SMITHTON—Sunrise. A small Pennsylvania town. I’m sipping weak coffee, writing from the porch of a small 1893 inn that overlooks Appalachia. American flags fly from every post, beam, telephone pole, and CB antenna.

Long ago this simple-looking inn used to be owned by a local brewery. The original bar is still in the barroom.

Back in the day, a barkeep would have served his lukewarm beer for pennies and rented rooms upstairs for a buck. But today, this place is just a remnant of old America.

The inn was turned into a bed and breakfast a few years ago. Mostly it caters to bicyclers who are foolish enough to cycle the Great Allegheny Passage Trail. Take, for example, me and my wife.

Ah yes. The trail. About that. We have been pedaling this multi-state trail for a full day. We started yesterday morning in Pittsburgh. We arrived in Smithton at sundown. After our long ride, we crawled into bed and fell asleep in under nine seconds.

It seems like we’ve been cycling for a hundred thousand miles, but I looked at a map and realized we have only traveled fifty. We have a long, long, LONG way left to go. I don’t know if I’m going to make it.

Already my legs feel like they’ve been beaten with a blackjack billy club. My joints are sore, my eyes are sunken, I’m dehydrated, and I’ve lost all my teeth.

Still. The profound greenery of Appalachia is worth the effort. In fact, it’s too much beauty for the written word.

This morning, I stumbled onto the porch to see nothing but tree-covered hills draped in chowder-thick fog. I saw Queen Anne homes, Victorian rooftop spires, and church steeples. And Canada geese were flying overhead, honking out a morning melody.

“You actually have Canada geese here?” I said to a local guy who was beside me.

“Course we have geese,” he said, “This is God’s country.”

The truth is, the town of Smithton is more or less a sleepy backwater. There are about 370 residents, most are retired coal miners or retired steel mill workers. They are veterans of industries that dried up long ago. All their young people have moved away. So today it’s a laid back American Legion kind of town.

Which would explain all the flags. I am watching them whip in the light breeze, and I’m massaging my sore thigh muscles, wondering if this coffee could be any weaker.

The first thing I did when I woke up this morning was hunt for the inn’s coffee pot. I hobbled like a 93-year-old man downstairs to the kitchen. I poured the tallest mug they had. But something was off, the coffee was more pale than I’m used to.

I like my coffee strong enough to power two-cycle outboards.

“Is this coffee?” I asked the innkeeper.

“Yep,” she said.

I looked into my steaming cup of Pennsylvania joe. I could see the bottom of the mug. Even so, the coffee was hot and delicious, and after drinking 16 cups I was good to go.

After that, I limped upstairs to find my wife still asleep. Our room is small, barely big enough to qualify as a crawlspace. And our bed is about the size of a mass-market paperback novel. But this place couldn’t be any better.

This is the old world. There’s limited cell service here, lots of backyard gardens, and lots of porch sitting.

We slept with the windows open last night so that the sound of crickets worked its way into our dreams. The chilly air turned my nose into a freezer-burned strawberry. And when I awoke, I was happy.

So I’m not sorry we’re riding this grueling trail across the rural mid-Atlantic states. Not at all. I’ve seen things I will never see again. Good things. Things that mean something to me.

Like last night’s sunset. My wife and I stood atop a rusted iron bridge to watch river barges putter on the Youghiogheny River. We were the only onlookers around for a million miles. We toasted our Gatorade bottles beneath an Appalachian ridge and kept riding onward.

We rode through rundown neighborhoods, with industrial-age homes that had seen better days. The old homesteads were overrun with family members gathered on porches for huge Labor Day cookouts.

So far we’ve rolled through dozens of steel-mill towns like this. Some were filled with blue-tarped roofs, overgrown lawns, and plywooded windows. Others had houses that were falling apart. But each house—and I mean without exception—was flying an American flag.

And I saw more than just flags, too. I saw banners on lamp posts honoring local World War II veterans. I saw patriotic bunting hanging from bannister railings. I saw ball games played in backyards. And kids eating popsicles on swing sets.

What I haven’t seen is people fighting. I’ve seen no arguments about current events. No angry folks exchanging hateful views on the world. I haven’t met the first unfriendly soul. I’ve seen nothing but good here.

And I must have needed this goodness. Because I have spent the better part of the year stuck indoors, just like everyone else. A pandemic nearly changed me. It’s been a long time since I felt half normal. But I understand it all comes back to you. Just like riding a bike.

We have lots of miles left to pedal, and my out-of-shape body is not prepared. They will probably have to carry me home in an ambulance. But hey, I’m doing all right. Because, like the man said:

This is God’s country.

God’s coffee could use a little work though.


  1. Keith - September 9, 2020 9:13 am

    The Panhandle misses ya! But that is beautiful country up there and with fall teasing the air, I can picture the cool mornings you might be enjoying. The soreness will fade.

  2. jeanhogan1248 - September 9, 2020 9:14 am

    What a well written breath of fresh air reading!
    Don’t like coffee so your prose will start my day with a smile, and hope for my country.
    Keep writing and biking so I, too, might ride the trail.

  3. DiAnne Patrick - September 9, 2020 10:02 am

    It’s Canada geese, Sean, not Canadian. FYI.

  4. Warren Evans - September 9, 2020 10:55 am

    I spent the summer in Pennsylvania after my second year of college. I am now 72 years old and still recall how breathing beautiful it is. Thanks for taking me back to a wonderful memory. Larry Evans

  5. Tina - September 9, 2020 11:35 am

    We had this trip scheduled for Oct. last year till surgery interrupted our plans. I’ve been a little scared of the unknown as we prepare for our GAP trip in a few weeks. I somehow feel God is telling me me “Hey look, if this guy can do it and enjoy it, you will too.” Keep on riding and writing, and I’ll be reading.😉

  6. Shirley Lieberman - September 9, 2020 12:07 pm

    Thank you again for a great jump start to my day!

  7. KATY 8:15 am - September 9, 2020 12:14 pm

    💞love our Canada geese and foggy mornings 💞

  8. Robert M Brenner - September 9, 2020 12:19 pm

    May the force be with you, and your thighs. Enjoy the beauty of this land and keep sharing your journey with us. 🇺🇸

  9. Gary - September 9, 2020 12:22 pm

    Beautiful country, I live in East Tennessee and really enjoy vacationing in the north, just don’t ask for sweet tea, they will look at you funny !
    Looking forward to more tales from your trip !

  10. Cathy - September 9, 2020 1:07 pm

    Sean, you are a joy to read, travel safe.
    Sipping my coffee on our deck watching the sun come up over our lake.

  11. Jo Ann - September 9, 2020 1:17 pm

    Thanks for sharing your trip with us. Wishing you & Jamie safe travels & sunny days. This is probably the best time of year for your trip. Cooler weather, not cold yet. When you reach the C & O canal trail in Maryland, that’s our neck of the woods. Beautiful area. Blessings to you both.

  12. Mary Lee - September 9, 2020 1:42 pm

    I hope everyone that reads your articles realizes that what you are doing is living your life to the fullest and that this country provides that opportunity to anyone who gets out there and tries something. Travel tip – ALWAYS carry packets of instant coffee!!

  13. Kendal - September 9, 2020 1:51 pm

    Welcome to the north, and my PA. Be safe on the road and keep us posted.

  14. Paul Alge Moore - September 9, 2020 1:52 pm

    Is the pandemic over ? I guess all those flags and wonderful coffee killed it. 😬

  15. Carlene Walker - September 9, 2020 2:03 pm

    I can see the villages and smell the lush green. I have been a part of the crowded porches and swing sets. Thanks for the memories. Mine were in south Alabama around Blue Springs.

  16. Helen De Prima - September 9, 2020 2:20 pm

    Magic words: road trip! Whether by car or bike or on foot. We’ve driven from New Hampshire to Colorado several times and throughout the South; the best parts are leaving the Interstate to find the real America.

  17. Linda Broyles - September 9, 2020 3:26 pm

    Beautiful column! Thank you!

  18. Mark Pollish - September 9, 2020 5:34 pm

    Power’s been out for 2 days where I live at the base of the Wasatch Mountains out west in Utah. First thing This morning was drive down to nearest Starbucks and get 2 overpriced coffees to go for my wife and I. Sean, reading this made my day. Thank you! Mark Pollish

  19. MAM - September 9, 2020 7:03 pm

    I think you have undertaken a really awesome challenge and I pray for your success in fulfilling it. Enjoy the back roads and see what America truly is and should always be. Be safe!

  20. Linda Moon - September 10, 2020 12:19 am

    I’m late in commenting to this lovely Pennsylvania post. My day was spent in profound LIFE hours, not moments. LIFE, itself, really is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. You were in God’s country there in Smithton. And by gosh,Sean, you are sometimes God’s words to me, especially on a day like this one. Ride on, you and your wife, and maybe Tina can, too!

  21. Nancy M - September 10, 2020 12:55 am

    Sounds like a wonderful ride! Prayers for both of you, health, safety, and good strong coffee! Don’t you have Canada geese in the Panhandle? We have them in Montgomery and saw them in Daphne.

  22. Dru Brown - September 10, 2020 1:59 am

    How beautifully you’ve stirred up childhood memories of the mountains. What happy thoughts, crickets and fresh air and American flags! Thank you!

  23. Sara Bosch - September 10, 2020 4:04 am

    Loved this reminder of the beauty of our people and country!!! Thank you, Sean!

  24. Steve Winfield (Lifer) - September 10, 2020 6:58 am

    Back in my band days I put together a coffee bag. Mini coffee maker & all the fixins. I still carry it on over-nighters.
    Also, big grocers like Publix have these single serve Starbucks instant. OK on their own but I dump one in a cup of weak hotel coffee to bring it up to proper strength.
    Genius & so simple.
    Y’all please be safe.

  25. Cathy Nelson - September 11, 2020 4:03 am

    Thank you for this. I sure do miss my Pennsylvania small towns. Been to Smithton many many times. Your right, God’s Country!

  26. Karen - September 12, 2020 10:46 pm

    My husband and I own an inn in Hot Springs, NC. The town is named for the natural hot springs across the street from our inn; wow does it sound like Smithton! Population under 500, older homes sporting flags, and like you described, most have seen better days. But just so you know, our inn has big beds, and strong coffee! If you’re ever in the area, the Iron Horse Station will have a room for you! Enjoy the outdoors, your bike ride and your time with your wife.


Leave a Comment