(james benedict brown) on the road

So, ’bout that road trip…

Posted in Uncategorized by James Benedict Brown on 26 May, 2006

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Did you know that BMM is a fan of Garrison Keillor? I did, and have enjoyed installments from Lake Wobegon in Keillor’s books and through BBC 7 transmissions of the weekly American Public Media radio show The Prairie Home Companion. If you haven’t heard the show, it’s a blissfully indulgent radio show: a memory of an era long lost: music, stories, bad jokes and the popular weekly installment of news from Lake Wobegon, MN. Last Tuesday, BMM and I were lazily looking for the Prarie Home Companion website to show Ryan something about the show. We saw that there was to be a recording of the show on Saturday, with an extra show the night before, in the Wolf Trap Foundation for Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia, just outside Washington DC. The live broadcast was sold out, but seats were still available for the 20hr show on Friday…

So we had a bit of a credit card moment.

On Friday morning, at 5am, had you been walking down avenue du Mont Royal, you would have seen a young Englishman tearing a parking ticket off the window of a big Chevrolet sedan. With him was a young English girl, and two ride sharing Montréalers. Said parking ticket was consigned to the glove compartment until our return. As the sun rose above Montréal, the four travellers reset the odometer, and pulled away into the early morning.

Being British, I have reached the age of 23 with no real appreciation of what a ‘road trip’ is. If you get in a car in the UK and just drive in a straight line, you’ll hit the sea in no more than six hours. It’ll cost you about as much in fuel as it would to fly the same distance in business class. But North American kids grow up differently. Decades of unrealistically low gasoline prices have made driving long distances by car both affordable and sensible. Why burn thousands of litres of aviation fuel, when a car can take you there and give you the freedom to make your journey into a road trip? So as we crossed the Jacques Cartier bridge, BMM and I joined a generation of young adults who can say that just once, they got in the car and drove 1,000km for the fun of it. Admittedly we were both very excited by the prospect of seeing the Prairie Home Companion, but being able to get there in a big fat American car made it all the more entertaining.

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Our route took us to the Canada – USA border (less than fifty minutes drive from Montréal) and then south through the beautiful Adirondack mountains upstate New York. Interstate 87 carried us for 280km towards Albany. This beautifully built and well maintained four lane freeway is a remarkable testament to the friendship between the USA and Canada: it goes virtually nowhere of any importance in New York state, and most of the cars travelling on it that I saw had Québec plates.

We dropped one ride sharing companion in Cohoes, just north of Troy, NY and took our first rest break at the obligatory branch of Dunkin’ Donuts. The Donuts looked sickly but the coffee was good. We had one more stop to make outside New York City for our second ridesharing passenger, so we were quickly on our way again. Hitting the New York Thruway, which runs from Buffalo to New York City via Albany, we hit the real traffic and I saw developed the necessary driving attitude of your average American. This meant unlearning all I knew about safe stopping distances at 110km/h, and also the rule about not passing on the right.

A heavy rain storm and conflicting directions threw us off track a bit in New Jersey, but after an hour of flailing around through Newark’s suburbs (and an embarassing incident when it took three attempts to pull the car into a service station with the fuel nozzel on the correct side). We deposited our second ride share passenger just off the New Jersey Turnpike, and then pointed the car south for our next big push.

Leaving the New York area at about 14.00, it became apparent that doing this trip on the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend might not have been a good idea. The traffic started to build, and then it started to slow. I don’t want to dwell on the memories, but at 18.00 we were caught in a bottle neck at the Delaware Memorial Bridge that very nearly scuppered the whole weekend. With about 175km still to go, we were in grave danger of missing the start of the show. However, we managed to distract and entertain ourselves in our rented car (class ‘E’ or ‘full size’ I’ll have you know) by trying to get the on board computer to call the box office. All North American cars produced by General Motors now come equipped with OnStar, a service that includes a telephone and emergency detection device (if the car is involved in an accident that deploys the airbags, the car alerts an emergency call centre, and an agent will dispatch the emergency services if the passengers fail to respond). It took about twenty minutes to place the call, since the voice activation system had trouble understanding our plummy British accents.

Eventually the traffic began to ease and speed up, and it was only passing Baltimore in Maryland that we began to realise we might just make it…

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