I’d fretted about my upcoming bicycle trek along the Great Allegheny Passage trail, my attitude stuck somewhere between nervousness and fear. I’d never attempted anything like it before, a 150 mile (240 kilometre) rails-to-trails ride between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Cumberland, Maryland.
Every time I conquered a fear I created a new one to replace it. I wasn’t "experienced enough" so I rode all through the winter in the cold and the wind getting into shape. I wasn’t used to extra baggage so I loaded my panniers with 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of dead weight and rode around like that for several weeks. I didn’t have the right equipment so I had the bike overhauled, packed for every roadside repair imaginable and scoured the Intertubes for suggestions from riders who’d finished the trail successfully. It might rain a lot in early Spring so I packed waterproof everything. I even threw in a couple of bungee cords because — well why not — bungee cords might be useful. How did I ever get to this? A younger version of me with some friends took a 28-day roadtrip with barely a map and a vague idea of wanting to visit national parks. Now much older and supposedly more experienced, I was afraid I might get wet.
Eventually I eliminated every rational and even some irrational fears with the exception of possible attack by hillbilly meth addicts hiding along the trail. Roving feral methamphetamine gangs were one tick above sassquatch sightings on the probability scale so I knew I’d finally arrived at the proper mental state. I was ready. Besides, we were spending four days on the trail, an easy pace that one website described as a classic for "recreational cyclists with some experience." That seemed to fit my demographic.
We parked in Cumberland, Maryland and hitched a shuttle ride along with our equipment to Pittsburgh through a local bicycle shop. We would need to finish the trail if we wanted to see our cars ever again and return home. We burned the bridge behind us, figuratively.
The Journey Began
Point State Park; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Mile 150 began in Pittsburgh. We planned to ride all the way back down to Mile 0 in Cumberland. The shuttle dropped us off at Point State Park at the joining of the city’s famed Three Rivers, where the Monongahela and Allegheny formed the Ohio (map). I wished we’d been able to spend a little more time exploring the history at the park, the place where Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne stood at the river confluence during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). However it was already approaching 2:00 pm and we needed to get moving even though it was a light ride, 35 miles (56 km) on relatively flat terrain.
We posed for the obligatory photos at the fountain in a cold, steady rain. We were all thoroughly waterproofed, warm and ready to roll so the weather didn’t bother us. The route followed city streets for a about a mile before turning onto a dedicated path that would last for the remainder of the trip.
CSX Railroad Train; near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The GAP Trail followed decommissioned railroad rights-of-way primarily along riverbeds, first the Monongahela as we began the adventure and later the Youghiogheny and Casselman Rivers, each growing progressively smaller as we pushed farther back into the watershed. Trains became our constant companions for the entire route. While some lines had been decommissioned and turned into trails, others continued to haul coal from the mountains in an unending stream. All day, all night, along every mile of pathway and in every sleepy hamlet the train whistles and the clackety-clack burst into waking hours and even seeped into my dreams. I saw the first train just outside of Pittsburgh (map) and then came hundreds more.
The Homestead Works; Homestead, Pennsylvania
The trail leaving Pittsburgh displayed an unusual mix of post-apocalyptic ruin and suburban sprawl, and reminded me why the local football team became the Pittsburgh Steelers. The steep decline of the Rust Belt loomed everywhere though, in remnants large and small. Entire factories of broken windows stood abandoned along the banks of the Monongahela. Concrete blocks and iron trusses poked from the earth in unexpected places, crumbling, rusting, decaying. Every once in a while an actual working mill continued to belch pillows of steam over the valley, a remnant clawing its way into the 21st Century. Perhaps some might find this industrial backdrop a bit grim for riding. It rather fascinated me though. I imagined the prosperity that old robber barons brought to the area only to see a way of life collapse decades later, emptying towns and scattering people as economic winds shifted to other parts of the world.
Not everything I saw reflected a tale of decline. Modern suburbs grew into many of the vacant spaces once filled by factories. We peddled past an odd array of well-preserved smokestacks (map) in front of a shopping center known as The Waterfront. Those were remains of Homestead Steel Works, once the world’s largest steel-producing plant.
Homestead Steel Works dated to the 1880’s, once owned by industrialist Andrew Carnegie who later sold it to U.S. Steel where it became the company’s flagship factory. It was also the site of the infamous Homestead Strike of 1892 that lasted for several months with significant violence and loss of life.
The Works closed in 1986. Almost thirty years later I rode across the place where molten metal rivers once poured.
Scars Upon the Landscape
Red Waterfall; Buena Vista, Pennsylvania
We began to leave city behind and pushed past McKeesport, now switching from the bank of the Monongahela River to the Youghiogheny. The trail’s paved surface turned to gravel and would remain that way for the remainder of the ride. City gave way to suburb and finally to countryside as the miles slipped away. Next came smaller towns like Boston and Sutersville and historic sites such as the old Dravo Cemetery.
Nature reclaimed many of the old industrial sites although a toxic legacy remained behind. A red waterfall (map) hid a dark secret. The rich color came from iron. The acidity killed aquatic life and poisoned the waters. Toxins seeped from abandoned mines, an environmentally harmful condition called Acid Mine Drainage (AMD). The waterfall reminded me that even something ugly could appear somewhat beautiful on its surface.
We arrived in West Newton for the night, wet and layered with ashen grime from the crushed limestone used on the trail. We hosed-off our bikes and congratulated ourselves on a successful first day.
It sat there in front of me, so tempting, so wanting to be bestowed with a clickbait title on this 12MC article. I could have called it Sex Folk or maybe Folk Sex. Certainly that would have attracted some undeserved attention and a few extra eyeballs. However, for what purpose? People who came to the site on that flimsy premise would create the classic one-and-done scenario, never to return again anyway. It’s not like Twelve Mile Circle ever tried to appeal to a wider audience beyond its faithful core of geo-geeks. I avoided the temptation. However now I have to describe what this article is all about because I spent the entire opening paragraph on a completely unrelated tangent.
The situation became apparent as I started my research for an upcoming trip to Cape Cod and environs in the next few weeks. Massachusetts, I noticed, had counties of Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk and Suffolk. The prefixes seemed directional, east, middle, north and south. The suffixes, well I knew they came from England during the colonial era although I’d never examined their meaning before. What did -sex and -folk mean, anyway?
At this point the UK audience can probably stop reading. This will likely be old news. It may also be old news for much of the North American audience too. I don’t know.
Oh, I have another interesting tidbit since we’re running down irrelevant tangents today. More 12MC visitors arrive on the site from London than from any other place in the world except for New York City. By that I mean 12MC has a surprisingly robust British audience and a lot of people could probably stop reading right around now and get on with their day.
Harvard Bridge, crossing between Middlesex and Suffolk Counties, Massachusetts (my own photo)
Once on a trip to Boston, Massachusetts I walked across the Harvard Bridge over the Charles River between Middlesex and Suffolk Counties. I’d gone there to observe the birthplace of the Smoot in person. That simple stroll allowed me to travel from -folk (Suffolk) to -sex (Middlesex) and back to -folk. Let’s begin by evaluating -sex.
The geographic prefix -sex came from the Old English seaxe, meaning Saxon. The Saxons were a Germanic people who arrived in Great Britain in the fifth century and formed part of the larger Anglo-Saxon grouping that remained in control until the Norman conquest in 1066. Sorry to disappoint everyone with that rather mundane derivation. Thus, in England, Sussex was south Saxon, Essex was east Saxon, Wessex was west Saxon and Middlesex was middle Saxon. That middle Saxon was centered near London and the other lands of Saxons were correspondingly south, east and west. England in modern times split Sussex into West Sussex and East Sussex which are west and east of each other (generally southwest and southeast of London), all logically enough. It made sense.
Things got a bit turned around in the North American colonies when settlers arrived and brought their familiar English placenames with them. In Massachusetts, Essex was east of Middlesex and that was fine. In New Jersey, Sussex was north, Middlesex was south and Essex was in the middle (although one tiny corner extended farthest east). In Virginia, Middlesex was in the middle and Sussex was south as they should have been, however Essex was north.
Boston skyline by Bert Kaufmann, on Flickr (cc)
The City of Boston was located within the -folk when I crossed the Harvard Bridge. Many counties in New England have been disestablished and Suffolk has joined the list. It exists for various statistical purposes although Suffolk no longer has a separate county government. Nonetheless it retained its historical name with it’s pertinent suffix.
Suffolk and Norfolk in England were aligned geographically in an appropriate manner. Massachusetts was completely flipped. Suffolk was north and Norfolk was south. Either the etymology had been obscured or nobody cared by then.
I noted the inherent redundancy of places named River Ouse in England. The literal translation worked out to something like Water River or even River River. Similar repetitions occurred likewise wherever one language overlapped another as new settlers migrated into territory occupied and named previously by earlier cultures. I found a discussion of the Ouse situation specifically on the Stack Exchange English Language & Usage website, including one particularly fascinating comment that illustrated a similar point using a different English location:
Steam Under Pendle Hill by Andrew, on Flickr (cc)
In Pendle Hill’s case (map), it came from the Cumbric pen in its earliest form, then combined with Old English hyll to form Pendle, then later appended with the modern English hill. Pen, Hyll and Hill all meant the same thing essentially. There was another place in England, Torpenhow Hill, that was alleged to translate to Hill, Hill, Hill, Hill, however its etymology was debunked. What a pity.
Wikipedia contained a long list of similar tautological place names; "A place name is tautological if two differently sounding parts of it are synonymous. This often occurs when a name from one language is imported into another and a standard descriptor is added on from the second language." Dictionaries described tautology as a logical or rhetorical redundancy that applied broadly; much more widely than just geography.
The frequency of tautological place names surprised me. They included familiar names like Mississippi River (Mississippi being Algonquian for Big River, making it Big River River) and Lake Michigan (Michigan coming from Ojibwa via French mispronunciation as Large Lake, making it Lake Large Lake).
I stole a handful of examples from the very expansive list and ruminated upon them further.
Chora, Astypalaia by Henrik Berger Jørgensen, on Flickr (cc)
The Dodecanese Islands (map) in the Aegean Sea formed Greece’s southeastern extreme. The largest and most well know was probably Rhodes, famed since ancient times for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. The island of Kos also had a lengthy pedigree and was even mentioned by name in Homer’s Iliad. Still another, Patmos, was where the apostle John wrote the biblical Book of Revelation
Dodecanese was Greek (Δωδεκάνησα) for Twelve Islands, so the commonly Anglicized place name was equivalent to Twelve Islands Islands.
Lake Hayq by Manogamos, Algunas veces Mujeres Violentas, on Flickr (cc)
I selected the next example in Ethiopia because, frankly, I wanted to put a push-pin on Ethiopia on my Complete Index map. Africa had been sadly underrepresented on 12MC. I need to add more. Lake Hayq (map) offered an excellent opportunity. Plus it gave me an excuse to write Hayq in that funky Ge’ez script used by Ethiopians: ሐይቅ
Hayq had an interesting creation myth:
Hayq was Amharic for lake, so calling it Lake Hayq was equivalent to calling it Lake Lake.
La Brea Tar Pits
La Brea Tar Pits – Los Angeles, California by ashabot, on Flickr (cc)
I visited La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California a number of years ago (map). It made the list for that simple reason. I found it oddly wonderful that I was able to visit an important paleontological site in such a completely urban environment. Natural deposits of tar oozed up to the surface over thousands of years. Sometimes leaves or dust would blow across the surface making it appear solid and indistinguishable from surrounding terrain. Along would wander some Ice Age critter stumbling into the tar, unable to extricate itself, and die. Repeat that innumerable times and scientists are still removing their bones for study today.
La Brea was Spanish for The Tar, so La Brea Tar Pits meant The Tar Tar Pits. Oftentimes, compounding this, sources referred to the site as The La Brea Tar Pits (even the museum located on the site called itself "Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits." on one of its pages). That would make it The The Tar Tar Pits.