Western Pennsylvania – March 2016 – Chainsaws and Groundhogs

The second full weekend in March was very warm and snow free so we decided to make a run to Western Pennsylvania for a few sights. But first we made a stop in Warren, Ohio to check out Dave Grohl Alley. Dave was born in Warren, but moved to Washington DC at a young age. Still Warren is proud he was born there and have a Dave Grohl Alley in downtown Warren, next door to a Burger King. The display is pretty cool, and since he specialized in Grunge rock being in a grungy alley somehow seems appropriate.

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We continued our drive until we reached Clarion, Pennsylvania where we spent the night. Early the next morning we were on our way to Ridgway, our destination, for the annual Chainsaw Carvers Rendevous. This event draws artists from all over North America and Europe, well over 100 different artists. We arrived to the sound of chainsaw and the smell of wood, nothing like chainsaws in the morning.

The festival had been going on for a couple of days so there were already a number of completed carvings, with each artist displaying their work in their own booth. The booths lined 3 streets for about 10 blocks. If they weren’t blasting away with a chainsaw they were more than happy to talk about their works, and their story on how they got into chainsaw carvings. Amazingly everyone I shook hands with had all of their fingers.

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We spent a long time talking with a couple of the competitors who had come down from Ontario. They said it is easier to get chainsaws into America than it is to get guns into Canada, which makes total sense to me.

While there were plenty of bears and eagles, the collections didn’t stop there. In the first block alone we saw two squirrels fighting with light swords, a horned/winged female with two giant serrated knives (which I can’t even begin to give a name to what she represented but I know I wouldn’t want to meet her live), a Sasquatch,  a knight and a crab.

There are two primary objectives to the festival; win the competition and sell their work. They start with a large block off wood, carve the basics with the chainsaw and then do the finish work with Dremel tools. Depending on the intricacy it takes them anywhere from 1 to 4 hours, or more.

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The contestants were all very happy about the March weather in North Central Pennsylvania, as it is usually brutally cold, earning the town the nickname of Fridgway. After spending a few hours wandering the streets we headed on, but very satisfied we made the long drive to Pennsylvania for a bunch of chainsaw people.

Our next stop, about an hour away, was Punxsutawney,  home (of course) of Phil, the prognosticating groundhog. The town clearly plays it up to the hilt, with fiberglass Phil’s decorated as different characters displayed around town. The real Phil has a home in the local library, where you can go see him anytime, which we did. Having lived in Pennsylvania previously we knew that the Groundhog Day movie itself wasn’t filmed there (it was filmed in Illinois), but it still a nice little town and well worth a visit. Someday I will go freeze my tushie off and get up at 4 AM to see a rodent pulled out of a tree stump, but that will have to wait until another year.

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Our day ended in Latrobe, home of Arnold Palmer,Pittsburgh Steelers training camp, Mister Rogers and the Banana Split. Having lived there it is always interesting to stop by when we can. We went to the highest rated restaurant on Tripadvisor, only to discover someone in Pennsylvania is doing a poor job of rating, because it wasn’t good, but at least before we went we stopped at the Four Seasons Microbrewery, which was excellent.  Our hotel in Latrobe had a nice little Arnold Palmer display of old golf equipment.

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The next day we drove into Pittsburgh for a couple of Roadside America sights, starting with a McDonald’s in Irwin that was the birthplace of the Big Mac, complete with a mini McDonald’s museum. From there we went down to the South Side to see Fredasaurus Rex, a fiberglass dinosaur decked out like Fred Rogers. Also in Pittsburgh was a collection of quirky looking musicians sculptures, a growing vertical garden up the side of a skyscraper, and a randomly place 10′ pole at a 60 degree angle with little people glued to the top of it at Carnegie Mellon University. With all of those engineers you think they could get it level.

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The highlight of our morning in Pittsburgh was a stop at Bicycle Heaven. Founded in 1996 by someone who found a bike in a junk pile, he started selling used bikes and collecting vintage ones, ending up with over 3000 bike scattered in a number of garages. In 2011 he took over an old industrial building on Pittsburgh’s northside, and now it is one of the largest bicycle museums in the world.

We roamed the multiple levels of bikes stuffed absolutely everywhere. Interspersed with the bikes were various collections or art works made out of bike parts, including a chain of gear shifters. One room was full of tires and inner tubes, the walls covered in forks and seats. They even had a day glo room where all of the bikes and parts were painted in day glo paint lit up by black light.

The collection featured a number of bikes with advertising from various companies; Oreo Cookie Bikes, Volkswagen, Rolling Rock, and a Pittsburgh Steelers bike. The latter was in a large display of Pittsburgh sport memorabilia including nearly 100 bobble heads, statues and photos. A stop at Bicycle Heaven is very highly recommended.

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Not far from Bicycle Heaven is Randyland, in the Mexican War Streets area of the northside. Randyland is an explosion of color in a courtyard and sides of some old row houses. He purchased a number of the abandoned buildings in 1996 to start Randyland. According to an article on Randy, he is sort of like Mister Rogers on speed. Unfortunately Randy was out the day we were there, but a volunteer was hanging around and let us in.

One complete wall is a 40 foot high mural with dinosaurs, butterflies, giant ladybugs, waterfalls, mountains, two moons, a castle, and birds. There are planters made from sewer pipes; plastic pink flamingos and parrots amid the banana trees; old metal lawn chairs hang from a fire escape, and mannequins just hanging around.

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The entire place is painted in bright colors, as though a giant PPG can puked over the entire place. Having seen this neighborhood in the old days, it has taken a bright turn for the better with Randyland.

Before we left town though we stopped by Jerry’s Records in Squirrel Hill. If you are a music fan, and have any appreciation at all of records you must go to Jerry’s at least once. Jerry, who used to bear an amazing resemblence to Jerry Garcia, has the upper floor of a strip of businesses. The building must be strong because there are nearly a million records in stacks and stacks of shelves. We were lucky on this day as Jerry was in the house, even posing for a picture. But alas it is time to leave the Burgh.

A scenic route home took us through Steubenville to find a Dean Martin mural, amazingly (and sadly) painted on the side of a Kroger store. How can you paint a mural of arguably the coolest person ever from Ohio on the side of a damn grocery  store? We moved on to another ‘cool Ohioan’ landmark, Clark Gable’s childhood home in Cadiz, but it was closed.

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Our last stop home was in the tiny little town of Peoli, home of Cy Young’s eternal resting spot. His grave is adorned with old baseballs people leave as a tribute. We stood in the drizzle admiring this as the Amish buggies would roll by. I could only wonder what those people think of some crazy people standing in a cemetery looking at a headstone full of baseballs.

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