Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Cross-Country Road Trip September 2-15, 2013 Part One

On Monday September 2nd after stocking up my Ford Escape with groceries I began my exhilarating road trip from Vermont to Washington State. Twenty-three days later I reached my destination feeling physically tired but mentally euphoric as if I had been on some mild recreational drugs throughout the entire trip. I crossed 17 different states driving 6,200 miles. I visited five national parks, camped in several state parks that I had never heard of and ventured on a variety of roads that allowed me to see different American landscapes that otherwise I would have had missed if I had stayed on the interstate.

A few months earlier I had driven across the continent for the first time in my life covering 500 miles a day and completing this ‘biblical’ journey in six days. It felt more like doing a forced march on wheels than traveling. But then, I had to be in the small town of Waitsfield, Vt., at a specific day to start a video production internship with the nonprofit Northern Forest Canoe Trail. I took the quickest possible route through Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. One of the few things that I remember of that trip is a monotonous strip of asphalt endlessly rolling in front of my eyes.

This time, instead, my schedule was more flexible and I decided to visit places that had captivated my imagination as a child growing up in Italy while watching popular American movies and documentaries on television. Figuring out the destinations all at once turned out to be an overwhelming task so I decided to plan my itinerary a few states at a time. I roughly knew which places I wanted to explore; some were a thousand miles apart from each other. I could have covered those distances in one day by testing my driving endurance, which after my first cross country trip and driving an extra 2,000 miles in New England for my job, had gotten stronger but I decided not to. ‘I will start with a couple of places in New York State first then add more destinations as I go along’ I thought.

The day before my departure, I fitted the roof of my car with nine magnetic gaspods, which are exterior auto accessories that enhance airflow. The creator of the renowned Force Fins, Bob Evans from Santa Barbara, Calif., designed them after studying the fluid dynamics effects of tubercles on humpback whales. I was hoping that they would improve the fuel efficiency of my vehicle. After driving west on curvy roads through the lush Green Mountains of Vermont, I crossed Lake Champlain and entered New York State. Then I reached I-87, headed south to hit I-90 and then headed west toward Niagara Falls, my first destination.

A sense of elation mixed with a light feeling of uncertainty permeated my mood. The driving conditions on I-90 were fine until I noticed a huge dark cloud that looked like a gigantic UFO looming on the horizon right in front of me. I was heading straight into it. I had never seen such threatening weather on a road before. I was afraid that it was a so-called supercell that could develop into a tornado. As soon as I was able, I exited I-90. At the tollbooth I asked the attendant if he had heard of a tornado warning.  Unconcerned, he quickly replied that hail was expected. I scouted the area looking for a covered place to park the car but there was none.

It began to rain; lighting cracked the air somewhat close, and then got closer as the wind speed increased. I had no other choice but to stop the car in a large exposed parking lot hoping that the hailstones would not be the size of baseballs. As soon I turned off the engine, the persistent rain turned into an apocalyptic downpour that reduced the visibility almost to zero. Through a wavy windshield, I watched motorists passing by thinking: ‘I don’t know how those folks can drive in these conditions’.

I had experienced thunderstorms while on the road before without worrying too much about my safety but this one was different; I guess it was scarier because it reminded me of a type of dangerous weather system that nutty storm chasers hunt down to photograph, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Sitting in the car, feeling somewhat protected but at the same time at the mercy of the wild force of nature, I began to have doubts about the feasibility of heading west.

I kept wondering ‘How long is this meteorological hell going to last?’ Then, it occurred to me to check if my smart phone had a signal. It did, so I was able to call my husband Sam and ask him to check the weather forecast for me. Fortunately, he told me that although a severe storm watch and flash flood warning was in place for that area, it was only until the late afternoon of that day, and no tornadoes were predicted. Relieved, I decided to wait until the worst of the storm was over and stuck to my original plan to visit Niagara Falls the following day. While the wind was shaking the car and the relentless rain was pounding its roof, the company of other drivers, who, in the meantime, had parked their vehicles close to mine, comforted me; it was then that I began to wonder about the strength of the gaspods' magnets...  

Luckily, the rain never turned into hail and the thunderstorm, after exhausting its energy in a relatively quick outburst, moved eastward leaving behind blue sky and sunshine. I did not take the time to check the gaspods then because I was eager to reach a campground before it was too dark. After checking the road atlas, I planned to spend the night at Lake Side Beach State Park, which was located on the shore of Lake Ontario next to state route 18. On the map, the campground did not seem too far. I drove until any traces of daylight disappeared from the sky. I drove further into the early part of the night without seeing any signs of it. At that point I began to wonder where on earth the campground was. My eyes were getting tired and my back was slightly aching. I couldn't wait to be done with driving and rest in a horizontal position. Eventually, feeling increasingly frustrated, I miraculously noticed a road sign that pointed to a campground. It was called Four Mile Creek not Lake Side Beach, though. I figured that I must have zoomed by the one that I picked without noticing it because, ironically, I was too concerned to get to my destination in a hurry.   

The following morning, I stood for a little while on the shore of Lake Ontario. Filled with awe I thought: ‘Wow, I cannot believe that this vast expanse of fluid is fresh water! If it wasn't for those skyscrapers in the far distance that I know are part of Toronto, I would have imagined the lake to be a salty sea instead’. 

Then my mind shifted to more practical thoughts about my next destination. If I wanted to visit Niagara Falls without rushing around like a tourist on a packaged tour, I had to get there several hours before midday, so I left. After a short drive, I parked the car close to the falls. I was pleased to find out that the all day parking fee was only $5. Before walking to the park I remembered the gaspods. I quickly glanced at the roof of my car to check them out. I was happy to see that despite being beaten up by the storm they were all still in place, unharmed.

I spent most of the day exploring America's oldest state park, something that I did not know about Niagara Falls. Initially, I was slightly disappointed to notice that it looked more like a city park than a wild wonder out in the woods. A lot of buildings and other man-made structures circled the falls. There is no doubt that this natural marvel has become a highly profitable money making show. However, once I focused my attention to the Niagara River, my perception of the park changed.

I walked on a trail alongside the river’s bank listening to the sound of rushing water and gradually began to forget about the human presence around me. I followed the river until it disappeared with a muffled roar below the edge of a cliff that reminded me of an uncompromising knife blade. 

I admired the river’s blind leap of faith. I walked closer and watched how gravity pulled its water in innumerable long white silky filaments that looked like the thick hair of a wise giant’s groomed beard. I rejoiced at the sight of the river’s resurrection after dropping from a height that would have been deadly for us. The power of the falls was irresistible and I decided to buy the $11 ticket to experience the falls from a lower viewpoint. After putting on a pair of sandals and a yellow poncho, I followed other tourists, who were dressed up like me, to a set of wet wooden staircases that led to the base of the Bridal Veil Falls.

The muffled roar that I had heard at the falls’ crest earlier on turned into a deafening boom that almost cracked my eardrums. As soon as I climbed down the first staircase a dense mist enveloped my body. An unimaginable amount of water was crushing onto rocks and boulders and splitting into a myriad of droplets. 

The mist soaked my smart phone, digital camera and legs. I kept wiping off my electronic devices with a cloth but eventually even that got drenched too. However, I remained fairly dry in comparison with other visitors who were standing on the far end of a deck closest to the face of the falls. They totally and literally immersed themselves into the spray as if they were taking a magical shower. Water was dripping from their hair and soggy clothes. In our yellow wet ponchos we looked like a swarm of bees, which had been heavily rained upon. I felt that I was participating in a religious ritual performed in a distant corner of India rather than on a tour in one of the most popular tourist attractions of North America.The realization that I had exposed my phone and camera to a lot of water long enough to potentially jeopardize their functionality made me think about time. It was already mid afternoon and I wanted to get to my next campground at Watkins Glen State Park, NY, in daylight so I left Niagara Falls State Park without further ado feeling damp and cold but mentally energized.

© E. Betty Bastai