It’s 3:30 am on a Thursday. I’m jammed into the back of my Chevy Trailblazer, continually readjusting my body to try to fit it’s six foot plus length into the small five and a half foot long space in the back. Even with the seat down and my best Tetris skills at work, it’s far from comfortable. On top of that, there’s a crowd of local fellas hanging out by their car about three parking spaces down, talking loudly about girls and how to soup up their Subaru’s in the sickest ways. Don’t they know that Wal-Mart parking lots are for sleeping at this hour, not socializing?
I assess my options. I’m simply not going to fit into this pill box. My choice is to either bend my back at a 90-degree angle so I can stretch my legs before they go numb or to bend my legs so I can straighten my back before it goes stiff. I end up doing about thirty-minute rotations of each and getting a solid few minutes of sleep through the night. Meanwhile, the just over five foot tall, blonde headed, dirtbag beauty queen next to me sleeps through it all without a sound.
Day one of the road trip is going well, I think to myself, only another week to go.
We’ve had a rough summer. What was supposed to be a blissful summer of outdoor fun in Acadia turned into anything but that, and we found ourselves left more stressed, burnt out, and depressed than we ever could’ve expected. With morale low, and the summer winding down quicker and quicker, we morosely looked into the past three months and saw only bad jobs, rude people, stress, and anxiety.
We knew we needed a change. We needed to do something for ourselves. So we did the one thing we know we both love more than anything. We hit the road.
In our typical style, we decided to leave on our trip a day or two before we actually left. We knew two things; we wanted to get to Niagara Falls and we wanted to saunter our way out there. We wanted to retake our summer in glorious fashion and make a truly grand memory that would overtake all the negative things that had happened to this point so that when we thought of the summer of 2017, it wasn’t about lousy jobs and rotten people but about seeing things and doing stuff we wouldn’t soon forget.
Our trip got kickstarted, and our plan subsequently was completely re-worked, due to my mom and sister needing a ride to the Boston airport. We spent what would be our last night in a bed at a hotel in Revere, Massachusetts before Mom and Sophia left for the airport at 3 AM on the 10th of August. Colleen and I woke up and headed right into Boston to take a trip down the Freedom Trail.
Winding through the streets of Boston for two and a half miles, the Freedom Trail visits just about every historical spot in the city. We toured the State House, went by the graves of a dozen Revolutionary War figures, visited the Boston Massacre site, and generally had a full on nerd out. However, the city wore us right out so we headed out into the western part of the state.
On our way out of the city, we popped into two National Historic Sites. The first was the childhood home of President John F. Kennedy where we enjoyed a personal tour by a park ranger throughout the home, and the next was the home of Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s greatest landscape architect. Both we didn’t really know what to expect going in, but we were definitely glad we went.
Our next stop was a pretty big one for me, as we headed out to Walden Pond to visit Henry David Thoreau’s old stomping grounds. A Massachusetts State Park these days, it took about ten seconds of wandering the trails to realize why Henry was able to spend two years, two months, and two days here. Clearly a big moment for me, I was super stoked to finally visit the pond and see where one of my ideological role models did his thing.
After an incredibly necessary refuel stop at an IHOP, we realized that there’s not a lot of free, or even cheap, camping spots in western Massachusetts. We decided (like we had any other choice) to just roll on into the closest WalMart and truly flex our dirtbag muscles by camping in the parking lot. I’ve done it many times, and Colleen has started to build up a solid dirt bagging resume already, but boy do we still hate it.
We woke up in Leominster, Massachusetts (hometown of Johnny Appleseed), brushed our teeth in the WalMart bathroom, put the rising sun at our back, and headed west.
Similar to when you go to a buffet and load your plate up with food, only to eat half of it, we had a ton of plans for this road trip. We quickly realized that we didn’t want to burn ourselves out on day two of a week-long trip, so we had to call an audible and thin out our agenda a little.
We had plans to hike Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts at 3,491 feet, but upon arrival, we realized we….didn’t want to. So….we didn’t. The beauty of the flexibility provided by having no plan. We took the auto road up to the top, enjoyed the epic views, and got down in under a couple hours.
One of the other factors for choosing to take the easy way up the mountain was that we had quite a ways to go to get to our next stop; Watkins Glen, New York.
Turns out though, you can’t just call up one of the most popular state parks in the country an hour before arrival and expect to get a tent site reserved. With some last minute Google-Fu, we were able to locate a small, first-come-first-served campground out in the Finger Lakes National Forest where we could pitch our tent for ten dollars a night. It turned out being a blessing in disguise as the site was just lovely and we had plenty of time to eat a nice big dinner and get to sleep early.
There probably isn’t a time where I browse through Instagram and don’t see at least two or three places that make me go “damn, I’d love to see that in real life.” If I get to even half of those places in my life, I’d be stoked. One of those places I’ve seen and has been lodged in my mind for years is Watkins Glen State Park. One of the most popular state parks in the country, Watkins Glen consists of a two-mile long gorge filled with almost two dozen waterfalls, each a little more beautiful than its predecessor. I don’t know anyone who has been there, and if there’s one stop on this trip that I hope someone gets inspired to go to, it’d be this one. Colleen and I debated on whether it looked more like Rivendell from Lord of the Rings, a grander Gulf Hagas from Maine, or somewhere in Jurassic Park throughout the hike through the gorge, and were so impressed we walked it twice.
After Watkins Glen, we headed for the focus point of the trip.
One of the seven wonders of the natural world, the oldest state park in the country, and one of America’s true gems, Niagara Falls is the star we sailed towards on our journey. And when we finally saw the falls, it lived up to the hype and some.
Words can’t describe Niagara Falls so I won’t try. Go and see them for yourself, it’s more than worth the trip.
It’s hard to believe, but the highlight of the day was still to come. We knew we were going to have to crash in the Trailblazer again. We chose the backlot Seneca-Niagara Hotel and Casino, which was fairly full of RVs and other campers. After going back and forth on where to eat on our last night in the country, we said what the hell and decided to go for the casino’s buffet. When we tried to pay the lady to get into the buffet, this literal human angel tipped us off that if we signed up for the casino’s email list we’d get a free buffet.
Just like that, it was on like Donkey Kong.
We ate so much that I literally (literally) blew out the button on my pants.
Coll and I crawled into the back of the Trailblazer and promptly passed out.
Day four on a road trip is when you really hit your dirtbag style peak. We hadn’t showered on our trip yet, my already scruffy hair and beard were scruffy-er than ever before, and the back of the Trailblazer looked like a deranged camping enthusiasts yard sale.
So, looking like we were up to no good, we went to cross the border into Canada.
Shockingly the Canadian Border Patrol took one look at us, and even though we peppered our conversations with a thousand iterations of “yes sir” and stressed the fact we were good kids who ain’t never did nothin’ wrong, we were ordered to pull over for a full search of our car.
We got to sit and watch as our car was torn apart, socks unrolled and books flipped through, as the border police did their job to make sure no dirty drugs were coming into their great northern paradise.
The best part came when they found the dead dog.
With all our moving and bouncing around over the last month or so, some things just haven’t gotten unpacked and found their ways into little nooks and crannies in our car. One such item is a small metal tin holding the cremated remains of Colleen’s beloved childhood dog, Taco. We, of course, weren’t carrying around Taco for any specific reason, he usually lives on a shelf in our apartment or something similar, we had just forgotten that he was stashed in our center console.
I know the cops were looking for weed, mostly because they asked me several times if they were going to “find any weed in this car son?”, so I’m sure the small tin can buried in the center console looked like just what they were looking for.
The cop in charge grabbed the tin can from his comrade, turned to us and said, “now, what’s in here?”
Colleen looked him right in the eye and said, “my dead dog.”
“Your dead dog?”
“My dead dog.”
The poor guy probably had no idea what to make of these weird, hippy, dirty, smelly kids from Maine who actually DIDN’T have a gram of weed on us, but DID have a dead dog.
Just like that, they let us go after fifteen minutes of three of them rifling through our stuff and throwing it back haphazardly into the car. Colleen was crushed that they bent some of our postcards and our first trip into Canada was off to an interesting start.
We had a quick realization that no cell phone coverage in Canada meant no Google Maps to help us find good parking or the quickest way to anywhere. After we parked in what we were pretty sure was a free public lot, we walked down to the Falls to see what everyone says is the “better” view of the Falls.
Being able to see all three of the Falls’ big drops at once really added to the trip as a whole, and the views were just amazing. We probably spent around thirty minutes just walking up and down the walk along the river, seeing the view from every angle and really soaking in the moment.
It didn’t take too long for our “holy cow we hate the city and all these people shoving us and being loud” reflex to kick in, so we headed for our next stop.
The 90-minute drive between Niagara and Toronto passed by in a daze of long, straight, five-lane highway on which the only reminder we were in Canada was the fact that the signs were in meters and we were on the “Queen’s Highway.” Toronto’s notorious traffic caught us right away, and we enjoyed a half-hour of stop-and-go before arriving at our first stop on the road trip; The Royal Ontario Museum.
One of the biggest museums in North America and the largest in Canada, it wanders through over six million exhibits and artifacts including a huge collection of dinosaur bones, ancient art, and even a mummy or two!
Colleen and I wandered the halls for what felt like ten minutes but was over four hours in actuality. When all was said and done, we agreed that just the museum alone would’ve been worth the drive alone. But thanks to a bitchin’ coupon deal we found, this was only the first of many stops in Toronto.
We headed to the outskirts of the city to the Rouge National Urban Park where we’d be spending two nights at the Glen Rouge Campground, a sprawling campground whose population ran the gamut from huge RVers to people in small tents like us.
Most importantly, it had showers.
The morning of the 14th broke cool and overcast, perfect walking around weather. Which worked out well, since we had a ton of walking around to do this day. We had 700 acres to cover at the Toronto Zoo.
With over 5,000 animals representing 500 species, the largest zoo in Canada is internationally known and people come from all over to see it.
We saw giant panda cubs, a gorilla playing with an iPad, some very charming orangutans, the cutest red panda ever (his name was Ralphie), river otters putting on a free show, some sleepy arctic wolves, African penguins, grizzly and polar bears, and so much more.
Getting there right at the opening time was key, as we got ahead and stayed ahead of the crowds for most of the day, often times being the first ones at an exhibit for the day. Easily one of the best zoos either of us has ever been to, I can’t really recommend it enough.
We headed back to the campground for an early bed time, as the back of our tent felt like a palace compared to the back of the Blazer. However, not before stopping and spending thirty Canadian dollars at a very American McDonalds. With our stomach soundly rejecting the excessive amounts of fast food and our legs burned out from hoofing it around the zoo all day, we were out before the sun went down.
Side note, our broke asses can afford all these Toronto attractions, and the more we still had to do, thanks to this wonderful thing called the CityPass. The CityPass bundles a bunch of attractions into one booklet and provides admission for a discounted rate. It was wonderful not only because it saved us a ton of money, but because it forced us to do a lot of things we normally wouldn’t have either done or even heard of. They have versions for a lot of major cities, so check them out.
We checked out of the Glen Rouge Campground at 8 am after spending two really awesome nights there and headed into Toronto to finish up our time in the city.
The day started off at Casa Loma, the only castle in North America, which sits in the north end of Toronto. It used to be the house of a wealthy financier, but now it’s an awesome museum, with its lavish rooms and gardens perfectly preserved. We enjoyed the secret tunnels and huge towers, exploring the grounds for a few hours before the crowds showed up. After Casa Loma, it was into the heart of the city for our last three stops.
Wherever you are in Toronto, you can see the 1800’+ needle of the CN Tower dominating the skyline. It’s the tallest structure in the city, and for quite a while was the tallest freestanding building in the world. The best part is, you can go right up to the top in a high-speed glass elevator.
Shooting up 1,800 feet in 58 seconds might sound nauseating, mostly because it is. Even better, they jam the six glass elevators as full as they can with people and the floor is glass so that you can see all 1,800 feet drop out from under you.
Once the reverse Tower of Terror ride is over, you emerge into the Observation Deck. They have an outside terrace where you can feel the breeze at 1,800 feet and a huge glass floor that lets you stand with just a few inches of glass between you and the void. Terrifying, nauseating, and one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, the CN Tower was well worth the visit.
Our final stop in Toronto was Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada. Although we’re both super stoked for any aquarium, we were especially stoked for a Canadian aquarium. The longest underwater viewing tunnel in North America, three or four touch tanks, and a bunch of sharks, this one hit all of our marks.
With a long day on top of an already long week, we decided to head back across the border at Niagara rather than go through Canada and down into Vermont.
Burnt out, dirty, tired, but happy as we’d been all summer, we made the 14+ hour drive from Toronto to Orono, Maine, rolling into the driveway at 6 am.
We covered over 1,600 miles, went through four states and two countries, saw countless amazing things, and slept in a few too many parking lots.
Overall I think we both got what we wanted out of this trip. We made a huge, lasting memory together. We didn’t snap at each other once even though these kinds of nitty gritty trips make it easy to. We saw, did, and experienced more in this one week on the road than we have all summer through all the tough jobs and shifty folks we’ve had to deal with as we try to find our way towards our van trip.
The best thing is, the most fun wasn’t in a zoo or a museum or any attraction. It was trying to figure out how to cuddle in the back of a tiny Trailblazer. Or singing at the top of lungs together for an hour straight. Or eating mac and cheese together on the nights where we didn’t get a free buffet. Or bumming it in a Starbucks, stealing wifi and playing computer games together. Or simply brushing our teeth after some bleary eyed stumbling into the Walmart bathroom at 6 am. Or driving through the night while Colleen sleeps in the passenger seat, while I listen to some history podcast to keep me awake, and I realize that few times have I ever been happier than driving somewhere through Western New England in the middle of the night.
I have a great road trip partner and the best life partner. Road trips don’t make us a better couple or partnership, but it really does bring out the things that make us work well together like nothing but stripping your life down to bare bones can. And in our typical fashion, the day after we got home and slept for twelve hours, we were already planning our next adventure together.
For now, we’ve been resting and working on Vansel. We have some pretty awesome jobs lined up for this fall. The van looks great. And I think we can say that in the end, this summer will be about this America-Canada road trip when we look back in a few years and nothing else. Which is just the way we like it.
Thanks for reading guys, until next time.