In graduate school I had a friend who was about as crazy as I was, which is saying something. We decided one day that it would be a really cool idea to go on a road trip to Canada over spring break, which happened at the end of March. March, still being winter in Canada, and all. We may have been clever graduate students, but we were still young and fearless and decided to take our chances against Mother Nature. Never mind that we were totally unprepared and had no snow chains and were in a lightweight front-wheel drive vehicle. Those were just minor details.
We had it all planned out. We would take my third-hand 1983 tan Toyota Camry hatchback and sleep in it instead of getting hotel rooms to save money. We were poor students, after all. Sure it would be uncomfortable, but wasn’t that part of the beauty of it? Uncomfortable travel to the adventurous is like suffering to the starving artist – it’s a requirement – a necessity. Also, my friend wasn’t comfortable driving my car, so I would be driving solo. Her job was to keep me awake and entertained.
I came up with the rather brilliant plan of using a dark olive green sheet to hook onto the cover for the hatchback and then pull it up and over the driver and passenger headrests while clipping part of the side of the sheet through the “oh shit” handles (I’m sure they have a proper name, but I don’t know what it is) in the back to keep the sides up high and near the roof of the car. In terms of privacy, it worked great. It was crowded, though.
Pittsburgh & Niagara Falls
Our first stop was in Pittsburgh, PA to visit a friend of mine from college who was busy pursuing a masters program in physics and meteorology or something to that effect. He took us on the grand tour and I found it to be a pretty cool city. Everything in the city was pervaded by academia. There were colleges and universities virtually everywhere. Being a huge fan of academia, I found this to be nothing short of blissful.
From Pittsburgh, we wound our way up to Niagara Falls, and I made my first border crossing into Canada. We toured the Canadian side of the falls, went to the Behind the Falls tour, wandered through the park that ran along the Niagara River, and checked out a few of the public displays on hydroelectric generation. There was much snow present and it was cool to watch chunks of it break off from land and go plunging over the falls. See? Who said that visiting in winter was a bad idea?
When we had had our fill, we crossed back to the US and headed up along the St. Lawrence River to Montreal, where we then crossed back over into Canada. I think we decided to stay on the US side of the river because she was originally from Upstate New York, but I wish we would have gone via Toronto and Ottawa. Oh, well. I guess I’ll get to those during another trip.
Impressions of Montreal
Soon after our arrival into Montreal, we needed to get gas. We pulled into a filling station and were directed in French (which I didn’t speak – my friend did a tiny bit) to wait while the car was filled for us. Interesting. I hadn’t seen a full-serve service station since I was a small child, but never mind as this was not the interesting part.
Both of us sat transfixed while we watched the service station attendant, who looked like he had just left a modeling shoot for mens underwear to come and fill our tank. To be clear, he was wearing clothes, as there was snow on the ground. I just don’t think that either of us noticed them.
I’d like to point out that while I naturally do recognize that there are attractive men in the world around me, I have very seldom found myself with mouth agape in need of a bucket with which to collect the drool that is oozing from my mouth. Normally, good-looking men don’t really faze me. They are there, they look very nice, and I’m on with my business. This guy, however, left us looking like we had both been shot full of tranquilizers as our bodies stayed fixed, our mouths hung agape, and our eyes followed him as he cleaned the windshield and windows.
Wow. If this is what the guys who work at filling stations look like, then what exactly is needed to formally emigrate to Canada? This guy wasn’t the only drop-dead gorgeous guy we saw. They were everywhere. I dunno what it is about Montreal, but there is a hell of a gene pool there for hot men. Perhaps when I get so old and they have to put me in a home, I’ll find a way to get put in one in Montreal. That way, there will be something more interesting to watch than The Price is Right and Wheel of Fortune every day.
Our trip through Montreal consisted of eating at amazing restaurants about every 3 hours we were there. The food was spectacular. At some point we managed to find our way to the Montreal Botanical Garden (Jardin botanique de Montréal), which was quite a treat. The grounds were still covered in snow, but the greenhouses were out of this world.
Between the butterfly house exhibit and the series of greenhouses that allowed you to walk from one climate into another – like from rainforest to desert – I was in love. Sadly, we had to be on our way at some point, and we headed off again along the St. Lawrence Seaway in the direction of Québec.
Next Stop, Quebec
So far, our car with a bed sheet for a tent inside idea had been working out quite well. We would find a relatively uninhabited area in which to park the car and organize our stuff so it was all hidden from view from anyone who might peer in during the night. Making sure there wasn’t anyone paying attention to us, we would crack the windows to make sure we had a little fresh air coming in, and then we would hoist up the green sheet to create our tent.
Sure, it got a little chilly at night. There was no source of heat other than our own bodies, but we had loads of blankets, quilts and sleeping bags which did a pretty good job of trapping the heat. At least, it worked most of the time. There weren’t many good options leaving Montreal in terms of overnight parking. We didn’t think that staying in such a large urban area would be wise, and it was already evening by the time we departed.
Night soon fell and we were driving in the dark looking for anywhere possible to pull over. Eventually, we decided on some roadside turnout that got us far enough off of the highway that we didn’t risk being hit by a passing vehicle and called it “good enough.” We went through our routine of bedding down for the night, and when we were at last settled in, we realized that there was something different about the cold this night. Instead of feeling the cold radiating in from the metal frame of the car, we could feel it blowing in through all of the cracks and crevices.
The wind had really kicked up and we were parked broadside to it. It was the only way to park in that place, so changing our direction was not an option. We would just have to suck it up. We bundled ourselves up as best we could and rode out the barrage of freezing cold gusts that rocked the car back and forth every few seconds. Perhaps we didn’t think this through well enough, because we were really, really cold. There wasn’t much sleep that night which made us rather cranky the next day on our drive to Québec.
Whereas Montreal struck me as a very cosmopolitan town with lots of shopping malls and new, fancy buildings, Québec was quite the opposite – at least the part that we saw. Québec City’s cobblestone streets and the wall around the city full of independent flower shops, coffee shops, and bakeries took me back to Europe. I’m sure that much of what I saw was there for the tourists, but it was done in such a pleasant way that I found it to be quite an enjoyable experience to stroll through the streets – even in my cranky, sleep-deprived mood.
Grocery Store Parking Lot in New Brunswick
Our trip was one done completely without the aid of guidebooks. Our only tool was a Rand McNally Road Atlas. We had not researched a single destination in advance, so everything looked more or less the same to us on the map. Québec was quite a surprise to us, and I wish in retrospect that we would have stayed longer, but we were on a mission to see as much of Canada as we could in the two weeks or so we were allotted for our Spring Break trip, so off we went in search of other new things. We were also pretty grouchy from the previous night’s experience, and were eager to catch up on a few winks.
We were also short on groceries, so our destination that evening ended up being a grocery store parking lot somewhere near Edmundson, New Brunswick. It was still very cold outside and it seemed to be getting colder. We had decided by now that Nova Scotia sounded like a good destination, and we planned to head there in the morning – that is, until we heard the forecast on the radio.
A blizzard was headed straight at us, but not knowing the geography, all of the references of when it would get to us were rather difficult to interpret on the fly. We did know it was coming our way, though and that Nova Scotia wasn’t likely going to happen. We decided instead to head to St. John on the coast first thing the next morning and from there we would head south into the US where there were fewer blizzards.
Although the temperature was quite cold, we somehow managed to sleep through the night quite comfortably this particular night. Far be it from me to complain about not having to feel the cold air blowing in through all of the uninsulated areas of the car body. I was warm and content.
The next morning when we pulled down the green sheet, our windows were really fogged. Had we forgotten to crack them? No. They were cracked. I rubbed my hand over a spot to clear it off in order to see what was happening outside, and when I pulled it away, the window still appeared to be covered in fog – but on the outside. Crap. It was snow.
Either we had misunderstood the weather forecast or the weather had changed in the last few hours. Either way, our car was covered in snow. None of the doors would open – perhaps they had become frozen with initial snow that had melted and then formed ice. I’m not sure.
Regardless, simply opening the door wasn’t going to do the trick. Our only option for egress was to roll down the window and punch our way out, which we did – but, not before a bucket load or two of snow fell inward on us, ensuring that we would be sitting on wet seats as we tried to drive our way out of this snowstorm. That is, of course, if we could get the car dug out and actually drive on this stuff.
Knowing that this was only the beginning of the snow, we made haste and freed the car quickly from its snowy shroud. I assured my friend who was nervous about me driving on the snow that it would be no big deal. After all, we’d been living in Athens, Ohio for a couple of years, and there was plenty of snow there. I failed to mention that I never took my car out in it. Again, these were just minor details, really.
Escape from the Blizzard – and a Warm Bed
Off we went on a very slow trip over snowy roads in our front-wheel drive car with no snow chains on our way to St. John. That was a rather long ride. I was beat from driving and my bum was soaked from the snow that had fallen into the car early that morning. Both of us were irritable from the cold, the general lack of sleep over the last week or so, and the fatigue of navigating roads that were quite dangerous in our ill-equipped vehicle.
Without much discussion, we decided to get a room at a bed and breakfast place. We found a very quaint Victorian style house and inquired about a room for the night. It was well more than we had budgeted for, but frankly, we needed showers (another minor detail I’d neglected to think about in advance), and the idea of a real bed was enough of a lure that we agreed.
We wandered the streets of St. John that evening and came back to a fantastic night’s sleep in a warm, dry bed. The next morning, we had breakfast at a small table located in a turret with windows on all sides. Over coffee, we got out the faithful Rand McNally atlas and turned to the map of the entire United States.
Where to Next?
We still had a week to kill. Where to go? Somewhere south of here sounded good, but not being a fan of returning to places I had visited before, we had to rule out several places before choosing a destination. Maine and New Hampshire sounded nice, but they were facing the probability of lots of snow from a second storm that our host told us was approaching. We needed to go further south.
Next up was Boston – been there, done that; then, Connecticut – but there really wasn’t much to do there; then Philly, Baltimore, and Washington, DC – I had done that last spring break; then Virginia. I’d been to the northern part last spring break, but not the southern part.
We started looking around the area of Virginia Beach, but from everything I had heard about it, it was a super high traffic tourist area. I wanted something more quaint. My eyes trailed down the map a bit and I noticed this band of land that was just off the North Carolina coast. What was that? It looked interesting. It was what was known as the Outer Banks. I had never heard of it and it looked different. That was enough to fuel my curiosity.
Never mind that the Outer Banks was over 1,000 miles and 17 hours away without stopping for breaks. So far, I had driven us from Athens, Ohio, to Pittsburg, then to Niagara Falls, to Montreal, then Québec, and up and over the State of Maine through New Brunswick to land on the coast – a little over 1400 miles. What was another 1000 miles to the next destination, really?
The Long Journey South
We finished our late breakfast, gathered up our gear, and with new plan in hand, we hopped in the car and began our long journey south. About 10 hours later we passed through New York City. Good thing I’d already been since the traffic at that hour was insane. By the time we hit Jersey, I was done for the day. We stayed the night at a filling station/rest stop on the turnpike. We had gone inside for a bit to use the restroom and stretch our legs.
The TV’s in the room had newscasts of a school shooting at Westside Middle School just outside of Jonesboro, Arkansas. I thought to myself of how I may not exactly be in the safest place to spend the night, but that nowhere was really safe when you thought about it. Sometimes it is just about being at the wrong place at the wrong time. With that, we bedded down for the night in a very busy area full of people who could very well decide to break into our car in the middle of the night, but they didn’t.
The next day we drove the rest of the way down to the Outer Banks where we decided to get a hotel room for 4 or 5 days since the low season rates were so cheap. We spent those days driving up to Nags Head and checking out the enormous multi-family rental mansions, visiting Kitty Hawk and learning some more history about the Wright Brothers, and wandering around on the beach in the cold air that reminded us that while we may have been on spring break, Spring was yet to arrive.
At the last possible minute, we climbed back into the trusty tan Camry hatchback and made for our current home in Athens, Ohio. We opted for the slightly longer, more scenic route that would take us back via the near entire length of North Carolina before turning north to cross the Appalachians to complete our trip of over 3,100 miles.