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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

Appalachia Again

I spent a couple days in Franklin TN (just outside of Nashville) with some good friends doing the 1,000 things that I hadn’t had time to do while on the road during the past couple weeks. It was great to see them again and great to have some peace and quiet for at least a short while.

I hit the road again on the next major leg of my trip beneath a beautiful blue sky and feeling pretty good about the road ahead. I was particularly excited to get another crack at Eastern Kentucky, a part of the country that left me wanting more after my first time through. After such a long time without seeing much besides flat horizons and forests, I couldn’t wait to get into some real hills.

The highway driving was better than it had been in the midwest since the road actually curved and climbed and the weekend truck traffic was light. Even the trees to either side, which spread thick gnarled boughs wide across the way, were an improvement over the monotonous forests of before.

I rode north past Glasgow, KY and hooked a right onto 62 towards Lexington. The air was mild and carried a faint odor of dead leaves and overripe apples as I began to venture deeper into hill and farm country. The turns got tighter and the hills got steeper and the ride just kept getting better.

As I got closer to Lexington, KY, I again passed through the pristine horse farms, with their black fences and perfectly manicured landscaping. This time I actually got some pictures.

I regretfully left Lexington and rode north to Cincinnati, OH on a highway that slowly but surely lost its magic the closer I got to Ohio. Cincinnati felt bigger than the other midwestern towns I’d been to except maybe Kansas City. It had a lot of that old style Detroit brick but was interspersed with glass-walled modern towers as well. I rode past a hospital and through a nice little area to Skyline Chili where I shortened my life with several of their piled-high gut-bomb chili cheese dogs.

Thoroughly stuffed, I took a detour through downtown on my way towards Dayton, OH. I was surprised when my route took me past whole blocks of boarded up houses and lifeless neighborhoods. These continued almost to within a stone’s throw of downtown, when life seemed to begin again. The city was like a freezing victim, pulling vital resources from the extremities to concentrate them in the core for survival. There was even a street fair going on when I rolled through the center of the city.

I spent that night camped out near a river and awoke, shivering, amidst a freezing mist that damped down even the shrill pitch of the morning’s birdcalls. I wouldn’t have noticed the deer had I not heard a few of them the night before and figured out the sound of their abbreviated hopping strides. He stared at me and I stared at him for a full minute before I gave in to temptation and reached for my camera and he figured out that the gig was up and high tailed it back along the river.

I did my own version of that flight as the dirt parking lot I’d stashed the bike in quickly became occupied with curious employees of the nearby rafting outfitter. It was the coldest ride I’ve ever had in my life. On the bike, 80 degrees and sunny is ideal weather. The 70’s get chilly fast and 65 is cool enough to require winter gear. Mid 30’s and damp is torture. I limped to the nearest gas station and stood under the hand dryer for a good ten minutes to thaw out, wincing at the pins and needles of returning sensation. I grabbed some cardboard boxes and gorilla tape to improvise some additional wind protection.

The modifications helped but the ride was still terrible until the sun warmed up the air a bit towards midday. I passed another rust belt town, Columbus, OH, on my way to Cleveland, OH. The closer I got to Cleveland, the more cohesive the clouds got until finally it became clear that I wasn’t going to escape the rain. I was within sight of the city when the drizzle began and I quickly turned around. Being cold is one thing, being cold and wet is a much much worse thing. Cleveland was the only city on my list that I had to skip entirely due to weather concerns.

I stayed south in order to skirt the edge of the weather front and went instead straight to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a gem of natural beauty tucked right in the middle of the urban sprawl of northern Ohio. The leaves there were just getting a dusting of color and the cool air had that familiar fall bite to it. The park contains 20,000 acres of land along the Cuyahoga River and is host to all kinds of walking and biking trails along the canals. There is even a scenic railroad.

I stopped off to learn a bit about the history of the region before moving on. The park wasn’t particularly epic on its own but the contrast with its heavily developed surroundings made for a very pleasant transition.

I hate the toll roads of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. They are straight and boring and the only practical way to travel east/west so they can charge whatever they want. The tolls cost more than the gas but I was stuck with them as I rode east towards Pittsburgh, PA. At least the forested hills eventually came back so the ride quality improved somewhat as I neared the Steel City.

I am contractually obliged to hate Pittsburgh. Call it the residual effect of growing up in New England and going to school in Philadelphia, neither of which are areas that tend to hold that particular city in much regard. So I rode in with pretty low expectations.

Despite this initial bias, I really enjoyed Pittsburgh. It is a gritty, dirty gem tucked away in the hills of western Pennsylvania. The steep grades host all manner of railroad bridges, tunnels, and overlooks. There is a lot of old school iron and rust in the engineering that surrounds the city, giving it this neat sort of mechanized feel. Traveling toward the town itself, you wind along the sides of the hills and gaze down at forests peppered with heavyset little homes and the occasional church steeple. Though it was early in the fall, the smoke rising from so many chimneys had a wintry feel to it.

I rode into town as darkness fell to try and catch a football game in the heart of Steelers country. I passed along the south shore of the Monongahela River and noted the squat old-industrial looking buildings that seemed to dominate that side of town and gave the place a bit of a bunker mentality but weren’t overall particularly unfriendly. I stopped off at a bar for the Pats game and met a photographer who recommended my next destination.

After the game I hopped back on the bike and wound my way up Mount Washington, which rises sharply just a few blocks south of the river. I parked next to an expensive looking townhouse and stepped out to the edge of the overlook. I’ve never seen a cityscape quite like what was laid out below me there in the pitch darkness of that cloudless evening and I don’t expect that it will be soon forgotten. The sea of twinkling downtown lights was cupped by the gentle curve of the river and the skyscrapers stood silently in the cool midnight air. It was an awe inspiring sight and I stayed for a good while to drink it in before leaving for a much needed night of rest at the motel.