Friday, July 18, 2003

Vacation 2003, Part 1: On International Bridges, Whitetail Deer, and Caffeine-Free Root Beer

Stacey and I had been planning our vacation for almost a year. Last year, shortly after returning from BC, Stacey committed to attending a Grand Family Reunion in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, where she would meet the ancestors of the early settlers of the town. Stacey is a direct descendant of the Jung family, one of the first families in the area. Anyway, we have both spent some time in the Maritimes in the past and we both agree that it is one of the most beautiful parts of Canada. The reunion didn't need to be a reason to go there; it was an excuse.

Fast forward to 2003. SARS hits Toronto and the city's tourism began to suffer at the hands of the travel advisory. After much hand-wringing on the part of the city's management, some brilliant PR person came up with the bright idea of offering an unbelievable package deal to draw people in. For $125, you get a hotel room at a fancy-shmancy hotel, a dinner in a swanky restaurant, tickets to go see a musical, and tickets to see the Jays play a little baseball. It didn't take Stacey and I long to decide that we wanted to do that. The only problem was, we weren't the only ones who were interested. The promotion's phone lines were flooded, day and night, and it was impossible to get through. I'd sort of given up on the idea. It was one hell of a deal, but sometimes these things don't work out.

Little did I know, Stacey kept trying without telling me, persevered, and finally got through, just after they announced that a whole other month of bookings would be available. And so, as part of my birthday present this year, she got us a room at the Crown Plaza right next to the SkyDome and tickets to see the Lion King. Of course, due to the high popularity, she couldn't get a booking until the final weekend of June.

If you've ever been to Ottawa on a Canada Day, you'd know that it's the place to be. It's hard to compare it to other days of the year. It's like New Year's Eve, but more red and less cold. It's kind of like Mardi Gras, but without all the beads and uninhibited public displays of sexuality (for the most part). It's like St. Patty's Day, but with the drunken yahoos all mixed in with families with their kids and red hats instead of green. But whatever you compare it to, it's usually a lot of fun. Stacey and I were determined to be in Ottawa for the 1st.

It was immediately obvious that the solution lay in combining the three things in an uber-vacation that would span most of Eastern Canada. The first leg would bring us to Toronto for the deal, a trip to the zoo, and back to Ottawa for Canada Day. And then we'd book it out to the east coast for some R&R by the side of the ocean. A fine plan -- but a lot of driving.

The first part of the plan involved working the Friday before hitting the road at the earliest possible time. We were staying with my good buddy Mike the Friday night, and we'd planned to catch a drink or two after our arrival. Most of that week was sheer chaos. Our house isn't air-conditioned and there were thousands of things we had to take care of before we could get out of town. Suffice it to say, we tried to get everything packed, but it didn't quite work out that way.

As Friday progressed, it was clear that we weren't going to get out of work early. I was stuck completing a proposal while Stacey was taking care of a last minute bit of work that landed on her desk that afternoon. Despite the rush, we didn't get home until 5:30, finished our packing and got on the road. We were hours behind schedule as it was.

Everything was going well until we reached a point along the 416 about ten kilometers away from its junction with the 401. We were making good speed when we suddenly ran smack into a wall of traffic. It was a literal parking lot. Cars were frozen in place for at least a kilometer ahead of us, wrapping around the bend.

We played it cool. Stacey and I joked about the awe-inspiring scenery ("Look Honey! Rocks!") and watched people getting out of their cars and walking a few hundred meters ahead to see what was up. After what seemed like an eternity, the wall of traffic began to inch forward. I continued to point out pine trees and road signs along the way as new scenery presented itself. We concluded that it was probably a fresh accident around the bend and that the emergency crews were cleaning it up and we'd soon be on our way.

As we rounded the bend, I didn't like the new scenery one bit, even to joke. Hundreds of cars stretched out in front of us, as far as the eye could see. More people had abandoned their cars in favour of walking, seeming to have no concept whatsoever that their actions were actually making a bad situation immeasurably worse. As the minutes dragged by, we rounded another two bends with an identical view of featureless stopped traffic. But we knew that it couldn't last forever, eventually we'd reach the accident site and we'd be able to speed on past it to the exit to the 401. It was about then that we both realized we needed a bathroom.

As we approached the exit ramp for the 401 east, we found that we'd underestimated how messy the traffic jam really was. The police had closed the 401west exit and was funneling three lanes of traffic up the 401 east ramp. And of course, as people always get when stuck in traffic for over an hour, everyone was impatient and refused to let people merge properly. It was a colossal mess. The consolation was that there was still another entrance ramp to the 401 west, and after a short detour again, we'd be on our way.

Another half hour of agonizingly slow progress ensued. Upon reaching the 401, we realized to our horror that they had completely closed the westbound 401. The police were merging the two lanes of the 401 with the (formerly) 3 lanes of the 416 into one single congested lane and were funneling the whole kit and caboodle into downtown Prescott, Ontario, with no signs, no updates, and no information supplied. Thank-you, Ontario Provincial Police for your masterful handling of a happy-fun situation!

As we crossed over the 401, both of us swearing at the top of our lungs, we were faced with a decision. We could follow the endless, retardedly-slow chain of traffic through Prescott or we could break away. Unfortunately, there was only one break-away option: the bridge to New York State. It was about then that we both realized we needed a bathroom BADLY. When we saw that almost no one was taking the bridge, we mentally flipped a coin and decided to take our chances in the United States.

Of course, then I started to panic. Ever since September 11th, I've been a little wary of US Customs. I don't have a passport. And Customs officers are scary. Hey, anyone with the power to legally perform a body cavity search is scary enough in my books. On top of everything else, we hadn't in a million years expected to enter a foreign country that particular evening. Nor did we have any good reason at all to enter their country. We tried to concoct a reasonable white lie to explain less than two hours in the US and opted for honesty instead. Because honestly, we had nothing else that was gonna fly.

As we approached the Customs gate, we hit another wall of traffic. Apparently we should have realized that thanks to September 11th, it's not only harder to get into the US, it's also slower. WAY slower. We waited another half an hour before reaching the front of the line. Fortunately, the customs officer was mercifully nice. When we pulled up, one of them was saying "You know, if I had a nickel for every set of directions I've given to the other bridge into Canada..." and we knew that we were going to be fine. The officer looked over our driver licenses quickly, gave us directions across the north of the State, and informed us that the 401 had been closed for hours and that there was a fatal accident involving a tractor trailer and a mini van.

It was about then that we both realized we needed a bathroom RIGHT AWAY.

We pulled into the local Walmart in Ogdensburgh, NY, the first place with a bathroom that we could see. While we were there, Stacey insisted on hunting down a few cases of her favourite drink, Stewart's Root Beer, because it's hard to find in Canada and she thought it had caffeine in it and it would keep her awake for the rest of the drive. Now, if you've ever had Stewart's Root Beer, you might know that it comes in bottles that look suspiciously like regular beer bottles. And you might also know that they actually contain no caffeine at all.

I realized both things moments after pulling out of the parking lot with two bottles open and placed neatly in the drink holders on the dashboard. Then I start to panic again. If a State Trooper saw us drinking from the bottles, we'd be pulled over. Of course, even if we were caught, we weren't doing anything illegal by drinking root beer. I put my fears aside as we pushed onwards into the wilderness of northern New York State.

It was unbelievably dark. If you've ever driven across that part of the State, you'd know that there's not much there. There aren't many houses, not many lights, and overall, it's not a good place to break down. As we were crossing a particularly dark portion of the road, Stacey, who was driving, spotted a pair of eyes at the side of the road reflecting back at her. As she'd been told to do, she slowed down and started honking her horn to scare whatever it was away (flashing high beams actually makes animals freeze). Despite her efforts, a mature whitetail deer emerged from the underbrush in front of us and smacked against the side of the car with a sickening thud.

We screeched to a halt at the side of the road, afraid that the side of the car had been totaled and there was a carcass on the road behind us. Remarkably, when we looked at the side panels, there was only a very small scratch on the passenger door. Even more remarkably -- when we looked for the deer, it had disappeared. Relieved and a little freaked out, we got back in the car and continued on our way, hoping that the deer was okay.

There was another half-hour wait to get back into Canada across the Thousand Islands Bridge. Feeling cocky, we left the root beer bottles out. The customs guy didn't care, of course. Back on native soil, we merged with the 401 only to find traffic moving smoothly.

At this point, we were still over three hours away from Toronto. We were three hours behind schedule and it was 11 pm. We made a quick call to our host and another friend to let them know we weren't going to get in until late and told them our implausible tale. They were suitably amazed. I know I'd be a little incredulous if someone was telling it to me.

The rest of the journey was uneventful, except for our overwhelming exhaustion (keep in mind that we had worked a whole day before setting off). Closer to Toronto, I had to load up on caffeine (real, this time, in coffee form). We nearly didn't make it. While I was driving I was starting to hallucinate strange things like flocks of birds and tunnels of light and stuff in front of the car, which was more than a little bit frightening. We pulled into Mike's driveway shortly after 2 am (an 8 hour trip, a record for being our longest between the two cities), panicked for a few moments when he didn't answer the door right away, and then collapsed in his kitchen with a nice-and-cold five-year-old beer. The beer tasted a little funky, but at that moment, it was the best tasting beer in the world.

Part Two: Of PDQ's, Nosebleeds, and Ticket Stubs will be posted soon....


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