Monday, September 03, 2007

Sacred Ground

This past Saturday I decided to ride back to Pittsburgh to visit the places where I grew up and dust off memories. Over 300 miles but the time I returned home. I was on the road at 5:30 AM in order to make the most of the day. The first couple hours the temperature never exceeded 54° F and twice dropped to 48° in some low wooded places. I thought I dressed warm enough but again missed the mark and should have worn my winter riding jacket. I just hate taking it knowing the thermometer will reach 80° later in the day.

I made a stop at a Sheetz convenience store to warm up a bit. While standing outside sipping hot chocolate I struck up a conversation with a man interested in the Vespa. He's in his mid 70's and tells me he just bought a Honda Rebel, downsizing because of recent double knee replacement surgery. He wanted to keep riding though. I was glad I ran into him and it was good to hear the riding spirit can weather medical and aging challenges.

Warmed a bit I wanted to get to Pittsburgh as quickly and directly as possible rather than my usually wandering routes. US 22 was the quickest path to the city and four-lane highway the whole way. The Vespa GTS 250 easily moved along at 60 to 70 MPH the whole way until exiting into Pittsburgh. I never felt an obstacle to traffic or unsafe. Without a windscreen you feel the trip as the wind hits you square in the chest. I like the reminder that I'm moving.

The Pittsburgh skyline has changed a lot since I grew up in the area. The blast furnaces that used to frame the eastward approach are gone. I rode through the city on surface streets but I wasn't too interested in spending much time there. I wanted to ride on to Neville Island, the place I grew up.

Neville Island is five miles long and less than a half mile wide. When I lived there we had our own school, fire and police departments, stores, and industry. Lots of industry employing tens of thousands of workers. Three quarters of the island was industrial --- blast furnaces, coke ovens, foundries, chemical plants, trucking depots, oil and gas farms, galvanizing plants, steel fabrication, and shipyards.

Crossing over onto the island I was greeted by the smell of chemicals, gas and other industry flavors. I remembered that smell from 44 years ago. I stopped to look down Grand Avenue, a four-lane road with a 35 MPH speed limit that looked exactly the same.

Looking around the blast furnaces are gone and the once well worn through use workspaces now appeared closer to neglect and indifference. Where once everything was alive with activity now seemed quiet. For me only ghosts and memories.

I stopped at the site of the old Shenango Foundry where my father worked for over 30 years as a millwright. Standing at the gate I remembered bringing him dinner with my mother when he worked a double shift.

He would come out to the road with his face black with soot and dirt. This place was a foundry then producing ingot molds for the steel industry. I would look off into the buildings and see the orange glow and smoke of steel being poured from ladle cars brought down by train from the blast furnaces at the end of the island. It was a magical place to me as a kid. I never set foot inside. The foundry has long been closed and all that's left are shadows. Men spent their lives here in hard labor for good wages. I see something different than the camera when I look at the place.

Just down the road is the Dravo Shipyard where I worker as a welder over 30 years ago building river barges and towboats. During World War II the company produced destroyer escorts and ships to land tanks.

When I worked there the yard worked three shifts seven days a week. Thousands were employed here. Looking out across the yard for a moment I catch a glimpse of the place as it was before it fades in the bright sun. So many lives played out here. Some were lost here. Contributions to a better world are just gone. It feels like sacred ground to me.

Along the river just on the other side of the shipyard is the Neville School. It's smaller than I remember. Our community had its own kindergarten through 12th grade school. And a football team--- the Neville Rivermen. The bus that brought us to school in the morning would take us home for lunch. That's how small the place was. The decline in industry changed everything here. All along the river would be barges tied up waiting to move up and down the river.

There are still barges there though these may not move again. Trees growing in them don't bode well for their future. I may have helped build one of these Dravo barges.

The house I grew up in was a mile down the road on Idaho Street. The same concrete street running to the riverbank was there. The same tar seams I used to sit next to on hot days and poke tar bubbles were there.

We lived in this tiny Gunnison home built by United States Steel in 1950. A two-bedroom house built on a 24x30 concrete slab. I knocked on the door and found the man my father sold the house to in 1963. He invited me in to look around and I couldn't believe how tiny it was. Back then to my kid eyes it was spacious.

The barbeque my father built in the backyard was still there like an anonymous monument to him. Standing there everything seemed small and far away and I just wanted to go home.

The GTS performed flawlessly all day and the trip provided me with an opportunity to push the envelop in city and freeway riding at longer than normal distances. By the time I got home I had put 320 miles on the scooter in 11 hours. Running through Pittsburgh on the parkway towards home gave me a chance to assess how the Vespa did among aggressive drivers. It had more than enough power to travel along in the mess and I was surprised how well the suspension absorbed the sudden potholes without complaint. By the time I entered the Squirrel Hill Tunnel I felt as if I had graduated to neophyte urban rider.

Going through the tunnel at 60 MPH with one hand on the throttle and the other on the shutter button probably wasn't the smartest thing to do. As punishment for that forward progress ground to a crawl on the other side of the tunnel.

I was started to feel a little tired but still had another 130 miles to go so I fell into line with traffic not stopping until I had left the city far behind.

I had to stretch my back and backside for a few minutes and it was a relief to find a quiet place near the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic site.

The remainder of the ride was uneventful save for the growing discomfort in my backside. I felt as if 11 or 12 hours of riding in a day would be about my limit. Any lingering concerns about the touring capabilities of the Vespa GTS 250ie dissolved with this trip. It's not the machine for everyone but it shouldn't be pigeonholed as an around town errand runner either. It can handle long distances in its own way. It's really up to the rider to decide what he or she is after.


Doug K. said...

Nicely done, Steve. I think this is one of your better entries.


Paul said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Brought back some memories for me also. While in the army -- about 1969 -- I spent some time at Hermine and drove through Pittsburg occasionally. Had a friend who got out of the Army and went to work in the shipyards. Last spring, during my mother's funeral, I went back to the town where I lived during my teens. As you experienced, things changed but not for the better. There was decay, empty building and lifelessness to the town -- not what I saw forty-some years ago. But, the memories are sacred.

Conchscooter said...

I went back to the Italian village where I grew up this summer. My first visit in 25 years... nostalgia, as they say, ain't what it used to be!
I keep telling people small wheels don't mean a thing when it comes to stability and confidence at highb speeds. Seeing is beleiving. I just wish my own Vespa were running...
Nice story, all in all.

hrw115 said...

awh......I miss going to Pittsburgh for holidays and to visit family. But now there is now more family there, no more trips to Moon Township or Aliquippa, only memories. :( It was nice to see pictures of the house you grew up in, and the BBQ grandpa built. It admittedly maked me pretty sad to see the BBQ though, as it does very much look like a monument or memorial. I wish it were in your backyard. :/

Art said...

Brilliant! Thanks for sharing and the awesome pictures. Now I must ride my GT200l to Detroit where I was born and grew up. Thanks for the inspiration.

BTW: A sleek windshiels like the Faco makes for a warmer ride and improves gas mileage.

American Scooterist Blog said...

Great post! Things change and I used to be sad about it, but there's really nothing for me to go back to, as they say. Somehow reading what you wrote makes me feel good that the old towns do indeed change, that they're still vibrant with new ideas and memories still in the process of being made. So while we can never really go back it is nice to visit just to refresh those memories and appreciate some of those roots. Thanks for the memories, Steve.


pzb4 said...

Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Steve. I'm from Ambridge originally, so I'm quite familiar with Neville Island ("the island", as the locals called it) and the surrounding area. I remember going roller skating at the rink on Neville Island. It is still really hard for me to believe that all the steel mills are gone. when I went to the State Street School in Baden, we were right across the river from J&L Steel (Jake & Louie's, as the locals called it), and I remember going out for recess and the air smelling so bad we thought we were going to be sick. Just down the river a bit further was the ABC drive-in theatre. You'd be watching a movie when all of a sudden they'd pour a load of molten slag down the hill across the river, which lit up the sky. All eyes would turn to watch the slag instead of the movie. Yep, those days are gone!

Phil said...


After reading your latest trip on a scooter, going back to the place where it all first started, I want to do the same. I will just have to do with my first and only scooter - Vino 125, I will ride South to my place of birth, growing up, and formation of my memories..Long Beach California.

Thanks again for thought inspiring write up on traveling with a scooter. I wish they, TV travel producers, would cover a person on a scooter, not a motorcycle, car, Van, SUV, nor truck but on a small 250cc and less scooter on his or her travels.

Paul said...

Steve said: The barbeque my father built in the backyard was still there like an anonymous monument to him. Standing there everything seemed small and far away and I just wanted to go home.
Paul Says: Everything seemed small and far away. That's a sad sounding feeling. These photos and comments on your Neville Island trip are my favorite of all your postings on this Blog. The scooter took you to this place in you past and in your heart. I can feel what you must have felt from your comments. It's very good. Touching. -Paul

Oh, hello there. said...

This was a really beautiful post to read.

Steve Williams said...

Doug: Thanks!

paul: The change is startling when so much time has passed between visits. The memories are so different from the physical place that it can feel sad. I try to accept that everything changes and treasure the memories....

conchscooter: Small wheels are fine especially on paved roads. I read your blog to catch up on your mechanical problems with the GTS. Have heart! That thing will run again!

hrw115: You need to come over and help me build one!

art: Thanks for your kind words, I appreciate them. The GT200 can cross the country in style. If I had the time and opportunity I would be crossing the continent right now on the GTS.

Harv: I used to feel sad at the changes and confuse that with loss. I'm better at sorting them out and do appreciate how change is not only inevitable but a good thing too. Holding on to the past too tightly would make me miserable.

pzb4: I had forgotten about the roller rink. I think it was called the Neville Rollerdome or something like that.

I remember watching J&L dumping slag into the river at night while we drove to the shopping center. It was quite impressive. Can you imagine a company trying that today?

What was the name of that place? Northern LIghts? I loved going down there so I could spend all my money in the JC Penneys on fishing tackle. Then to Fanny Farmer for candy.

phil: Make the trip! It's worth it to visit the places of our youth. I'm with you on the TV shows. I think there are plenty of chopper and monster truck shows.

If some producer is reading this I would be more than happy to work on a scooter show.

Paul: there was definitely some sad feelings. Probably mixed with the loss of my parents. But is was good to look at where I came from and remember some things.

Steve Williams said...

oh hello there: thanks! Glad you liked it.

Conchscooter said...

A bit odd thanking you here for your kind words, especially as you know what a sense of loss I am feeling without my scooter. I fear for the future though, a failed connection here, a black box interrupted there, thats all it takes to stop the piston from providing power. My confidence in all the GTS's little black boxes is fading. Like you, I quite like the Bonneville; I wonder if mine might be closer than I like...

CodyandMichelle said...

Wow, talking about walking down memory lane......I also started life in a house not much bigger than yours. My Dad worked for a division of US Steel, but it was in sales. He traveled a lot.
It's fun to go back and wax nostalgia, but it can be depressing sometimes too.....not sure why, just maybe because life seems to have happened so fast and I feel as I get older I'm trying to cram as much living into one day as I can(probably to make up for lost time) and I'm always up for new challenges, which at my now ripe old age of 50, I find my minds says go but the body says whoa!!
This summer I did 200 miles in a day, my hat's off to you for the 300+ day you did, that's a lot of miles on a small bike. Way to go amigo!!
One thing for sure, you now live in a much prettier area!

Phil said...


I wish they can follow you on your expose'in the sticks. For those like myself, a concrete jungle environment, dream and wish for open ground and un-congested thoroughfare with those periodically adventure off into the "Road Less Travel" and on a dirt bike, not a large road bike, but a scooter. I often wish Alton Brown of Feasting on the Asphalt would ride a scooter.

Bill Sommers said...

Thanks for the best trip I didn't take this summer.

Have fun,

Bryce Lee said...

May or may not be as fortunate, still live in the house I came to at the tender age of three in 1948. One parent is gone, the other remains at age 90. I am now retired however busy. The photographs, did you use the D200 or the smaller camera?
And you mentioned your father sold the house in 1963 to move where?
And where are your parents now?

Steve Williams said...

conchscooter: I can understand your doubts about the reliability of the GTS when you are in the middle things. I am looking into the reliability issues myself.

I will say that I have had automobiles with issues that seemed impossible to fix and had me thinking it was just bad and inferior engineering. Each time though it was not so much that but more the problem was beyond the mechanic to diagnose. When the right mechanic came along all was well.

Problem is that there are so few Vespa techs out there.

And even machines have issues that take time to fix.

Anyways, hope things get set right soon.

cody: Memory lane is a nice trip. Wouldn't want to do it all the time but it is a good reminder that time does pass and I shouldn't just stand around watching but try and do more like you say.

phil: I can see Alton on a scooter. Not sure how easy the transition is from BMW GS to Vespa GTS though.

Bill: There's still time for a trip, even out your way!

Bryce Lee: I made the photos for this post with the Nikon D200. Not sure why but I didn't shoot many pictures and wasn't much motivated for the most part. I think because everything was so strange I don't usually think pictures and instead just need to absorb things.

Both my parents are gone now. From Neville Island we moved up on the hill above the river just about 5 miles away and I was there until I went to College and left home for good. Seems like yesterday...

pitchertaker said...

Going back to places of our past always brings up mixed feelings. I want to know the place of my rearing, I want to feel the flood of memories, to see if the memories are real or imagined. Once I went to the town where I lived during my pre-kindergarten years, and visited the old Dr. Pepper bottling plant (now an automatic transmission repair place) where my father worked as a sign painter. How very sad to come upon a guy painting over the "practice signs" Daddy painted on the rear wall of the building. So very strange that the timing of my visit coincided with the painting of that wall. HOWEVER, back to your trip.....I was absolutely shocked to see two image you made while riding, especially the one in the tunnel while moving at 60 mph!!! Kinda' goes against all your writings about riding safety....


Sherry Cameron-Calder said...

that was heart tugging, being from Nova Scotia it is great to see where others are from that I talk to via the computer. That picture of the bbq wouldn't have been as sad if there wasn't a weed growing in the middle. It is hard to realize and accept that the past IS past and we can't get it back. Great great piece of writing. Thank you.

Steve Williams said...

P'taker: I agree that these kinds of trips trigger mixed feelings. It has been good for me to face them though and move on.

As far as the safety issues of shooting while riding.... hmmm. I suppose you are right, it is not the picture of safety because one hand is not on the bars. That said it was only for a 1/15th of a second! Seriously though I am quite careful about it. The first shot I was moving quite slow because of the visibilty issues---perhaps 25 mph.

The tunnel is a different story. I stopped about a mile from the tunnel to put the camera around my neck. I was going to turn on the intervalometer and just let it go but decided to turn the continous mode on and shoot manually. I waited until most of the traffic moved out ahead so I would have a big buffer in case something happened and then reached over with my left hand to trip the shutter. Scooter is quite stable in the tunnel because the road surface was very smooth. Another reason I actually tried it. Had it been uneven and wierd I would have let it go.

Anyways, a calculated risk.

sherry: The fellow said he didn't use it anymore. I'm surprised it wasn't torn down.

Jack said...

Steve, great post. Having a friend from East McKeesport and having made my first trip from the Midwest to Pittsburgh some thirty-five years ago your post floods me with memories of that trip. Great photos and glad you enjoyed the ride and thanks, as usual, for sharing your thoughts and pics.

Jeremy Z said...

Nice blog. You have inspired me to update mine a couple of times. I have some photography talent, but have a hard time forcing myself to stop riding and set up and take the shots.

Steve Williams said...

jack: Glad you enjoyed the post. Recalling old memories can be a good thing sometimes. East McKeesport has changed a lot in 35 years. I guess we all have...

jeremey z: Stopping to take pictures is an acquired skill I think. It is easy to be in a hurry and focused on a destination where every stop seems like a distraction. I've learned to live for the stops and can make quite a few at times. Several in a mile. That really slows down progress but then again what is progress?

Prashanth M said...

wonderful write-up & beautiful photos!!

Anonymous said...

i too grew up on the island . still have a uncle that lives there. i rember the first time coming back after leaving, smelling that foul smell from neville chemical, foul but it smelled like home. your story could have been written by me. thank you for the same memories. i also have gone back on a motor cycle and it is a veiw of a different sort . thanks again scott

ejcarr said...

great writing and photography. Loved the story and the flow. Really touching. so funny to see your scooter parked in the driveway where we played.


Schnarpsel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Schnarpsel said...

just now read this - some 5 years after your trip. I think my favorite part were the descriptions of the tar bubble poking, of meeting the owner of your childhood home and him still being the same your dad sold his house to, and the "conclusion" of it, standing at the barbeque grill... Very nice indeed. Apart from the 320 mile distance which made my butt hurt just imagining it...