Motorcycle Touring in Pennsylvania | On the Diagonal

Stone cold in the keystone state

I recently found myself feeling nostalgic for my home state of Pennsylvania, so I planned a flight east so I could undertake a ride down Memory Lane. I'd arranged to get a Moto Guzzi Nevada to take me on a route that consisted of mostly back roads while I enjoyed the sights and solitude, stopping in my college and home towns and visiting family I've neglected.

That was the original plan, but while it was autumn when I left Idaho, temperatures were dropping in the Keystone State. Stubborn to the core, I set off anyway after the bike was delivered-without electric clothing, heated grips, hand guards, a windshield or any other amenities that might have provided some weather protection. Damn the torpedoes, I thought; I wasn't going to let a little thing like a cold snap interfere with my grand plan.

The four-day itinerary I charted was an 800-mile loop from my parents' home near Philadelphia to Erie, where my only brother lives, and back. From the Philly area, I would cut diagonally northwest across the state. On the return, my route would run east through the northern counties on scenic U.S. 6, then south along the broad Susquehanna River to Harrisburg and east again to the starting point.

The thermometer registered 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but it was sunny when I rolled the bike out in West Chester that first morning. From U.S. 30 West, I took a right onto PA 340, which runs through the heart of the Amish region. The leaves kicked up in bright yellows, oranges and reds along this back road, and the 750cc Nevada fit me like a glove. Inside my helmet, I couldn't stop smiling.

The Amish country near Lancaster has towns with unique names like Intercourse, Paradise, Blue Ball and Bird-in-Hand. It's hugely popular with tourists, who come to see the Pennsylvania Dutch people going about life in traditional ways, traveling by horse and buggy, the men wearing long beards and overalls and the women in aprons and bonnets. The Amish eschew the use of electricity, and laundry flapped in the breeze on lines in front of their farms as I passed.

Traffic was light, and I stopped in Intercourse for coffee and warmth at the Lunch Basket, an Amish eatery. I sampled the baked oatmeal and couldn't resist a slice of shoo-fly pie, which I hadn't tried in all my years as a Pennsylvania girl. The former tastes like a muffin; the latter like brown sugar and pastry.

Riding at 55 mph in 45-degree weather translates to a windchill factor of 32 degrees. I was so cold I donned rain gear for more wind protection before hopping on the back roads north to U.S. 322 and heading west. Needless to say, the rain gear stayed on for the rest of the journey. When I caught a whiff of the chocolate candy factory in Hershey, I breathed deeply. With that aroma constantly in my nose, it would be hard for me to live there and not gorge on chocolate every day.

U.S. 322 leads to the I-83 and I-81 beltway around Harrisburg. North of this state capitol, I took the exit for State College, home of Pennsylvania State University (PSU)-my alma mater. I was back on 322, now a smooth four-lane above the Juniata River from Harrisburg almost to State College. The scenery was beautiful, but I was shivering too much to fully appreciate it. Still, the V-twin purred nicely and didn't skip a beat as I shook my hands to keep them from freezing claw-like onto the grips.

When I reached State College-which houses about 40,000 students-in the late afternoon, I cruised up College Avenue. But instead of touring the campus, I parked the bike and headed to Moyer Jewelers. I had been waiting years to replace a gold charm replica of the PSU mascot-the Nittany Lion-and only Moyer sells them. My brother had given me one for graduation, but it was stolen along with my charm bracelet in the late 1970s. Prices for gold have risen considerably since my college days, but for some things, money doesn't matter.

Replacement charm in hand, I wondered if I should press on as the skies darkened. Rain turned into sleet as I joined the line of commuters leaving State College. When it began snowing and a "32F" LCD readout flashed on the Guzzi's speedometer, I knew I had taken a foolish risk. At that temperature, riding 55 mph translates to a windchill of just 13F. And given the real threat of skidding, my heart was in my mouth for the next 40 miles. Finally, a miracle-the glow of a Rodeway Inn near Clearfield. I can still feel my fingers tingling as they thawed out in that motel room.

The forecast was for more snow overnight, so I thought about turning around. Not being able to visit my brother would be disappointing; I hadn't seen him in seven years. But when I called, he pointed out that snow wouldn't stick just yet. If I waited a few hours the next morning after the snowfall, conditions would be decent.

Ha! It was indecently cold-40 degrees at best-and raining as I shivered my way over the central Pennsylvania mountain ranges along PA 153. A blanket of new snow covered the forest floor in places, and I was wearing three pairs of gloves to ward off frostbite.

I've ridden these two-lane central Pennsylvania roads a thousand times, but it was still fun to descend the steep hill from 2,166-foot-high Boot Jack summit into Ridgeway. On Main Street, I felt the return of body heat as I sipped coffee in Two Scoops, an old-fashioned soda fountain and caf.

At Ridgeway, PA 948 starts meandering through the Allegheny National Forest, the only national forest in Pennsylvania. It's a wonderful motorcycling road with little traffic. I watched for wet leaves in the curves, and at U.S. 6, turned west toward Warren, the small town I once called home. Oil was discovered in this region in the mid-1800s, and former oil tycoons built many of Warren's well-preserved homes.

I exited at Pennsylvania Avenue and paid a visit to our old digs on Fourth Avenue, an 1860s center-hall colonial with a touch of Greek revival. As I was taking a picture, the current owner stepped out to chat about the house my family had restored.

It was tough to leave Warren-for my money, one of the prettiest towns in the U.S.-but I needed to cover the 60-plus miles to Erie before dark. From U.S. 6, I took PA 97 at Union City and U.S. 19 at Waterford, a historic crossroads whose claim to fame is a visit from George Washington in the mid 1700s to help dislodge the French.

Erie is laid out in a grid pattern, and finding my brother's home wasn't too difficult. Our reunion was fantastic, and the central heating in his house wasn't bad either. Tim lives near Presque Isle State Park, a sand-spit jutting into Lake Erie, and I took the Nevada there for a look at the lake. The allure of Presque Isle's white sand beaches has made it the most popular state park in Pennsylvania. Near its entrance sits the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, a new research facility housed in an environmentally friendly building.

Temperatures dipped even further during my stay, and I hated to leave-especially when I felt the frigid air blowing into my visor again. I retraced my route to U.S. 6 and planned to follow it to Wellsboro. Roadside signs note its official name: The Grand Army of the Republic Highway, in honor of Civil War soldiers. The Pennsylvania segment connects the cities of the state's northern tier and is considered one of the best touring roads in the country.

At Corry, I was seized by an urge to tour the downtown, which allowed me to see one of the magnificent murals various artists have painted on buildings along this route. Then I backtracked to Warren and took that trip down Memory Lane-riding Pennsylvania Avenue along the Allegheny River and through the downtown area. Southeast of Warren, I detoured onto PA 59 to see the Kinzua Dam. Completed in 1965, the 179-foot-high dam keeps the Allegheny River from flooding towns as far south as Pittsburgh. Behind it, the Kinzua Reservoir, a major recreation area, backs up 24 miles into New York state.

It began to snow again, and my big plans to visit Mount Jewett's train trestle were thwarted by the cold. I hurried on to Smethport, a virtual museum of enormous mansions built by lumber barons. It's also home to Wooly Willy, the magnetic toy that allows you to create head and facial hair with metal shavings for bald Willy. I hadn't seen one in ages, so I bought four at the visitor center. It was the biggest sale of the day for the ladies there, who urged me to hurry if I wanted to reach my destination by evening.

The fall colors had peaked as the bike and I followed U.S. 6's gentle dips and turns through the northern forests. At Wellsboro, I called it quits and grabbed a room at the Canyon Motel. From there I could walk to the downtown lined with gas lamps. Dinner was Chinese takeout, but I made a point of having breakfast at the Wellsboro Diner, a vintage landmark with gleaming porcelain inside and out.

That night, the weather forecasters predicted a heavy rainstorm for the next afternoon, so I left Wellsboro intent on making West Chester before dark. The daily subfreezing chill was starting to annoy me, so I decided to postpone any more sightseeing until the next summer, when I vowed to repeat the trip in reverse and really enjoy myself.

I rode south the fastest way possible-PA 297 to U.S. 220 and then U.S. 15 along the west side of the Susquehanna. After a brief stop in Liverpool to tour its quaint streets of row houses, I took I-81 and I-83 to PA 283. At Lancaster, the U.S. 30 exit appeared just in time, since the heavens were turning nearly black. I didn't have far to go now.

Cold and weary, I was back in West Chester by the evening rush hour. That night it poured, but the Nevada and I were safely under a roof. I was impressed by the Moto Guzzi, which never gave me a moment's trouble, starting up nicely every morning despite the unrelenting chill. I fell asleep dreaming of riding U.S. 6-in the sunshine.