Wednesday, May 23, 2007


1,170: THIS ROADTRIP HAS SEVEN DAYS

If you have read this site long enough, you know that one of my favourite ways of travelling is the roadtrip. Hop in the car, have a vague destination in mind and let impulse and roadside attractions guide the way. This year's trek saw me cover lots of new territory throughout New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Hop in. Don't forget to fasten your safety belt.

Day 1: Toronto, ON to Albany, NY


As I've mentioned in previous entries, the US border patrol at Niagara is far different from those in Detroit. Even while they take more information from you, my experience with Detroit border officials tends to be disinterest (the minimal in required questions) or chattiness (last time Amy and I went over on our own, while the guard checked our info on his computer, he rambled about his daughter's last visit to the shopping area we were headed to). Folks doing their job to protect the red, white and blue, but being human about it. There are the odd sticklers, and I know people who have had bad experiences, but that hasn't happened too often.

Niagara guards, in the words of a book I once flipped through on the worst places to live in the USA, are sullen. Rarely does anything break their grim demeanour. over the years, I have had to read pieces of scrap paper (to prove that holding up my birth certificate before being asked is wrong), justify my profession (one guy was convinced I was involved in business espionage, since editors cannot possibly work for a large retailer), etc. I suspect it is meant to keep one off-balance, to catch those who truly wish to conduct nasty business on Uncle Sam's soil off-guard, but there may be subtler ways to do it.

This time around, my problem was convincing the border guard why anyone would drive solo on a roadtrip vacation to New York. For the first time, I was asked if I had a hotel confirmation slip on me.

ME: Yes.
GUARD: Where is it?
ME: In the trunk.
GUARD looks less than pleased..

I wonder what would have happened if somebody in the same situation had made all their lodging arrangements the old-fashioned way, over the phone - dare the guard to call the hotel themselves? I had pre-booked my hotel in Newark, only because I did not want to waste time wandering from place to place in the NYC area.

More questions about why I was going on a roadtrip followed. The impression I got was that this guard was genuinely baffled as to why I would go on such a trip by myself, not just simply trying to figure if I was coming over for an extended stay. The questions became repetitive, to the point where I starting giving one-word answers. Subconsciously, I may have been trying to be sarcastic.

GUARD: How are you going to New York?
ME: (answers with first thought in head, without thinking) Driving.
GUARD does not look amused.

Finally came the standard look in my trunk. The guy ahead of me had his underside carefully searched. I was eager to see what would cause a stir in my vehicle.

GUARD: Please open your trunk. (looks around, unzips backpack, notices CAA bag full of maps and guidebooks). Looks like you've got a lot of material on Pennsylvania.
ME: Yes.
GUARD: But you said you were going to New York.
ME: Yes.
GUARD: Which are you going to?
ME: Both.
GUARD: Why are you going to both?
ME: (starting to sound slightly annoyed) I...am...going...on...a...roadtrip! I have never been to Pennsylvania before. I'm going to go through...(voice trails off)
GUARD: (pauses for a second, looks puzzled yet grim, then hands back ID) Go ahead.


***

A quick lunch followed at Wegmans, a 7" sub combo. I often wind up eating at Wegmans, which serves up great food for a supermarket. Topping wise, their small sub is equivalent to at least two puny Subway sandwiches (three if it's a franchise that really skimps), with a variety of choices superior in selection and quality. It's rare I ever finish one, with this day being no different. After a quick stop to pick up a hotel coupon book, it was time to head east on the New York Thruway.

The rest of the day was mostly spent on the freeway, as the trip to Albany took longer than I anticipated. Other than an outlet mall near Geneva, my only other stop was a check to verify that there weren't any cheap hotel rooms in Syracuse, due to a large university graduation ceremony. There wasn't - my jaw dropped when I heard how much my usual choice was charging for the one room they had left. It was a wise decision, as I discovered the Thruway turns scenic east of Utica, once it follows alongside the Mohawk River.

For accommodations, I rely on coupon books that are found at most rest stops or tourist-attracting malls. Flip through the book, see where you will be between 6-8 p.m., tear out the page, check if the hotel looks OK, check if they have a room. Rarely has this gamble failed. Night one found me in a Microtel in suburban Albany. Microtel tends to be one of the more dependable low budget chains - what they lack in character and frills they tend to make up for in comfortable beds, cleanliness and low prices. They are perfect when you need a place for one night only.

After checking in, I grabbed a quick bite at Panera Bread, checked out the local supermarkets, drove around a little, then returned to plot out the next day's trip to the Big Apple.

My camera took a rest on day one. It needed to prepare for the workout it would get the rest of the week. - JB

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