9% Grade: New Bethlehem to Kittaning

Many the story I’ve told,
About the horrible hills I once rode,
I know where I’ve been,
To ride them again
Would ignore my life’s lesson code.

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, travelled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. After three years working with a Community Health Center, I am back having adventures in temporary positions until they have an Electronic Medical Record System (EMR) I can get along with. I spent the winter in Nome, Alaska, followed by assignments in rural Iowa and suburban Pennsylvania. After my brother-in-law’s funeral, a bicycle tour of northern Michigan, and cherry picking in Sioux City, I’m travelling back and forth between home and Pennsylvania. Any patient information has been included with permission.

I finished my first undergraduate career in 1972 with no plans for the future aside from bicycling back from New Haven, Connecticut home to Denver, Colorado. I went with Al, a roommate for 2 years.

I sent my winter clothing, bedding, and books parcel post. I looked at everything else I owned and divided into two piles: one to take with me and one to throw away.

The trip changed my life. Four years later I sat in a small room in East Lansing, Michigan, at my fifth and last medical school interview. The first four had gone poorly and I saw my last opportunity at my life’s goal hanging in the balance. In desperation, I spoke from my heart on what I learned that summer about the rhythms of the earth from lessons in bike repair, camping, weather, traffic, and minimalism. That interview ended up a fantastic success, and I got a place at Michigan State.

I started the trip with 32 pounds of gear and finished trip with 26; the bicycle weighed 34 pounds and did not change materially. Bicycles became embedded in my life that summer; I bought Bethany a tandem instead of an engagement ring.

In the summer of 1975 I rode from Denver to San Diego in 11 days, and over the years I commuted so many miles that I could look at a derraileur and say, from experience, that it would only last for about 5,000 miles.

The worst hills I could remember came that first long trip, in the 19 mile stretch from New Bethlehem to Kittaning, on Route 28 coming into Pittsburgh from the north. It took us three hours, and we didn’t know if we could make it the rest of the way to town (we did).

But sometimes a forty-year lens magnifies misery. I wondered if that stretch really had that many steep hills; on my day off I decided to drive it in the rental car.

Coming north from Pittsburgh, I recounted to Bethany the horrors of that trip, and wondered aloud if it really had been that bad.

Yes, it had been, long steep grades separated by no more than 50 yards of flat. One sign, coming into New Bethlehem, that we wouldn’t have seen from a bicycle headed south, said “9% GRADE TRUCKS USE LOW GEAR.”

Nine percent?

NINE PERCENT??!! A railroad can’t climb anything steeper than 6%; neither Casper Mountain in Wyoming nor Mount Taylor in New Mexico came close. And this thing went on for a couple of miles, and dropped almost as badly on the other side.

With such focus on steepness, I failed to remember the narrow and sometimes non-existent shoulder.

I thought back to other superlatively negative experiences: high school, the worst night on call (38 hours with one 45 minutes break), the heaviest clinic day (63 patients in 6 1/2 hours), the worst Electronic Medical Record (Centricity).

I accept my memories as accurate, I don’t have to do those again.


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