The Uphill Slide

There is always something.

Trekking the Pittsburgh StepTrek


I woke up yesterday to the sound of rain on Jacob’s new metal roof. Just a couple of days ago I bought a ticket to Pittsburgh StepTrek 2015 to find the hidden steps around the South Side and challenge myself with this climb of the hillside. I learned that the StepTrek is an annual event in its 15th year now; this is my first time though. Listening to the rain, I pondered if I should go. I did not want to get drenched since I was still recovering from a cold. I ate something for breakfast and looked at emails. I decided to get a shower and then decide. The shower rejuvenated and re-energized, so I decided to take this trek. I got dressed in some warm, yet easy to shed clothes. I knew I would be cold in this 50 degree rainy weather, but eventually I would be raising my heart rate and warming up. My Fitbit battery was low, so I plugged it into my computer and charged my spare battery for my phone. Soon I was ready to hit the slopes of the South Side.

I left the house heading for the South Side. A police officer was blocking the intersection of 8th Avenue and the Homestead Grays Bridge. I did not see any flashing lights or wrecked cars. We sat there a few minutes with no sign of what was happening. Why was he blocking our way? Soon cars came down the hill with funeral flags and turned left. The hearse led followed by a gray stretch limousine followed by more cars and then four or five tow trucks. The deceased must have owned a tow truck company. When that procession ended, another started down the hill crossing the Homestead Grays Bridge this time. Finally, everyone was on their way to their final destinations. At last I reached the UPMC employee parking lot at 21st and Josephine Street. From the parking lot, it was just a short walk to the tables set up to check in. A woman handed me a booklet with the directions for two routes, the Black Route and the Gold Route. The Black Route at 3.29 miles was .24 miles longer and had 1,692 steps or 242 more steps than the Gold Route. I chose the Black Route and decided I would walk the Gold Route another day. This booklet also included history of the neighborhood and buildings that I read as I walked each step. My route started with a climb up the 102 steps beneath the Mission Street Bridge. The steps were perhaps newly painted for this day. Two young men were behind me, so I let them pass because I knew I would be stopping for photos. I had already started with photos of these first steps. I was following close behind these young men as we started across the bridge, but I stopped for pictures from the bridge railing across the rooftops of the South Side and across the river to the city.  They were gone from my sight now, but I would see them again later on the route. At the end of the bridge to the left was the Mission Street Pumping Station built in the early 20th century which has ornate reliefs around the building. Even utilitarian buildings of years ago needed some ornamentation and ostentation. Just past this pumping station was St. Josephat Church. I was to turn right and climb the steps up the hill before this church, but I walked to the front of the church for a better view. The church is closed now. So many churches and schools in Pittsburgh are now abandoned with boarded up and broken windows wearing ‘For Sale’ signs. According to the guide book, this church is slated to be converted to living space in the future. I think now how my pictures today will preserve something that will soon be lost. Even now I have lost the past of this church. I will never see the ornate columns and arches inside the church or the picture of the Black Madonna that once hung there. These are the churches with their pointy steeples or bell towers or onion domes that rise above the houses of Pittsburgh still beckoning us to visit. I am fascinated by these churches and often wish I could go inside. I cannot really say what draws me to them. Perhaps it is their  size and ornate architecture from a century ago and their appearance as beacons of the neighborhood. Perhaps it is that they stand as wealth seeming out-of-place among the plain houses of the working class neighborhoods.

I continued on the route, climbing up and down the steps, looking across the rooftops at the familiar buildings of downtown Pittsburgh and across to the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland. The houses on these hillsides are amazing, difficult to reach at times on narrow streets and possibly tortuous in the winter months; yet they have so many amazing views of the city. I felt at times that I was perched precariously on the hillside, and if I started falling I might not stop until I rolled to the bottom. A couple of times I stood at the bottom of steps and could not see the top of the tiered steps. That is steep! I have driven on streets here and other neighborhoods of Pittsburgh where I envisioned my car sliding backwards and then flipping end over end. I did feel safer walking some of these streets. The steps on these routes were predominantly concrete with painted iron railings; however there are a few sets of wooden steps, particularly treacherous on a rainy day. As Pittsburghers might say, “They were a little slippy.” I cannot imagine walking these steps and hills in the snow and ice, yet I would fear driving even more.

I am not sure how many people attended this event, but I was often alone on the route in the beginning. As I passed the halfway mark, I met a few people who probably had started after me and caught up. I stopped for photos and sometimes a short detour. I was taking a picture of some graffiti on one street, and a woman in a car with her daughter told me there was more on the side of a house. I saw the tagging on some light-colored siding. This is not often the medium used for graffiti and tagging, and it did not transfer to a photo. I stopped at a refreshment tent for a bottle of water and a piece of candy. A young man was playing guitar, so I dropped a dollar in his case. I continued on, and a man stopped me to ask why the tent was set up. Obviously the neighborhoods do not all follow the news of their neighborhood association. Up and down, over and up, over and down, I followed the route.  I came to a street with a crossing guard just as Roy phoned me. He was at Jacob’s house and wondered where I was. “I’m still walking,” I said. “I’ll be a half hour or forty-five minutes if you want to wait. We can get something to eat then.” I hung up and said to the crossing guard who was making sure people crossed safely that he might have come with me. (I know his feet could not take it though.) She said she had only crossed about 29 people. That low figure surprised me, but maybe more were walking the Gold Route. When I got back to the starting point though, there were people just coming to start the trek. Perhaps they had waited for the weather to clear and were in no rush to get here. After all, this is not a race with a prize at the end or a record to break. This is a walk to sight see around the South Side and find hidden places, a challenge to the body, or just a time to spend with family or friends. The prize is your own satisfaction in completing the course and enjoying the day while helping the organization raise money to preserve the neighborhood.

About a week ago I walked a couple sets of steps near P J McArdle Roadway and wondered who maintained these steps or how often they are used.  According to the brochure given out for this trek, the city maintains the steps but in one area the city chose to remove them rather than repair. One small section of these hillside homes near Mary St. must keep these steps as the their only access to their houses.  It certainly would be a chore to move in here or go shopping and lugs bags up these steps. Certainly this is a good excuse for ordering take-out or ordering home supplies from online retailers for home delivery. I passed the mailman on one street and thought he was probably in good shape walking these routes every day. It was certainly my workout for the day, and I could feel it in all my muscles. Unfortunately I forgot to put my Fitbit back on before leaving the house. So now I am forced to retrace my steps another day to check my mileage and active minutes for the 2 ½ hours I was out on the route. I will walk the Black Route again as well as the Gold Route another day. There is much more to be discovered in these neighborhoods.


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