Sunday, February 06, 2011

Canadian Adventure, Part 3: Lost in (Upstate) New York

To go back to I-87 the way I came would involve backtracking south. I put "Montréal" in my GPS, allowing Elsa (the name of the GPS) to take me back to the highway.

Williamstown is in rural Western Massachusetts, not far from New York and Vermont. In these rural areas, GPS satellites don't always work very well, so it wasn't long after I'd set out that the GPS started to go nuts. "Recalculating..." it would announce even though I was driving in a straight line. "Turn left" it would tell me, just after I'd passed the road it wanted me to turn onto. I drove in spirals. I ended up in Vermont. At times, I'd keep going, thinking that maybe I'd just find something cool to do in Vermont. I was still a little wishywashy about going to Canada at all.

I found myself in a busy town center with traffic lights and shopping centers, in contrast to the rural landscape that probably surrounded this town. I think it was Green Island, NY. (I remember "Green" something.) I pulled into a grocery store parking lot because I realized that even though the GPS had stopped working, I had something that would also work to help me find my way to the thruway.

A map.

The atlas I'd used for my 2008 cross-country road trip showed I was very close to the thruway, that from Green Island I just had to travel a straight line on Route 7 and I'd get there. And I did!

And so did all of the commuters of upstate New York. I arrived in Saratoga Springs at 5PM. Rush hour. I was stuck. I was also halfway between home and Montréal.

I felt little else but dismay. Perhaps my adventure had been a failure. Perhaps my exercise in rebellion against routine and control over my life just showed how little I deserved that control. Here I was, in a place that seemed pretty boring, just as suburban and trafficky as New Jersey, far from home. How stupid I'd been not to use my map in the first place. What a lack of foresight I'd shown by not considering Friday night rush hour.

I pulled into the nearest parking lot entrance of a cluster of strip malls. I stopped for a coffee at another Dunkin Donuts, where I tried to get wi-fi (I couldn't) and studied my map. It gave me no guidance. I was really at the halfway point. It was growing dark, so I wouldn't get to Montréal until pretty late, too late to enjoy the city and late enough that I could get lost in a foreign city where all of the signs were in metric and French. But to turn back to New Jersey felt like surrendering.

After I finished my coffee, I got back in my car and drove to another parking lot cell of the strip mall community. Slowly, I explored. Mixed with my disgusted disdain for such uses of land, I felt a little bit of comfort at the sight of familiar chains like A.C. Moore. I did need supplies for a friend's birthday present. So I parked my car and went yarn shopping in the middle of unfamiliar upstate New York in rush hour traffic.

The sight of familiar products calmed me. The yarn's systematic arrangement - by brand, weight, type, and color - appealed to my sense of order. The softness of a new line of acrylic-wool blend soothed me. I think I even had a coupon. I picked out a color and a set of needles and checked out.

My relaxed mind realized that the GPS was not useless to me after all. I could use it to look up hotels that were on the way to Montréal, like right on the border but still on the American side. I could use my AAA card to get a discount. The GPS lists the phone numbers of most businesses, so I could call the hotel right now to reserve a room. This way, I'd be heading north without having to worry that I might not find a bed to sleep in.

Fortunately, not too many people make Plattsburgh, NY, their Valentine's Day weekend destination. I found an inexpensive room at a Super 8. I called and let them know that I'd be there to claim my room in at about 9PM.

It was now about half past five. I estimated there would still be another hour left before the traffic broke up. So I stopped at a Taco Bell for dinner and ordered my favorite thing, the Nachos Supreme.

Elated, I realized that I was on the road again! (I think this had something to do with my decision to photograph my nachos, my "road food.") And as predicted, at about 6:30, the traffic had dissolved to manageable, moving congestion not much different than a normal afternoon shopping crowd might create. I got back in the car, back on I-87. Tall mountains with evergreen trees appeared, dark black in the dark blue night. They were like soft walls around the road, like arms containing I-87 and its travelers in a protective embrace. These mountains and a CD of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! kept me company all the way to Plattsburgh.

At about 9:30PM, I checked into my hotel room. If you wanted to make a romantic Valentine's Day trip to Plattsburgh (hurry! there's still time!), you could get a pretty nice room! I mean, you could save on restaurant bills with an entire KITCHEN in your room!

You can get an idea of the quirks of where you're traveling by looking at the otherwise boring packet of information that the hotel gives you. For example, a Super-8 (or was it a Motel 6?) packet in El Reno, Oklahoma made me paranoid with an entire page labeled WARNING dedicated to WHAT TO DO IN CASE OF A TORNADO. The regionally-specific information here in Plattsburgh, however, just got me excited for the next morning.

I took a hot shower and made myself comfortable. I turned on my laptop, watched some of my favorite Thursday night shows on Hulu, knitted my friend's birthday mittens, and looked up the hours of and directions to attractions in Montréal. From the hotel, I was an hour away from what would be my first stop, the botanical garden and insectarium of Montréal. So, even though I might have wanted to get on the road as early as 6am, I had to wait until an hour before the garden opened.

I had only a few objectives in Montréal. I wanted to see the botanical garden and insectarium most of all. I wanted to walk to the top of Mont Royal. I wanted to see some famous cathedral (of which I've since forgotten the name.) I wanted to eat poutine. I wanted to do a little shopping; I planned to get something special for myself to commemorate the trip, something for my parents, and some kind of little snack to bring to the jury room on Tuesday to share with my fellow jurors. This last item was to be something very Canadian so that I could say, "I left the country this weekend."

Content, I went to sleep and dreamed of nothing in particular. Certainly, I had no more nightmares about jury duty, work, or my life in New Jersey.

(As a side note, somewhere there is a picture I took of a covered bridge I drove across while following the directions of my bewildered GPS. I wasn't sure if I was in New York, Massachusetts, or Vermont. If I ever find that picture, I will update this post to include it.)

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