Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Bridges! Everywhere I look. Big, bad, beautiful, box girder bridges spanning this magnificent confluence of three great rivers, this extraordinary crossroads where the Allegheny and the Monongahela run into the Ohio, making Pittsburgh the biggest inland port in the United States.

We are racing against the light. We have driven through dense, blinding rain obscuring the tree-clad hills of Pennsylvania, arriving close to the small town of Oakmont, several miles north of Pittsburgh, where tomorrow I give a talk at the Mystery Lovers bookstore following a Chinese banquet.

We have eaten and siesta'd too long, and as the sky clears, night is not far away. I want to take a photograph of the city in the warm light of sunset, and John has told me there is a spectacular viewpoint, on the hilltop to the south of Pittsburgh. We fight the traffic, swinging past countless bridges before crossing the river, finally, to the triangle of land where the city is contained by the three rivers. Away to our right, on the North Shore, is PNC Park, the baseball stadium. Half a mile downriver is the football stadium, Heinz Field. Between them, a vast, shared carpark.

We cross water again. The light is gorgeous. The sky is torn black and blue, and pink-tinted by the sunset. But the sun has almost gone. We speed past the Monongahela Incline - a kind of funicular railway that climbs steeply to the viewpoint we are searching for. But we want to get there by car, and John speeds along the riverside road before cutting back and climbing sharply upwards.

The top of the hill is lined with restaurants, panoramic windows giving out on to the spectacular view. I jump out of the SUV and leap on to the viewing platform. There is just enough light to catch a picture. But an ugly, bruising cloud has swept in from the west, and that soft pink light has gone.

Nonetheless, I run off a series of shots, two of which can be seen below. And then I draw breath just to look. What a fabulous view. Pennsylvania sweeps away north and west over undulating country. Pittsburgh, once blighted by the steelworks that dominated its centre, has grown from the ashes of its foundries, to become a proud new city, known for its 720 bridges and its 29 colleges and universities.

It takes my breath away.

Three hundred and seventy thousand people live here, in this tiny corner of America once fought over by the French and the British. It was the British who won the fight, and the city grew up around the state-of-the-art Fort Pitt which they built to secure it, naming it after the then British Prime Minister, William Pitt. Originally known as Pittsborough, its name was later officially changed to Pittsburgh, and it became the centre of the coal mining industry which characterises this state, and which went on to fuel the industrial revolution and the subsequent steel industry on which the city's wealth was built.

Sometimes I have to pinch myself to wonder what I am doing here - what has brought me to this place so far from home, so completely unrelated to my life. It seems strange that it should be because I am a Scotsman, living in France, who writes about China.

And here I am, standing with the warm wind in my face, looking out over this magical sunset city, unfashionable though it is, and feeling an odd sense of connection.

On Wednesday I leave for New York City, and who knows if I'll ever be back.

But I am glad I have come.


The Ohio River

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