A Travellerspoint blog

June 2012

Canukistan. Or Canadia. Or something

all seasons in one day

Amazingly, it looked just like I had expected, and I couldn't believe that the stereotypical image was so unerringly accurate. In front of me was row after row of igloos, each with it's own guard-moose tied up outside. People were wandering around on horseback, many of them dressed in bright red coats and wearing large hats. A polar bear was rummaging through a dustbin, whilst to the left, a mass game of ice-hockey was being played, where every single spectator had a cup of Tim Horton's in one hand and a jar of maple syrup in the other. Yes, welcome indeed, to Canada!

Actually what I saw as I slowly crested the International bridge was a scene oddly reminiscent of the first time that I saw the city of Nikel. What was pristine countryside was replaced by a huge, rusty industrial works, with chimneys and smoke belching out at all angles. A miserable sight if ever there was one. Part of me wondered if I dared make a U-turn on the bridge, and flee from this belching eyesore, but it was too late for that.

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Land border crossings have always intrigued me because of who uses them. If you cross from France to Belgium, for example, due to the EU and Schengen treaty there are no longer any border checks. You drive along the motorway, pass the sign welcoming you to the new country and that is all. But what I find fascinating are the identities of the other drivers. In the same example, 500metres before crossing the border, all of the car number plates are French. 500metres after the border, they are all Belgian. You don't notice where they all go/come from but somehow they do. I have always found it a bit odd. Even in America, the transition seems to magically happen at state lines.

And here I was rounding a corner and joining the back of the traffic queue to cross the bridge at Sault Ste. Marie, I reflected on the fact that in the previous 2 days, in an an area with very few roads, I had seen only a single Canadian licence plate on a truck. Stopping in the town by the border for lunch and petrol, I had again seen only 1. Yet here I was, barely 300metres away from that point and in a long 4lane queue of traffic, whilst every other vehicle both going my way and arriving in the US had Canadian plates. I found myself asking “where the heck have they all come from?” How is it possible???

My week was not really getting any better. It took me 90minutes just to get across the bridge, and after a few minutes of which I had that deep foreboding feeling that it wasn't quite right, simply because after paying the toll I had been shepherded straight into the queue on the bridge and nobody had looked at my passport. The Americans would surely want to check me, would they not?

Eventually over the bridge and officially at the Canadian border, I picked – inevitably – the wrong line of 5, and took another 30mins to go 100metres. At the border, the two inspectors didn't know if I was supposed to have been stamped out of America (!), but seemed happy enough to allow me to enter. But that was after a 25minute discussion about assorted British sports, politics and current events, and then a long hunt for ink to stamp my passport with. I suspect it was boredom/curiosity rather than anything deeper as I was apparently the first non local they had dealt with in the last 3 days.

Once into Canada proper, I figured I would worry about my lack of American stamp when I attempted to cross back into America, and decided that my first port of call was an ATM. The town was shut and I realised that the long border and bridge queues were because it was a holiday in Canada – Victoria Day – and so people had been shopping/visiting their southern neighbour. Worryingly, it appeared that the ATMs were also on holiday. 3 ATMs and 4 different cards all declined me because of “unable to reach your bank” and similar complaints. Hmmm. Oh dear. With almost 350km ahead (yes, back into KM and even litres, having just got used to gallons), I figured I would try another ATM down the road, and if that failed pray that somebody would accept one of my cards or I could find a Forex before I starved/ran out of gas, or more likely, stumble across a toll that I would be incapable of paying.

A relaxing 320km drive through the pretty Ontario countryside and not much else followed, I managed to get some money, and had the best coffee I have had in months at a small roadside halt. I stopped periodically to gaze at the river, forest or other scenic interlude.

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Not something i generally have to worry about too much in most other places i have ever driven, and (below) a more typical view

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As I approached Sudbury (or Greater Sudbury as it is now officially, though don't let the “Great” part fool you), it got very dark and again pissed it down with rain. A huge, grim industrial scene unfolded in front of me. It was not an enticing scene. I somehow found my motel, 20km further East, and on taking stock of the cooker and microwave in my room and supplies consisting of about 6apples and half a pack of beef jerky, decided to set off back for Sudbury in the hunt for food. An hour later, and I was mentally preparing recipes of 'sliced apple on bed of jerky a-la carte'.

A city of about 300,000 people, Sudbury seemed to be shut. I was looking for a grocery/local store where I could pick up something cheap to cook myself (a cunning plan to save money, and one of the reasons I had booked where I was staying) but they were all shut. I found a cinema with parking lot rammed full of cars, but with films apparently all just started the only food available was popcorn. Pizza hut was shut. KFC was shut. Burger King was shut. Subway (several) was shut. Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai places were all shut. The normal preponderance of gas stations with attached stores had been replaced by gas stations selling only drinks and confectionery. I started driving aimlessly through almost endless strip malls: Strip malls are something I find soulless and depressing at the best of times: but when everything is shut, and the carparks are all empty, they are even worse. I chose directions at junctions based solely on the number of visible neon signs. Unfortunately bright, inviting neon signs remained bright inviting neon signs, even when the establishment they were advertising were shut. Eventually I found the (sadly) welcome sign of a combined Walmart/McDonalds. Needs must. But even they were shut. I was resigned to trying to re-find the only place I had discovered which was open (an upmarket – eg: expensive - pizza place, which did not do take out) when I stumbled across a drive through Burger King that looked open. A spotty 15year old said, “sorry, we are just closing”, but when I asked if they had anything left she said a few fries and a 15minute old whopper; reluctantly I said “fine” and took them. I sat in the empty parking lot, eating almost cold fast food just as the heavens again opened with rain, idly wondering why on earth everybody seemed to think that Canada is a great place to live!

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I spotted this in a parking lot in Sudbury the following morning. In these parts, it wouldn't even surprise me if it was accurate!

Posted by Gelli 17:42 Archived in Canada Tagged roadtrip Comments (2)

West becomes North

And 95 becomes 55

all seasons in one day 36 °C

Though great to see the Isa's, my week continued to unravel. The fact they had 6 indoor cats and about 900 outdoor ones didn't mesh well with my cat-allergicness. The discovery that the only thing on my list remaining to do – go to Chicago – during my week's road-trip would not really be that viable also didn't help. For the second time in less than 2 weeks, Mr. Obama was in my way. This time, he was hosting a NATO summit in down town Chicago. 2 days of high level talks is good. Most of down town Chicago being a no-go area, the prime museum area being completely sealed off for security reasons, and hoards of protesters protesting virtually every conceivable complaint was not so good. For me, anyway.

I needed a new plan.

So I decided s*d it. I perused my map a bit, counted available days until I needed to be back in Buffalo, and decided to go North. Chicago, I figure, I can visit in future, and will be easier without having to find somewhere to leave a car anyway. Doing a grand loop around the great lakes is not so easy without transport.

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Little Germany or Little Switzerland or something. There were cows and Swiss chalets, but sadly no mountains

I drove through Switzerland, which confused me as I was in Wisconsin. Then I passed through Madison, whereupon I stumbled across the US Capitol Building, something I was not expecting 1000miles away from Washington DC. It was built that way for one of about 3 dozen different reasons depending upon who you ask, none of which really convince me as being the complete truth. Wisconsin was showing it's propensity to surprise me, despite essentially just being a large area of cheese. I drove onwards, past the wonderfully named Oshkosk and then Green Bay, home of the Packers football team, both the smallest and most obscure home for any professional American sports team.

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Late in the afternoon, on a straight road in the middle of the forest, I changed back from Central time to Eastern time. I had naively assumed that this would occur at the state border, but oh no. It appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. Though it is probably at a county border, I found it just a little odd, especially as it means that just a small corner of Michigan is in Central time whilst the rest is Eastern, but that the time zone border is not North-South as would be logical, but rather a jagged East-West line. Why? Good question, though not one so good that I have yet to get around to checking wikipedia or googling.

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I had booked a night in Escanaba, for no other reason than it was the only place which obviously had rooms available at a price I could afford and was not a Walmart parking lot. After a glorious day and lots of empty straight roads, pretty much as soon as I got to town and was starting to have to look at all the signs in the hunt for the correct one, the heavens opened. It was not unexpected, as the sky had rapidly gone a very evil shade of dark grey. The golf sized hailstones were not fun though, especially as I had found my hotel and a 10metre dash into the lobby to check in. I was drenched. When it stopped raining 10minutes later, the town was mostly flooded. I swam to a nearby supermarket, bought some cheap ramen noodles and bread for dinner, and went and hid in my second floor room for the evening, watching random items float past at ground level.

When I left the following morning, much of the water had gone and the skies were again clear. But it was over 40 degrees cooler - 94 having been replaced by 52 - and my shorts were rapidly replaced by longs and even my fleece got it's first usage since the day of my arrival.

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I'm still not sure if this is an advert or somebody just had the hots for the car's driver and had to improvise

The only specific thing that I had planned to do on this leg of the trip was take a ferry out to Mackinac Island, somewhere I remember reading about several years ago, and thought would be nice for a wander. However I arrived to discover that I had missed the ferry by 10 minutes, and because it was not summer season yet, the next one was not for a couple of hours. I pondered it, mooched town, then slightly sadly decided to press on. I still had a long way to go.

Posted by Gelli 17:16 Archived in USA Tagged roadtrip Comments (1)

It's only 768 miles to Walmart

It's a title best sung to the tune of 24hours to Tulsa. Or just sleep through the entire entry. You know it makes sense.

sunny 34 °C

It was a last minute decision. I had had a few easy days, and on the Wednesday afternoon after faffing for a while, I had decided to do something and promptly gone to sit on the toilet. That, apparently, was enough for me. But a little later, I had swung into action: after a brief comparison of likely costs and then pretty much on a whim doing something that hadn't even occurred to me until 10 minutes prior, I booked a car for a week. Barely 2hours later I had been dropped at Buffalo International Airport to collect it.

My conversation with the rental rep had gone (this is a very condensed version of a 15minute discussion) approximately as follows:

Him: (looking at my Swedish driving licence). So, where are you from? Singapore?
Me: Wales, but my licence is from Sweden
Him: Cool. I love Dr. Who, and it is filmed in Wales.
Me: Yes, I think it is. It's a pretty good show, but I don't watch it much as I don't have a TV
Him: (insert 5minute excited ramble about David Tennant here)
Me: [waits patiently, offering only an occasional grunt to the conversation]
Him: Ok, here you go. I have given you a triple-upgrade for free. I love Dr. Who.
Me: Erm. Ok. Great, Yes. Thanks. You should watch some of the older Doctors.
Him: You mean there has been more than one series? (insert another 5 minute ramble about David Tennant here)
Me: Erm. Yes. Thanks for the upgrade. It's getting late [it was 11pm], and I better be going
Him: Sure. Drive safely. I love Dr. Who. Do you know David Tennant?
Me: (runs for door)

And so it was that I ended up with a larger, comfier but inevitably less fuel efficient Ford Fusion.

The following morning, I headed West. Yes, it is becoming a theme, but there is allot of West out there. I had just a vague idea. A couple of friends to drop in on and surprise visit, a day or two in Chicago, and a short trip to St. Louis for work combined with a leisurely drive back through the countryside. The car would give me options, and a week was a decent amount of time. 6 hours or so in and it started unravelling. My friend in South Bend who had just finished her Thesis at Notre Dame had neglected to tell me that she was instantly flying off to New York City to party/celebrate. Her (drunk and horribly hungover) room-mate told me that I had missed her by about 2hours, but in a tone of voice that simultaneously left me in no doubts of her meaning and scared the living hell out of me, suggested that I stay with her instead so we could 'have some fun for the weekend'.

I wrote a note for my friend and left, rapidly.

2.5 hours and an extensive tour of Gary, Indiana, (a town of 100,000 of no real relevance, except that it is 25miles to Chicago and also the birthplace of Michael Jackson and most of his siblings) later, I finally tracked down their house to discover that my friends there had gone AWOL. A Finnish-Slovakian couple, I had figured that dropping by would be good to say hello and watch the hockey with the following morning (both Finland and Slovakia were playing in World Championship semi-finals), but the neighbours hadn't seen them for a couple of days and had no idea where they were. Neither phone was being answered. I assumed they were probably semi-comatose in some bar still celebrating the Quarter final victories.

So I left a note, and continued on my merry way.

I stopped at a roadside service area for a coffee and to ponder my next move. I logged onto the interweb-thingy, and discovered that there was no longer any point in my going to St. Louis - the guy I needed to see had to go to Anchorage on Monday morning. Ah. Ok. That pretty much decided me, and so I got back in the car and continued heading West.

When I got to the middle of nowhere Illinois, it was already well after 9pm and getting very dark. Despite the village i required not even appearing on my road atlas, I found Dakota reasonably easily. After driving every road in town and not finding a suitable one, I went to a gas station and asked. Six confused people and sets of opposing directions later, one pulled out an iphone and at the third attempt, found the address I wanted about 6miles out of town down a dirt track. He gave me directions, and off I set.

And thus it was that after a day long drive of 768miles, I discovered they were also out and I was stuck in the absolute middle of nowhere.

For the third time that day, I wrote and left a note. I was by now running out of usable paper.

I pondered my options none of which were overly appealing. It was late, and I was in the middle of nowhere. I pondered staying put and just falling asleep in the car, but I was not 100% sure I was at the correct address and didn't fancy waking up to an irate shotgun wielding farmer complaining that I was trespassing. I thought of finding an empty stretch of country road and parking there, or going back into the nearest town – Freeport – and finding a motel. Approximately, that is what I did, except when I arrived in Freeport it was 23:30, the few motels i saw looked uninviting and I decided that perhaps I should save money. And so I found the inevitable 24hour Walmart, with it's large empty car-park, chose a corner where the floodlights did not affect me too much, stretched out on the back seat and fell asleep there.

The following morning, I was eating breakfast when the phone rang, excitedly. My note had miraculously been found. I should go back. And so I did. To Dakota. Not Gary or Notre Damn. I haven't seen Isa & Beerman since Dublin, several years ago and it was great to catch up, notwithstanding the temperatures were already into the 90's at 8am and they have cats. Lots of cats. A friendly animal to which I am sadly allergic. But a happy relaxing day was spent, even more so when you understand that Beerman is chief brewmaster for a Wisconsin brewery. And thus there were tasters to hand.

Posted by Gelli 07:12 Archived in USA Tagged people driving roadtrip Comments (1)

Novelty value: Let's go West

sunny 28 °C

After a brief trip back to New York City to catch up with a visiting colleague (eg: prove I still exist, discover If I am still employed. That sort of thing), I headed West. Normally in the world, I head East. East is new, foreign, potentially exciting. I have never really been West before, anywhere. Except maybe Cornwall, and that doesn't really count. So I was looking forward to experiencing this West thing.

I took an Amtrak to Buffalo-Exchange, which turned out to be a small building with a heavily cracked and uneven pavement built underneath a concrete underpass. Yes, as miserable as it sounds. I had taken the train partly out of a wish for variety (not another bus), and partly because the tracks run right alongside the Hudson for the first hours and I had hoped for a scenic ride. It wasn't bad.

A friend of an old friend was picking me up, but all I had was a name 'Von'. I had no idea if it was male or female, black or white. Once I arrived and realised that it was a small station and only a dozen people got off, so I would let them disperse and Von would be the person left. Cunning. Except that everybody left. Hmmm. So I sat on the curb by the locked building in an empty parking lot and waited. I read a free paper about housing (prices are cheap here) and another on cars (which are more expensive than I would have guessed) and was just about to ring Von, when I received a message 'are you at the bus station yet?'. “Ah-ha!” I thought – though not in the Norwegian sense – that explains a great deal. We exchanged messages, whereupon I was asked where the station was. Hmmm. “you are the one who lives in this ******* city!” I thought. But soon we had worked it out, and I was sat in a flat in Elmwood, a nice suburb of Buffalo, where a nice, period, large 3 bedroom flat with porch and all costs significantly less to rent than a single room in a house-share in London.

The following morning, my friend having finished her night shift and slept, and my having wandered the neighbourhood, we caught up for the first time since the happy days of Christmas in Beijing, 7 years previously. Then off we headed, as you do, to Pittsburgh. I had been relaxed on what we did on her two days off, she wanted to visit to go to the Andy Warhol Museum (he is from Pittsburgh). That sounded good to me. I thus received a 2day crash course in 'real' American life, being introduced to assorted food emporiums, provincial American wonders, and asked lots of stupid questions. To many, I discovered, there simply are no answers.

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Yes, welcome to America. I'm not sure if i find this more depressing or disturbing!

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Pittsbugh skyline, or, at least, bits of it

The bits of the Museum we saw were great. We were, however, kicked out after 90minutes and only 2 (of 6) floors due to a “sewage issue”. Bummer. At least we got our money back. Some assorted wandering later and we headed back to Buffalo. An evening tour of city followed – several beautiful old buildings but a dead city centre area, plus some pretty areas in the suburbs, including several large museums, and a strange sense of loss that can only come from a city whose population has halved in the last 50years, and is still shrinking alarmingly today – before I was introduced to the “man-cave”, a strange and dangerous place owned by my friends landlord, and which seemed to distort the rules of time and could also potentially lead to some serious alcoholism.

I also almost bought a house. In fact, when I awoke, I thought I might have actually done so, but checking back through the paperwork, no, I hadn't. I think. But it was a serious idea. Whilst larger, better condition places in nicer areas were available for the sort of money that I still would be hoping to pay off a mortgage within 5 or 10 years, not 25+ it would take in much of Europe, I had plumped for a cheaper 2 bed flat. Sure, it needed work, but 8,000usd for a decent sized flat in an ok – if not great – area seemed insane to me. In London, you would spend more than that in a year simply by renting a (very) small room in a shared house. It's scary. Now all I need is a job and reason to move to Buffalo...

Posted by Gelli 16:11 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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