I’ve done one bicycle trip in my life and so naturally I’m insufferable about it: an absolute expert on interstate biking. I rant at my friends about a bike trip as the ideal post-pandemic travel dream, and their eyes just roll and roll. Though I had driven through Pennsylvania before, I’d never really experienced the people of your fair state until I dragged myself all the way across it atop a junky commuter bike, three summers ago.
Since then, including through an election cycle that starred Pennsylvania as a “divided state,” I’ve consistently wondered why I remember Pennsylvania so much more than the rest of my trip. Why is it the only one, of the five states I rode through, that I plan to cycle across again as soon as the pandemic allows? I believe that the answer has something to do with the people. Pennsylvanians, contrary to what I’d expected, were united in one very important and hospitable sense: being downright neighborly to some sweaty bozo bicycling through their state.
In July of 2018, I’d impulsively shucked my responsibilities teaching summer school in Brooklyn and opted instead, with very little experience, to bike the 1,200 or so miles back to my childhood home of Green Bay, Wis. Though I hadn’t ever adventured by bicycle before, I reasoned that since I rode my bike 5 miles to work every day, riding 1,200 miles would merely be like riding to work 240 times straight.
My bike trip took me across New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and into Wisconsin, but the state I remember most is the Keystone State. It’s the one I spent the most time in, and the one with the most striking natural beauty. Don’t tell Ohio or Michigan, but everything after the Great Allegheny Passage and the Yinzers of Pittsburgh feels like a vague fever dream in comparison.
In Pennsylvania I got lost a lot, a clumsy doofus navigating a maze of county highways, Mennonite church roads, and rail trails en route to the Great Allegheny Passage. A list of thank yous are in order to all of Pennsylvania’s everyday heroes who helped keep me alive.
We can begin with the tollbooth worker at the Benjamin Franklin Bridge who told me, without hesitation, that if I attempted to ride onto the highway to cross into Philadelphia it would mean my swift and certain death. She frantically gestured with both hands to a footbridge above, and for this I thank her.
Thanks also go to all the beautiful people on the Schuylkill River Trail, near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who were patient with me as I cycled past on my jalopy-rigged bike, covered in saddle bags and gear and pausing to admire all the people rowing crew, wherein my sweaty presence inadvertently threw cold water on a bunch of riverfront jog-flirts.
In Lancaster County, when I got lost five times, I was given directions by friendly Amish families as they passed me in horse and buggy. Some Amish youths even invited me to play croquet.
Thanks too to the family in a camper who shared their Wi-Fi with me unprompted in French Creek State Park because they saw me trying to get a signal on my phone. This allowed me to watch an episode of The Office while camping closer to Scranton than I had ever been before, which felt very symbolic and rich at the time.
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In York, a high school history teacher and fellow cyclist insisted that I set up my tent in his backyard. He then proceeded to sup and beer me until I was ready to ride through the hallowed hills of the Blue Ridge Summit and Gettysburg, where I got lost again and was helped by a friendly biker gang. I got another good meal farther west, when I huffed and puffed up a hill and found myself in a whole town that smelled like fresh bread. After a few minutes I figured out I was in Hanover, the birthplace and home of Snyder’s Pretzels, a kind of snack mecca for people like me, who take their knotted bread seriously. This was the closest I have ever come to openly weeping on top of a bicycle.
Then in Confluence, the owner of the Cyclery on Hughart Street helped me get a piece of tire tread out of my bike’s back rim, which had been haunting me with flats for almost 200 miles. While he tuned up my bike, I ate one of the best breakfasts of my life at Sister’s Cafe, which is now permanently, devastatingly closed.
To the democratic socialists who let me bunk with them in Pittsburgh: thanks for the shelter, and sorry that I ate all your chocolate in the middle of the night. I found it in the fridge and picked through it like a raccoon discovering trash cans outside a restaurant. This was not good houseguest behavior. I hope you found the replacement chocolate I left in its place.
Finally, I want to apologize to the 200-person Boy Scout troop that found me showering under a well water pump on the side of the trail somewhere in the Allegheny Mountains. I hadn’t encountered any human beings for a full three days and truly believed I was alone for miles in every direction. However mortified you were by the sight of me, take solace in the fact that my own horror was exponential to yours.
Politically, Pennsylvania remains a battleground state. I completed my bike trip two years into Donald Trump’s time in office, which, in some ways, feels years apart from our new era under a president, born in your great state, who is calling for national unity. Yet it’s heartening for me to remember that even in 2018, the Pennsylvanians I encountered showed the same basic decency. You were all universally willing to lend a hand as I bumbled and Magoo’d my way from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh by bicycle. If you’ll permit me to, I will gladly do it all over again, just as soon as I can.
Ian Power-Luetscher is a writer and MFA student at San Jose State University. He teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. @IanJPower