By Sean Dietrich
Sunrise. A small Pennsylvania town. I’m sipping weak coffee, writing from the porch of a small 1893 inn that overlooks Appalachia. American flags fly from every post, beam, telephone pole and CB antenna.
Long ago this simple-looking inn used to be owned by a local brewery. The original bar is still in the barroom.
Back in the day, a barkeep would have served his lukewarm beer for pennies and rented rooms upstairs for a buck. But today, this place is just a remnant of old America.
The inn was turned into a bed and breakfast a few years ago. Mostly it caters to bicyclers who are foolish enough to cycle the Great Allegheny Passage Trail. Take, for example, me and my wife.
Ah yes. The trail. About that. We have been pedaling this multi-state trail for a full day. We started yesterday morning in Pittsburgh. We arrived in Smithton at sundown. After our long ride, we crawled into bed and fell asleep in under nine seconds.
It seems like we’ve been cycling for a hundred thousand miles, but I looked at a map and realized we have only traveled fifty. We have a long, long, LONG way left to go. I don’t know if I’m going to make it.
Already my legs feel like they’ve been beaten with a blackjack billy club. My joints are sore, my eyes are sunken, I’m dehydrated and I’ve lost all my teeth.
Still. The profound greenery of Appalachia is worth the effort. In fact, it’s too much beauty for the written word.
This morning, I stumbled onto the porch to see nothing but tree-covered hills draped in chowder-thick fog. I saw Queen Anne homes, Victorian rooftop spires, and church steeples. And Canadian geese were flying overhead, honking out a morning melody.
“You actually have Canadian geese here?” I said to a local guy who was beside me.
“Course we have geese,” he said, “This is God’s country.”
The truth is, the town of Smithton is more or less a sleepy backwater. There are about 370 residents, most are retired coal miners or retired steel mill workers. They are veterans of industries that dried up long ago. All their young people have moved away. So today it’s a laid back American Legion kind of town.
Which would explain all the flags. I am watching them whip in the light breeze, and I’m massaging my sore thigh muscles, wondering if this coffee could be any weaker.
The first thing I did when I woke up this morning was hunt for the inn’s coffee pot. I hobbled like a 93-year-old man downstairs to the kitchen. I poured the tallest mug they had. But something was off, the coffee was more pale than I’m used to.
I like my coffee strong enough to power two-cycle outboards.
“Is this coffee?” I asked the innkeeper.
“Yep,” she said.
I looked into my steaming cup of Pennsylvania joe. I could see the bottom of the mug. Even so, the coffee was hot and delicious, and after drinking 16 cups I was good to go.
After that, I limped upstairs to find my wife still asleep. Our room is small, barely big enough to qualify as a crawlspace. And our bed is about the size of a mass-market paperback novel. But this place couldn’t be any better.
This is the old world. There’s limited cell service here, lots of backyard gardens and lots of porch sitting.
We slept with the windows open last night so that the sound of crickets worked its way into our dreams. The chilly air turned my nose into a freezer-burned strawberry. And when I awoke, I was happy.
So I’m not sorry we’re riding this grueling trail across the rural mid-Atlantic states. Not at all. I’ve seen things I will never see again. Good things. Things that mean something to me.
Like last night’s sunset. My wife and I stood atop a rusted iron bridge to watch river barges putter on the Youghiogheny River. We were the only onlookers around for a million miles. We toasted our Gatorade bottles beneath an Appalachian ridge and kept riding onward.
We rode through rundown neighborhoods, with industrial-age homes that had seen better days. The old homesteads were overrun with family members gathered on porches for huge Labor Day cookouts.
So far we’ve rolled through dozens of steel-mill towns like this. Some were filled with blue-tarped roofs, overgrown lawns and plywooded windows. Others had houses that were falling apart. But each house—and I mean without exception—was flying an American flag.
And I saw more than just flags, too. I saw banners on lamp posts honoring local World War II veterans. I saw patriotic bunting hanging from bannister railings. I saw ball games played in backyards. And kids eating popsicles on swing sets.
What I haven’t seen is people fighting. I’ve seen no arguments about current events. No angry folks exchanging hateful views on the world. I haven’t met the first unfriendly soul. I’ve seen nothing but good here.
And I must have needed this goodness. Because I have spent the better part of the year stuck indoors, just like everyone else. A pandemic nearly changed me. It’s been a long time since I felt half normal. But I understand it all comes back to you. Just like riding a bike.
We have lots of miles left to pedal, and my out-of-shape body is not prepared. They will probably have to carry me home in an ambulance. But hey, I’m doing all right. Because, like the man said:
This is God’s country.
God’s coffee could use a little work though.