West Dravo to Steubenville - The woman who sat on the toilet too long (and other odd American tales) - CycleBlaze

May 12, 2014

West Dravo to Steubenville

Steubenville waits for me to appear
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MY FRIEND Bernard, when he was here, wrote in A frog hops across America:

“The houses are dilapidated, the gardens in ruins, there are wrecked cars, the population - there are many black people - have the air of being out of work, the police are on patrol, town-centre roads are abandoned. I keep having to tell myself: this too is the USA. For the first time I don’t feel safe. I stop straight away in a service station and ask the owner if there are motels anywhere.”

I'm not surprised. There were one or two other comments and so I looked the place up. It turns out that this town of just 22 000 has a good (or bad) share of shootings and murders. And gangs. The prosecutor here, Chris Becker, was quoted as saying: “We get reports from the FBI all the time about gang-related activity in the area. We’ve got Bloods, Crips, Godz, you name it. They basically recruit from small-town America.”

Well, my first sight of the town was quite different. It looked as harmless as anywhere else and even rather pleasant, with so many huge murals of life gone by that they are numbered and form a walk. Nor did anyone try to recruit me. Because I looked too useless and haggard, fit for sleeping in the street more than defending it.

Steubenville, home of murals
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I should have known this was going to be one of those days when everything goes wrong. The wonderful path, the pride of the valley, doesn't end with a sign of welcome or congratulations. It doesn't end with anything at all. The surface gets worse and the path dips and comes out on an industrial road facing the railway tracks and a scrap metal yard. And from there you're on your own.

Well, I could have put up with that had I not then ridden into McKeesport, a town remarkable not for its steaming steel works

America at work
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- that after all was America at work - but for a belt-straining guy in camouflage trousers, green T-shirt, unkempt grey beard and a baseball cap. He could have been any age from 55 and looking rough to 70 and hanging on. Above all, he looked the sort whose year was ruined if he hadn't bagged him a deer.

We got talking because I'd asked his advice on where a man might get coffee. And for some time he was pleasant company. And then he ruined it all by saying: "Mind how you go here, friend - there are a lot of black people, know what I'm saying?"

I wish I'd been faster off the mark and found something cutting to say. But it was so unexpected. I just rode on.

Sage advice on the cemetery sign
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There's a Steel Valley trail out of town but it's no more than - although welcome nevertheless - a signposted route through back streets of small businesses, lock-up garages, graffiti and cars on bricks. It gets you to the Montour trail, though, and that's the real thing - a cross-country path away from the traffic of a dying area. At least one of the sequence of small towns here has already been classified a distressed community.

It was here that I was less clever than ever. Tired of the variable surface and the rain and the constant twisting, I set off by myself. Straight up an enormously steep hill that climbed to the clouds, and then in time to a monster highway on which the shoulder became ever narrower.

I then struggled to refind the path. And couldn't. Not until I got to a village only to find access to it blocked. There had to be another way and eventually I found a slim, bespectacled man of about 45 standing outside a house that advertised itself as a children's nursery.

I have never met a more worldweary man or one so out of place outside a nursery. As he sketched a map for me, he gave the directions.

"Y'go up this road, over the stop sign and then turn right on Hoover. You go past Lancelot fucking whatever it is - I tellya, it's fuckin' hobgoblins round here - the whole estate was laid out in the sixties by pot-smoking hippies - it's all Gandalf this and fuckin' Beowolf that.

"So ya go past Lancelot and you turn into Friar, like Friar fuckin' Tuck, and you follow it to the end and you'll see a body-shop run by a friend of mine. Talented, artistic man, but you can't have a conversation with him because he talks like a fuckin' robot.

"Anyway, the trail's round the back of that."

And he went back into the children's nursery.

Now, I'm not going to keep you much longer. All you need to know is that the whole route was a roller-coaster, a horribly steep one. I began walking the occasional hill and ended up walking most. Thunder and rain set in for four hours and Steubenville could have been in the middle of a gang war and I'd have neither noticed nor cared. I'd ridden further than I planned and I was 30km short of where I intended.

I found the first motel on the road, worth a lot less than the $60 it charged, but I didn't care. I just wanted the day to end, please.

Today's ride: 128 km (79 miles)
Total: 741 km (460 miles)

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