Sunday, November 19, 2006

This is what happened in the last 40 hours. Times are approximate but everything happened in this order. Pictures will follow. We almost exclusively took country roads, followed no directions, and I really miss country music.

Friday, 5 am: I am at the Tim Horton's at Bloor and Spadina, as I often tend to be, but I am starting my day this time, not about to end it. Emily and I get on the Gardiner Expressway in downtown Toronto. She discusses New York, black coffee and France. I discuss running, Toronto and philosophy. We really are simple people.

6 am: We are now on the Queen Elizabeth Way. I mention that it's still absurdly dark. The sun still hasn't risen. By the time it does, we will be in another country. We pass through Beamsville, which I always thought was a very sad name for a place. I mention that I had a mysterious roommate from Grimsby last year. Emily asks around Hamilton if I'm uncomfortable with silences. I'm not, I reply, I just have a lot to say.

7 am: "Where were you born, sir?" the border guard at the Lewiston bridge barks at me. It was the second question he asked. The first was which citizenships we held. I hate to give the answer. The wait is very, very tense, at least for me. "I don't know what he was doing," Emily muses about what he was doing in his booth. I do know. Moving quickly, we enter Lockport and I insist we visit Lockport Gambino Ford. Anyone who regularly watches FOX WUTV Buffalo (most of you) know why. We arrive at 7:33. "The guy from the commercial" isn't there. I take a picture to prove I was there. We switched from the QEW to the 405 to reach Queenston, the second War of 1812 reference here in a matter of days. We take the 190 at Lewiston.

8 am: We are in Denny's. I called my dad at work to let him know that I was in America, but waited until Emily returned from the washroom. I didn't want to incite a stampede by speaking in Urdu by myself. I don't know what highway we took in Lockport, the 31 or something.

9 am: We motor along. We get on another highway and soon we're on the Interstate 90, debating our destination the entire time. The Interstate was taking us to the Atlantic Ocean, which I haven't seen in a very long time, but then I realized that upstate New York looks a lot like Ontario. Pennsylvania was more foreign, and Emily said that we could switch states, so we stop at Pembroke to take 77 south, going by Six Flags at Darien Lake. We marvel at the scenery; upstate New York is really beautiful. Between Java Center and Sheldon, we pass a collapsed barn and take lots of pictures. If I'd known, however, just how many collapsed and rundown barns there are in upstate New York and western Pennsylvania, I wouldn't have. It's amazing just how much we've already seen and done by 9 am.

10 am: The 77 had become the 16, which becomes the 98 and swerves east, then west, going through Franklinville, home of the 1999 Miss USA. We stop at Ischua for gas and the Buffalo News. Crossing the Interstate 86, we realize that the scenery is beautiful. The road now winds through the Appalachian Mountains and the view of the valley at the top of a mountain is breathtaking. Hinsdale and Olean pass like this.

11 am: We climb a huge mountain and keep climbing. The view of the valley below is simply beyond words. We stop twice for pictures. A great spot for pictures is at the head of the dirt Lippert Hollow Road, a little bit south of Olean on highway 16. It's now snowing, maybe just at our moderate altitude. Abruptly, we cross New York into Pennsylvania just before noon. We stop for pictures of the signs though no one else seems to be very excited by the state boundary.

12 pm: Pennsylvania is gorgeous. We make an executive decision to head east, now on highway 346, a great decision. The highway is now a narrow two-lane road, a narrow crevice surrounded by two steep hills covered by trees. The car rolls over the mountains and the beautiful vistas are regular. We pass through Rew, Smethport, Crosby, Norwich and Shippen before stopping at Emporium. We buy gas, pop and chips. American chocolate bars are very numerous and foreign.

What followed was a very special part of the trip. Winding south from Emporium, already in the middle of nowhere, we followed highway 120 through a few state forests. Going up and down the mountains, the views were unbelievable. The muddy Susquahanna was to the right for the most of the time, a cliff to the left and the mountains across the river. Only pictures can do justice to this section. Taking pictures was like shooting fish in a barrel. Simply pointing a camera and pressing a button guaranteed an amazing picture. We saw very few cars and fewer people, though there was at least one house on the road. The location on a "highway" was peculiar until I realized that this house was on a quieter road than any place within 2 hours of here. The towns were very far apart at this point, obviously, not that it mattered. We went through Driftwood and East Keating, still in the forest but now eagerly anticipating Renovo, which had been touted very highly on signs for a long time.

1 pm: Renovo is a very strange town. The downtown is one giant detour off the main strip. Everything seems to be closed and abandoned. We finally manage to park and relax by the town's ice cream parlour, literally something from the '50s. I bought ice cream and, for some reason, feel much better. I estimated that Lancaster is 2 hours away at this point. Lancaster and Amish country was our destination. I recall that JP lived there, so I send out text messages amidst sporadic reception to see if I can get his phone number. We follow 120 to Lock Haven, driving the 30 miles behind a guy towing a boat. There was not a single town in between and nowhere to turn. We travelled between cliffs, treated to scenic valleys as always.

2 pm: At Lock Haven, I calculate that we need to get to Williamsport via the 220 to get onto an Interstate (I navigated and Emily drove; it was a very fair division). However, I immediately decide that back country highways, as we've been doing, are much more fun. We go south from Jersey Shore on the 44, which is a shortcut to Allentown, where 220 leads anyway. We set the first of our goals, vowing to reach Allentown in a time that we beat thoroughly. More on Williamsport later.

3 pm: From Allentown, we take the 15 south, incidentally our 15th highway. We destroy all our time goals on the way and spot our first Amish boy. I still don't have JP's number but, miraculously enough, I remember it and call him. I get his machine. The phone rings right after but it's Riyaad, who doesn't believe that I'm in Pennsylvania. I assure him that I am. I fall asleep soon after and, depressingly, dream that I'm at work. I wake up very disoriented at a gas station at around 4 pm.

6:30 pm: Nothing happened in the intervening period. We're now on the 283 approaching Lancaster, only about an hour from Philadelphia, blaring the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

7 pm: We check into the Hotel Brunswick in Lancaster. Emily doesn't know what it means to cover someone when they open a door, so I teach her.

8 pm: We go for dinner at a Korean restaurant, though I don't know how a Korean person winds up there. Emily, exhausted from 14 hours of driving, and I, exhausted from 14 hours of sitting, talk about what we do all day.

9 pm: FOX News airs a special on why Muslims are evil.

10 pm: I realize that I'm asleep. I'm very disoriented and in a mild state of panic. I debate whether or not to go for a run to settle myself.

Sunday, 5:19 am: Madison sends me a text message. Clearly, she was up late, and this matters.

7:20 am: I didn't go for a run. My alarm goes off. I think I'm in Ottawa and I can't remember Emily's name, so I go back to sleep instead of waking her up.

8 am: This shower only has hot water, which is a welcome change from home, but my feet do hurt. The last foreign shower I took was operated by a knob under the faucet. I'm never going to shower when travelling again.

9 am: After Emily climbs five stories of the parking lot, I clue in and ask her what she's doing. She claims she was just following the signs. We stop for breakfast on highway 340, which is our 20th highway. Scrambled eggs, toast, home fries, pancakes and many, many cups of coffee total $8.27. What a country. We drive a few minutes more and stop off at a store in the hamlet at Bird in the Hand, Pennsylvania. One lucky reader will receive a postcard from this locale. Hint: the name is the same as the last name of a former president, a state capital and rhymes with a hotel chain. It did take about a dozen unanswered phone calls, but I did get an address even though the recipient went to bed very, very late.

10 am: After perusing many quaint trinket stores, the farmer's market is the next stop. This place has everything and is actually a lot like the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto, but with less space and more old people. I find a hat that I like but it has a buckle like "the man from the oatmeal box", to quote Chuckie Finster, so I pass. We drive around some more and enjoy the Amish carriages mixing it up with cars on the highway. The horses are really working, galloping at an impressive clip. One carriage in particular had to have been doing 40-50 km/h, the horse majestically whizzing by us as if on fire.

11 am: We decide to drive on since time is short. We do, however, need to find a hat and peanut brittle for Emily's mom. Driving along 340, we enjoy more endless Amish farms and sunshine. We go north at highway 10 at Compass in search of another town. The next town, however, is tiny and seems to have taken us out of Amish country. Honey Brook, Pennsylvania is the end of our journey, about 800 km and 10 hours by a direct route according to Google. It made more sense to go back to the farmer's market. I ended up buying that first hat I saw, the first of about 6. I fully intend to wear it.

12 pm: We started back west to Lancaster on a mission. This was no ordinary drive back, we had to be back in Toronto by 9:30 since both of us were going to go see movies. Through Lancaster, we took the 30 and switched to the 72, which would take us to an Interstate. On the Interstate 81, I decide that the Interstate 180 is quicker, so I order a move west along Interstate 80. A shortcut to Interstate 180 is highway 93, which is also the exit Emily takes to stop for gas.

1 pm: I walk into the convenience store at the gas station and can't find the washroom. "Is there a washroom in here?" I ask. The man looks at me quizzically and I wonder, briefly, if he might not speak English. That's a ludicrous proposition in rural Pennsylvania for a man who is not Amish, so I repeat the question. He looks at me again, puzzled, replying "what's a washroom?" Sheepishly, I ask if there's a rest room, and he points to a door by the entrance. What a country.

Back outside, I notice that we are stopped at an elevation overlooking a valley, so I snap easy shots of tiny picturesque homes in the distance.

2 pm: We are making excellent time towards Milton, such good time that we almost forget that there's somewhere to go after.

3 pm: Lunch is at the Arby's in Williamsport. Finally. I have never been to an Arby's. I have two sandwiches, two servings of curly fries and half of Emily's sandwich. I wonder what it would be like to work at a small-town fast food restaurant. They have six employees working on this Saturday afternoon. We take highway 15 north towards New York state. The view is amazing, especially as the sun sets.

4 pm: There is some tension as we wonder if we're going to make it back in time.

4:44 pm: We cross into New York at Lawrenceville. Emily knows someone who went to boarding school here.

5 pm: Emily is singing along to Kenny Chesney or something or other, driving between 80 and 90 miles an hour. I have to admit that I really like country music. I had insisted that we listen to it since it really makes the road trip feel like a road trip.

6 pm: we stop for gas in Avon, about 20 minutes south of Rochester. I feel very self-conscious going into pay and buy coffee. I feel like the girl I talked to will be a witness, my interest in getting to Rochester the evidence along with the security camera footage. Outside, a butch woman in a pickup truck who looks like Michael J. Fox is pumping gas next to a prissy, well-dressed woman in a parka. We finally switch off of highway 15 onto Interstate 90.

7 pm: We hit Buffalo at 7:01, about 15 minutes earlier than expected, letting out whoops.

7:50 pm: After a tough stretch, we cross into Canada. What a country.

7:51 pm: We leave for Toronto, hopeful of reaching Toronto in 90 minutes since it took us 2 hours to arrive.

8:06 pm: We are in St. Catherines.

8:13 pm: We are in Hamilton.

8:27 pm: Burlington. We talk of reaching Toronto in less than an hour and bragging about it. What a turnaround, literally.

8:38 pm: We pass under Winston Churchill Boulevard into Mississauga. I tell Emily that we'll have to cross Mississauga pretty quickly to make our goal.

8:41 pm: We reach Dixie, which I recall is the last exit in Mississauga before Toronto.

8:45 pm: We're in Toronto, 54 minutes after crossing the border.

8:55 pm: We get off the Gardiner onto Spadina.

9:14 pm: After my brother called, I find myself spat out onto Bay Street holding the hat I bought. I feel like I went through a time warp. None of the people I see look like they'd believe I was in Pennsylvania, and neither would I, if not for the hat, a strange relic.

9:35 pm: I'm wondering whether or not we'll get decent seats. Three hours ago, I was pumping gas and thinking of where Rochester is relative to Toronto.

11:59 pm: Stranger than Fiction, the fitting actual name of the movie I saw, comes to a zigzagging end. It is one of the best movies I have ever seen. Dustin Hoffman is on fire lately and Will Ferrell actually acts in this one. Go see it. It was a perfect unassuming, mindbending cap to an unassuming, mindbending adventure. We drove at least 1000 miles on 28 different highways in total over the span of 40 of the greatest hours of my life.

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