I'm not going to sugar coat this post. Riding from Pittsburgh to Ellwood City sucked. Both Pittsburgh and Ellwood City are delightful locations. But transporting between the two was terribly challenging.
The day got off to a fine start. I awoke to blue skies and warm weather. It was the first day I didn't have to wear long sleeves. I was eager to get on the road again after my three day hiatus.
I departed from Pittsburgh vis-a-vis the Robero Clemente bridge. It led me to the North Shore Trail. About two miles from the bridge I saw a sign for the Bicycle Heaven Bicycle Museum and Bike Shop. Visiting this place was the highlight of my day. This museum had every style of bike imaginable. Olympic road bikes, rare Land Rover models, Elvis themed-cruisers, an Evel Knievel kid's bike, it had everything. The climax of the experience was seeing the actual bike that Pee-Wee Herman rode in Pee-Wee's big adventure. I was star struck when I saw it. If you ever visit Pittsburgh I strongly recommend checking this place out.
Things got tense after that. The course I followed, which very closely corresponded to Pennsylvania bike route A, led me to state route 51. I felt puzzled as I merged onto this four lane highway (two lanes of traffic in each direction). I was puzzled because there were no shoulders on the road. I was expected to occupy a full lane as cars whizzed by me at the 55 mph speed limit. This made me severely uncomfortable.
I peddled as fast as I could, hoping to catch up with the flow of traffic. I didn't have a chance. Cars blazed by me. I felt trapped. There weren't any exits in sight. My internal tension boiled over. I couldn't do this anymore. Riding solo on a highway without any shoulder space was on my list of non-negotiables. I had to take action.
I checked for traffic then dismounted my bike. I hauled my 60-pound rig over the guard rail to my right. My adrenaline pumped. Once on the other side I guided my bike down a steep ten-foot hill that was covered with brambles and trash. While doing so a spider jumped onto my hand. I couldn't have cared less. All I wanted was to get away from that damned highway and the panicked sensation that had overcome my body.
At the bottom of the hill I wound up next to a decommissioned railroad. There was a bumpy tow path next to it for utility vehicles. In moments like these I am so thankful for the thick tires of my Cross Check. I was able to ride the tow path just fine. I followed it for a couple of miles.
During this dusty stretch I realized that I had been absorbing direct rays from the sun for nearly three hours straight. My skin, caked with dust, began to redden. I thought this trip was just going to be me, my bike and a camera. I was wrong. It was me, my bike, a camera and the blazing hot sun. There really wasn't much I could do about it.
The towpath took me back to the ominous highway. I did not want to get back on it. I had a choice: hop back onto state route 51 or test my luck riding through an industrial park. The industrial park it was. I meandered about the park. At one point I followed a private road towards some factory. The security guard waved me down. I dismounted my bike to speak with him. "Hi sir. I apologize for coming this way, I just felt really uncomfortable riding on 51. The highway has no shoulders. Do you know any alternate routes to Monaca?"
His response was chilling, "I thought they put shoulders on that road after that biker got killed?"
He continued, "You just need to keep going around. You can't come through here."
My intuition had correctly guided me off of that damned highway. I circumnavigated the factory and a couple of private roads to bypass the rest of 51. Thank God.
After 51 the ride mellowed out. I didn't, however. I was sunburned and pretty shook up from what had just transpired. At this point I had to stay hydrated and get to my destination. Luckily my destination wasn't too far off.
I arrived safely at my host's home in Ellwood City. He asked me how I was doing. I couldn't help but to give an honest answer, "Not too hot. I can't believe the PA bike route A had me riding on a four-lane highway with no shoulders!" I think he could tell I was stressed out. My stress grew when I looked down to find that the skin on the back of my hands had an allergic reaction to the sun. Luckily, my host Rick was a cool guy. He helped me get situated and gave me some time to wind down.
Once I got my head screwed back on I had a pleasant evening in this small Western Pennsylvanian town. Rick took me to a great Italian restaurant in the neighborhood. During dinner I learned about his interesting life as a social studies teacher and, perhaps more importantly, a Steelers fan. His fun stories and jolly attitude really helped get my mind off of the stressful ride.
I wouldn't be able to do this trip were it not for the people I meet along the way. I am astounded and inspired by the kindness of complete strangers that welcome me into their homes. Not to say that I ever lost faith in society, but a trip like this certainly helps to build confidence in people.