As arriving in Confluence was weird, leaving from Confluence was also weird. I got chased out of the town by an obnoxious little chihuahua that had just got done dropping a load on a Nazarene church's lawn. I had such an odd experience in this little vacation town. All the locals I met talked about how much they loved Confluence. The Mayor was a #realdude, but the town didn't really call me. I think you have to be a fisherman to really appreciate this place. I'll give this place a second try when I get more into fishing.
My next stop was Braddock. I miscalculated the distance from Confluence to Braddock. I thought it would be about 45 or 50 miles. I was wrong. I had an 80-mile ride ahead of me. Today was bound to be a long day.
I found this to be the least interesting portion of the Passage. Ohiopyle looked nice, but I didn't have time to check it out because I was so focused on knocking out these 80 miles. I intentionally ignored the mile markers. It was disheartening to look at them and recalculate the long distances to my destination. I listened to every album I had on my phone in an attempt to pass the time. I even listened to Ballatron's self-titled debut EP. Five albums later I still had a ways to go.
Fifty miles in I stopped at West Newton for lunch. I went to Gary's Chuckwagon, a nice little local diner. After lunch I checked out the Gingerbread House, a bakery just next door to the restaurant. It felt like I had discovered a natural spring in the middle of the desert. (I apologize if my blog has become a collection of starvation-induced hyper-optimistic food reviews). This place had the most incredible selection of turnovers, pies, cakes, cookies, basically anything you could ever have a sweet tooth for. My body was telling me yes but my mind was telling me to chill. I settled on having one cherry turnover, as recommended by John, the kind baker. Starving or not, this pastry was delightful.
In all of these small, rural towns, I had been astounded by how friendly people were. People would approach me with zero hesitation to inquire about my journey. Everyone I spoke with would have a nice smile and make exceptionally good eye contact. This was quite a contrast to the city I come from, where people rarely acknowledge strangers. I had a particularly intense interaction with strangers as I left the Gingerbread House.
Two women were waiting for me to move my bike so they could enter their car. They cheerfully asked where I was off to. I shared my story. They were excited for my journey but also concerned for my safety. One of the women became noticeably distressed. She expressed the need to recite a prayer for me. I was not expecting that at all. I was surprised by how flippantly they shared this very personal practice with me. We met, within two minutes they were praying, and then when it was done they casually entered their vehicle and drove off. We clearly had very different comfort zones. I appreciate them urging me to step outside of mine.
After getting way more than I expected from West Newton, I got back to the trail. Pittsburgh was getting closer. How did I know? Aside from the fact that everyone had on either a Steelers shirt or a Pirates hat, people were becoming less outgoing. There was less acknowledgment of others. The culture of the people I came across on the trail began to feel more urban.
I got to McKeesport. For the first time in about a week I saw black people. Western MD and rural Southwest PA were very white. McKeesport had a rust belt feel to it. There were a few prominent buildings that appeared to be relevant at some point in time but were now unoccupied and forgotten. There were huge warehouses stowing tubes and shipping containers. You couldn't tell if they were waiting to go some where or just collecting dust. I couldn't help but to get flashbacks of Detroit.
The images of Detroit became more vivid as I followed the Great Allegheny Passage around the river bend. There was graffiti everywhere. I gazed upon an endless shipping yard that was dominated by a huge plant. Countless industrial facilities littered the scenery. I now understood why Pittsburg's football team was named the Steelers.
Around nightfall I made it to Braddock. I had no clue where I was or what I was getting into. My couch surfing host, Eddie, welcomed me into his home. Before I could even talk to him, his cheery son chimed in. "Hi! My name's E.T."
I played along. "Hi E.T. My name's Colin. Nice to meet you."
His Dad filled me in. "His name's not E.T. He just goes by whatever's the last movie he watched."
E.T. or not, I liked this kid. He had good taste.
Eddie helped me get situated. I asked him how far it was to Pittsburgh. He said, "You're in Pittsburgh." Oh! That's good to know!
He told me about Braddock. Braddock was the home of Pittsburgh's once-booming steel industry. In its past life, the city's main street, Braddock ave, was lined with hotels, restaurants and bars to entertain workers and their guests while the steel mills ran around the clock. Supposedly every US skyscraper built before 1990 used steel from Braddock. It was the pride of Pittsburgh. Then, in 1986, production was cut. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost. Braddock had become another member of the Rust Belt.
This proud history seems to be part of what brought Eddie and his nice wife, Loryn, to Braddock. Both descendent of Braddock residents, they wish to revitalize the city. From talking to them you can tell there is a tight knit community of folks who are passionate about bringing Braddock back. Eddie is part of mobilesculpture.org, a collective of sculptors dedicated to engaging Pittsburgh youth through creative arts. I think this goes without saying, but I could not have found better hosts to help me discover Braddock.
After taking a quick walk to the local brewery, I retired at my host's home. I was eager to explore Braddock, but would have to wait for the sun to return.