I coasted into Pittsburgh along the Allegheny River as people began their weekends tailgating in docked boats with welcoming smiles until I met up with my childhood friend, Ted, in front of his apartment on the North Shore. After checking out his pad, we picked up some Gyros from an authentic little hole-in-the-wall, walked through the city, and ate them on the stairs in front of a multicolored fountain at Point State Park. The park overlooks the point of confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers as they form the Ohio River and provided a spectacular view of Pittsburgh on a busy summer Friday night.
We could hear a Blues Traveler concert from Stage AE on the other side of the river and that iconic 90's tune, "Run Around," echoed off the hills behind us as grease and Tzatziki sauce dribbled off our faces next to young couples necking and laughing by the river. We strolled by a statue of Pittsburgh's own, Mr. Rogers, tying his shoe.
We talked late into the night, awoke equally late and wandered back into the city with my camera filming the bustling marketplace along the Strip District. The street was lined with open vendors selling Steelers gear, flowers, and art.
We stopped at Primanti Bros, a legendary Pittsburgh hotspot. The walls were lined with pictures of celebrities enjoying their signature sandwiches topped with fries and slaw.
We later joined up with John, a photography student that I had contacted through Craigslist, to help me film some riding shots through the city.
The three of us filmed some scenes and crossed a bridge to meet my brother, Ryan, who had just moved to Pittsburgh a week before my arrival. I checked out his near-empty apartment and we made our way with my bike to the rooftop for a photo shoot before further exploring the city.
We ate dinner at a meatball-themed restaurant which allowed you to mix and match various types of balls and sauces. Both Ted and my brother explained that they would cover my meals for the visit, which meant no more gas station food and trail mix... I would be eating like a guy that hadn't quit his job.
In the morning we rode up the Duquesne Incline, an historic trolley car that climbs a hill overlooking the city.
We strolled along the rim of the hill, taking in the views before riding another incline back down. Continuing to explore, we got in Ted's car and drove to the Cathedral of Learning, a 42 story Late Gothic Revival Cathedral at the University of Pittsburgh. The Cathedral, referred to as "Cathy" by Pitt students, contained over 2000 rooms which serve as administrative offices and classrooms. The main level has a 4 story vaulted Gothic study and event hall and was surrounded by 29 Nationality Rooms representing various countries. It reminded me a lot of Hogwarts from the Harry Potter series.
We took an elevator to the top and watched the sun glimmer on the towering skyline and rivers below us before strolling through the rest of the campus to the remnants of Forbes Field, the former Pittsburgh Pirates baseball field, now largely unrecognizable and covered up by a campus building. There was a gold plate near the restrooms marking the location of the former home plate, and I could picture Babe Ruth hitting his last two home runs just a few feet from where I had stopped to pee.
A few of the outfield walls had been saved, and we paused for some pics before visiting some high school friends, Mike and Carrie, in their nearby apartment.
The next day we took in some real baseball at a Pirates game and met some of Ted's friends from college. After a few innings, a storm drenched the ballpark and we took cover, huddled uncomfortably close to thousands of other fans. After months of lonely open roads and little but my own thoughts, I felt invigorated by all the stimulus. I could tell that this city would serve Ryan well as he seemed equally excited by all that was happening as the city worked to reinvent itself to accommodate a new wave of growth. As we perused the ballpark, I found myself comforted to be around my brother and Ted. There are few people I can allow my weird self to really surface, and it was relieving to delve into the world of inside jokes with people that really get me.
Time does something remarkable to friendships. As the years have passed, I have found that I can now count my close friends pretty easily with the fingers of both hands, or perhaps one. The friendships that remain from childhood have become more important and meaningful with time. I met Ted when I was about 7 years old. We spent our summers at the pool, recording radio shows on cassette tapes, and riding our bikes around the neighborhood. We have traveled to 19 countries together — visiting Mexico as teenagers and backpacking through Europe after College. When my addictions hit their peak, Ted and some friends held a bit of an intervention for me, but I refused to accept that I had a problem. Things became distant between us when I was living in squat motels, shelters, and on the streets. I was both unreachable and ashamed by what I had become.
There were many nights that I found myself staring at the stars, shivering, nauseated, and shaking, wishing I could talk to Ted, my parents, or another close friend. All those nights squatting out with lowlifes, waking up to stumbling drunks and drug deals, bloody fights, and people trying to go through my pockets, made me long for the connections I once had and the simplicity and safety of my youth. I longed for sledding and snow caves, splashing around at the pool, and dreaming of getting rich with a lemonade stand.
Recovery is so much more than just sobriety. It requires forgiveness from those that are willing, and involves the restoration of relationships with friends and family. I have been so blessed in this regard, as my family and friends not only forgave me, but have continued to encourage and support my recovery. In the initial planning stages of this trip, I decided to make sure I stopped in Pittsburgh to see my friend Ted, as there are fewer things more important than connecting with the people you love. I didn't know that my brother would accept a new job in Pittsburgh and move there a week before my arrival, but this made the stop even more fulfilling.
Carrying my bike, I strolled with Ted for part of his walk to work before navigating my way out of the morning traffic and onto the Great Allegheny Passageway (GAP) trail, a gravel trail that connects Pittsburgh with Washington DC. The trail offered shade, wildflowers, waterfalls, and plenty of wildlife.
I arrived in Connelsville and met John and Lucy, the hospitable owners of Connelsville Bed and Breakfast. As a donation towards my efforts, they gave me a major discount on a cosy, European themed room with crystal chandeliers. I contacted John, the photography student that I met from Craigslist, as he lived in Connelsville, and we met downtown for some filming. In the morning, I awoke to fresh fruit, yogurt, eggs, ham, and some delicious banana pancakes made by Lucy, and returned to the GAP trail fully fueled.
Angela, a young girl cycling by herself to Baltimore for an electronic music festival, rode up next to me and started inquiring about my ride. She had just finished her first year of college and was quite the free spirit. We stopped in Ohio Pyle, and took a swim in the river. I found myself slipping on the slimy rocks and nearly getting swallowed downstream by the powerful current.
We returned to the trail and I enjoyed her conversation before parting ways at a campsite in Confluence. After setting up my tent, Michael, a PhD English Professor pulled up on his bicycle to set up camp himself. We had a friendly discussion that ranged from cycling to the importance of building design as it relates to racial injustice. He was a fascinating guy, and we decided to ride into town to get some pizza. He bought us a pizza, explaining that there was an unwritten rule between professors and students that the professor always buys the drink, or pizza in this case, and I certainly wasn't complaining.
We returned to the campsite and built a fire watching the wood crackle and shift, spitting embers into the summer air under the stars while talking about life, race, and writing. Michael works with first generation college students to overcome fundamental writing barriers, which often related to race and socio-economic factors, and I found his conversations both stimulating and fulfilling. We returned to the same restaurant in the morning and chatted some more over coffee before heading our separate ways.
I returned to the GAP trail for the start of the day and then turned off onto green rural roads towards Somerset. The next day, I made my way towards Bedford on hilly scenic farm roads. I arrived in Bedford, a beautiful historic town, and found a run down smoky motel room for about $30. Despite the reviews that it had bed bugs, I couldn't find any evidence on the mattress. I showered and dried myself with the one used towel they provided as it smelled cleaner than my camp towel, and I was too exhausted to complain. I ventured into town and found a local diner that had an all you can eat clams and salad bar special. Despite being the skinniest person in town (which says a lot since I am not skinny), I managed to astound my waitress as I stacked empty plates faster than she could bring them. If only it had been a contest.
From Bedford, I continued to climb over the Appalachian mountains and found a shortcut on the Abandoned PA Turnpike, a highway that had been closed for years, but was unofficially open to cyclists. It reminded me of a post-apocalyptic movie, as the highway had grass and trees growing out of the center. It took me through two long graffiti-covered tunnels.
I paused in the middle of the second tunnel and was met with disorienting darkness and silence. It felt like the type of place where something really bad could happen. As I made my way away from the tunnel, I passed a full film crew carrying boom poles and camera equipment and they explained that they were filming a horror film. How appropriate.
I continued into the Allegheny mountains to Burnt Cabins, PA. I found a campsite at the Grist Mill, a water-powered flour mill from the 1750s. The mill is still functional, and I filmed the family owners talk about the flour products they make and sell on the property. I set up my tent next to a stream and fell asleep while picturing the rich history of the mill, dreaming of a life once had, hidden in the woods making flour.
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