Saturday, March 03, 2007

Tripping, Part I

We put just shy of 4000 kilometers on our Harold over the past six days. It was a voyage of discovery through a land we've never seen, and various and sundry impressions were made. I kept a trip diary, noting all the mind-numbingly boring details that will serve as a kind of memorial shorthand (if you're me, that is), bringing each day's experience to mind in the years to come. The minutiae of travel--room numbers, details of each meal eaten out, what have you--is endlessly fascinating...if you've lived it. If you haven't, any attempt to make you live it will very shortly result in suicide. Not wishing such a fate on any of you, my Faithful Readers, I'll employ something of a different approach for this travelogue.

When we first contemplated going to visit my dad and stepmom in Destin, Florida, we weighed our travel options carefully: fly or drive? Flying seemed to have one undeniable advantage: it was cheaper. It was, we discovered, possible to fly to northwest Florida from Buffalo, return, for $129 Canadian, all taxes included. (Flying from Toronto nearly triples that figure: it's almost as if Pearson International Airport is deliberately trying to drive away passengers.)
Upon further reflection, however, we realized we would have to rent a car once we arrived in sunny climes, negating any cost benefit to travelling by air.
Flying, of course, means you're there very soon after you've left here: it takes about ten times as long to drive to our Destin-ation as it does to fly. Not counting, again, the drive to Buffalo, the airport delays, the drive at the other end, or any other flightpath-block that might be thrown in our path once we ceded control of our travel to someone else.
Then there's the matter of what you see. Driving somewhere means you see the country you're travelling through up close and personal. Flying means you see...clouds. I've seen clouds before. They look pretty much the same from above as they do from below.
Okay, I'll admit it. The idea of flying did no more than flit across our minds: we had decided very early on to drive, and to make that drive part of our vacation. I spent literally hours planning out our route and itinerary, trying to avoid cities at rush hour, reading up on the country we'd be passing through--hell, that in itself was exciting for me.


Did I need a passport? Everywhere I looked, I found the phrase "not necessary as yet but recommended". That activates every paranoid fibre of my being, particularly since I do not drive and thus lack the driver's license that is, by far, the most common means of identification on this continent.
Are you a human being, or some kind of weird human-car hybrid?...Never mind, that's a rant for another post.
I've gotten over the border before with nothing more than a birth certificate and a health card. But with this new emphasis on security, I didn't think that would cut the mustard this time.
So I set out to get a passport.
Yeah, right.
The wait for a passport in Canada right now is steadily climbing towards six months. Travel by air between Canada and the United States is impossible without a passport and despite the fact it's been all over the news--for over a year--that this requirement was coming, it seems to have caught many Canadians off guard. To the tune of 21,000 a day.
Meanwhile, terrorists will continue to use the same passports they've always used: so much for enhanced security. Never mind, that's a rant for another post.
Lacking any alternative, we trusted to fate, my ratty old birth certificate, and my health card, the picture on which makes me look like a terrorist.
Paranoia reigns supreme over my mind at the border crossing. I mean, these guys (and gals) have so much power it can't be anything other than frightening. They can delay you for hours on a whim; they can rip your car apart if they choose to (and putting it back together is your problem, so solly, Cholly); they can deny you entry altogether and scuttle your vacation before it's fairly begun.
Just over the bridge from Windsor to Detroit and we seem to have drawn a stickler. Cars wait in orderly rows, and if everybody turned theirs off it'd make a big dent towards meeting Kyoto requirements, if the United States had any. After what seems like days but is really more like half an hour, we've reached the front of the line. We declare our citizenship, hand our documents over and wait.
"Ken, do you drive?"
Oh, shit, here we go.
"No, I don't. My vision is too poor."
"Well, that doesn't stop anybody!"
We laugh, dutifully. Our interrogator's in his late fifties and quite friendly. Oddly, this only increases our unease: he's almost too friendly. What's more, he talks at a snail's pace, with lots of pauses into which you are supposed to spill your guts. We get the distinct feeling that he really doesn't give a flying fig whether we're the only car he deals with all day.
"Where are you going to?"
"Destin, Florida."
"Why are you going to Florida?"
Why does any Canadian go to Florida? I think to myself. Sunshine. No snow. Eglin AFB's near there, we thought we'd maybe blow it up.
I keep these thoughts to myself. Now is not the time for Mental Sarcastic Bastard to show up.
Eva: "In-laws".
Then he wants to know how long they've been down there, and how long we're staying ("a week"), and then he starts in on my vision again and I think maybe he's got an eye chart he's going to drag out at any moment and after he's ruminated on all this for a while like a cow chewing cud he says "okay, so you're going to Florida for, what, a couple of weeks?"
Nice try, buddy.
Eva interjects, with just the right amount of calmness I for one don't feel, "No, just a week."
"Okay, pop your trunk, please."
Our trunk is rummaged through, briefly, then closed. He ambles back into his booth. There is an interminable pause, and then our documents are handed back and we're given the all-clear.

Coming back to Canada was altogether different. My paranoia centered less around my own entry back into my home and native land and more around the entry of the walloping pile of clothes and souvenirs, much of it very generously bought for us by my father and stepmother. If you added up the stuff we purchased ourselves, you came out well within our allowable duty-free limits. If you tacked on all the whopping gobs of stuff they got for didn't. And there was no easy way to prove this latter stuff was bought for us. What's more, it turns out it doesn't matter. Gifts and prizes are not duty-free.
The prospect of paying duty didn't bother me. Well, it did, actually: why should the government be allowed to collect a tax on items bought in a different country? We had already paid Florida's six percent sales tax. None of our items were restricted in any way. If we had wanted to pay additional taxes, not to mention what I'd always thought were acceptable prices but have now learned are in fact outrageous, we would have stayed home and bought this stuff in Canada.
No matter. What really bothered me was the thought, rising unbidden like gas, that if we lied about the value of all that stuff and our lie was found out, it might be assumed we were lying about other, more important stuff. That wouldn't be good.

We spent much longer in line coming home, a lot of that time 152 feet over the Detroit river, buffetted by winds I'd estimate at 70 km/hr sustained which threatened to pick up our little Echo, heavily laden as it was, and throw us overboard. I'm not afraid of bridges. Nevertheless, this was unsettling. Eva, who will drive over anything so long as she doesn't have to stop on it, wasn't impressed. I refrained from enthusing about just how well this bridge had held up since 1929.

I've learned something about paranoia. Whenever I obsess about something, worrying it to the quick, it invariably turns out to be something of no consequence whatsoever. If something is going to bite me on the ass, it's always something I haven't even considered.
Having spent forever contemplating everything that could possibly go wrong, I was rather surprised when we finally got to Customs. "We're home", Eva announced.
The Customs agent, this time a woman, asked how long we'd been away.
"Six days."
"Where were you at?"
"That's not a long time to have been in Florida."
"In-laws", Eva said with a smile. Hey, I thought. That's awesome: an all-purpose answer to any thorny question.
"Bringing anything back?"
"About $300.00 worth of stuff", said Eva.
We were waved on. No CLUNK of the trunk, which hid considerably more than $300.00 worth of stuff--then again, there was no way to prove we hadn't brought it all down with us. You know how some women--not Eva, some women--pack. Hey, unless you own a Toyota Echo, you probably can't even guess at just how much you can cram into its trunk. No questions about liquor or smokes, both of which we had with us (within allowable exemptions). Hell, we weren't even asked for our documents. They stayed in our hands the whole time.
Go figure. Last time I'd gone over the border, getting back to Canada was by far more difficult.


(Disclaimer: we saw bits of: Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. Although it may look as though these observations are applied to the United States as a whole, they aren't and probably shouldn't be.)

This is a country of paradoxes. Also of markedly different values than those I've learned at the knee of Johnny Canuck. I've always suspected this, and elevated my suspicions to the level of Known Facts. Now I have evidence.

The Motor City has some of the worst roads I have ever seen, but they are an exception. Every other Interstate, U.S. Route, and State Route I travelled on was smooth as a baby's bottom and remarkably litter-free. (Fines for littering, that vary between $100 and $500, probably have something to do with that.) Looking at the shoulder of any Interstate you'd easily convince yourself that these Americans care profoundly about their environment. Until, that is, you looked up and saw the vast quantities of industrial pollutants belching out into the air at many, many places along I-75 through Michigan and (especially) Ohio. Or until you looked carefully around, everywhere you went, and noticed there was nothing analogous to the ubiquitous blue box you've grown up with in Canada. That's right: so far as I could tell these people don't recycle. I did see green bins marked for recycling in one Wal*Mart, but they were being treated largely as rubbish cans.

I had always thought of the United States as extremely urbanized, especially in comparison with Canada. Newsflash: it's not. Or at least not entirely. Once we got out of Ohio--which fit my preconceptions neatly: there's a city or town every ten miles or so--we entered The Wild. There appear to be vast swaths of Kentucky, Tennessee, and (particularly) Georgia and Alabama that smack of utter desolation. Something I found odd, though: even the small cities do their damnedest to look big. Take Dayton, Ohio, for instance. It's population is supposedly 158,873, at least according to Wikipedia, which hasn't steered me wrong yet. But I have a hell of a time believing that. Passing through Dayton on I-75, you are treated to a profusion of interchanges that belie the idea that this is anything other than a city of at least half a million people. It's got 38 radio stations, three more than Toronto, Ontario. And the traffic! While it's nothing to get alarmed over if you're a 401 veteran, it's insane for a city this size.
This phenomenon was repeated time and time again. Chattanooga--by far the most beautiful city we saw, well deserving of its official nickname "the Scenic City"--is even smaller than Dayton by population. But even though it's contained by ridges all around, it seems to go on forever. Montgomery, Alabama, is a little bigger, but again seems much larger than it is, due in part to the unnaturally low speed limits on its expressways.

A note about speed limits to any Ontarians considering an American driving holiday. Have you ever seen those signs on the 401 that say "100" in big bold numbers? Ever wondered what those were? They are, of course, signs denoting the speed at which your fellow drivers can safely be given the finger. Not so in the United States. The equivalent Interstate signs, saying things like 55, 65, or 75 MPH (88, 104, or 120 km/hr) note the speed above which you may be pulled over and fined. While certain friends of my father have mastered the means by which it is possible to safely ignore these signs, this is not recommended for mere mortals, especially Canadian mortals. We spotted many police officers just itching to pull us over. I believe, though I am not certain, that there are more coppers armed with radar guns in any given state than there are in all of Canada put together.


We found, in general, that American Interstates are exceptionally well-signed. It's difficult to get lost. There could stand to be a few more speed limit signs, especially since the limit seems to change at any time for no reason at all, but the direction signs are great. Even better are the signs approaching each and every exit letting you know what food, lodging, and fuel you will find should you venture off the "I". If there is no lodging at a given exit, you'll see a sign half a mile ahead informing you of that fact.
But great as those signs are, they aren't strictly necessary. In a great many locations, you can easily see a wide variety of approaching motels, gas stations, fast-food outlets, and stores. You can see them coming up on you because most of them have pillars fifty or sixty feet high. Many Canadians may see these as eyesores: I, who have always been a man of function over form, think they ought to be mandatory.
It's amazing what you find along the roadway in the States, and it alludes back to that marked difference of morality I mentioned above. There are whole stores devoted entirely to firecrackers. Many of them. Fireworks are illegal all but two days out of the year in Ontario, so this was something of a shock. So, for that matter, are drive-through liquor stores. Like the radar detectors that are legal throughout many states, these would seem to have no purpose other than to make it easier to break the law.
We saw several "ADULT" stores prominently pillared along the Interstate. They don't go so far as to mark them on the signs: ("Lodging, exit 69: Comfort Inn....Deep Lodging, exit 69: Dildos 'n' Dolls"), but you can't miss them. They're overshadowed by Christianity at every turn, though: the further south I got, the more cross-eyed I went. We found a book warehouse in Cleveland, Tennessee overflowing with thousands of differing versions of the inalienable unchanging Word of God. In Alabama, we went into a store where displays of filthy T-shirts stood cheek-by-jowl with images of Christ on the cross. Jarring, to say the least.

FLORIDA big. Looking at the maps and satellite images, I had deluded myself into thinking that once we crossed the Alabama/Florida border we were a mere flap of a pelican's wing from my dad's place. Not quite. It was still nearly three hours before we spilled out of rural isolation on to US-98, which is chock-a-block with condos and palms and crazy with traffic. And then we pulled into
Pelican Beach Resort where Dad and Hez have been since the end of December. All the stress of the travel began to magically leach away....


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