Pittsburgh to West Virginia

After six productive days in Pittsburgh getting acquainted with the city’s burgeoning bike scene, it is time to move on. Restful days and newfound camaraderie make it difficult to leave Steel City, but climbing out of the Allegheny Valley is even harder.

An ambitious day is planned: Pittsburgh to Wellsburg, West Virginia is 52 miles, the most I’ve cycled in one day. Will I make it?

My host Val is heading downtown to lead a bike tour, so we ride together down the hills of Greenfield to the flat Great Allegheny Passage along the Monongahela River.

Our paths part outside Grand Concourse Restaurant, which I visited one icy weekend last November as part of my adaptive reuse article on Pittsburgh. I vowed to return someday in warmer weather, and here I am back in the burgh in the most unlikely way imaginable.

West outta Pittsburgh
Steuben Street leads me through the fallen West End neighborhood where some houses are in such bad shape that the front stairs have collapsed. Despite this, shiny late-model automobiles are parked outside.

I have plenty of time to observe the sad surroundings. Steuben Street is impossible for me to bike, so I push everything up this winding hill. It’s not even eleven o’clock and I’m sweating like it’s 3:30 PM.   

Reality bites. After a car-free ride from DC to Pittsburgh along the C&O Canal and Great Allegheny Passage, I’m back to fending for a slice of pavement outside the white line. The roadside is mined with shards of side mirrors, taillights and beer bottles.

On busy West Main Street out of Carnegie, I hit a hill I can’t climb. The shoulder narrows into nothing and my body seizes up in anxiety. I cross the median and walk up the shoulder on the opposite side while staring down sedans moving at highway speeds. A bicycle has no business being here, and I pray I can get through this rough patch unscathed.

Just before the junction overpass with I-79, the road flattens and the shoulder reappears. I cross back to the right side full of relief. I’ve made it through the worst of the day’s riding, or so I think, and am rewarded with the 29-mile Panhandle Trail from Collier Township, PA to Colliers on the panhandle of West Virginia.

Beginning of trail in Pennsylvania

End of trail in West Virginia

The Panhandle Trail
Tracks from the abandoned Panhandle Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad have been replaced by crushed limestone and hard packed sand.

In the trailhead parking lot, I pop off my helmet and apply more sunscreen. Carefree cycling on car-free trails is truly liberating. Tall grasses line the path that intersects a string of small towns. In Oakdale, PA I detour for a chocolate milkshake at The Diner. I’m not expecting much, but this turns out to be the best milkshake of my trip.

Patrons peer at my pencil frame from behind breakfast mountains of bacon, eggs, sausage and home fries. The next bit of attention is unexpected. The female cashier, handing me 55 cents in change, remarks, "It's wonderful seeing you today."

Her sentence resonates with me far after I slurp the last of my milkshake. This small yet genuine exchange makes my day and pushes the sweaty climb out of Pittsburgh to the back of my mind.

Welcome (back) to West Virginia
The sun is at full power. The sky is blue and the landscape is summer green. Grasshoppers and butterflies sunning on the path bounce away as I roll through. Although the trail at times becomes too sandy for biking, Countri Bike’s fat tires fight through the soft spots with finesse. I power through the Panhandle Trail and triumphantly cross into West Virginia for a third time this trip.

My first two incursions—to Harpers Ferry and Paw Paw—I simply crossed a short bridge over the Potomac River. Now I’m in the hilly Panhandle that wedges itself between western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio like a middle finger pointed at this New Yorker. Excitement at being back in West Virginia vanishes.

If hell had hills
Lesson learned the hard way: if a road includes the word “ridge,” avoid it. McKim Ridge Road. Definitely avoid it. A seemingly harmless side road becomes the single biggest hill I’ve faced this trip. It just won’t end. There’s no shoulder yet no traffic, but the pavement looks like it’s been cracked for decades. I’m on the verge of tears—not from fear, but from exertion. I’m sweating like a waterlogged sponge.

The end of ridge road is elusive. It keeps climbing. To unspeakable heights. I think I’m taller than the Washington Monument now. I pause to rest and let the bike handlebars roll back onto my hips so I can free my hands to crunch on the last bits of ice in my water bottle. I’m out of liquids and solids with no stores in sight.

The ridge road tops off into a roller coaster of smaller hills through farmland. For all that uphill, I am waiting for my just reward: downhill. I get just what I want, a gliding ride down towards East Steubenville, WV on the banks of the Ohio River.

A mirage
The road ends at West Virginia Route 2 paralleling the Ohio River. On the far bank is the state of Ohio where I’ve set neither foot nor wheel. This intersection is also an unexpected oasis: two cafes sit on either side of the road.

I’m dreaming of cold drinks, but something seems off. Two cafes at an industrial intersection in West Virginia? Maybe factory workers need a choice of crumb cakes. Ahead of me hisses some kind of energy or fracking plant. Flames shoot skyward and smoke puffs into clouds with dark bellies.

Northend Cafe with its inviting, bright logo draws me in. I roll into the parking lot and am trying to figure out what feels wrong. Walking up to the tinted glass door it hits me: there are no windows. A security keypad and doorbell are more cause for concern. This is weird. A high security cafe? I angle my head against the door to see inside without committing to opening it. I make out a white-haired man sitting at a counter that looks nothing like a coffee bar. He’s looking at me.

I backpedal to Make Your Day Cafe’ [sic], which promises “food, beverages & more” across the street. Again, no windows and a reflective glass door. The door is locked, but I’m buzzed in. Phew, let’s get some liquids!

I saunter in wearing my reflective vest and helmet. I’m too tired to take them off.

“Can I help you?” says a woman behind the counter. She’s probably in her 50s with wrinkly bronzed skin and dyed blond hair.

“Hi, yeah, can I get a…” I’m looking for a drinks board and not finding anything except a cooler with Coke and water. The room is empty and it doesn’t look like a cafe.

“…uh water, please!”

“Are you here to play the machines?” she asks.

"Machines? No, just a water.”

“These drinks are for our patrons playing the machines.”

I don’t see any patrons, but there is a back room with lights flashing on what could be lottery or gaming machines. Have I stumbled into a West Virginia gambling den? Then why is it called a cafe?

I walk out confused and thirsty. As I’m contemplating life and looking into the industrial inferno across the street, the woman pokes her head outside.

“Hey, where are you from?”

My souvenir New York license plate is facing away from her so I shout out what it says.

She beckons me with a bottle of water, which I gratefully accept, and tells me to be safe. My faith in West Virginians is restored.

Relief is short-lived. Route 2 has no shoulder and fast-moving vehicles make me feel like I’m riding on thin ice. I feel driver impatience radiating out of their grills, but nobody honks. Some of these pickup trucks are larger than Boeing Dreamliners.

In downtown Follensbee, drivers and passengers actively stare at me at red lights. It’s the first time that I feel totally out of place.

Skipping meals
My destination is Aspen Manor Resort, which is a bit misleading because there is nothing resort-like about a cinder block hotel with no food service. The hotel sits on land a mile uphill from Route 2. My only option is to push the bike on a crumbling road the final mile of my longest ride to date.

I’ve gone a personal best 52.2 miles, yet have nothing to eat except protein bars from Pittsburgh that Val packed. On the upside, there’s a great ice machine and my room comes with a massage chair. Ice water and a calf massage are all I need to plan tomorrow’s route into Ohio.