Over 1,500 bridges span Allegheny County: miles of steel and iron trusses, bracelet of concrete, river, and road. You enter the Fort Pitt tunnel and cross the Monongahela downtown. Not long after you arrive, you ride the elevator to the top floor of the Cathedral of Learning, wanting to know if distance, like snow, makes blackened brick beautiful.

It doesn’t. Pittsburgh invites myth-making. You were told the coal pillars exist and you imagine houses folding on their own boards, the tunnels proof of Dante’s Inferno. You witness nothing, but old names echo: Carnegie, Frick, Mellon, Heinz. Money and fire, limestone and slag. Over a century later, the image of molten metal is still shorthand for the city, though the mills have disappeared.

You have to stand on Liberty Avenue to see past traces of grit. Tilt your head to notice inscriptions carved in masonry, walk on dogwood leaves and touch the windowless warehouse before you sense animal power behind each wall. The harder you work a landscape, the more it will shift. You forget how everything looked from the 61C bus, but you can smell Greek olives soaking in gallon buckets on Penn Avenue. You can sense mustard pollen blowing through Squirrel Hill every summer.

Near the end of your stay, you head out on the Monongahela river. You listen through an echo-sounder, trying to measure depth, but all you remember is the steady click of river heartbeats, slow-moving grace.

About the author

Karen Rigby was born nine degrees north of the equator, and has visited countries such as China, Hong Kong, and Costa Rica. Her sojourns…

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Issue 10 · September 2010

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