Hollers to Doughnuts: Cycling the Beaver Valley Six-Pack

Beaver Greens Park and Ohio River on a sunny fall day

Picture perfect. View of Beaver Greens Park, Bridgewater Crossing, and the Ohio River from River Road, Beaver

[Breathes deeply, sighs wistfully.]

If only it was October all year long. This…err, last month’s magic powers are almost too numerous to name. Golden, low-angle sunshine fans through dappled multicolor leaves. Crisp morning air yields to warm, t-shirt weather afternoons. Decorative gourd fantasias tell us the aroma of pumpkin spice and mulled apple cider is wafting somewhere nearby as the whimsical array of dismembered body parts, sadistic clowns, and sprays of blood spatter signal the most wonderful of holiday seasons is fully upon us.

elaborate Halloween decorations on house and yard in Monaca, PA

The most wonderful holiday season, Monaca

Give this blogger a day off and a blue sky and you’ll inevitably find him on a bicycle, worldly cares dismissed for the afternoon. This particular October day (it was Saturday, two weeks ago) was just such an occasion. Maps were consulted, timetables checked, and the S.S. Orbit charted a course downriver.

The goal for this particular journey was to construct our own custom bicycle-based tour through a series of nearly-contiguous river towns. We’re calling the route The Beaver Valley Six-Pack. If you get the chance and you’re so-inclined–there is still time–we can’t think of a better way to enjoy a gorgeous autumn day.

Below is the path we took along with some highlights. That said, as long as you get the interchanges right, it’s pretty much choose-your-own-adventure on this one. Stay off the busy roads–that turns out to be pretty easy–and you really can’t go wrong.

rooftop decoration of Santa with 10 reindeer made from toilet bowls, Monaca, PA

Santa and 10 tiny reindeer-toilets, Monaca

Monaca

We started in Monaca and went north. There’s a good argument to go the other direction, but we’ll get into that later. In any case, one can safely park a car on anywhere around 9th Street and the vehicle should remain unmolested as long as you like.

Don’t be too quick to get across the river! An easy trundle through the longer residential streets  (Washington, Indiana, and Atlantic Aves.) is well worth the poke-see, as are the dramatic river views from Monaca’s pair of waterfront parklets.

View of the Ohio River and train bridge from Monaca, PA

View of the Ohio River from the Monaca riverfront

Right now, the city is well represented in holiday decoration with an ample supply of front yard witches, skeletons, and gravestones. You’ll also not want to miss the Christmas-all-year display of Santa and his ten tiny reindeer toilets (photo above) on the roof of a garage behind the Japanese steakhouse.

ghost sign reading "Monaca Business Block," Monaca, PA

Ghost sign, Monaca

Whenever you’re ready, the giant bridge over the Ohio River awaits. It comes straight off 9th Street and there’s a protected bicycle/pedestrian gangway on the north-bound side. Newish signage states this will part of a future, more formalized Beaver County bicycle trail–but we can’t wait for that.

We saw no other non-vehicles on our crossing and while the views up and down the Ohio River are spectacular, we didn’t manage to get a photo worth sharing. Maybe you can do better.

large elevated sign for DeAngelis Donuts, Rochester, PA

DeAngelis Delightfully Different Donuts, Rochester

Rochester to Bridgewater

Arriving on the north bank of the Ohio, you’d swear the municipality was named DeAngelis for the size and placement of the enormous welcome sign. It’s not. No, Rochester just happens to begin (or end) at DeAngelis “Delightfully Different” Donuts which somehow commandeers the enviable location where the little city’s downtown intersects with the bridge and Routes 51/65 highway through-traffic.

A dirty secret: The Orbit has been to Rochester a dozen times on various field trips and never stopped for a DeAngelis donut (sic.). We’ll rectify that one of these days.

Rochester has a cool–but, sadly, vacant–old downtown just downhill from where you are now. There’s also a riverfront bowling alley whose exterior you’ll recognize from Kingpin the next you see it. This is all well worth exploring–but we didn’t do it this trip. Instead, it was through the roundabout, arriving at six o’clock and getting out at 11, down Brighton to Madison and crossing the Rochester-Bridgewater Bridge.

Beaver River between Rochester and Bridgewater, PA

Rochester (right), Bridgewater (left), and a whole lot of blue. View from the Rochester-Bridgewater Bridge.

Bridgewater and Beaver Borough

You’ll pass quickly through Bridgewater–so quickly, you might not even realize it was its own place. That said, if you’re looking for lunch, there are a handful of establishments right there at the base of the bridge that all look welcoming and convivial.

A quick left on Market Street, following the road around to Wolf Lane, will lead you directly to a bike/ped trail up under some railroad tracks by the old train depot and into Beaver Borough.

Now, Beaver gets all the name recognition out here and that’s in no small part because it cornered the market on the three W’s: wealthy white WASPs. If you’ve never been there, Beaver is totally out of place among the rest of the area. With its wide streets, well-kept fancy homes, and main street full of boutiques and frivolity, Beaver feels like a tony commuter suburb was plucked out of Connecticut and dropped in among the old mill towns of Beaver County. Don’t let that stop you from checking out the good stuff.

Halloween decorations at home in Beaver, PA

Halloween at Thunberg Acres, Beaver

The bicycle ride around River Road is just terrific. A wide street with no traffic and long views down to Beaver Greens Park, the Ohio River, and back across to Monaca on the other shore. (See photo, top.) River Road also includes numerous park benches, historical markers, and assorted other points of interest along the way.

At the far end, you’ll come up close to Thunberg Acres (our name). Orbit fans know this as the 3rd Street home of Gary Thunberg and his always-in-rotation holiday displays. [See photo above; we’ve reported on Gary’s homemade Halloween and Independence Day displays in years past.] Whatever the time of year, see what Thunberg Acres has in the queue of full-yard displays and please sign Gary’s guest book in the front box–he’s got a collection that goes back 20 years and would love for you to add to it.

fall day in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

Dappled sunlight, fall colors, Cyrillic picture graves at Beaver Cemetery

It is hard to overstate this how devastatingly beautiful Beaver Cemetery is–especially this time of year. The cemetery sits directly across 3rd Street from the Thunberg house and basically forms the western end of the town’s business district–you won’t miss it. We’ve reported on the off-its-rocker Leaf Mausoleum already, but there is so much to see here–and it colors so beautifully in the fall–that you don’t even need that.

As an unrepentant taphophile, I can tell you that Beaver Cemetery’s collection of mid-century photo gravestones is the largest we’ve seen in these parts. We first got the bug with the amazing weathered grave markers at Loretto Cemetery, but the town of Beaver bought into the little photos-turned-ceramic insets big time. At some point, we’ll go back for a big story there. For now, you’ll have to go find them yourself.

World War I memorial featuring doughboy statue painted gold in Townsend Park, New Brighton, PA

The golden doughboy, Townsend Park, New Brighton

New Brighton

Fun fact: Beaver Falls (we’ll get there in a minute) was originally called Brighton, which makes the name of the borough right across the river more sensible and explains the prominence of Pittsburgh’s north-west-heading Brighton Road. Once the name change to Beaver Falls, you’d think New Brighton might consider becoming Regular-Old Brighton, but that obviously didn’t happen.

Bicycling to New Brighton is the trickiest of the lot. From Beaver, you’ll make your way across town, down Leopard Lane, back into Bridgewater, and north up either Market or Riverside. There’s a quick little run on the sidewalk and then across the bike/ped lane of the Veterans Memorial Bridge. From here, you want to go straight across Rt. 65 to 3rd Avenue, which will skirt the through traffic almost all the way to New Brighton.

dark beer in glass on rough wooden table

Ein dunkel, Petrucci Brothers Brewing, New Brighton

The pairing of cycling and a malty quaff go together like…well, basically like anything else where one of the two things is drinking beer. That’s certainly true on the Six-Pack and Petrucci Brothers Brewing served up a rich dunkel that was qualified to satisfy the thirsty rider. In addition to the requisite combined brew/drink space, mismatched seating, and thrown-together bar, the Petruccis are big on games with shuffleboard, ping pong, air hockey, pool, and a big stack of board games all available to play for free.

Before leaving New Brighton, take a gander at the terrific collection of churches in town. There are too many to either discuss or include photos of here, but suffice to say for a small town it ended up with an amazing array of holy architecture.

First Baptist Church, New Brighton, PA

First Baptist Church, one of several beautiful churches in New Brighton

Beaver Falls

You’ll be tempted to ride with the traffic across the 7th Street Bridge because that’s the most direct way to where you’re headed. This stay-off-the-busy-streets cyclist didn’t feel that safe with the handful of speeding cars greasing my hip, so the recommendation is to get across the road and take the safer–if underused–walkway on the south/downriver side of the bridge.

This drops you on 7th Avenue, Beaver Falls‘ Main Street. Like a lot of its fellow old mill towns, Beaver Falls has seen better days and will demonstrate that to you with a certain level of vacancy, empty lots, and underused storefronts up and down.

river, trees in fall colors, and train bridge in Western PA

The Beaver River and train bridge between New Brighton and Beaver Falls

That said, there’s plenty to do, see, eat, and drink in town–even if you’re just passing through on two wheels.

The Beaver River’s eponymous falls do indeed break alongside Old Brighton’s eastern shore and there is the shortest of bicycle paths, connecting 2nd Ave. to 6th Ave., to see them from. Don’t get your hopes up: it’s a little tricky to actually get a decent viewing spot, and when you do…well, maybe they should have called the town Beaver Rapids. The gorgeous giant waterfalls of Ithaca or the Columbia River Gorge, these ain’t.

map with bicycling route between six different towns in Beaver County, PA

One suggested route for The Beaver Valley Six-Pack

Yeah, that’s a lot to take in. For anyone who’d actually like to recreate the Beaver Valley Six-Pack, we created a Map My Ride route that should get you through.

One final note: it was mentioned above that departing from Monaca may be the wrong way to do the trip. The argument for the opposite (start/end in Beaver Falls) is that you could bag (literally!) Oram’s Donuts at the start of the journey, do the rest of the ride in reverse, and then be back for the late opening time of Beaver Brewing Company. But then you’re probably getting to DeAngelis too late–what a dilemma!

Whatever you do, an exploration of Beaver Valley’s river towns is well worth the effort–even if you don’t do it on a bicycle. We’ll be back again, for sure, and maybe we’ll see you on the Six-Pack.

exterior of Oram's Old-Fashioned Donuts, Beaver Falls, PA

Oram’s Old-Fashioned Donuts, Beaver Falls


Getting there: To get anywhere in Beaver Valley will take you around 40 minutes drive west from downtown Pittsburgh.

Swinging for DeBence’s: Pipe Dreams and Piano-Playing Robots at the Antique Music World

antique calliope at DeBence Antique Music World

These pipes are smokin’! A deluxe calliope at DeBence Antique Music World in Frankin, PA.

Close your eyes and imagine what a robot looks like. Chances are, you might conjure up a blocky sci-fi stereotype–all shiny metal, wires, and blinking lights, rolling around assisting space forces in a stilted computer voice. Others may envision the kinds of already-in-the-real-world robots currently zipping through assembly plants and fulfillment centers with lightning precision, or the pure artificial intelligence powering high-tech interactive devices everywhere.

Whatever you’re thinking of, it doesn’t look like this.

wooden piano attachment to mechanically play a standard piano at DeBence Antique Music World

80 (or so) fingered mechanical piano-playing robot

A large, handmade wooden cabinet–maybe six feet long, four feet high, and at least 18 inches deep–is placed directly in front of a full-size upright piano, rendering the instrument completely inaccessible to any human hands that might wish to tickle the ebony and/or ivory. The add-on unit takes input in the form of elaborate scrolls and translates the paper’s precisely-cut notches to the mechanical operation of eighty-some wooden fingers, one placed on each (almost) of the piano’s keys*.

interior of nickelodeon music machine including player scroll, xylophone, and percussion at DeBence Antique Music World

interior of nickelodeon music machine including player scroll, xylophone, and percussion

DeBence Antique Music World has one of these piano-playing appliance-attachment-robots on display and ready to crank up for a mini concert on your next visit. DeBence’s collection also includes elaborate coin-operated mechanical music machines, calliopes, band organs, and more evolutions of disk-playing music boxes and phonographs than you ever knew existed.

The museum, located 80-some miles north of Pittsburgh in the über-quaint “Oil Country” town of Franklin, is a little out of our typical reach. But DeBence–and the region’s other many out-of-the-way attractions–are well worth the easy day trip from home.

metal musical disk on antique player at DeBence Antique Music World

Regina music disk and player

brass horns attached to elaborate band organ at DeBence Antique Music World

band organ horns

It’s probably safe to say musicians, record collectors, and those excited by domestic history and the development of America during its boom years will have an extra special interest in DeBence. The sheer volume of intricate, hand-cut music disks and elaborate, room-filling multi-instrument machinery is awe-inspiring and humbling to anyone who’s already dabbled in the media, fiddled with sound, or rocked the wheels of steel.

But you don’t have to be a music freak to appreciate DeBence. Just experiencing all the little gears clicking in metric time, wooden mallets tick-tocking stacked xylophone blocks, and the hair-blown-back blasts of dozens of brass pipes squonking in unison is a fascinating spectacle. The objects–polished metal disks, dark hardwood cabinetry, hand-painted decorative details–could stand alone in a design museum without ever hearing them play.

ornate disk player with dancing ballerinas display at DeBence Antique Music World

ornate disk player with dancing ballerinas display

painted detail on band organ frame at DeBence Antique Music World

painted detail on band organ frame

But, oh–you know where this is going–at DeBence, you do get to hear them perform. The collection is no mere array of historical objects entombed behind glass. No, they really don’t make them like they used to–and part of that means you can still hand crank the coil spring of a c. 1890s disk-playing music box and hear its metallic tines ting-ting-tingling out the popular music of the day. Try seeing if your 10-year-old Zune is still up to the task.

Our crew was fortunate enough to have an excellent volunteer guide who not only knew his stuff, but took us on the full tour even when we slipped in the door just before closing time. We don’t know how many of DeBence’s machines are still in working order, but an enormous number of them got cranked-up, switched-on, or otherwise sprung to life for the tour–each full of beans and with a song to sing.

costumed figures playing bells inside Victorian music box at DeBence Antique Music World

Dumb bells. Jesters ready to strike in a 19th century music box.

gold-colored pipes of a home pipe organ at DeBence Antique Music World

organ pipes

It takes a whole lot of mind-bending technology to enable the history of recorded music to be beamed instantly through one’s digital device and straight into their psyche. That’s great and all, but there is an intangible loss in this convenience.

Maybe it’s an extreme rationalization from a part-time blogger and full time record collecting junkie, but something otherworldly happens when the black lacquer spins up, a tone arm adjusts over and drops down into place. There’s an electric moment of heightened sensation when we get just the barest static sizzle of a stylus in dead wax before the Side A, track 1 music kicks in. Sure: by any objective measure, it’s low-tech, obsolete, and patently nostalgic. But there’s a magic here you just don’t get with a Spotify stream.

wooden dancing puppet attached to spinning center of a Victrola at DeBence Antique Music World

handmade wooden Victrola dancer attachment

ceramic and textile dancing puppet attached to spinning center of a Victrola at DeBence Antique Music World

ceramic Victrola dancer attachment

If it seems like that today, imagine what the technology must have felt like to the Victorians–pre-radio, pre-motion picture, probably before most had ever talked on a telephone. Those early adopters, who first plunked-down an entire paycheck for a Victrola and then had to send off to Sears for a couple two-and-a-half-minute songs to play on them, must have lost their minds at the variety of voices and sounds coming to them from far, far away.

To see these old machines whir to life, sound spilling out–yes: creaking, wheezing, groaning, and, as Randy Jackson would say, “a little pitchy, dog,” at times–is a beautiful, transformative, and, yes, magical experience. I don’t know whether there’s a chance that gets your keister to dust off the phonograph and back in the record store [we’re rooting for you!] but it should at least get you up to Franklin.

Regardless, we can cross our fingers, hope the bellows push air, the paper score feeds the tickling digits, and the beautiful sound of magical music fills the air around you.

novelty decoration of real frog, stuffed with sawdust, holding a guitar at DeBence Antique Music World

Frog fantasy. Among DeBence’s novelties are many “real frogs stuffed with sawdust.”

exterior of DeBence Antique Music World, Franklin, PA

DeBence Antique Music World, downtown Franklin, PA

close-up of pump organ keyboard and stops

All the stops: Vox Humana, Gemshorn, Dulcissimo, etc.

Getting there: DeBence Antique Music World is located at 1261 Liberty Street in Franklin. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive from downtown Pittsburgh. DeBence has regular hours through the warmer months, but slows down over winter, so check the museum’s web site to make sure you’ll be able to get in.


Almost. The unit doesn’t quite reach the full 88-key range of a standard piano keyboard. If you want to hit those super low notes, you’ll have to do that yourself.

Groundhog Gonzo! Fur and Clothing on the Punxsutawney Groundhog Trail

homemade hat with stuffed groundhogs

The world’s coolest…er…coldest fashion show: Groundhog Day at Gobbler’s Knob

Everything you think you know about Groundhog Day is wrong. It’s not about predicting the weather or keeping up some quaint old world tradition–though both of those definitely do happen. It’s not even really about the namesake woodland creature, but you can be excused for thinking so. If most of your information comes from the eponymous Bill Murray/Andie MacDowell movie, I’m afraid you’ve been even further deceived.

man with groundhog mask and Bill Murray hand sign

Who knew Punxsutawney Phil was a “Stripes” fan?

O.K. Maybe “everything you know is wrong” is an exaggeration. I’ll speak for the rest of the world in saying the basic facts outsiders understand are that on February 2 each year, a committee of local citizens pulls a groundhog (always named “Phil”[1]) from a stump in Punxsutawney, Pa. in an attempt to predict–in the vaguest possible terms–the end of winter and coming of spring. Inexplicably, the season’s future hinges on whether or not the little guy “sees his shadow.”

The Groundhog Day tradition goes back well over a hundred years–even longer if you consider its German roots–and is regular fodder for end-of-broadcast feel-good chuckles between hosts on the evening news. This much is all true.

Man with custom-made Groundhog Day hat

“This is my 11th year!” Super fan from Youngstown, Ohio.

Of the many things Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis’ 1993 feel-good fantasy/comedy, gets wrong[2] is that Bill Murray’s cynical weatherman Phil Connors can’t just roll out of bed at 6:00 AM, chit-chat with Ned Ryerson, and amble across the town square to file his report.

No no no. First of all, you can bet the local network affiliate isn’t ponying up for surge-priced B&B rates on the single day when every lodging in greater Punxsutawney has been sold out for a year. When our crew arrived at 2:00 AM, there was an imposing fleet of satellite-equipped TV trucks already camped-out in the parking lot. All the major networks were there, along with a handful of cable new outlets, plus The Weather Channel and AccuWeather. Big engines were humming and news crews had clearly napped–as best they could–right there in their bucket seats and were already mainlining black coffee to get through the long morning.

news reporter and cameraman filming segment at Groundhog Day, 2018

Phil Connors never got up this early. News crew “doing it live” around 4 AM.

More importantly, though, the movie–filmed not in Western Pennsylvania, but in Woodstock, Ill.–makes it out as if the event takes place in the center of town, on a square surrounded by local businesses. There, a couple hundred people gather to watch Phil do his thing in the broad daylight.

The real Gobbler’s Knob is around a mile–as the crow flies–from Punxsutawney’s equally-charming, but differently-shaped downtown. It sits in the basin of a wooded area–sort of a natural amphitheater–with a large stage and some unobstructive railing to keep the crowds from pushing in too close when things get crazy.

There is not nearly enough parking to accommodate the mass of Phil faithful, so participants arrive through the night and into the early morning on one of a non-stop series of school buses literally moonlighting as town-to-Knob shuttles. The hardier and/or more impatient hoof it up a curling back road from the east side of Punxsy.

Groundhog Day has become a massive draw for little Punxsutawney. The town of around 6,000 attracts way more visitors than that number to the event. Varying estimates put recent crowd sizes between twelve and thirty thousand people[3].

large crowd assembled at Gobbler's Knob for Groundhog Day, 2018

View from the stage, around 6:45 AM. Umpteen-thousand “hog heads” at Groundhog Day, 2018

Groundhog Day may be the world’s coldest, darkest D.I.Y. fashion event. This first-time visitor had no idea that so much of the audience would arrive in various degrees of groundhog attire and tribute. There were groundhog masks and groundhog puppets, groundhog t-shirts and super-fan signage, stuffed groundhogs, and full-body groundhog suits.

woman holding groundhog cutout labeled "Erika"

Who’s Erika? Lady groundhogs with colorful skirts.

But it is the hats that really mark this festival. Custom-made toppers of all designs–stacked hog heads like faces on a totem pole and dainty scenes of Phil frolicking in a bed of feathers, pearls, and wispy notions. There are countless renditions of The Punxsutawney Prognosticator either emerging-from or sitting atop his stump and all manner of knit caps featuring cartoonish eyeballs, buck teeth, and little ears.

How many of these are fan-created vs. purchased in downtown Punxsutawney’s groundhog gift shops we do not know (yet!) but any way you slice it, the sheer breadth of Phil-themed headwear was incredible. Orbit staff did its best to get around and document what we could[4], but please realize the photos included here are but a tiny proportion of the actual outfits.

two women with custom-made Groundhog Day hats

“We go everywhere in costume.” Friends and first-time attendees from Virginia with made-for-the-occasion hats.

two men wearing novelty top hats with light-up "PHIL" letters for Groundhog Day

Phil Heads

woman with groundhog hat

Ain’t that America. Patriotic Phil and stump hat.

two women with groundhog hats holding homemade signs for Groundhog Day

Fans from Ft. Lauderdale and Chicago.

five young people with homemade signs for Groundhog Day.

Signs o’ the times. Young fans.

two women holding a sign reading "Smitten with Phil from the Michigan mitten" at Groundhog Day

Sister-fans from Michigan in front of the Groundhog Club’s Philmobile.

Women dressed in colorful Hawaiian shirts, skirts, and leis for Groundhog Day party

The Phil-ettes Dancers before their 5 AM hula routine.

… and then there’s daybreak. My goodness, you’ve never experienced the glory of a sunrise until you’ve spent an entire evening in 12-degree blackness. It was as if natural light did not exist. The feeling of the first rays of a new dawn filtering through spindly tree trunks of a snowy, Jefferson County wood are to be born again, to be showered in light, to feel the absolute glory of being alive.

It is at this precise moment–the event is tightly coordinated to apex at daybreak–that The Inner Circle makes its solemn approach. Twelve (fifteen, maybe?) men [yes: they are all (white) men] in black top hats, long coats, pants, and dress shoes take the stage and perform a variation on the same Groundhog Day ritual that goes all the way back to 1887.

Five men dressed in black pants, long coats, and top hats walk through winter woods

Members of The Inner Circle make their approach at daybreak.

That makes the whole thing sound overly serious–it’s not. There’s a little razzle-dazzle, some corny jokes, and a bunch of good-natured playing-to-the-crowd shenanigans. Phil proceeds to tell us all our future–at least the next six weeks’ worth–relayed through an Inner Circle member who “speaks Groundhogese” with the aid of a weathered walking cane allegedly passed-down from generations of previous Inner Circle insiders.

This is important: it is completely unclear where the whole “sees his shadow” bit comes from. Phil was presented not with options toward and away-from the low-angle morning sunlight, but instead with two tiny scrolls, unfurled, read aloud for the audience, and laid out before his discriminating paws. It turns out the groundhog is not some freaked-out wimp, scared of his own shadow, but instead one who appreciates the winter as a good time to catch up on his reading and make a thoughtful decision.

Punxsutawney Phil raised aloft in Groundhog Day ceremony

Phil’s moment in the sun [photo: Greg Lagrosa]

The uninitiated cynic–especially one from a warmer, more sun rich environ–might imagine Groundhog Day as a group of shivering bumpkins, inanely praying for a rodent’s divination to the end of their long, cold suffering. Move to Florida! they smugly think to themselves, resting their sunglasses to tend the hibachi. But that shallow reading misses everything.

No, the holiday is not a prayer for sunshine; rather, it’s a defiance of winter. Participants don’t just go out in the cold for fun–as skiers or Christmas shoppers might–but rise in the middle of the night, staying out through the longest, darkest, and coldest hours of the year in total communion with the groundhog. It’s flaunting woodchuck fashion with signs asking for–nay, demandingmore winter!

The roar of applause that greets the news of six more weeks of the cold stuff is a hardy people’s collective nose-thumbing (note: not middle finger–this event is as wholesome as they get!) at the notion that fun is inextricably bound to sun.

It is not. The clean-cut, hopped-up, groundhog-crazy crowd at Punxsutawney proves exactly that. To Ol’ Man Winter–just like Phil, George W. Bush, and that fleet of Hollywood cheerleaders before us, we say, bring it on.

Two men wearing groundhog hats in front of Gobbler's Knob stage on Groundhog Day

A couple Phil Phanatics, post-announcement

woman with groundhog hat

In line for a photo with Phil

Getting there: Punxsutawney is about an hour and a half drive northeast of Pittsburgh. The gates to Gobbler’s Knob open to the public at 3 AM on Groundhog Day, February 2 of each year. In 2019, this will conveniently fall on a weekend–just sayin’.


[1] The legend goes that there is only one Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog imbued with everlasting life–but this is a subject way to broad to cover in this post.
[2] For the record, this blogger still thinks Groundhog Day is a terrific movie–it’s just not factually accurate to the experience in Punxsutawney.
[3] In fairness, the high attendance at Groundhog Day (the event) over the last 25 years is largely attributed to the lasting popularity of the movie. Crowd sizes in 1993 (and earlier) were likely much smaller than today.
[4] No thanks to our cub reporter staff! Thirteen other people in The Orbit‘s posse and not a one turned in a hat photo. Don’t come looking for recommendation letters, you slackers!

The Meadville PennDOT Road Sign Sculptures, Part 2: The Flower Garden

flower sculpture made from one way and stop roadsigns, Meadville, PA

Back in July, we ran a piece on the PennDOT road sign sculptures in Meadville, just up the highway from Pittsburgh. That post detailed the quarter-mile-long fence/mural that stretches down Route 322 and forms the majority of the immense sculptural project on the property of the local highway maintenance yard.

But not all of it. There is so much art in the PennDOT project that we decided to break the story in two parts, with this second post dedicated to the gorgeous flower garden that sits at the corner of Rt. 322 and Mercer Pike/Rt. 102.

flower sculpture made from highway roadsigns, Meadville, PA

It’s interesting that with all its financial backing and oversight, the brand new Whitney Museum was not sited at a location with Sheetz and Dairy Queen franchises on opposing corners. Worry not: no such oversight was committed in Meadville. Why, if the Crawford County art connoisseur and gastronomist wanted both an order of Sheetz’ Pretzel Meltz or Shnack Wrapz paired with a DQ Peanut Butter Cookie Dough Smash Blizzard Treat, well, she’d be all set, wouldn’t she? And what if her old man had a hankering for one of Sheetz Cold Subz or Saladz, washed down with an original Orange Julius? You know he could find that too–hopefully with room for a Peanut Buster Parfait.

flower sculpture made from highway roadsigns, Meadville, PA

In their present form the flowers look like the work of some combination between Dr. Seuss and Dr. Jekyll. All fantasy shapes and riveted steel; eye-popping iridescent reflectors and crudely cut welded metal. These photos may or may not accurately represent the scale of these pieces, so let’s just say this tall blogger was dwarfed by even the shortest of the flowers which easily topped-out at ceiling height.

silhouette of the underside of flower sculpture made from highway roadsigns, Meadville, PA

Trying to figure out which particular specimins the sculptures may represent–or even if they’re modeled on reality–led this blogger down the rabbit hole of Pennsylvania flower identification. Where’s cub reporter Tim when you need him? I won’t claim we came away with any clear IDs, but we’ve got our suspicions.

flower sculpture made from highway detour roadsigns, Meadville, PA

We’re pretty sure we located sweet wakerobin (Trillium vaseyi) in the garden, [note to self: consider “Sweet Wakerobin” for next band name] maybe a sunflower, but, we realized pretty quick that trying to match bent steel that reads Boy Scout Troup 254 to a nature guide is a fool’s errand. Maybe we could put some real scouts to work, you know, scouting actual local flora against these art flowers. Or maybe we should just sit back back with our M.T.O. Chicken Stripz and enjoy the scenery.

flower sculpture made from highway speed limit and direction roadsigns, Meadville, PA

Like the best art, the Meadville PennDOT sculptures are equal parts wonder and inspiration. How did they do that? at the same time as I want to do that! And I truly would love to do that. Maybe all it would take is a pair of tin snips, a couple trips to Construction Junction, and box of Band-Aids. Oh, and that pesky basement cleanout.

flower sculpture made from highway roadsigns, Meadville, PA

 

The Meadville PennDOT Road Sign Sculptures, Part I: The Fence/Mural

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence detail of cow

It was a dreary, cool, rainy day when The Orbit crew pulled off the highway for some high art and a bag of Combos. We’d describe the weather as very un-summer-like, except it was very much in keeping with this particular summer. This cool-weather-lover is certainly not complaining–give him forty-five degrees and drizzling and you’ll find one happy blogger chortling to himself as he types. That said, we were hoping for a break in the rain long enough to photograph one particular roadside curiosity, and were granted that particular wish.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of hot air balloons

Thurston Balloon Classic over Weight Limit Mountain

An hour-and-a-half due north of Pittsburgh lies Meadville, the seat of Crawford County. This smallish town is the unlikely host of an immense collection of sculptures, all in connection with and displayed by the local Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (“PennDOT”) maintenance yard.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of barn and silo

Stop barn with Jct silo

According to PennDOT, the fence/mural project and its adjunct flower garden (more about that, later) were conceived by Allegheny College art professor Amara Geffen and Jack Molke, former Crawford County maintenance manager. The actual work was executed both by Allegheny College art students and the local PennDOT workers. It began back in 2001, but continued over many years until the entire maintenance yard fence was covered.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence detail of great blue heron

Great blue heron

From PennDOT:

The mural depicts life in Crawford County highlighting annual events such as the Thurston Balloon Classic and the Crawford County Fair. Local community landmarks such as the Crawford County Courthouse, Conneaut Lake Park, and Allegheny College’s Bentley Hall highlight the scene. The project depicts life in Crawford County with farm scenes, seasonal scenes and downtown Meadville buildings.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of trees

Lane change ahead tree

What no set of photographs will accurately depict is the sheer immensity of this piece. The fence is well over human height and probably reaches up to ten or twelve feet. It stretches some 1,200 feet (approx. a quarter mile) down Route 322 and around the corner. The fence is at once a single continuous piece and also dozens of distinct interlocking sections that each bleed into one another.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of singing cowboy on stage

Singin’ cowboy down at the (railroad) crossroads

There are broad strokes like rolling Crawford County hillsides and a series of sections devoted to (downtown Meadville?) storefronts. But the detail on the pieces is terrific with little touches that play with the recycled signage and “Easter egg” details that you’d never catch if you just did a drive-by.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence house

Bridge outhouse … or Bridge Out house

For all these reasons, it’s really worth parking and taking a walk down the full length of the fence and back. Then, like all great art experiences, you can cross the highway to Sheetz for some M.T.O. and group reflection.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of Canada goose

Baltimore Life/Canada goose

Are the sculptures worth a trip from Pittsburgh? They’re pretty great, and no set of photographs is really going to do them justice, so we’d have to say yes. That said, combine them with the next time you’re heading to Erie, or Conneaut Lake, or are just making a run to Meadville’s own Voodoo Brewery and you’ll have yourself a fine combo for your Combos.

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of merry-go-round

Ferris wheel

Getting there: The PennDOT building and maintenance yard is on Rt. 322, literally just a minute (maybe a half mile?) from the Meadville exit off I-79. The sculptures leap out at you and go on for a quarter mile so you really “can’t miss it.”

Meadville PennDOT sign sculpture fence of clouds, rain, mountains, and tree

Art imitates life: rainy day scene

 

Medium Cool: An Orbit Day Trip to Lily Dale Pet Cemetery

grave marker with a wooden duck and stone heart, Lily Dale, NY

Duck/heart

Far Western New York is certainly outside of what can be reasonably considered “the Pittsburgh region,” but at two hours and change driving time (each way), it’s a doable up-and-back, so we’re going to include this one as An Orbit Day Trip.

Lily Dale (aka Lily Dale Assembly), New York is a picturesque Victorian village that sits on tiny Lake Cassadaga, between Fredonia, Jamestown, and Chautauqua. It bills itself as “the world’s largest center for the science, philosophy, and religion of spiritualization.” While this chakra-curious blogger would be hard pressed to name a larger center for such things, at just a handful of streets, maybe a couple hundred year-round residents, it’s still a little difficult to believe Lily Dale is the largest anything. But we’ll take their word for it.

Trees with prayer ribbons, Lily Dale, NY

Prayer ribbons in Lily Dale

That said, the ratio of psychics-to-ne’er-do-wells is extremely high. Seemingly every other one of Lily Dale’s cottage-houses has a shingle out advertising the services of one or more registered in-house mediums (media?). Lily Dale is also home to the National Spiritualist Association of Churches (NSAC).

The catalog for the June-September workshop programs is ample and either the lecturing-on or attending-of these courses, along with individual “readings” with the aforementioned mediums, seems to be what people do in Lily Dale. Instructors Michele Whitedove, Lee Two Hawks, Shadow Fox, and others with less spectacular names offer courses on subjects like Banshees, Curses, and Little People; Interdimensional Out-of-Body Travel; Orb Phenom–Orbs Are Among Us; Etheric Projection & The Human Energy Field; The Art of Using Pendulums, Dowsing Rods, Sticks & Stones; and Spoon Bending.

Forest Temple, Lily Dale, NY

Forest Temple

While The Orbit generally subscribes to a “when in Rome…” philosophy, we’re also too skeptical (and too cheap) to pay $45 (the going rate for a two-hour workshop) to get our Laugh-a-Yoga Leader Certification. Whether all this New Age stuff strikes your divining rod or seems like a bunch of hooey, Lily Dale is absolutely a lovely and magical little place to visit. The whole landscape is completely enmeshed in tall woods and seems bathed in the gauzy soft light of an Elfin dreamland. We skipped the lectures and stuck to nice walks of the town, lakefront, Forest Temple, Inspiration Stump, Fairy Trail, and pet cemetery–all recommended.

wooden cross grave marker for a pet named Mutlee, Lily Dale, NY

Mutlee, 1988

This was The Orbit‘s first trip to a legit pet cemetery, but hopefully not our last–we’re hooked! Lily Dale’s goes way back. The earliest dated stone we saw was from 1920, but I got the sense it was considerably older than that. There are hundreds of graves in the small forest clearing where the cemetery stands. The markers range from professional chiseled stones with names, dates, and epitaphs, to crumbling homemade crosses, sculptures, cast concrete, and painted rocks.

Here are some of our favorites:

stone grave marker for pet with disintegrating tile, Lily Dale, NY

(Su)nshine, (l)aughter & friends ar(e) always (welcome)

cement grave marker for pet, Lily Dale, NY

Beanie Pastor: Lily Dale’s barkingest & fightingest & cat chasingest mongrel

stone grave marker for a chipmunk, Lily Dale, NY

The cemetery’s newest marker: Friend and Teacher, 6-29-15

stone grave marker with pet's name "Fluffy", Lily Dale, NY

Fluffy

wooden cross grave marker for a pet named Pumpernickel, Lily Dale, NY

Pumpernick(el)

Getting there: As mentioned, it’s somewhere around two-and-a-half hours drive from Pittsburgh to Lily Dale. Likely a lot faster if you can travel interdimensionally out-of-body, but we’re old-fashioned. There are numerous inns, beds and breakfast, and one old hotel on the grounds. But really, if you’re not attending the seminars, you can probably see everything you need in a few hours–it’s just not that big. There are two non-fancy/grab-and-go restaurants, one coffee shop, and one general store in the town.

Also be warned that there is a steep ($12 per person per day) gate fee to get on the grounds. My advice to the casual visitor would be to park somewhere outside the gate and see if they’ll let you walk in for free.

Sundown at Lily Dale Assembly pet cemetery

Sundown at Lily Dale Assembly pet cemetery

Onion Dome Fever: Holy Transfiguration!

Holy Transformation Russian Orthodox Church, Steubenville, Ohio

Holy Transfiguration Russian Orthodox Church, Steubenville, Ohio

The Orbit road crew was a on a mission to find the grave of Jimmy The Greek in Steubenville, Ohio, and find it we did.  Oh yes, find it we did.  But as we were heading up Washington Street from downtown, there, sparkling like a new penny, was the phosphorescent green mini onion dome of Holy Transfiguration Russian Orthodox Church.  Never ones to avoid getting distracted by shiny things, we detoured up to the tiny dead end of North 10th Street to get a shot of the church all lit up in the afternoon sun.

Pastor Greg, dressed appropriately in a friar’s dark, knotted robe and sandals, spotted me taking pictures outside and asked if we’d like to come in for the service that was beginning in fifteen minutes.  We politely declined, to which he followed up by urging us to just come inside for a look. That was an offer we couldn’t refuse.

The humble country church look of the outside didn’t give any clue to the gorgeous collection of gold leaf icons, burning candles, Byzantine crosses, live flowers, incense burners, brassware, lace cloth, and the like that awaited within.

interior of Holy Transformation Russian Orthodox Church, Steubenville, Ohio

Interior, Holy Transfiguration Church

The pastor had departed in his minivan to pick up a parishioner who needed a ride to the service.  I wish we’d had the chance to ask him about the history of the church and the current state of the laity.  That very congregation was beginning to file in as we were poking around, so it started to feel pretty awkward and we made our exit.

Steubenville has been draining population since the 1940s (The Greek led that wave out of town), and my guess is that the number of Russian Orthodox parishioners is dwindling in the low double-digits.  So one hopes that Holy Transfiguration will be around for Steubenville’s inevitable glorious comeback, but it will probably take a little divine intervention.

Holy Transformation Russian Orthodox Church, Steubenville, Ohio

Interior (detail), Holy Transfiguration Church