The road from Chicago’s south side to Pittsburgh is a little more than 450 miles east on the I-80 through Indiana and Illinois which took almost a day to drive.  I arrived in Pittsburgh just in time for rush hour, a rather unpleasant time in the City of Bridges. The next Pirates game wasn’t until the next day so I bided my time cracking leftover peanuts out the window as traffic crawled along the exit to Boulevard of the Allies.  As I navigated the narrow, elevated highways through downtown Pittsburgh, I realized that most of the major roads in this town are just a series of chutes and ladders that funnel traffic from one location to another. No wonder the traffic is so bad, not to mention the infamous “Pittsburgh Left” where a driver making a left turn across an intersection with a stop light breaks left (or gets waved) across the intersection before the on-coming traffic has a chance to proceed with the right-of-way.

I spent a few days in Pittsburgh, my friends from Alaska, Dan and Sarah live in a part of Pittsburgh called “Squirrel Hill” near the campuses of Carnegie-Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh.  Dan is a PhD student in Quantum Computing, the concept of which he tried to explain to me in layman’s terms but I really didn’t understand it anyway.  Never-the-less, upon my arrival at their place Dan whisked me away to a Hack Pittsburgh meeting where he was holding a lock-picking demonstration.  Not really baseball related, but true-to-form for my friend Dan.  I spent the evening trying my hand at opening various locks and managed to pop open a 3-tumbler cylinder lock and a MasterLockTM padlock by the end of the evening.  I was left feeling proud of myself, since the only lock I had ever picked prior to that evening was an El Cheapo wafer lock that I got that the dollar store when I was in college.

Overlooking PNC Park from across the Allegheny River

When the game rolled around on the 8th of June, Dan and I made the trip into downtown to purchase tickets at the PNC box office (I’ve discovered that you can save quite a bit of money by not paying fees to buy your tickets online and on a trip like this every little bit counts). The Pirates were scheduled to play the Kansas City Royals  and Erik Bedard was scheduled as the starting pitcher for the Pirates.  As a Seattle Mariners fan, watching Bedard pitch is bittersweet; his trade to the Mariners in 2008 is considered the 3rd worst trade in the team’s history (at least according to this list) and he spent the majority of his time in Seattle on the Disabled List before being released to free agency in 2011.

Dan, Sarah and I enjoyed the ball game (Dan and Sarah’s first) from the high spiral walk-way in left field which was a nice vantage to enjoy the game from on a hot summer evening.  The Pirates easily won the ballgame 4-2 over the Royals and the P-Nuts loved it. Free T-Shirt night at the ballpark made up for having to watch a former Mariner throw a winning game.

On my last full day in Pittsburg, Dan and Sarah took me on an unusual hike: to a graveyard.  Just a couple blocks from their house is a large cemetery filled with marble façade crypts and chiseled with names like Carnegie and Heinz.  It turns out that it is more of a park now, considering that most of the people buried there have been dead for more than 50 years.  The lush canopy of trees seemed to go on for miles as I looked up from the walking/bicycling paths below.  One of the attributes about Pittsburg that I was surprised to discover is how green the city really is. I remember an elderly uncle of mine who grew up here telling me stories of watching the slag heaps being built in the ‘Burg when he was a kid.  However, my experience there was nothing like that.  In fact, from what I’ve been told Pittsburg has the largest are of contiguous parks in any metro area in the U.S. with the exception of New York City (which has Central Park).

Half a roast beef sandwich topped with coleslaw and fries from Primanti Brothers

After the walk through the park, ahem, cemetery we got some lunch at an establishment that is unique to Pittsburg: Primanti Bros. sandwiches.  Pittsburgh claims to be the originator of the practice of putting French fries on a sandwich and Primanti Bros has perfected that tradition by adding coleslaw in place of lettuce and other trimmings.  I ordered the roast beef sandwich and was very much enamored by the combination of thin sliced deli meat packed onto a two thick pieces of sourdough bread which is then covered with a thick layer of shoestring potato fries and then topped with coleslaw (and mind you, this is not the sweet and mayo-saturated coleslaw served on the West Coast, instead it is vinegary and thick with cabbage).  I ate my fill, which was only one massive half of the sandwich I ordered and packed the other half for the road.  Y’inz (that’s native P-town for “y’all”) will love the sandwiches at Primanti Bros and I recommend a trip to The Pitt just to try one.

From Pittsburgh, my next stop was an all-too-brief social call back in Washington DC where I stopped in on my friends Jason and Jen again.  No ballgames were on the agenda but it was a great opportunity to sample more of the fantastic food in the area around the capitol.  This time they took me to an amazing Peruvian place that has custom chicken roasting machinery right in the restaurant and produces some of the most flavorful birds I’ve ever had. I took the time to pick a couple cartons of smokes while I was in tobacco country as well.  Parliament Lights ring up at about $45/carton in Virginia but over in Washington state they are almost twice the price.  What a coup d’etat it would be to bring a several cartons of half-priced smokes home to my sister.

When my time in DC was up (and then some), I hopped into the van and pointed it westward with some finality.  The East Coast leg of my journey was over and the next stop was St. Louis, 800 miles away.  The GPS pointed me north, up the I-40 through Maryland and back into Pennsylvania.  As I passed through Cumberland, Maryland and the surrounding mountains I sang bits and pieces of Grateful Dead songs to myself, which seemed appropriate to me.  The views from this part of the Appalachians were fantastic; each time I crested a ridge, I was treated to a splendid view of the sun waning over the green fertile valleys of forests and fields in the distance.

By nightfall, I had passed through West Virginia and into Ohio once more.  Somewhere past Columbus, I finally pulled the van over, which in the morning I discovered was less than an hour from the Indiana state line.  The van and I spent the whole next day driving through mid-western farmland, Indiana and Illinois went by in a blur as I raced to make the game in St. Louis, fortunately when the van crossed into Illinois I gained hour by crossing into another time zone and actually arrived with a couple hours to spare.

Busch Stadium, home of the Cardinals is nestled right off the I-40 freeway near the Gateway Arch on the Western bank of the Mississippi river.  Built mostly of brick, it has the retro styling of Brooklyn’s Ebbet’s Field (RIP) and even though it was built in 2006 it has already seen a World Series win just last year.

The van rolled off the freeway and into downtown St. Louis and the tide of red shirted Cardinal fans marching toward the stadium impressed me. In fact I briefly worried about the availability of tickets but  my fears were quickly alleviated as soon as I discovered that almost every street corner was occupied by a scalper.  This time I had no need for scalpers and would purchase my seats from the box office instead.  My seats were in the nosebleed section but I discovered that being on the top deck had its advantages: the views of downtown St. Louis and the Arch were fantastic from way up there.

View of the Gateway Arch from the Busch Stadium upperdeck

The ballgame itself was less than memorable, a nine inning pitching duel interrupted by a solitary home run in the 3rd inning by Carlos Beltran that gave the Cardinals a slim victory over the Chicago White Sox.  From the upper deck seating great pitching is hard to appreciate, so I spent the last innings wandering around the stadium stuffing my face with ballpark food and taking pictures.

However, I found a little bit of the soul of St. Louis after the game let out.  As I walked back to my car, I passed through a small park (Kiener Plaza according to Bing Maps) where kids were playing in a large, shallow fountain made of flat, un-hewn granite stones.  That summer day had been hot and I stopped to wet my feet with them.  With my feet submerged in the cool, rippling water I decided to take a timeout for the night and enjoy the local nightlife.  Stepping out of the water and passing by the Hooters on the corner I found a quiet little hole-in-the-wall joint about a block away that was just opening up for the evening called the Red Door Saloon.

I sat at the bar sipping my gin and grapefruit (yes, it’s an old lady drink but it’s also my standard poison) while I watched highlights from the baseball game on the screen above the bar.  Chatting with the bartender about my Major League Road Trip was fun and he was an interesting cat but the slow trickle of folks into the bar was a bit too anemic for me so I paid my tab and stepped outside.  Out on the sidewalk, several gentlemen sat on patio furniture drinking, smoking and conversing, and as I walked past they invited me to sit and chat with them.  Turns out that you can drink alcohol openly on the streets of downtown St. Louie, or at least the police have better things to do than hassle you if you do and you aren’t causing a problem.

Neon lights in St. Louis

As the cigarette smoke curled into the warm summer air and 80’s rock blared from within the empty bar, we discussed the St. Louis bar scene and the short but checkered past of the Red Door Saloon,  and how the owner (who I discovered was sitting next to me) had come to own the establishment.

Apparently, he was the “unofficial” mayor of St. Louis and owned as many as 4 different local businesses including a party bus and a nearby pizza joint.  The previous owner of the Red Door (which was technically part of the Chinese restaurant next door) had been run by a local gangster who stood accused of selling drugs and pimping from the premises .  Recently, the aspiring Mr. Big had been taken down by the local police and the owner of the Chinese restaurant had asked our local entrepreneur (and obligingly Good Samaritan) to step in and clean up the joint.  I spent the rest of the evening listening to all his stories as the inebriated little pixies and their admirers stumbled by, flirted with us and danced/stumbled off into the night around us.  As I wandered back to the van, I decided that St. Louis definitely had soul and that this was a favorite stop on my road trip.