The journey from Jamestown, VA, to Pittsburgh, PA, ended up being the longest drive of our entire trip. So far, most of our route has been along two and four-lane back roads – and very little interstate. The Westfalia enjoys the back roads for their lack of high speeds and little traffic. Our son likes the back roads for their less corporate gas stations (the fancy gas stations are less likely to sell boiled peanuts – a staple of his vacation diet). Our daughter likes to play the “My Cows” game. And Monica – well – she likes to sing:
So glad I installed a new Bluetooth radio so that we could spend the whole trip scanning local radio. This isn’t the last time this song will entertain us on this trip.
On the downside, the backroads can offer some iffy dining options. With the Westy’s kitchen, we have some added lunch options, but sometimes, we just don’t feel like cooking. Gems like Fat Bellies are rare, but there is an abundance of fast food restaurants IN gas stations. Some gas stations offer real name-brand options – particularly Dunkin’ Donuts and Arby’s. I’m not saying I want Arby’s, ever, but at least these brands have a standard to meet. The ones that baffle me are franchises parading as something that might exist outside the confines of the gas station walls. Examples: Chester’s Chicken and Hunt Brothers Pizza. They remind me of the phony brands that show in low-budget sitcoms and movies.
When we opt for fast food, it’s usually Subway. The kids love Subway and would eat there on Thanksgiving if it was an option. Yes, the bread is dry, meat uber-processed, but it’s close to a sandwich we might slap together at home once in a while. On the way to Pittsburgh, we followed an exit sign indicating a nearby Subway, only to drive 2 miles into the country with nary a Subway in sight. Then we realized that the Subway was locked inside a community college that was closed on the weekends. New rule: no highway sign if you’re not open normal hours (you hear that Chick Fil-A? No sign if you can’t do Sundays!)
Left: We weren’t eating there, but this gas station Chester’s Chicken counter hung an amusing sign (to my 13 year-old brain). Right: Behold, our only stop at McDonald’s of the trip, due to the misleading Subway signage. Aside from the fact that the kids think McNuggets are gross, McD’s self-ordering kiosks send me into a rage.
Once we hit the Pennsylvania state line we took the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the Steel City. The Pennsylvania Turnpike is insanely expensive. It was close to $30 to use a relatively small section of bone-rattling highway. I’m sure it’ll be worth the toll once it’s paved, but it was fun driving on a on old Civil War supply trail.
After a night visiting family – some of whom I’d never met – we had a day to explore a city that I’ve been hearing great things about for a long time. But first, Monica needed to get a run in. She found a trail near our suburban hotel and retuned from her run raving about the scenery, so we all went back out for a walk in nature. Who knew that Pittsburgh offered something so lush?
For those that didn’t follow along last summer, we like to take some hikes. My medical condition puts some limitations on what I should and shouldn’t do (as opposed to what I can and can’t do). Monica could probably climb Everest right now, and our son is right on her heels. So my hiking partner is our 6 year-old. We have a lot of fun bringing up the rear. I’m not looking forward to when she’s outpacing me. Bottom left: Monica showed us a huge tree that fell just as she approached the area. Bottom right: we came upon a few acres where the sound of insects was deafening. Turns out, we’d stumbled in a patch of 17-year cicadas. (They grow underground for 17 years before coming out and making a huge racket and dying.)
But I didn’t come to Pittsburgh to see trees and bugs – I can do that in Florida. I came for steel and everyday foods altered by eastern European immigrants. We parked the van under a huge Heinz sign and hopped on a double decker bus.
A two hour bus ride around Pittsburgh might not sound like the most exciting family activity – but we love city tours. And because of the threat of rain, we were the only ones on the bus, aside from the driver and the guide. The tour was really good, too. I grew up with the impression that Pittsburgh was a soot-covered city populated by weary steelworkers. I had no idea the rich arts and architecture that grew from the old industrial money, in a time when “tycoon” also meant “philanthropist.” An added bonus was getting to see K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider. No sign of the The Hoff.
After our tour, Monica took us on a jaunt of her own, tracking down the residences of her great grandparents. Imagine a family of tourists, driving a weird Volkswagen camper – complete with beach chairs and a hot-dog roasting fork strapped to the roof rack – rolling through a 100 year old neighborhood that hasn’t yet experienced the bountiful blessings of gentrification. At one point we got lost in the maze of steep one-way streets and alleys like a one-car-Father’s-Day-Parade. It was my most Clark Griswold moment.
It’s a fixer-upper.
One of the things that Pittsburgh is famous for is its incline trains, which were installed to deliver people living in the hills above the city, to the steel factories below. Today only two are in operation. We took the Duquesne Incline, which is run by the private non-profit which formed to keep it running after the transit authority shut it down. After that, we went to the famous Primanti Brothers for a sandwich. The lore is that steel workers couldn’t carry a sandwich and two side items, so they started stuffing the coleslaw and fries right in the sandwich. It’s brilliant if you don’t like sandwiches, coleslaw or fries – because it succeeds in ruining all three. Okay, maybe I’m being too harsh. One of Monica’s cousins (who lives in Africa) made a passionate case for Primanti Brothers, and I can see how a unique sandwich can stir taste-nostalgia for someone 12,000 miles away. I love french fries, and I just couldn’t taste them in there. I vow to give them another chance.
Top: Our kids were initially terrified of the creaking container as we inched our way up the cliff. But we felt it was a valuable lesson in trusting 120 year-old technology that has a history of safety. It sure beats taking the stairs. Bottom: The bread ratio was out of proportion, too much slaw, fries rendered soggy, meat and cheese lost in the disaster. Next time I’ll let a local order for me. If it’s not better, they owe me a pierogi.
The van visits Bruce Wayne’s (aka Batman’s) headquarters from The Dark Knight (Or something like that. I never saw the movies.). Right: Finally a local delicacy I can get on board with.
We were only two nights in Pittsburgh, which was only enough to make me want to come back for more food, culture, and maybe catch a ballgame – preferably sooner than the next cicada invasion.
Next time: We visit the hallowed grounds of Gettysburg, get some Amish innuendo, and fight the chocolate coma in Hershey.
“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Jon’s 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on Amazon.com and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Monica is a marathoner, baker, freelance grant writer, non-profit consultant, tour guide, and prolific bath taker.