Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Canadian Adventure, Part 1: The Road North

It is worth noting that these photos were taken by me, the driver, from the car, but it's not as dangerous as it sounds. I remember that my hands never left the wheel and my eyes never left the road; I'm pretty sure the digital camera (which stopped working before I moved to Portland) fit rather conveniently in my steering wheel, so I could just hit buttons while I was driving. I also am pretty sure most of the pictures you will see were taken while waiting to pay a toll or otherwise driving slowly; some were taken while pulled over and parked.

A habit I developed as a kid on road trips with my parents was to write down in my journal the exact time we crossed each state line. The importance of this stuck so much that, without the ability to write in a journal, I took pictures of the car clock.

So, at 2:28 PM on Thursday, February 12, I crossed into New York, leaving New Jersey behind. I think I had driven less than an hour from my house, but I already felt different. I had broken from routine. It was nothing I couldn't do any day, even right after work, just drive out of state (in fact, I grew up something like 30 miles from the state line with New York and Pennsylvania), but it was like I left a ton of weight that I'd been carrying around on the side of the road in New Jersey. I felt free. I was reminded of my freedom to break routine and my freedom to explore.

My first stop was at a town I'd heard of in the garden world, like there either was a big fancy estate and public garden there or it was on the way to one of those destinations. But from Highway 385, which runs along I-87 at least part of the way, none of this was visible. It looked like a stereotype of suburbia, and in the gray and rain, it looked like ugly suburbia. I can't find the name of the town in my notes or on a map, but if I ever remember, I'll update this post to include it. I stopped at a gas station, mentally griped about the high cost of gas and kicked myself for not filling up in New Jersey (where it's cheaper), and felt not a small thrill of excitement at being allowed to pump my own gas. (Just a reminder for my non-Jersey readers - in New Jersey, like in Oregon, it's illegal to pump your own gas and you have to wait for an attendant to do it for you.)

Rain fell on the New York State Thruway much of my way north.

This was the first French Canadian truck I saw. I realized in my quick planning for this trip that this one interstate, I-87, that connected to the I-287 I drove on every day, not only went directly to Canada but also was a main road for trade traffic between Canada and...I would guess New York City.

The route became scenic, with evidence of recent snowfall along the highway, not yet turned gray and dirty by road junk, and distant mountains calling me further north. I loved the mountains. I took many pictures just trying to get the mountains. I also recall that the red Prius was with me for a very long time; its driver might have wondered why I was taking so many pictures.

When I saw this bridge, I excitedly took pictures because I thought it would take me to Massachusetts. It didn't.

Not much of note happened on the road, aside from pleasant driving, mountain views filling me with awe at every bend and turn in the highway, and finding myself filled with joy and peace at breaking routine like this. I find trips like these to be a reminder that routine doesn't control your life, and nor do the people who set your routine. It's a reminder that you are in control of your life, if you want to be.

I remember that at some point WNYC faded into static, and I found NPR of the Adirondacks. It was the first time I'd listened to an NPR station that served a huge area (like KOPB), so the long list of call numbers and stations for a variety of towns in a handful of states amused me.

At some point, I left the thruway following a sign that promised Dunkin Donuts. I wanted a coffee and a place to look at a map. JS had called, and I wanted to stop and update her on my status. It couldn't have been much later than 4PM, but it felt like I was miles and hours from home. The detour to Dunkin Donuts got me a little lost on a country road (since it wasn't right off the thruway, as promised), but NPR of the Adirondacks kept me company.

I remember very well the story that I listened to as I found my way back to I-87. It was about universities losing money because of the recession, and PhD students who had been assured of full funding for their programs were finding themselves halfway through or more without any money - no income and no tuition reimbursement. Students making the difficult decision of whether to quit the program or take out loans and go into debt were on the radio, giving their stories. It seemed relevant to me, as I was unhappy with my situation but the wisdom of changing course during a recession was questionable. Graduate school, which I'd always seen as my way out, might not be so reliable of a choice for me. Listening to this story brought me away from the road trip and back to my everyday life. It was at that moment, finding my way back to I-87, that I had an Awkward Toll Plaza Moment. The E-ZPass sign above the lane I'd chosen was in fact a cloth banner, and just as I had chosen the lane and was rolling up to the toll taker, a huge gust of wind came by and blew the banner away. I stopped (thinking it was a cash lane) and rolled down my window to hand the toll taker my quarters.

"GO!" he snapped. "You already paid!"

Flustered, I made up something like, "Oh, I didn't know you took Jersey's E-ZPass! Thanks!! Have a nice day!!"

Finally, I made it to Massachusetts.

A mix of rain, ice, and snow fell from the sky, and it was through darkness like the middle of the night that my headlights traveled to highlight the "Welcome to Massachusetts" sign.

It was dark as the middle of the night, but it was only 5:32!

In less than an hour, I arrived at JS's home, a two-story farmhouse about a century old situated on a large yard through which a creek, in warmer days, had run. Now winter had frozen it still and snowbanks walled it in and submerged the yard. I arrived in Williamstown to true winter. I parked in the driveway (which was like a small parking lot) carved out of the snow and ambled awkwardly toward the glow emanating from the house. A silhouette cut out of that glow proved to be my friend JS, waiting for me with soup from her crockpot.

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