Friday, June 06, 2008

beantown and la belle province 1: headin' east

The May long weekend has traditionally my time to hit the road on a long solo roadtrip to an eastern destination. This year it was Boston's turn for a visit, folded into my annual jaunt to Montreal.
I had been up late/woken up early to finish off an article, so I got off to a later start than intended. My first decision was choosing a border crossing. Queenston-Lewiston was out of the question, since it always has backups and its border guards tend to be the crankiest. I headed to my usual crossing, the Rainbow Bridge, only to find it had a bit of a backup. I was resigned to a wait no matter what until a timely intervention from the 680 News traffic report, which indicated no problems at the Peace Bridge. I rarely make the trip to Fort Erie, since my western Empire State misadventures tend to start in Niagara Falls. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I left the line and drove down to the Peace Bridge.

The crossing couldn't have been smoother. There was a mild backup but plenty of lanes were open and moving swiftly.

Conversation with the border guard:

Guard: Citizenship?
Me: Canadian.
Guard: Destination?
Me: Boston.
Guard: Reason?
Me: Vacation.
(one-second pause)
Guard (friendly tone): Enjoy your trip.

Thus was set a Guinness world record for shortest conversation with an American border guard on the Niagara River.


The only stop I made in the Buffalo area was at Wegmans. It was my lucky day, as the store was filled with sampling booths, mostly of fresh items. Wegmans strikes me as the food chain Loblaws should seek to emulate in their makeover - handsome stores with atmospheric fresh food sections, a wide, well-stocked variety of products, reasonable prices and knowledgeable staff. I stopped mainly for lunch, having one of their massive submarines. Filling-wise, a 7" Wegmans sub is equivalent to one-and-a-half or two 12" Subway sandwiches (depending on the thriftiness of the franchise) except that the Wegmans ingredients are higher quality and more varied (sweet pickles!). Partnered with a loganberry drink and a cookie and your stomach is set for the rest of the day.


After spending the afternoon hopping on and off the New York Thruway, I reached Syracuse around 5PM. I had checked before I left to make sure that graduation ceremonies at the University of Syracuse didn't coincide with my trip, as this had caused accommodation issues in previous years. I could have played it safe and driven onto to Albany, but I felt I had driven enough over the day and suspected it would be an early night in bed.

Armed with my highway hotel coupon book, I checked out the Microtel in East Syracuse. Just off the Thruway is a cluster of hotels just off Carrier Circle, a massive roundabout named after the nearby air conditioning company. Several ghosts dot the circle, including a burnt-out vintage Howard Johnson's that I wasn't able to get a clear shot of.

The Microtel wasn't accepting coupons, due to graduation at a minor institute but still had a couple of rooms available at a not unreasonable price ($64 versus $44). I went back to car and pondering staying put or driving a few more hours, as the other hotels on the block would be in the same boat. Fatigue won and I stayed put.

Wandering into my room proved a wake-up call.

A Hotel Room That's Tickled Pink
My senses were hit with pink overload. The hotel was undergoing renovations and though nothing in my room looked worn, I suspect it hadn't been touched. It was clean and comfortable, which was all I needed. After a few minutes of stretching, I set back out to see what I could find downtown.

Like many American cities, downtown Syracuse was mostly a dead zone on a Saturday evening. Where there were signs of life overcompensated with long lines. I had intended to try the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que for dinner until I drove by and saw the spillover crowd stretch for a block. Drove by the university and saw little to draw me in.

I wound up at the Carousel Center, a massive shopping centre on the edge of downtown that is slated to be incorporated into a massive tourist complex with the slightly sinister sounding name of Destiny USA. Plans for the complex include green-friendly elements, a stadium, accommodations, golf courses, an artificial lake and an indoor recreation of the Erie Canal. In its current state the mall was huge and soulless, more so than many shopping centres I've been in. Perhaps it was fatigue, but nothing felt enticing and the customers looked more like zombies than the creatures George Romero whipped up for Dawn of the Dead. The area around the mall was dead, mixed in with freeway overpasses.

I was happy to make a break for it.

After more driving around and seeing little that aroused my interest, I wound up at my default Syracuse dining spot, a Ruby Tuesday on Erie Boulevard. The salad bar was all I needed to wind down the day, accompanied by a trio of surprisingly tasty mini-burgers. Back at the hotel I flipped open maps and plotted the route to Boston.

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