Pittsburgh Slag Heaps

We are, inevitably and constantly, consumed by whatever we turn our attention to.

Sometimes it’s the light—the brightness of sun reflecting off the yellow beams of the 31st Street Bridge as you pound your pedals to beat traffic gliding over the Allegheny River or the headlights of oncoming cars as your tires thrum across the black iron grates of the Hot Metal Bridge over the Monongahela River at 1 a.m. on your way back from some house part on the South Side. 

Sometimes it’s the snow that blankets a city you barely know and are seeing for the first time after having met a kid named Oliver who figured out how to get onto the highest balcony of the Cathedral of Learning 40 floors up by crawling out a window in a forgotten stairwell. That night the smoke we exhaled melted snow and we leaned out from the ledge and looked down at the sidewalks glittered in lamplight and traced car lights blinking in the blizzard trying to map a city neither of us knew, trying to figure out a way to navigate this new life clustered among people and concrete. 

Sometimes it’s the unknown, the falling feeling of trusting in gravity and topography. 

***

The city confused me. I knew how to walk the sidewalks and look both ways before crossing Forbes Ave. and to watch the skyline at sunset to find calm in the sprawl, but I saw the city only as someone merely visiting it, not living it. I couldn’t figure out its rhythm so I smoked cigarettes hoping they’d teach me how to breathe in that city air. I walked to class with headphones on, listening to Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” thinking that the street offered only noise, not music. I smoked weed relentlessly, foggy and detached, muddled in my constant inner dialogue circling a self so insecure that it was convinced passing a joint was the only way to make friends. Everything was a blur and when it wasn’t, I made sure to smear something across it. In the winter, I didn’t need to do much of that since the city smears itself in a perpetual briny gray mixture of snow, salt, and dark rivers. I felt safer and warmer during those months in that dull contentment of just existing. 

Until sometime in the spring when I remembered I had brought my bike with me—an old Trek mountain bike—and took it out to ride around campus just for something to do that didn’t involve smoking or trying to impress someone when I saw a sign for Critical Mass taped to a telephone pole. Every last Thursday of the month, meet in front of Hillman Library, 7:30. That was tomorrow. 

The next day I rode over to the parking lot towards the group of bikers and stopped near the edge, not knowing how to enter spaces with so many people. There were the crust punk kids that rode bikes built from a hodgepodge of parts, the bike messengers with their fixies and sling packs, a few of us college kids from Pitt and Carnegie Mellon riding not-so-dirty bikes, and twenty-something working college graduates riding decked out commuter rigs with fenders and racks. The idea was simple: we ride together in a pack down the streets to make the drivers aware of us, to make our presence undeniable, and to hopefully build awareness for bikers and the need for bike lanes. There were two “leaders” that rode slightly ahead, positioning themselves in the middle of intersections to stop traffic. I rode safely in the middle, cushioned by other bikers from the honking cars and middle fingers as we made our way downtown and across the Andy Warhol Bridge, up through the aviary and whipping around the stadiums back across the Clemente Bridge towards Smithfield Bridge and into the Southside, and by this point I had fallen towards the back of the crowd and as we rolled across the Hot Metal Bridge with the Monongahela below us I looked upstream and there was Justin and we just laughed because riding bikes across bridges that hum under your tires is just so joyful. It was the first joy I felt in months, a joy that came out of nowhere and everywhere, that grounded me in a moment with other people, that opened me up to the place I was in completely, without reservations, as I flew across those grates. I wanted to chase that joy, to feel it again and be consumed by it, so I kept riding my bike, mostly with Justin. 

We’d meet up after class and ride around the city, most often with no destination in mind. It was the first time I discovered how many mysteries the city had. Every bridge ran over rivers that we always found our way down to so we could ride alongside them, and ravines we always descended into to find the lost parts of Pittsburgh that felt like little swaths of urban wilderness. Our bikes took us where we needed to go without us ever really knowing how we got there. The bicycle is a beautiful thing. Functional and practical, simple in its design and purpose. All you need is a bit of balance and you can pedal anywhere you want. It also builds community easily. When you ride with someone, you quickly fall into each other’s rhythms and movements. We learned how to weave in and out of traffic and which alleys were the steepest and which bars had good places to lock our bikes up outside of. We became consumed by the cadence of our pedal strokes and the joy in climbing steep inclines and resting at the top with a new view of the skyline. 

***

By our senior year we shared a house on Juliet Street, deep in South Oakland across the Boulevard of the Allies—a red brick row home with four rooms. By that point I had built up a single speed out of an old Fuji steel bike at Kraynick’s bike shop where you could go and work on your bike and Jerry would help troubleshoot problems and you’d spend a couple of bucks on brake cables and pads. I rode that thing all across the city—to class and to concerts, on night rides with Justin, where we’d find loose gravel along railroad tracks that’d take us along one of the rivers and its liminal light. We’d sit and drink cheap beer and I’d smoke my hand-rolled Bali Shag cigarettes and sometimes we talked, but mostly we’d just lean against our bikes watching the urban landscape unfold around us in the assuredness that at any moment we could just get on our bikes and ride somewhere new and find something we’d never seen before.

When we were feeling found and wanting to get lost, we’d ride through Schenley Park and Squirrel Hill into Frick Park and turn on lights we had strapped to our handlebars that only showed us what was exactly, immediately, in front of us. That little halo of light became our world. The dirt singletrack our tires rolled across became our focus and we finally were just, simply, in the moment, the wildness of the immediate. The more we rode the more we realized that joy was found right in front of us and the more you found it, the more you were consumed by it. My insecurity turned into wonder in those moments of feral laughter when I could feel the city in me as our wheels and bodies arced along its terrain and we became its topography, no longer apart from but part of

We’d make our way down to Fern Hollow Creek with our cadence matching the rhythm of water over rock and pound our pedals back uphill to the slag heaps across the ridge along Nine Mile Run where we’d stop at the top for the final descent. Blackness. Flickers of light on the Monongahela. Culm piles of old steel beams and concrete. My first taste of post-industrial wilderness. There was a moment when slag ended and river began, an edge, a crumble right before wheels took the ledge and rolled you over the slick slag and Oh! God! Those blurring lights and your body bracing and you are falling and gravity consumes you and you cannot just exist here, no, you have to balance and bury the bike between your legs and touch the brake when you feel yourself lurching over your center and the front wheel turning relentlessly towards the horizontal plane becomes a mantra that leads you to wherever this terrain is taking you and somehow you smoothly make the angle where vertical meets flat and you’re parallel to the ground again, born into a slowing momentum, and then there’s a beer on the lips, a cigarette between fingers, and so much night, so much edge, so much joy, and you are consumed by the moment and consumed by the camaraderie and consumed by this beautiful place.  

Cover Photo: Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons

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