Rolling downhill is a solution I mentally file for my descent. I've already climbed close to 100 vertical feet, and my reward is an over-the-treetops view of Pittsburgh's downtown, framed by the spire of former St. Michael's church, now heavenly condominiums.
From here, the city looks like a life-size version of a 1950s train set, whirring with action. Little cable cars race hawks down the green bluffs, river barges chug past the confluence, railroads trundle busily around the mountains, and cars beetle over bridges. I count a dozen churches below, from onion domes to towers -- a separate-but-equal ethnic approach to God.
In Pittsburgh's South Side Slopes, the streets are made of steps -- hundreds of them.
(Christopher Rolinson For The Washington Post)
St. Michael's was the German church of the Slopes (the Poles went down the street -- er, the steps -- to St. Jehosaphat's) and the site of a local miracle. When an 1849 cholera epidemic decimated the neighborhood, the church ran out of burial plots. The desperate faithful pledged to St. Roch that they would keep a holy day if the parish could be spared. The plague ceased; a recurrence four years later bypassed the hillside, too.
Devout memories hover around the neighborhood, from the saints' names on street signs to the community theater group. The Veronica's Veil Players, celebrating their 85th season on Pius Street, got their start enacting a version of the Oberammergau passion play. Dozens of local amateurs reprise it each Lent, allowing the group to claim it's the longest-running play in American theater. (They fast-forward to Neil Simon-style comedies through the winter.)
I'm grateful for Pius's flat sidewalk as I search for Yard Way, the city's longest step-street. The first few flights up are all I can see: This stairway to Heaven climbs 317 steps, to St. Paul's of the Cross Monastery and Church. Its single bell rings each hour, sounding louder with each riser. A syncopated thunk punctuates the bell-tolling as I reach Huron Street and turn off the steps to investigate. I find Winters Playground, whose fence prevents kids from accidentally skydiving down the green bluff below. A teenager in Steeler black and gold drives down the court, seeming to leap over the skyline for a basket.
The Romanesque St. Paul's is another 19th-century Bohemian relic, its side chapel glittering with garnet votives. It's an ideal spot to rest before I head down Billy Buck Hill -- the name reminds me of Pyle's mountain-goat theory -- to the Flats below.
My quadriceps quiver as I descend, and I break into a sort of bounding nanny-goat gait to relax. Two burgers are sizzling unattended on a backyard grill about an inch from the railing. I briefly wish for a fork. But as I pass back over the railroad tracks, I find sustenance at Mabel Meyers's tiny grocery on Bradish Street.
Clad in a University of Pittsburgh sweatshirt and black sneakers, 84-year-old Meyers welcomes strangers as well as locals (evidently dogs are regulars too; a pair gets a big hello as they drag their young owner through the door). After 1,400 steps, I'd pay almost anything for a soda. But Meyers won't hear of it. "Let me treat you!" she says.
We compromise. I offer her 50 cents and she gives me a soda, a plastic chair next to the candy counter and her autobiography.
After World War II, when she and her husband bought the 1889-era shop, business was good. Their grocery was next to the lower station of the Knoxville Incline, one of the cable car lines that carried passengers and even horse-drawn wagons uphill till 11 at night. (Two, the Monongahela and Duquesne, survive). Incline passengers would wave to her children as the car rose uphill.