You can plan for everything and still get derailed by the stupidest shit.
I was on my way to State College, Pennsylvania, since for reasons we don’t need to get into that’s where my beloved would be for the weekend.
“Wanna come down?”
I looked it up. From Ottawa it’s about 700 kilometres.
You know me. “Sure,” I said.
They were the long kind of kilometres but I figured I could do it in a little more than an afternoon, being the most seasoned and experienced road-tripper I know.
No, not road stripper. Those are two very different skillsets.
I hadn’t gone very far on the highway when I came upon something that was not a pothole. Nope. Potholes are holes made of pots. This was a fucking crater. And at 120km/h (for my imperialist friends, that’s a little under 75 mph; always go with the speed of traffic, don’t you know), swerving to avoid breaking a wheel is more dangerous than, well, breaking a wheel.
There I was, in Prescott Ontario, with a rim bent beyond repair. I could see the seal was busted and the tire was losing air.
Options, what are they?
I can limp back to Ottawa using secondary roads and go see my trusted mechanic to get this fixed. But that means missing out on a lovely weekend, which I don’t want to do.
Leave this car in or near Prescott to get fixed over the weekend and rent a car to get on my way? Maybe. But I’d have to get to Brockville for that as Prescott doesn’t have any rental car outfits.
What there is in Prescott is a big-ass Canadian Tire. Maybe they can help me?
“Hello, I hope your day is going well. I think I busted a wheel hitting the fifth circle of hell. Any chance you might be able to help me?”
The lovely person behind the counter, Lisa as her name tag implies, is overrun with… lots of business. While training newbie Maddy on the intricacies of the Pneu Canada computer system.
“Are you the one who just called?”
“No, I just drove in. I hit…”
“I’m sorry,” and she really looked like she was, too, “we’re so busy today and I promised a person who called not five minutes ago with the same problem that we’d look at his car. I don’t have anyone else available.”
One thing you need to know about me is that I do sad puppy eyes real well.
I stand there not to be obnoxious but to consider my options some more. She took pity on me.
“Well, if he doesn’t show up soon…”
Yes? Maybe if the other flat-tired-bent-rim person isn’t here, maybe they can squeeze me in?
Lisa asked for my car make, year and model. Need to see whether she has the right rim in stock because there’s not much point staying there if she doesn’t.
“I have 66 in stock.”
This, friends, I took as a sign. Along with the continued failure to appear on the part of that other fellow who’d been promised the rare opportunity to get his tire fixed. Lisa hailed the young mechanic, Scottie, who looked at my now-expectant puppy eyes with a mixture of concern and curiosity.
“We have a rim for this car. Can you change it?”
My grin could be seen all the way from Florida, which as you no doubt know needs extra happiness these days. As did the burly and unpleasantly bearded dude in a “Freedom is mandatory” shirt who harrumphed when asked for his name to purchase a car battery. It’s for the warranty, the employee explained. He didn’t care. In the end he just put the thing back and muttered something about hand baskets on his way out. If he’d been a smidge more unpleasant than that to my new friends I was ready to break his ego pretty bad.
After about 45 minutes and $100, and a bunch of thank-yous, I was on my way again. Turns out the other fellow showed up after I was done with his car which was a rental. Canadian Tire doesn’t work on rental cars. Nobody does. How this person was qualified to rent a car and not know this important bit of information remains beyond me but his tire stayed deflated.
“Remember to get your lug nuts tightened,” my new best friends cheerfully advised.
Oh, right. You have to get this done after about 100 kilometres, or 60 miles.
Hm, I mutter. In 100 km I’ll be in Watertown, NY. It’s big enough to have a Starbucks (and also a massive Army base), so I guess I can find a garage. Right?
Yes, as it turns out. I got off the I-81 before the exit that has the Starbucks at it, figuring that somewhere on the outskirts of town would be the best place to find an establishment where they own the thingamajig needed to tighten nuts. I picked a direction and went a mile or so until I came upon Parsons.
“Hi! I’m on my way to Pennsylvania and I broke a wheel in Ontario.” I know now that I sounded weird, but the mechanic didn’t seem to agree. “Anyway, the rim got replaced 60 miles ago and I really need someone who can…”
I didn’t need to say more.
“This is a great garage,” the other person sitting in the waiting room announced. “Been coming here for years. Family business. Decades of good service.”
“Well, they’re my friends now, too.”
They brought out the tool and not two minutes later, with my lug nuts neatly tightened, I was on my way.
The I-81 and I-90 are difficult to describe and not because I have trouble with words. They’re just that boring. One is a freeway and the other one a toll road. And in theory the toll one (that’d be the 90) has better pit stops but you know what they say about the difference between theory and practice?
In practice, there is no difference.
Still, I bravely go through each toll port, armed as I am with the EZ-Pass gizmo I acquired last summer after one mailed-in bill too many. Now I just whiz through every toll like a champ. And that’s all I have to say about that.
The interesting part of the road trip was going through the Finger Lakes area, between I-90 and, after a long-ass time, I-99 in Pennsylvania. Not only is this region remarkably beautiful but there’s one vineyard after another brewery for like 70 miles straight. What lovely bit of countryside this is.
One of my favourite landmarks was the Gorgeous View Motel in Watkins. Unimaginative name, but holy cow is it true. Newly remodeled rooms with cable available, too! One day I go back to stay, just for the hell of it.
On this trip I learned that Geneva, NY, is the lake trout capital of the world. And now you know, too. You’re very welcome.
The first time I went to Pennsylvania I was already in my late 20s. I landed in Philadelphia and took a cab to Bryn Mawr (how perfectly New England) for a week-long libertarian seminar at the fancy-ass college in that fancy-ass suburb made famous by Katharine Hepburn (class of ‘28) in the movie Philadelphia Story.
I can’t say I remember that much about it, given the amount of beer consumed. We of course did the touristy stuff, visited the Liberty Bell and the tomb of Benjamin Franklin, did the Rocky steps, and enjoyed (if the dictionary will forgive my use of the word) a cheesesteak. And only one cheesesteak.
Pennsylvania, I discovered then and confirmed on many occasions since, isn’t put together right. There’s nothing especially wrong with it (except for downtown Scranton, I guess, and that Hershey park), but there’s nothing especially right about it either.
Most towns feature many homes in historical districts made of the same red brick. The sidewalks are hard to walk on. You have to buy your six pack of beer at a licensed restaurant, not the liquor store. Which is evidently only for wine and spirits. But now grocery stores sell beer and plonk that’s supposed to count as wine. At least the number of interesting microbreweries has expanded considerably since the 1990s. I just wish they made something other than IPAs.
State College isn’t the loveliest part of Pennsylvania, assuming you could agree that such a thing exists. It’s literally just a college town. It has Penn State and nothing except whatever supports Penn State and its community. At night, on weekends, the streets of downtown are jammed with students lined up (without coats) at bars, eating pizza slices, loudly, out of giant boxes.
It’s the whitest American town (83%) I think I’ve ever been in, with the exception of Lake Havasu, Arizona (81%). And you can tell, just by the way people walk and talk, that while they’re not miserable they’re also not particularly happy.
They just… are. They look and feel like people who settled and decided to accept that fate because anything else would cost money or delay bedtime.
I am currently re-reading both Albion’s Seed and Democracy in America and the thing about that part of New England is how fucking square it’s always been. It’s so prim and proper you feel like you need to punch it in the nose just to add colour.
I did meet some interesting people to be fair. One was a Bronx transplant and the other a pilot based in Minnesota. The locals, while nice and friendly, were entirely forgettable so I proceeded to do just that on the gloriously uneventful drive home.