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Road trippin' to West Virginia still a trip

West Virginia has been part of the Big 12 for three-plus years now, and still, heading out to cover a game at the conference's eastern-most member feels a little like a trip to the far side of the moon.

You know you aren't in the Big 12 footprint, as we once knew it.

That made Friday a fun day for Team Oklahoman.

Our crew -- reporters Kyle Frederickson and John Helsley, photographer Sarah Phipps and myself -- left Oklahoma City early Friday morning. We had a 6:20 a.m. flight, and I've got to tell you, there was a time in my life when a flight that early made my eyes roll back in my head. Why would anyone catch a flight that early? Because if you're flight leaves at 6:20, that means you need to be to the airport at least an hour before at 5:20, and that means you've to get out the door and drive to the airport, you've got to get up some time in the 4 o'clock hour.

That seemed like lunacy.

But Thursday night when I set my alarm for 4-something a.m., I realized, "Hey, that's only, like, half an hour earlier than I normally get up. That's not so bad."

Then, I realized I'm getting old; young people don't get up regularly in the 5 o'clock hour.

Our flight went without a hitch, OKC to Pittsburgh with a quick stopover in Atlanta. But when we landed in Pittsburgh, I told the crew how weird this trip still seemed to me. We stopped over in SEC Country, then landed in what I still think of as Big Ten Country. Maybe there'll come a time when that changes, but I'm not there yet.

We landed in Pittsburgh a little before noon and headed to our hotel, which was about a 10 minute drive from the airport. After Kyle and I made an appearance on our weekly Football Friday hangout, the whole crew met to go find some lunch. Sarah and Kyle had done some web searches for Pittsburgh must-eats, and we hit on the one that I've actually heard of -- Primanti Bros.

This is a place that I've seen featured a couple different places. The Food Network regularly talks about it. So, giving it a try sounded like good news to me.

Even better news, Primanti Bros. has numerous locations. Like 20 or so around the Pittsburgh area. The original location is downtown, and I'm sure it carries a special level of ambiance, but frankly, since it was nearly 1 p.m. and all I'd eaten was some airplane peanuts and pretzels, I wanted food more than ambiance.

We headed to the closest Primanti Bros., which was in a suburb right by the airport called Moon. Kyle, Sarah and I ordered the Pitt-Burger sandwich, noted on the menu to be the restaurant's No. 2 best seller (not being able to find the No. 1 best seller on the menu, I asked our waitress; beer, of course, is the answer to the question), and Hels went with the turkey sandwich.

All of the sandwiches at Primanti come with french fries and cole slaw ON them. Basically, the whole meal is in the sandwich. That, apparently, is what made the restaurant a Pittsburgh staple; blue-collar, working-class folks could come in and get a sandwich that had everything but was portable to take to their job in the factories or mills or assembly lines. Fairly genius, I think.

After some Pittsburgh chili (lots of beans, no meat) and onion rings (gigantic and delicious) as appetizers, our sandwiches arrived. They were beauties, plenty of fixins between two extremely thick slices of bread.

I asked the guy who brought the food if he had any advice for trying to eat the thing. 

"Smash it down," he said, "and get after it."

So, that's what I did. It was well worth the mess.

As we drove back to the hotel, there was lots of talk of naps. Sounded great to me, but I needed to get in a run. I'm training for another half marathon (how crazy am I?), and my training plan called for an 8-mile run this week. I wanted to get it done Friday so I didn't have to mess with it Saturday.

But that Pitt-Burger was sitting in my gut like a magnificently tasty rock, so I figured I'd have to wait at least an hour before even attempting a run. And the longer I waited, the more a nap sounded like a good idea. It was a cloudy, cool day in Pittsburgh, perfect for afternoon napping.

Somehow, though, I talked myself into running. I told myself that 8 miles would be great, but really, after that big lunch, ANY miles would be OK.

I hunted around online for running routes. Turns out, if you're traveling and you Google just about any city and "running routes", you can usually find something. Lo and behold, I struck gold. Just across the street from our hotel is the Montour Trail, more than 40 miles of  crushed-limestone, tree-lined bliss. 

The first mile or so wasn't much bliss for me, but once that Pitt-Burger got worked out, things went fine. The trail wound through wooded areas and ran right next to a fairly fast-moving stream. Occasionally, the trail crossed the stream with a quaint little bridge. And with the leaves starting their autumn turn, it was a really pretty setting.

I even saw a beaver.

Yes, a beaver. The little guy (or gal, I'm not sure which) was sitting right next to the trail, chomping on something. I suspect he and his buddies had a lodge somewhere on the stream. 

As I approached him and realized what he was, I thought, "How cool! Not something you ever see in our neck of the woods."

Then I thought, "Do beavers attack people?"

I know how to handle dogs and skunks and the like when I'm running back in Oklahoma, but a beaver? I wasn't sure what I should do, so I slowed a bit and eased on by. The little guy didn't move.


Though I admit, I did look back once or twice just to make sure he wasn't coming after me. I assume an attack beaver is nothing to mess around with.

After running (I got in 7.3 miles, not quite my goal but still acceptable) and cleaning up, Kyle, Sarah and I headed out in search of dinner. Hard to believe we could be hungry again after Primanti Bros., but we wanted to head toward downtown Pittsburgh. A friend of mine had suggested a couple spots, and Kyle had someone tweet at him to try a place called Church Brew Works. That was one of the places my friend suggested, too, so off we went.

The drive on the interstate was capped by the Fort Pitt Tunnel. It's one of the coolest things you'll see on a drive anywhere. 

When you go into the tunnel, you're in rolling, tree-filled hills. That's pretty common for this part of Pennsylvania. But when you emerge a little less than a mile later, you are greeted by the spectacular view of downtown Pittsburgh. It's like you've gone through some crazy portal that has dropped you in a land far, far away from where you were.

We skirted around downtown, getting a view of Heinz Field, where the Steelers play, and PNC Park, where the Pirates play. We saw the rivers, three of which converge right there in downtown. Several of the buildings downtown have special lighting on them, too, much like the Devon Tower in Oklahoma City. Makes for a cool scene.

Church Brew Works was a little bit east of downtown in an older neighborhood. Lots of massive but empty warehouses. Row houses, some run down, some not. You can tell that it's an area that has been neglected over a while but is seeing a rebirth.

Apparently, Church Brew Works is part of that. The owners bought an old, blighted Baptist church almost 20 years ago and turned it into a brewery. Yes, I'm sure for some people that would be heresy or sinful or something, but the people of Pittsburgh thought it was great. There's even a framed letter from the mayor near the door thanking the owner for buying the historic property and investing in the city's future.

The setting was super cool. The restaurant occupied all of what used to be the grand sanctuary.  The extremely high vaulted ceilings were a sight to see. The stained glass was still in place. And most of the arches and painting and grandeur at the front of the church was still as it originally was.

Though I assume the church didn't have a massive beer-brewing apparatus on the altar like there is now.

Kyle and I tried a couple of the in-house brews. The Octoberfest that I had was excellent. And as good as the beer was, the food was even better. Beer-battered bison corn dogs for an appetizer. Then I went with one of the specials, a pasta dish with a thick meat sauce riccota cheese that was absolutely amazing. Kyle had a pierogi dish, Sarah a shrimp and grits dish, and even though we were all stuffed, they decided they needed to try some dessert. And when they said I had to help, who was I to argue?

Pumpkin cheesecake? Frozen peanut butter mousse cake?

Yes, please.

We left Church Brew Works vowing to eat lots of vegetables on Saturday.

Getting back in the car for the return trip to the hotel, we had one more unexpected adventure. Our car’s GPS took us through downtown Pittsburgh, and we got to see some of the sights. But as we headed toward the onramp to the bridge out of downtown, I suddenly wanted to hit the brakes and throw the car in reverse.

Construction traffic.

No one was moving.

We sat in the same place for a very long time and eventually found ourselves diverted onto a city street in a direction that seemed totally wrong. But we were sort of stuck in the detour, so on we trudged.

With some quick thinking and skillful navigating, Sarah found us an alternate route. When we had a chance to get back on the interstate, she advised against it. The map on her phone indicated that the interstate was a parking lot, so she told us to stay on this residential road.

It was a great call.

We took the road almost all the way back to the hotel, and it was great. Lots of hills. Lots of curves. There were trees and homes and small businesses. The only thing that would’ve made it better would’ve been daylight. I would’ve liked to better seen our surroundings.

But even in the dark, you could tell that this wasn’t something we normally experience on football road trips. That doesn’t make those other road trips bad. Doesn’t make the West Virginia road trip better. But it is different than the rest. Lots different.

And that was before we crossed into West Virginia. That happens Saturday afternoon.


Related Photos
The Montour Trail is a reminder of how different this neck of the woods is in the Big 12. [Sarah Phipps]

The Montour Trail is a reminder of how different this neck of the woods is in the Big 12. [Sarah Phipps]

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Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›