Rochester to London, Sans Windshield


I had 5 days to get to my AMUUSE summer camp in norbythern Michigan. It was apparent I did not have time to get a replacement windshield overnighted to me in Rochester, so I would have to drive across Ontario using only my facemask and a positive attitude. I spent my last day getting used to the stiff wind in my face, getting big red’s oil changed, and having a famous “garbage plate” at famous Nick Tahou’s place.

Garbage Plate at Nick Tahou’s

I spent my last evening driving around the newly renovated Monroe St and the historic East End neighborhood.

I was amazed by the tremendously large historic homes, still standing and well kept up, never given into temptation to redevelop the large lots for modern mansions or multi’s, or to simply subdivide those historic prizes into high density student slums. I took a good look at how the gentrifying neighborhoods were being organized for new traffic controls, but it was mostly just more of the same. And I never did catch up with my internet friend that invited me to town, the original reason I stayed an extra day on the shores of Lake Ontario. In the morning, it was time to go.

I was packed and out at my usual 11am, and swung around downtown Rochester for some nice pictures of the UU Church that is adjacent to the 1960’s modern tower headquarters for Xerox. Its an amusing juxtaposition. The UU has a lot of stain glass windows, which upon closer view where not of religious scenes or figures but roses and natural elements. Very cool.

I stayed on divided surface streets as I headed to Buffalo, but eventually needed to drop onto the NY thruway (using the toll pass I bought weeks ago in Pennsylvania). By then I was getting used to the wind. While the pressure on my chest and shoulders was very pronounced, it was quite tolerable. To my surprise, it was my neck that was becoming exhausted. The wind hit my solid facemask, now kept closed for bugs and debris, and constantly pushed on my head and neck. Consequently, I was now forced to use previously lazy neck muscles to keep my head upright and square in face of the open bouncing headwind. It was a constant push, micro adjusting my head forward and back. Within an hour it was my neck (of all places) that was exhausted.

I arranged an AirBnB in St Catherine’s Ontario for the first night, and another in London for the second. I figured to play it by ear after that, either somewhere around Detroit, or stay an extra day in London if that turned out best. There would be one extra day to rest on my way to AMUUSE.

While heading toward Buffalo, my GPS gave me strange directions, routing me south of the city and across the Peace bridge, then up the Ontario side to St Catherines. Logic would have it route me north on the NY side, crossing at the Niagara thruway and landing directly in town.

My GPS uses the Google street interface which takes real-time traffic into account. I normally pay only casual attention, unless I get strange information (like today in Buffalo). When I pulled off, to pay a toll, I pulled over and took a hard look at the GPS. There were several construction zones north between Buffalo, Tonawanda and the NY crossover into St Catherines. It would be faster, Google calculated, to go the long way around the south of Buffalo then to wade into that mess. Who am I to question the gods of traffic? So be it.

I took off west on the NY Thurway and I as approached the Buffalo beltway took the big turn south. Traffic started to get heavy, not unusual for three in the afternoon. Soon enough, all the lanes were full, with traffic slowed to stop and go, then a standstill. As I started up my headphones shouted “In 500 yards exit to the right”. The GPS, from time to time, will drop a bombshell course correction like this and I’ve learned to ALWAYS follow them. I looked over my shoulder, and cut across 3 lanes of traffic and exited. As I crossed the overpass, I saw to the west a total parking lot in the hot summer sun. She instructed me to complete a U-Turn and reenter, now northbound, but I wanted more information before doing that.

I needed gas anyway, so I found a station, then dug into the mapping display. Sure enough, all of the freeways on the south side of Buffalo were painted red, with real time data showing a total standstill. I was just saved from hours of idling on my air-cooled bike. I never found out why.

I have a love-hate relationship with my GPS, sometimes she plays tricks on me, but she is ALWAYS trustworthy in an emergency rerouting like this. So now I was being sent north, into the very construction zones I was originally routed away from, plus I would first have to backtrack the five miles I had already traveled in the wrong direction. Add to this that traffic had been getting worse and the afternoon sun was making the roads and the day hotter by the minute. Ugh! What a drag.

Along with breaking my windshield in Rochester, I had lost some shirts and tools. This was a mystery but I eventually found they were only misplaced in various nooks and crannies. For now, I needed to get a replacement screwdriver and pliers in case of emergency. I considered it an omen that a Harbor Freight and Starbucks appeared directly across from the gas station. I hatched the plan to pick up supplies, have a coffee, rest my brain from the heat, let the bike engine cool, and try to let traffic settle down a bit. I sent a text msg on to St Catherine’/s to say I’d be running late. Ugh! Sorry!

After my coffee break, I waded into medium traffic all the way to the thruway bridge, where it became a parking lot. It took 45 minutes to get that last mile into Canada, but my host was just 20 minutes over the border from the bridge, if I could just get across. I had passed through St Catherine’s only a month previously when traveling from Stratford to Buffalo on my way to UU-GA so knew my way around. Once I finally cleared the bridge, hot and tired, in very short order I was pulling into the parking lot at her apartment tower.

Joan came out to greet me, walking Casper her poodle, smiling and exuding welcome to ease my crappy travel day. Her positive outlook, homey wardrobe and happy demeanor reminded me of every good neighbor, Aunt, godmother, and church bingo lady you have ever met. AirBnB just continued to surprise me with the total mix of humanity it dealt me day in and out. I needed to bring everything in from the bike to repack it, so I could do quick packs the next couple days. And I was really trying to find those missing shirts and tools. Joan introduced me to several of her neighbors and they were all elderly women, gracious and happy, either out walking small dogs and chatting sipping lemonade. This seemed like a “senior apartment tower”, but not like the 55+ enforced communities in my own Florida, where neighbors peek through peep holes and spy on each others license plates. I wandered into peace on earth and goodwill toward man.

Joan welcomed me to her apartment, a standard 2 bedroom with comfortable living room. To my total astonishment, she had prepared me a Long Island Iced Tea, and was making us a dinner meal for “whenever you’re hungry”. I tried not to betray shock. She also said she intended to make me breakfast in the morning. This was insane. I was expecting to have to head into town, hot and exhausted from my ride. Instead I was going to get family time, a family meal … but first sipping a cocktail on a comfortable sofa, with my feet up on an ottoman, while a poodle curled up at my side. I had stepped out of bumper to bumper traffic and into the twilight zone. I couldn’t believe it. It took almost an hour to settle down, for my eyes to quit darting and to quit jabbering, and to just luxuriate in not being alone, and not having a care in the world.

Joan and I started to make chit-chat, and oh my goodness. She had purchased fresh Ontario fruit, chilled it, which I snacked on, while we talked about the many guest she’s hosted from around the world. Her one regret, she said, was that she didn’t start a detailed diary when she first opened her home, because while she remembers highlights, so many happy and heartwarming stories are fading from her memory. She recounted half a dozen delightful stories, and I watched as my encouragement helped a string of new memories awaken in her head, as the stories rolled out to our shared smiles.

She had a long career, but recently had been losing her vision so could no longer drive. St Catherine’s did have good buses, but it was still easier to have someone help drive her to certain doctor appointments. Tomorrow, after I left, she would be going on her monthly outing with a “hen’s club” to the nearby Niagara Falls casino. It seems the musical acts there schedule a mid-week matinee at bargain prices and the four of them go so often as to score a discount by, oh I don’t know, playing slots, collecting coupons, and regular casino visits. It reminded me so much of my own mom and dad’s regular visits to the Windsor casino that I could only sigh and smile and hide a little tear now and then. I’d make damn sure I was out the door on time tomorrow morning.

She cooked real food for me, lite and delicious, and we sat at the dining room table and talked while she cleaned the dishes. Then we returned to the living room and muted the TV because I engaged her in conversation, reminiscing and sharing. We ended up talking for a couple hours. Yes, I told about Florida, and my trip, and my family and the divorce and all the places I had been and was going. But her stories were so interesting I was finally starting to learn to listen first and talk second.

I asked her to compare Canadian health care (she was VERY satisfied) with Obamacare and US hospitals for me. Her three kids lived away from home, one out west, one in California, and one in Vermont. The one in Vermont was a stone craftsman and you could see the proud mama bear pull out a photo album showing paper printed pictures of her son and his home and various completed stone projects (fireplaces and entryways and entire wall covering. I remember having a similar photo album of baby photos just 25 short years ago. But nowadays everybody has to swipe on their phone, then hand it back and forth, to show such pictures. I sat with a bemused grin thinking about stepping out of time.

I heard about her parents and stories of growing up, about her neighbors and their grown children. I would not talk about American politics between the summer election season or anything from the last eight years of unhappy gridlock and grandstanding. We talked about traveling, and about the businesses in St Catherine’s and nearby Niagara and Toronto. She was so happy and peaceful in her little corner of the world. But it was time for all to head to bed, so I woke up Casper from sleeping beside me, and we agreed to our morning schedule.

In my room I packed and unpacked and could find none of my missing items (I later learned my missing items were stashed in the bottom of the seat with the dirty laundry). I rearranged so my portable gym bag would have 3 days clean clothes and med supplies so I could live out of just the one bag. I’d still need to haul everything in (for security), but I could leave my big suitcase zipped up tight. Unpacked, repacked and reorganized for the twentieth time on this trip, I turned in to sleep in a bed that put the princess and the pea to shame. It was just amazing.

In the morning Joan made me eggs and sausage and hot coffee and more conversation. Everything was ready to go so I just hauled it to the bike and started the 20 minutes of hooking up bungee cords. This was the ONLY time during my entire trip that I double checked my pockets before departing and was missing my phone. Joan was sitting in the lobby, still waiting for her ride to the casino, so gave me her room key. I ran back and had placed my phone on the counter as I shimmied all my bags between my hands to carry them (instead of tucking my phone into my pocket!). ont2
Had her ride arrived 10 minutes early, instead of 10 minutes late, that lapse would have orchestrated a three or four day fiasco (including customs!). Instead, I just tucked my phone into my pocket, pulled the door closed behind me, handed her the key where she was waiting in the lobby, and mounted up for my earliest departure in weeks. Fully fed, I was denied my chance to enjoy Tim Horton’s donuts and coffee for breakfast (oh the suffering!). I made up for that by having them for lunch.

ont1My drive to London followed the reverse of my path from two weeks previously from Stratford to Buffalo, so I was careful to take a different path. I followed route 3 along Lake Erie, similar in appearance to eastern Ohio. Two lane rural highways across rolling farm fields interspersed with small islands of hardwoods. In other words, the dictionary definition of “scenic”.

I pulled into London around 5pm, and was surprised how the city fathers had annexed so much geography to their tax base. I don’t know how that is done in Canada, but in Florida there are dozens of mayors and councils that would die for moving the city limits a dozen miles out of town, encircling long rural and still productive farm lands as part of city tax base. Whenever those lands are developed as sprawl housing, industrial production, even a city airport, there will be no argument about needing to annex that land. Over 30 years ago, before my son was born, I lived in Detroit and had clients outside of Toronto so commuted “the 401” often stopping for a snack in London. I was able to see significant growth along some of the outer major arterial roads, sadly, as it all followed American Sprawl design.

lon1London, Ontario, in general, always looked to me exactly as my own boyhood suburbs of Detroit with its housing stock, neighborhoods, shopping centers could be picked up and plucked down across the border. Except downtown London, where it completely follows Canadian design, and that the arterials never grew larger than 5 lanes, 2+2 plus a center turn. Obviously, despite London’s American style love of the car, there is enough transit, and just enough multi-family living, to keep the major roads under control.

I arrived at my host’s home, in a family neighborhood. It was so strange to park my bike without a windshield. It seemed broken, like a bird with its wing in a bandage. I kinda felt sorry for big red. Of course it was my face, and my neck, that were being punished. I checked in, met my host, and unpacked. I left my bags and headed out to run laundry. It was interesting. There was a fellow watching TV that seemed like an “extra” guest. Later, in discussion, it turned out he had planned on leaving that morning, so she gave me the basement room. He needed to stay a few more days, so was literally sleeping on the couch that night, then taking back my room when I left in the morning. I felt bad for him, since I could just as well have slept on the sofa.lon2

The Airbnb home was just a couple blocks from the hospital complex in London, and she hosted a lot of medical students doing internships. The guy was a student and had just done an “internship” (unpaid semester) in Europe, and was trying to get a position at the hospital. He was in an extended interview process so he was staying, and interviewing and poking around for work, but also for school. You meet the most interesting people. Later I learned there was a young woman staying in the house as well. She was a straight medical student / medical resident. She just lived in the home for a few months and worked crazy hours right down the block. Our host, a young single woman herself, had figured out a way to own a home by scraping together the house payment from a bunch of sources. Once again, Airbnb, really helped her achieve her goals by showing initiative.

lon3 I drove all over London, remembering places I had stopped 30 years ago, retracing my old steps. Eventually, I needed to settle down before my laundry mat closed. As I dug out the dirty laundry from crushed under my seat, I found all my missing shirts. It seems during the rain I had been wearing 2 shirts per day, or had washed only whites somewhere. The dirty shirts had been doubled up in the “one days dirty laundry” Publix bags. There they all were. Also my missing tool bag was sitting under the entire mess. Sitting at that laundry, I found all my missing stuff. The universe was back in order.

At 2am I returned to my host’s place, tiptoed to the basement and went to bed.


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