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The smartest route to Pittsburgh

Published Jul 27, 2015


Pittsburgh - “Yes, Pittsburgh,” I was forced to say after telling people where we were heading on a family road trip.

Our fancy friends who think a vacation must involve Maine or Martha's Vineyard, and who think the word “summer” is a verb, found our destination to be bizarre, as if we'd announced we had decided as a family to learn how to handle snakes and speak in tongues.

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But Pittsburgh was an easy choice of destination. We wanted to get away for a few days from Washington's sweltering heat. We didn't want to cram ourselves into an overpriced and undersized New York City hotel room. We love the beach, but at the last minute there weren't rooms available. So we eyeballed Pittsburgh as a place with a beguiling combination of natural beauty, urban quirkiness, and the all-important virtue of proximity. It's closer than you think.

Also, much better-looking, almost like it stole a move from Seattle or Portland. The most striking feature is the rugged topography, which has no obvious equivalent among big cities anywhere in the East. I've never seen it look anything but clean and fresh. Where are smokestacks belching stygian clouds of toxic fumes? Why is there no soot raining from the sky? I guess that image of Pittsburgh is off by a century or two. Now there's a big Google presence; at Carnegie-Mellon University they do amazing work with robots.

The steel town displays its proud industrial history in the old factories turned into retail strips, and in the bridges that seem to have so much steel in them they might outlast the Appalachians. It has 446 bridges, which I'm told is more than any city in the world.

Pittsburgh has all the amenities that the soft traveller (i.e., someone who goes into a dive bar and asks the bartender for the wine list) demands. You can go up and down the grittiness scale in a place like this. Like so many American big cities, Pittsburgh has decided that the coarse, raw, grizzled urban textures of the industrial era can pretty much double the expense of your salmon entree.

Back to location: Pittsburgh has a sneaky proximity to the big cities of the East Coast, such as Washington. The geological barrier of the mountains creates a psychological distance.

But even when you find Pittsburgh on a map, it's hard to describe where it is in relation to the rest of the country. It's certainly not on the East Coast, and it's not part of the Midwest. Terms like “Appalachia” and “Rust Belt” are not likely to be embraced by the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce. In my head I think of Pittsburgh as being “thataway.”

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There was a time, of course, when its location was obvious, providential and economically significant. Pittsburgh sits on the rolling terrain below the western flank of the Allegheny Plateau. The city was founded on a point of land where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers converge to form the Ohio River.

Back in the mid-1700s, with European colonies growing in population along the East Coast, this was a prized location for empire-builders. It was the gateway to the West for European Americans. Recall that the French and Indian War began after a young British American colonial officer named George Washington and his Indian allies ambushed a party of French soldiers in the woods in this part of the world.

(Warning: I'm just getting warmed up on my history lecture! Now imagine my poor wife and three kids stuck in the car with me! “Then, in year 1754 ...”)

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It's not on anyone's corridor these days. You can't take Amtrak directly from Washington to Pittsburgh unless you endure a long journey that ends at midnight. Driving is the only smart way to go, but the succession of freeways can be bewildering (for me: Beltway, Interstate 270, Interstate 70, Pennsylvania Turnpike, Interstate 376) and involve roads that seem permanently under construction and/or confused about where they want to go. You can get there in under four hours if you stick to freeways, but your hands will be cramped from gripping the wheel so tightly.

The smarter, more scenic, swimming-friendly, nature-worshipping, history-saturated route takes you out through Western Maryland via Interstate 68 (through the glorious geology lesson that is the dynamited road notch in Sideling Hill), then through Cumberland and eventually to Route 40, the old National Road. This will add at least an hour to your trip, more if you stop — which is kind of the point of going this way to begin with. There's cool stuff in them thar hills.

Often while driving I will announce, to groans from the back seat, “I feel a speech coming on,” and as I type these words, I'm sorry to say that I feel a speech coming on.

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The best travelling experiences hug the land closely, and read the terrain, and honour the riversand the mountains and the graveyards where rest the people wholong ago built the foundation of everything we see.

We increasingly live our lives online, in the parallel dimensions spawned by digital technology, and it's easy to get divorced from the physical world and succumb to the illusion that everywhere is nowhere. Sometimes you need to turn off the phone and computer and appreciate something as carefully designed and crafted as a bridge.

Or ponder the resilience of an old city like Cumberland, which was once advantageously located — sitting at the terminus of the C&O Canal, and along the B&O Railroad, and at a point where a flat-bottomed boat or canoe could plausibly descend the Potomac all the way to tidewater with but a few portages. It was strategically situated two and a half centuries ago during the French and Indian War; in the late 1800s it enjoyed the prosperity that came from being a transportation hub close to the coal mines of the Alleghenies. Today it is remote and economically struggling, seemingly crammed into a notch amid the mountains — the kind of place where the biggest business appears to be the hospital.

We honour it still; George Washington slept here.

(“Dad, can we listen to music now?”)

There is an awesome place in southwestern Pennsylvania called Ohiopyle State Park, threaded by the tumbling, resplendent Youghiogheny River (the Yock). Jump into the natural sliding rock creek that flows into the Yock and try not to bust a knee or break a leg: We slipped and slode (that's the kind of word you can use on vacation) for a couple of hours and had passels of vigorous if somewhat bruise-inducing fun. If you don't try this, you should reexamine your priorities. (Keep an orthopedist on speed dial, though.)

Onward to Pittsburgh. We got a big suite at the Courtyard Pittsburgh Downtown, on Penn Avenue, which puts you in walking distance of everything from the Point (where the rivers converge) to the Warhol Museum. There is no joy in an American road trip greater than getting a jumbo hotel room of a size unimaginable in, say, Maine and Martha's Vineyard, where our fancy friends were probably suffering in shoebox rooms in precious B&Bs with sailboats clacking next door and seagulls cawing up a storm while we had a suite large enough for a game of Wiffle Ball.

We did our usual vacation routine, which is eat our way through the city like a herd of goats. We remember our family trips via stomach memory. As in, “Remember that place with the great gelato?” “Yeah. Rome.”

Our favourite place in Pittsburgh is the Strip District, which has a profusion of small grocery stores of distinct ethnic identity. Thus at the Mexican place, Reyna Foods, you can load up on dried chili peppers stored in old-fashioned metal garbage cans. The Pennsylvania Macaroni Company is where you go for your pepperonis and weird styles of pasta. We went to the upscale Pittsburgh Public Market and got “kidchego” goat cheese from Wheel and Wedge for a mere $22 (about R200) a pound. Then we hauled our bags of exotic and obscure foodstuffs back to the room, laid everything on a shiny countertop, and took photos of what we had achieved as consumers.

Our favourite meal was one of the least expensive: Chicken Latina, a Peruvian place that doesn't look like much but serves an exquisite chicken quesadilla — crispy and buttery on the outside, stuffed with chicken, beans and cheese, What really makes it is the spicy, garlicky and ever-so-lightly creamy green sauce they serve with it. It's not a successful vacation unless you come home with an obsession over some kind of sauce.

We did a pub crawl on the South Side, and the college-age kids nosed around the vintage clothing shops. There's a robust punk scene that makes for good people-watching, though I spent much of the time fretting that the kids would get inspired, disappear into a tattoo parlour and come out three days later completely unrecognisable.

Of course we went to the Warhol Museum, which captures the man's astonishing evolution as a creative force — though, gosh, that's a lot of museum for one fella. I kept thinking that even Michelangelo wouldn't have gotten a seven-story museum. (But I guess he did get St. Peter's, the Sistine Chapel, etc. — let's drop this line of argument.)

The secret of family travel is that if you are careful about tending to everyone's needs, and are patient and resilient, and don't expect too much, you don't have to have Shangri-La as a destination. You're with people you like, and you're not on your laptop and you're not in your cubicle and you're not on some kind of deadline. The flowers are prettier; the food tastes better; the sunsets are more entrancing. You don't need the outer world to be fabulous and entertaining. No weather can drown your happiness. You can go anywhere — and Pittsburgh is as good a place as anywhere else.

And you can get there, easily, if you simply point yourself in the right direction. Thataway.

Washington Post-Bloomberg

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