Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout: Wanderlust viewed as fine habit atop city neighborhoods

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You have to be purposeful to get to Spring Hill. There are switchbacks and streets so steep that your car, even in drive, can slip backward as you wait to make a sharp turn onto yet another ski run.

Unless you live or visit someone there, a trip to Spring Hill is a small turn of wanderlust.

I was in the mood to wander on a crisp blue morning that was inching toward a sweatshirt afternoon. As I wandered, I was compelled to climb. Up, farther up, more up. Wisps of vapor, like the poof that obscures a magic trick, tapered off the tops of buildings on the skyline below.

Spring Hill is one of the North Side's 19 neighborhoods, one of several that sit on their own hillsides with deep valleys between, and one of several with magnificent views. But these views are largely unheralded. They are always second -- if even second -- to Mount Washington's, because they sit back a bit, in some cases offering an unpretentious back door to the view. And they bring their own contexts to the skyline.

If you stand at a certain vantage point, you can line up the needle of Fifth Avenue Place with a mop leaning against a back deck. Along Haslage Street, the skyline pops out from gaps between the houses that have their backs turned to the view.

Lappe Lane, a paper street of city steps, fills one of those gaps, descending all the way to Spring Garden Avenue.

The sun was at full burst that morning, blinding me as I began descending Lappe Lane. A quick rush of wind ruffled a scraggly hedge that already looked as green as spring could make it.

It was while standing on a step, with a 180-degree view of the city through spindly gray tree branches, that the feelings I had fostered in my first years in Pittsburgh began to swell up again. Those feelings haven't changed but they have become accustomed. Sometimes they are unavailable, or they cut out, like cell phone service in the woods.

Living a purposeful life can make the woods as metaphor seem fitting. You're down in it, with your ear to the ground, bearing have-to lists that are consequential, or just habit.

On Lappe Lane, I held my face to the sun and tried to close out the rip and snort of trucks gliding in the miniature hurly-burly below.

I know what was happening. Spring was starting to happen, if only as a vague trickle, and I was feeling somehow new to Pittsburgh again. Or new enough, like in those first years when I would explore, by car or on foot. I would glance up little alleys before turning onto them, finding activity in a garage -- a woman welding, a guy practicing his drums -- and I would take one and another of the city's rural roads, wondering where in the world they would end up, and sometimes finding out that they just ended.

On Spring Garden Avenue, after zigging and zagging through Spring Hill, I saw one such road, a steep spur on the right. Like in the old days, I took it. It came to a fork. There was a "No Outlet" sign on the left so I turned right, up another steep slope.

One could hardly call it a street, not even a road, but it was once a road. The sign reads "Baun," and there is a Baun that runs off Mount Troy Road. Maybe they once connected, or maybe, like so many pieces of Pittsburgh geography, they never did. There are some gaps that don't offer a view or a way. I turned up the hill and saw patching material, still glistening, on the rubbled pavement.

Someone had recently filled a pothole on a road that tops out onto a field of mud. There are no words for that, just a smile.

An old car sat sunk in mud up to its wheel hub, so I decided not to try to turn around up there but to back down, careful to avoid the plastic flowers that lined a retaining wall. As I crept back toward Spring Garden Avenue, I noticed that there was, indeed, an outlet.

A spring was seeping from the hillside just to my left. I inched along beside the water as it slowly trickled, and as it moved, I got the sense it was on a kind of loop, without a beginning or an end. It had to have come from the hillside. There was no water above it on the roadway. But it looked as if it had come from nowhere.

Its course, though, was prescribed -- downhill, over buckling pavement.

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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