Dan Hoyt

Web developer/designer

No Takebacks 1997: Appalachian Upthrust

September 3, 1997

In the morning I made Pittsburgh feeling pretty tip-top. The hills are challenging, and the roads are unique and interesting for all their age. They make for a good honest ride. Pittsburgh is a beautiful tangled mess. I called a contact who lived in town, and asked her for directions to get around the city. I swung by her place and grabbed a priceless shower, then after beer and a burger, I toured the town.

At the Andy Warhol Museum, the clerk rolled out the red carpet for me, and didn't charge me admission. He called the parking attendant and let me leave my bike there. For the next two hours the road was refreshingly forgotten. The museum was awesome, and if you're ever in town, I recommend a visit.

I wandered some more in the evening, looking for a sneaky place to camp for free. I considered relying on my contact for a place to stay, but it would have been awkward.

Atop a steep hillside amid old houses in the Deutschtown neighborhood, a man out walking with his kids recommended a graveyard at the top of the hill. No sooner did I arrive and pitch my tent, when a horde of kids on bicycles swarmed me. These were the fun-loving get-in-trouble type, and they would not leave me alone. I dared not look away from my bike for even a minute. Even without the kids, something wasn't feeling right (I mean, besides the fact that I was camping in a graveyard). Finally I surrendered and repacked, heading back down into town for plan B.

Going up another hill, I was propositioned by a male prostitute. In college, you'd see them on the Drag surreptitiously tracking your movement, followed by a weird sound to get your attention. Here the dude straight up asks if I wanted to have sex. I said, "No thank you" while grinding uphill (probably should pick a different word) and he said "That's okay." Very plain dealing in Pittsburgh.

I found myself wandering some more in the city as darkness approached. I killed as much time as I could get away with on park benches and coffee houses, but I can't leave the bike alone for very long. Indeed, I return from a late night coffee place and gear has been pinched. Finally I ended up on a city street where shady types exchanged things, and a man wearing a steel worker uniform picked up unidentified products. But I felt strangely safe there, sitting in a nook, getting rest by meditation with my eyes half-open with one hand on my bike seat, and I passed the remaining hours till the first light of dawn.

September 4, 1997

I am, of course, exhausted after a night with no sleep. I head east through the city, passing by people who call me out. At a Wendy's that seems to be safe enough, I lean my bike and run inside for a burger. By the time I come back outside, a kid is trying to untie the mussat bag (and failing) while his getaway waves him frantically to get back in the car. This time, nothing is missing.

On a few occasions during the entire tour, someone would mess with the bike while I was away from it, either attempting to ride off on it, or just steal from it, only to have it collapse on them. If you don't have cycling shoes with special mechanical cleats, there's a good chance between the tiny pedal and the heavy load, you will fall right over. I would walk outside and find a yard sale.

So into the country I went, and the going was hard. US 22 passes through a beautiful bit of country, but then most of the roads in Pennsylvania seem to do that. Everything is so green! Construction work frequently bottlenecked me, and I often found myself squeezed into a single lane with lots of traffic behind me, and a shoulderless void dropping off into the abyss on my right side. Construction vehicles and dump trucks hate bicyclists, and are fond of laying on the horn. I had flipped many birds in my life at this point, but I spared them all here as I literally teetered on the edge of doom.

I camped in the outskirts of New Alexandria (I think). I know I called my brother that night to confirm my approach, as he lived in the eastern part of the state. I may have suggested that if he was feeling up to it, he could come out and pick me up. This remains my great shame, that at some point my willpower broke and I just wanted to coast the rest of the way. It would have been an eight hour round trip and of course, a huge inconvenience, so he said no way. But for myself, just saying the words was a violation of an unspoken oath. To this day I regret it, even though I made good.

September 5, 1997

I woke after a decent sleep in a tent in an open space. I can't imagine that I just plopped down in plain sight but it's entirely possible. I rode out and tackled some hill action and then made my to the Hollidaysburg-Altoona Greater Metropolitan Area, where the fight was on. This was what that guy back in Hill Country was talking about. Old roads built for carriages, straight up the mountain, one after another.

After a dizzying number of climbs, route changes, and drops, I finally was on the road to State College. I had no idea what to expect when I took these roads; to me, they were just black lines on a white page. This particular road cut right through Amish country, of which I knew little. Soon I was treated to views of mountain valleys and horse-drawn carts. The Amish often waved at me with great mirth, for as a bicyclist, I was both a novelty and not altogether the work of the devil. It was a fine ride.

Along the side of the road I found a discarded horse shoe. It had been welded many times. I wasn't sure about their lost and found policy, so that heavy iron horse shoe became my new mascot, hanging from my Aerobars.

I made State College, suddenly linking it to Penn State. Again I felt a longing to be back in Austin, but at the same time, some distaste for the press of people. It was a weekend, so classes weren't in session, but the shops and restaurants nearby were packed.

That night I struck out eastward again. It grew dark and I hadn't found a place suitably safe, so I waited till the road was empty, then I dashed into a business lot with no cars in it. Behind an outbuilding, surrounded by trees and undergrowth, I pitched tent and made a little dinner with my stove. Not a soul nearby, hurray! I stripped down and went to bed.

I was woken in the middle of the night by the sound of a vehicle driving into the lot. They couldn't see me, as I was behind an outbuilding, but they were very close. Oh. Shit. I heard them enter the main building. I hurriedly emerged from my tent in the dark. I was in underwear only, and couldn't see a damn thing except for the little bit of glow coming from the business sign. I had not read that sign when I came in.

In a state of panic I fumbled about trying to locate my bike shorts in the dark, when I heard the main building doors open again. I heard footsteps nearby. And then, keys rattling only feet away, and the outbuilding door was opened. They were at most two feet away from me, separated by a plank wall. I held my breath for minutes, standing against the wall of the outbuilding.

There were noises inside for some minutes. Then, the sound of heavy objects being moved around, and footsteps only feet away, around the corner. Then I heard car doors slam shut, and a car driving off. Then silence.

I exhaled.

At length I gradually moved my head around the corner, peering like the protagonist from Tell-Tale Heart, and saw an empty lot. They were gone. The night was shot, and I got dressed in the dark. At the crack of dawn, I was in the saddle. I passed underneath the sign.

It was a funeral home.

September 6, 1997

Eastward ho along 45 to Lewisburg. My memory of this particular day is something like a slideshow, and I know I took a wrong turn at some point. I was using a vinyl map that didn't feature many smaller roads, and this caused some problems. Asking locals just guaranteed to compound the confusion. Never ask a local in Pennsylvania for directions if you're on a bicycle. Just don't.

Conversations with locals were interesting, but I had to avoid some weird propositions. These problems should be expected when you're running around in fancy bicycle underwear.

Lewisburg is a university town. When I was ready to camp, I knocked on a door and asked for permission to camp in the backyard. They said, "Yes."

September 7, 1997

On the other side of the Susquehanna River, the weather turned warm and humid, and I felt a measure of oppression. I plodded along past Sunbury and sundry other towns until I picked up an absolutely nasty flat. I had fixed countless flats so far, usually caused by nails, but this time I broke the seam around the tube from excessive hand-pumping. It was impossible to fix. I was out of spares. So I walked my precious rig for two or three miles, eventually taking a ride for a mile or two to a local Wal-Mart.

At a Wal-Mart in Bunker Hill I ran into the problem that many bikers deal with: no Presta tubes at big box stores. As I pondered next steps, a man and his son offered to help. The man was a bicyclist and a teacher in the area. He gave me a ride to their house not far away, and in his shop he drilled out a wider hole in the rim for a Shrader. I was a little nervous about a rim fracture, but it worked just fine.

The family told me about the towns ahead, along with vague warnings of an old, possibly haunted, mining town. I left with a respect for the history of the area and its former glory days. The dad accompanied me by bicycle for a few miles; he was doing great but I could it was taking a toll, and finally he turned around.

I rode to Mount Carmel and relaxed at a malt shop with, you guessed it, a malt. Then it was off to camp, but no such luck. The whole town was terribly compressed, being quite old, and some of the homes didn't even have yards. There was a gazebo in the center of town. It was dark, so I stayed there, unmolested, for the rest of the night.

Either September 7 or 14, 1997.

I woke with an urgent call to nature. It was a densely foggy Sunday morning, and I can't reconcile the date, but anyway I left the bike unattended to go in search of some kind of public bathroom. Everything was closed. I mean everything, except for churches (which were all attended in numbers). There wasn't even a gas station. Internal alarms were sounding. I resolved to find a dark alley and take care of business there. It seemed like every street in the whole town had at least one or two people ambling to church, and I couldn't find a discreet space. Things didn't go well.

What could I do but shrug. I knew the risks. I blamed no one but myself. Now it was time to get back on the trail.

I found a donut shop on the way out, completely packed. I cleaned up as best I could, but a sponge bath was not an option. I did, however, buy a number of tasty donuts on the way out, while others gave me the berth owed to a leper.

I headed east through the fog, and gradually gained altitude through hilly terrain. An eerily synchronous techno track accompanied me*. Along the shoulder and nearby, I saw fog rising from the earth. I rode on regardless, but was it really fog? Wait, fog doesn't form that way… I realized it had to be smoke curling up, absorbed by the fog. But what was it coming from?

I crested on a town plat, but it was mostly just concrete foundation slabs. An occasional house stood here and there, buttressed by brick towers. Streets snaked through the naked neighborhood. I was exhausted and experiencing a sugar crash from all the donuts, and lay down on a bench.

Not five minutes into the ride, a motorist drove by and rolled down his window. He shouted, "Are you okay? Do you need help?"

"I'm fine, thanks, just taking a nap."

He drove off. I was puzzled at his alarm.

A while later I sat up, feeling groggier than ever. A church across the street stood alone in the ruin. It had a sign in the front, but scrawled on its black board in red, hand-drawn letters, was the message, "CENTRALIA MINE FIRES ARE YOUR FUTURE"

What post-apocalyptic dreamworld had I just wandered into?

I shrugged and hopped back on the rig. I headed downhill again, coasting through the rapidly dissolving fog, until I eventually crossed back into the real world in Ashland.

A few days later, my brother would tell me about Centralia, a town that had mine fires burning underneath it since the sixties. The feds bought out all the houses that would sell, but a few carried on anyway.

Pennsylvania is filled with names that recall Civil War history. As I rode through the towns, I impressioned flashbacks in Shelby Foote's sonorous voice. You gotta provide your own entertainment on trips like this.

My vinyl map proved its worth many times over as I would periodically whip it from the pannier and pick a wobbly line after some consideration. There were many such wobbly lines, and none of them told me about the mountains or the hills, or the width of the shoulder or the presence of food. Yet all of them snaked their way through stunning vistas.

I hauled northeast along 209, stopping for pizza only to discover they didn't take credit card. I was down to a few bucks. The Universal Mom that seemed to be every Pizza Hut's manager graciously gave me the meal for free and I was once again humbled. I left a tip with all the money I had left.

Southward, Blue Mountain rose in the distance with bits of stubborn fog clinging to it. I rode alongside a pleasant creek, flat for once, and made such speed as never before. I was determined to make my brother's place in Coopersburg, into the night if need be.

Finally it stood before me. Blue Mountain. The last big climb I would make. I psyched myself up and rode the entire ascent without stopping once, carrying seventy pounds of gear. My legs felt like liquid power. I was heaving at the peak but recovered quickly, and was soon goosebumped and shivering in the cool air. Then came the descent into a great valley, where farms and residences became common again.

I cruised Allentown and soon found myself in traffic on a tight road. As I waited for the light to change, a motorist behind me honked, shouted some rude words in an accent that sounded more at place in New Jersey. I flipped him off casually, not even looking back. He lurched forward and hit my bike.

Looking behind me, he had connected with the rim, squeezing the tire but not puncturing it. I was stunned. No one had ever actually assaulted me before. For a brief moment, I thought a fight might go down, and I wondered if I could use the bike lock as a bludgeon. I had never been in a fight before, but I felt my aggression swelling.

I moved forward to clear the bike, and then the light changed. The cars in front of me moved on. The guys behind me didn't leave their car. I wavered for a bit, then rode on.

Getting out of Allentown required some route gymnastics, as Pennsylvania towns often did owning to differences in elevation along roads and bridges. Sometimes I'd approach an intersection on a map only to see that the cross street was thirty feet above me. So it was in Allentown, and it was dark by the time I finally exited.

The ride to Coopersburg was dicey. I had no headlight, no taillight, and I wasn't wearing my helmet. I was a huge idiot that needed a lesson. My guardian angel, who hated his job, nonetheless carried me through. He wasn't getting paid enough for this.

I rolled up to my brother's house and entered the code to open the garage door. He was out on a business trip, so I had the place to myself for a couple of days. There was a jug of homemade wine left in the cabinet beneath the sink that the previous owner of the house had left behind. My brother dared not sample it, but didn't want to throw it out, either. So of course I celebrated. Dear previous owner, thank you for the libations.

September whatever, 1997

I stayed at my brother's a couple of weeks, caught up on correspondence and did a little yard work, then made for New York City. (Thanks Michael, you showed saintly patience and generosity)

* Incredibly, it was The Prodigy's Mindfires, on an off-brand Walkman.

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