57 varieties of Pittsburgh history


I came to Pittsburgh with a single goal: To visit the Andy Warhol Museum. Beyond that, I wasn't sure what my time here would be like or if I'd even enjoy it. Almost a week in, I've grown quite fond of it here.

I can't remember where, but somewhere in my research about Pittsburgh I read that the original set of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was on display at the Senator John Heinz History Center. Being that I grew up on a steady diet of Fred Rogers alongside Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and Eureka's Castle, I knew I wasn't going to be able to leave Pittsburgh without paying respect to such an icon of children's entertainment and education.

I spent the morning writing at the lovely cafe on Butler Street that's slowly become my second home during my stay here. The locals murmered about how it was unseasonably cold outside. I felt a sense of gratitude for that fact, as I sauntered around the neighborhood in a black shirt-jacket and jeans, feeling more like myself in a full ensemble of clothing than I had in months in the sweltering and unending Florida heat.

I left the cafe and boarded the 91 bus toward downtown. The heat had started to pick up at the bus stop and an older man with a cane stood beside the trashcan on the street corner flicking his cigarette.

I pulled the cord and got off at 12th and Liberty. At first I wasn't sure where I'd find the museum, but the giant ketchup sign revealed itself soon enough. I walked around the building and found the entrance:

Senator John Heinz History Center

I walked in, paid my admission, and made my way up the stairs to the first exhibits. First was an exhibit on Pittsburgh sports, which admittedly I skipped since, you know, I love sports.

Then there was an exhibit about innovation in Pittsburgh. A couple reproductions of postwar households caught my eye, since they attempted to portray the rise of consumerism in America after the Second World War:

Heinz History Center - Postwar

Heinz History Center - WQED and Early

When I reached the fourth floor, I finally found the Mister Rogers television set in all its glory:

Heinz History Center - Mister Rogers

Heinz History Center - Mister Rogers
set - Castle

My favorite thing about travel is finding myself immersed in the unexpected. I had no intention of coming to Pittsburgh before I decided that was the path I'd take from Asheville. And out of that one decision, I was thrust into a whole new place and time that I'll always remember fondly. Before last week, Pittsburgh existed only in my imagination. Now I've experienced, bit by bit, its culture, its landscape, and its people. I'm grateful to be a guest here and have met so many wonderful folks along the way.

Now I'm curious where my journey will take me next. I'm planning on visiting my aunt and uncle in Upstate New York on Friday, after which I'll have a few days to kill before my apartment in Montreal is ready for me. Vermont might be calling me, or perhaps I'll drive all the way to Quebec City for a few days before I head settle in Montreal. Travel without a plan is both intensely stressful, as well as immeasurably rewarding. Had I planned my entire trip I probably wouldn't have stopped here at all, and instead booked it all the way up Interstate 95 as fast as I could to Montreal. My meandering has granted the trip a sense of spotanaeity, and to me, that's beautiful.

Accepting you're a dirty mess

Vincent, with fruit

I woke up in the middle of the night on Saturday to the chaotic pitter-patter of rain drops on Vincent's back. In the evening I'd had the thought that perhaps I ought to pack away my camp furniture since it might rain, but paid it no mind and snoozed away. When I emerged from slumber, I squarely regretted my neglect and found my yoga mat waterlogged like a sponge.

The rain stopped for a few hours, during which I managed to drive Vincent out of the mud to a dead suburban mall several miles north to seek refuge and do my daily writing. I find a strange sense of solace in the bowels of suburban shopping malls—relics of what felt to me like a simpler time. This mall, nestled in the middle of Applachia, was particularly dead; I think there were more mall walkers circumscribing the mall's dark tiles than there were stores open for business.

I sat in the food court for a few hours writing and watching the people walk by. I made small talk with the security guard and asked him if there was wifi. And I took a break to make a cup of coffee on my camp stove in the parking lot, since the mall was so dead there wasn't even a place to get a cup of coffee.

It's funny, but sometimes the most benign and uneventful days are the most memorable. I'll never forget stumbling upon that shopping mall in the middle of suburban Pittsburgh and seeing it not as a blight on the landscape, but as a brilliant climate controlled oasis.

When I returned to the campground, I noticed it had thinned out considerably. Being that most of the campers were probably local residents, I imagine they decided sitting in the rain wasn't how they wanted to spend their weekend. I, however, was stuck, unless I wanted to get a hotel room, which, I didn't. So I made the best of a muddy situation. I went for a short hike. I made ramen noodles for dinner. I watched online videos about living in vans.

And then, the rains came again. This time, worse than the night before. I checked the weather report and there was an advisory that there could be 55-mile-per-hour winds and nickel-sized hail. Luckily, neither of these came to fruition, but I weighed my options and decided I could always seek shelter in the lavatory building if things got dicey.

I called my brother and we talked at length about life and my trip and his upcoming trip and I was at a bit more peace. As I went to sleep, the rains started again and I knew when I woke up I would be greeted by more mud puddles and damp clothes.

There comes a point when you're on the road where you stop trying to keep yourself up and just accept that you're a filthy mess. As I sit here awaiting my next rented room in Pittsburgh, my skin is oily, my head unshaven, my feet filthy, my clothes dirty, and my body aching. But it is what it is. Tomorrow I'll undoubtedly be elated to have woken up in a real bed in a room with ceilings suitable for standing. But now, I'm the dirty vagabond, going here, there, and nowhere in particular.

It's moments like this that make me wonder why I'm so persistent in my pursuit of adventure when I could very well have the kind of stable, secure life that many people forced into a life of nomadism would kill for. Is this sort of pursuit merely one of selfish indulgence?

I left on this trip, like all my road trips before it, to find America. It's hiding here somewhere, whether in the row houses of Lawrenceville or the steel mills of Appalachia. Maybe it's in the grateful spirit of an immigrant for whom Walmart does not represent a sort of American overindulgence, but instead represents their newfound land of plenty in a world of poverty. I am constantly in awe at the wonder and glory of this land in spite of its horrors, its inequities, and its wastefulness.

America, I love you, but it's not easy.

A leisurely hourslong walk to the Warhol

The Andy Warhol Bridge

I returned to the loft after my morning coffee and writing to shed the clothes I'd donned in the chilly, overcast morning and prepare for my journey down the river to the Warhol Museum.

I began walking toward downtown on Butler Street and my stomach rumbled. I came across a homegrown breakfast place several blocks into the walk and so I popped in for a bite.

The thing that strikes me most about Pittsburgh is its colonial influence in the architecture. Pittsburgh was founded before the Revolutionary War, and so it's a wonderland of diverse architectural styles reaching all the way back to the time of British rule. It's wild stuff to spend time in a place with so much history.

I walked through the Strip District, which felt like a strange combination of tourist junk shops and warehouses. There I asked a couple locals for directions, and they told me I could walk down to the river where there was a multi-use path.

The banks of the Alleghany are lush with greenery and the infrastructure is haunting and historic. Again, you get the sense here that real stuff happened.

Eventually, I reached the Three Sisters, of which one is named after Andy Warhol. I walked up the stairs from the river path and found myself suspended above the river. And suddenly, the museum's signage could be seen in the distance on the north banks.

Here are some shots from inside the museum:

Warhol balloons

Warhol sculpture

I walked back over the bridge into downtown, and caught the 91 bus back to Lawrenceville.