station is a beautiful art deco building that opened in 1930.

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I folded the bicycle and got on the train;  departing Philadelphia on time and arriving Harrisburg station less than two hours later.  (Note: Amtrak rules about bicycles are complicated and vary from train to train.   The Harrisburg / Philadelphia trains do not have a baggage car and you cannot take any kind of bicycle on this train except folding.)

I biked to the Walmart parking lot; our Honda was still there.   I got home in Chapel Hill in time for dinner.

I really wanted to cycle again in Pittsburgh, and taking the airplane was too complicated.   On a Wednesday, I drove the Honda 400 miles up to Morgantown, West Virginia.  At just before four in the afternoon, I parked next to the Caperton Trail along the Monongahela River, pulled the Surley Long Haul Trucker out of the trunk, put the wheels on, and rode off north.

I have had a book staring at me for ten years called “Three Rivers on Two Wheels”.   I had gotten it on a previous two day bike trip in Pittsburgh with Tom Constantine.  I have always wanted to go back and do more of the book’s guided tours; several twenty plus mile bike rides mapped completely in the city of Pittsburgh.

Morgantown, about ten miles from the Pennsylvania border, is the home of West Virginia University.  It is eighty or ninety miles south of Pittsburgh.   This trip was to be two days in each direction bicycling from Morgantown to Pittsburgh, plus one day in the middle to bicycle around Pittsburgh.

The Caperton Trail follows the Monongahela River north from Morgantown as it cuts an almost gorge between steep mountains on both sides.  For at least the fifteen mile length of the trail, a bicyclist can avoid going up any hills.

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On the way north the river and the bike path go right by a nuclear power plant!

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Morgantown appears prosperous, but once you get outside of town and into southwestern Pennsylvania, the towns and landscape fade into a scene out of the movie The Deer Hunter; depressed former factory towns.    A the small town of Point Marion, PA,  I left the bike trail and turned uphill.

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A town park had a well preserved modernist picnic shelter.

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About twenty miles further down the road,  I stayed the night in Uniontown PA, a small city that has seen better days.  Wikipedia shows its population has fallen from about twenty-one thousand in 1940 to ten thousand today.   I got a room at a little motel very close to downtown, where I could walk to a restaurant.

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Breakfast the next morning was at Sam’s.   Sam has run this place for about forty years.    A Lebanese immigrant, he was justly proud of the five sons he has raised in Uniontown, all now college graduates.   He said he continues to run the place because his expenses are low;  he owns the building, which he says is almost impossible to sell.  His wife does the cooking.  I was the only customer, although some guys did come in as I was leaving.

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After my fill of sausage and eggs, I rode off into the morning.   About fifteen miles down the highway, just before I got on a bike trail for the remaining forty something miles to Pittsburgh, I passed through the town of Perryopolis.  While this sign spoke of Italian heritage, many people from this town and region are also Croatian.

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The trail is part of the Great Allegheny Passage, a recently completed bike trail that goes all the way from Washington DC to Pittsburgh.   I met this guy on the trail who he said he was ninety years old.  He was riding his bicycle to the driving range to hit some balls.

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Closer to Pittsburgh, the bike path passed by miles of industrial debris, then crossed the river on a former railroad bridge.

 

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In Homestead PA, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, I stopped for lunch at a TGI Fridays that sat right next to the bike trail.

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This restaurant and the surrounding Costco, Target, and other chain stores were uneventful except for what previously stood on this site.  Homestead Steel Works had employed up to fifteen thousand people before it closed in 1986.  It was the site of a famous 1892 strike that left twelve people dead, a pitched battle between strikers and hired security thugs that broke the union.

Arriving in Pittsburgh, I had booked an Airbnb for two nights in a pretty much gentrified neighborhood called Mexican War Streets; street names like Buena Vista, Monterey, and Palo Alto.   It is mostly nineteenth century row houses, across the river from downtown.

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I had an informal dinner sitting at the bar of Monterey Pub, a friendly and lively Irish pub that had been transformed from one of the houses in the neighborhood.

 

After coffee the next morning, I took a long bicycling loop through much of the east side of Pittsburgh, with directions from my guidebook.     I first crossed one river into downtown, and then across the other river to the Strip District.   Downtown looked impressive from the distance.

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The author was merciless in directing the rider up insanely steep hills.  He also had something of a social conscience, and wanted the bicycle rider to tour black neighborhoods as well as wealthier white ones.    A couple stretches looked practically abandoned.

 

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However, in most of the city Pittsburgh seems to have done a pretty good job in coping with its population loss and plant closings.   There are miles of pleasant and inviting older neighborhoods.

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I was reminded of what city parks are supposed to entail.   Once they were thought of as grand spaces, with a grand entrance.  Somehow I cannot envision Chapel Hill thinking large, and having a park with this type of entrance.

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That evening at the suggestion of my friend Whit, I visited an expansive modern art museum called The Mattress Factory.  It was in the same neighborhood as my Airbnb,  just a couple blocks away.  It was having a Friday night opening.   Back in the early seventies, Whit had helped with the start of the museum, and knew the famous founder Barbara Luderowski.   She was happy to greet me and remember Whit, although she had not seen him since 1974!   I took a selfie with her.

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Afterwards, I drifted over to the small restaurant Lola Bistro in a barren industrial area, still within walking distance.   It was peculiarly Pennsylvanian in that it was a relatively expensive restaurant that did not have a liquor license.   You brought your own wine.   It was run by a married couple who were its only employees that night, the Russian born wife who ran the front and the Ohio born husband who did the cooking.  There was a memorable Caesar salad.

 

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Saturday morning I started my two day journey back to Morgantown.   The first section would be a route taken from the Pittsburgh bicycle guide.  Predictably, after crossing two rivers and riding through the flat gentrifying warehouse area the Strip District, the road headed pretty much straight uphill.    The city had many years ago built ways of getting up these hills, including sidewalks that turned into stairs and an 1876 incline railway, the Duquesne Incline.

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The bike ride up this hill was challenging.   After about a mile, at what looked like the top, the terrain seemed to flatten out a little, but then continued more gradually going up, continuing up almost all the way to the suburb of Bethel Park, ten miles from downtown.

As you traveled further from downtown, houses started to be slightly farther apart.

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Over twenty miles from downtown, despite of, or perhaps because of Pittsburgh’s population loss, suburbs were still expanding.

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Still further out, finally in countryside and no longer in a suburb,  I stopped for lunch at Danny Jr’s Pizza & Hoagies, on a strip of road called Eighty-Four, Pennsylvania.     The sandwich was delicious.   The other customer was very friendly, a guy with a Santa Claus beard dressed in Harley-Davidson colors.   Scattered about were magazines and newspapers about guns.

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While I have seen none at any houses while bicycling recently in North Carolina, this was the first of two Confederate flags I saw on houses in southwestern Pennsylvania.

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I was a tiring and exhilarating day.    Google Maps For Bicycle routed me on long stretches of quiet country roads, roads that lurched brutally up and down steep grades.

 

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I limped into Waynesburg PA at about four in the afternoon.   This town looked depressed, even by the standards of other towns and cities that I had seen.    It apparently is the center of both the coal mining and oil drilling industries.    Pickup trucks are popular here.  Count the number in this random photo, taken in front of a dead Walgreen’s in Waynesburg.

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Much of the older part of town looked kind of worn.

 

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There were no hotels downtown.  The chain motel out by the freeway was quite nice, but I had to bicycle a couple miles in to the one decent looking restaurant downtown, unless I wanted to eat at the Bob Evans near the motel.

Reviewers on Yelp spoke highly of Hot Rod’s, and I really enjoyed eating there.   They had several kinds of barbecue; I got the beef brisket.  It was fun to watch the bartender work.  There were rough looking guys in there trying to kid her around, and she seemed to handle them with an easy professionalism.

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The next morning, a Sunday, the ride along the U.S. Highway 19 had little traffic, and passed through pleasant countryside.  I was a a little less than thirty miles to my car in Morgantown.   In the tiny town of Mt. Morris, PA, just a couple miles from the West Virginia line, there was a Sunday morning car show going on.

 

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Morgantown looked surprisingly shiny, and more like Chapel Hill than places I had been.   As soon as I crossed the West Virginia line, I saw several groups of cyclists riding fancy road bikes with stretchy outfits.    I was mildly worried that my car might not still be there at this trail parking lot, but there it was.

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This trip was a one nighter.    I had repeatedly seen the Northern Central Railroad bike path on the map when I was looking for interesting places to bike ride.    I had avoided it because I had found rail trails to be sometimes boring,  less interesting than riding on a conventional road.  This particular trail extends just over forty miles, starting in the northern Baltimore suburbs heading straight north, landing right in downtown York, Pennsylvania.   On a September Sunday morning, I drove to Maryland from Chapel Hill and parked the car about two in the afternoon in a vast parking lot of an office complex in Hunt Valley, Maryland.    I pedaled off towards the trail, a mile or two away.   The landscape here is quite hilly, but the perfectly graded railroad bed, following a stream, cuts through the landscape like a knife.

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Despite my preconceptions, there was almost always something to gaze at.

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Suburban sprawl is the American way.    Even though huge parts of Baltimore are depopulated, if you move far enough “out”, housing will be cheap enough, I guess.   You can have it all here, just over the Pennsylvania line, about thirty eight miles from downtown Baltimore.

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I have said before that York, Pennsylvania is the closest  place to Chapel Hill where culturally it really feels like you have left home; you are no longer in The South.   Actually, I learned on this trip that York was the largest Yankee city captured by the Confederacy, just before the Battle of Gettysburg.   York is a working class town, which befits a place that has one of only two Harley Davidson factories.    My downtown hotel room on the eighth floor had windows that you could actually open and lean out of.

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York PA from my hotel window

 

 

Monday morning I rode around town and took pictures of buildings.

 

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Riding back the way I came, I had a pleasant four hours in the saddle, before getting back in the car for the drive home.  I even stopped off in the neighborhood of Hampden in Baltimore for a pleasant lunch.    I had to get out of there by  two thirty, however, as to beat the traffic leaving D.C.   I was home by eight p.m.

There is a Sopranos episode where the city boys coming to the Jersey Pine Barrens find out that doing a mob hit  in the wilderness can get much more complicated than expected.

This area of south central New Jersey really does sometimes feel like a wilderness, although in places it is as close as thirty miles to downtown Philadelphia.  While bicycling inland from Atlantic City and passing the airport, the topography starts to look similar to rural areas of coastal South Carolina that I had recently visited, even down to the high percentage of pickup trucks.    Betsy says that because New Jersey has such limited wilderness areas, they pass laws that restrict development and keep the area wild.       On this lonely stretch of highway, I saw a dog standing in the road, not within sight of a house in either direction.   From the bicycle, I also saw a snake slither off the road.

 

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The places people live out here also looks a lot like South Carolina.

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I will confess that I cheated a little on this ride, and about twenty miles from Central City Philadelphia, I caught the commuter train, so that I could stay in the big city that night, and also avoid bicycling through Camden NJ, described by some as The Most Dangerous City in America.   On my cellphone, I bid  low on Priceline dot com for an anonymous hotel, and got this art deco gem.    It tries hard to seem hip; bicycles in the lobby windows, yoga mats in the rooms.

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I had dinner that night at the Dandelion, a gastropub around the corner from my hotel.   The British,  if they actually invented the gastropub, should be proud of themselves.   A pub has always been a warm inviting space, but traditionally the delicious beer was offset by terrible food.  

British dishes like bangers and mash, or shepherd’s pie,  need not be that different in quality from French dishes like steak frites,  if the cooking is done with quality ingredients and careful (French) technique.    At the Dandelion,  I had welsh rarebit followed by salmon, and it was all delicious; washed down by British import IPA, manually pumped.

I had been really worried the days leading up to this ride.   Philadelphia has forty thousand abandoned buildings.    I had thought the first fifteen miles of this trip through North Philadelphia would be through dangerous slums; boarded up houses with white tee shirted young men lingering on the corners.  The Wire.  I did get some excellent routing advise from the staff of a Central City Philadelphia bike shop the evening before, and it turned out all my fears were for naught.

The trip out Aramingo and Torresdale Avenues was really quite pleasant.   And it was a reminder that Philadelphia is huge.    Twelve miles of continuous row houses, with a couple of breaks for commercial development.   There was a nice bike lane most of the way.

 

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Destination that evening was my sister Betsy’s house in Princeton NJ.    The second half of the trip was largely on bike paths paralleling the extensive canal system along the Delaware River.    The paths themselves were great.   Unfortunately, they are not well labelled, and tend to stop and start abruptly.

 

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I got to Princeton in the late afternoon.  George cooked us a delicious dinner.    We went out for ice cream afterwards.    Princeton can boast that it has serious gourmet ice cream shops.    The best ones were closed on Mondays, but the one that was open still had amazing homemade rum raisin.

Here is Betsy and daughter Lynn.

 

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