The smartest route to Pittsburgh: No short­cuts

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY JOEL ACHEN­BACH

“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 though we’d an­nounced we had de­cided as a fam­ily to learn how to han­dle snakes and speak in tongues. ¶ 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 al­limpor­tant virtue of prox­im­ity. It’s closer than you think. ¶ Also, much bet­ter­look­ing, 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.

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 trav­eler (i.e., some­one who goes into a dive bar and asks the bar­tender for the wine list) de­mands. You can go up and­down 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.

The cat­e­gory-buster

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. Inmy head I think of Pittsburgh as be­ing “that­away.”

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 em­pire­builders. 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 onmy history lec­ture! Now imag­ine my poor wife and three kids stuck in the car with me! “Then, in year 1754 . . .”)

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.

The best trav­el­ing ex­pe­ri­ences hug the land closely, and read the ter­rain, and honor the rivers and the moun­tains and the grave­yards where rest the peo­ple who long 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 the­way to tide wa­ter 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 honor 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 fa­vorite 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 “kid­che go” goat cheese from Wheel and Wedge for a mere $22 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 fa­vorite 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 on­the 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 par­lor and­come out three days later com­pletely un­rec­og­niz­able.

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.


The sculp­ture “Point of View,” of Seneca leader Guya­suta, left, meet­ing Ge­orgeWash­ing­ton, over­looks Pittsburgh’s Golden Tri­an­gle, where theMonon­ga­hela and Al­legheny rivers con­verge to form the Ohio.


On a busy Satur­day morn­ing in Pittsburgh, cus­tomers jam the cheese counter of the Penn­syl­va­nia Mac­a­roni Com­pany, whose win­dow re­flects the bustling Penn Av­enue crowds, above, and shop­pers stroll by Yinz­ers sports­wear shop in the heart of the Strip Dis­trict, be­low.


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