Archive for the ‘Pennsylvania trips’ Category

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.


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.


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


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.




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.


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.


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.



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.


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


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.






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






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.


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.


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.


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


The day brightened as I rode through cornfields.


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



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.



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.


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.


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.



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.


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




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


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.



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


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.


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.


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



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


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


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.


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



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.







A town park had a well preserved modernist picnic shelter.



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.


downtown Uniontown PA


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.




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.


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.


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



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



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.


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.



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.



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.


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.


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.


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.




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.


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



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.


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.



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.



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.


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


Waynesburg PA

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.




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.



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.




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.

York PA from my hotel window

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.



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


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.

2014-05-12 16.52.02

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.




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.



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.



This was another ride like General Lee;  I wanted to invade the North.     Even though I love The South, it is interesting to escape it into something approaching Yankee urbanism.   I parked the car about noon on a Saturday morning in a Walmart parking lot just off I-83 in Shrewsbury PA, five miles north of the Maryland line and thirty-eight miles north of Baltimore.   The bicycle ride was tough:   I should learn how to read  topographical maps on the internet.   The fifty mile ride Saturday afternoon from Shrewsbury to Lancaster by way of the Norman Wood bridge over the Susquehanna River was beyond hilly; it was mountainous.   I now see why cities such as York, Harrisburg, and Lancaster all in river valleys and not plastered on these steep ridges.

Even though I was ten miles north of the Mason-Dixon line, this remote part of Pennsylvania is certainly part of Red America.    I also saw several Amish families.   I started to take pictures of the Amish, but I realized that would have been rude.   I did take pictures of a tractor pull twenty miles south of Lancaster.

Tractor pull, south of Lancaster PA

Harley-Davidson has a factory in nearby York, and Pennsylvania does not have a helmet law.    The same country roads that are good for bicycling are full of motorcycles.   Badass dudes like this guy.


Once in Lancaster, things start to look urban very quickly; there were blocks and blocks of row houses.   The Lancaster area is John Dunkle’s hometown; he grew up a few miles north.



The next day, on Sunday, looping back another way, I passed through the town of Columbia PA.   While it is a very picturesque town, the person making rules for their town square clearly has issues.


Columbia PA


Columbia PA