Apparently, the Internet informs us, North America once hosted its very own hyena. The Chasmaporthetes ossifragus managed to cross the Bering Land Bridge from Asia, make its way south to present-day Arizona and Mexico, and then east to what’s now Florida. There’s no mention of the big cat up here in the Northeast. This smaller, faster hyena seems to have gone extinct around one million years ago.
So how did a little North Side alley and dramatic flight of 166 city steps end up with the name Hyena Way? We have no idea. But the loosey-goosey manner with which Pittsburgh ended up naming its back alleys would make for a near endless supply of Orbit fodder–if only we knew how to figure out the explanations.
When last we left you, Team Orbit was ascending the cluster of vertical streets on the eastern half of California-Kirkbride. The North Side neighborhood is small, but hosts an outsize number of both steps and viewpoints. Today we head just a couple blocks west to the thrilling pair of steps that meet at the end of the paved section of Hyena Way.
Visible from the main road as a straight climb right up the hillside, Hyena Way begs for a visit from anyone glancing in from California Ave. and excited about such things. We are powerless against this siren call, and thus continued the journey up, over, around, and down.
All that mumbo-jumbo last week about how you can see so much more before the leaves come back to the trees really makes sense on these two stretches. Both flights have tall spindly trees right up to the handrails and it’s obvious they’ll generate a thick canopy over the walkways soon enough. That’ll be beautiful in its own right, but it behooves the step-hiker to catch these long views while she or he can.
From Hyena, you’re looking almost due south, over the railyards and Manchester, across rivers to downtown and Mount Washington. It’s a lovely, long scope that encompasses many great landmarks in the city all from one vantage point.
Marvista is perpendicular to Hyena and therefore faces west as one looks out from the top. There are fewer name-brand attractions in this direction, but it’s no less a pleasure to take in the landscape all the same.
Where Marvista and Hyena meet is a fascinating cluster of still-in-use city steps (the two main flights) plus obsolete connectors and spurs–often terminating at empty foundations and tree-filled lots. The complexity of steps at this junction speaks to those same refrains we think about on most of these hikes: how this once-dense city neighborhood lost the vast majority of both its population and housing stock in the 140-or-so years since it was laid out and the fact that no one really needs to hike down the hillside every day to get to work. This gruesome one-two punch make any like them endangered species.
But as infrastructure of pleasure–recreation, meditation, and speculation, not to mention a history lesson in every walk–the steps of Hyena Way and Marvista Street are just about as exciting and beautiful as anywhere in the city. Some–certainly those who prefer solitude and exploration–will argue they’re even more valuable than their well-dressed and more popular peers along the riverfronts or up on Grandview Ave.
There was a plan to include a map and suggested walking route for all the steps in California-Kirkbride. But as we plotted it out on paper, there was just no obvious loop to bag all the steps and get you back to where you started. It was going to end up being a confusing figure-8 or something and the truth is that it’s just not that hard to come up with your own plan if you’re so-inclined.
The trees are budding, so you won’t have these views for long. Get up there, stretch your gams, and keep your eyes open–maybe you’ll even spot one last hyena.
Step Beat is an occasional series where The Orbit describes interesting features of Pittsburgh’s 700+ sets of public city steps.
 Source: Brian Switek, “North America Used to Have its Very Own Hyena,” Smithsonian Magazine, Oct. 3, 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/north-america-once-had-hyena-its-very-own-180960673/