Archive for August, 2007

Who Killed The Great Lakes?

Saturday, August 18th, 2007

Once upon a time there was a couple, one from Montreal, one from London, who decided to take a road trip from Minnesota to Montreal to try and get a taste of the American Way.

2nd July

America’s a big country. Very big. It reminds me of Ben Nevis, just when you think you’re at the top, you turn a corner to find yet another expanse of what you’ve just been trudging through. I remember Alison and I driving from London to Devon in May, and her observation was interesting: a kaleidoscopic landscape that’s manically changing form, shape and size, from urban to rural, from quaint to concrete, from trees to fields, every permutation dazzling her senses – in particular her sense of balance that couldn’t quite cope and made her a bit car sick. America (and, on good authority, Canada), is different. You could be driving down the road, set the car on cruise control, kick the seat back, close your eyes and sleep soundly for 10 hours, only to awaken to precisely the same relentless scenery prior to your slumber.

We had everything organised: a car, credit cards, a destination (Montreal) and the cheapest road map available. This map covered America (including Alaska), Canada and Mexico in the vaguest detail imaginable. It was more a guide than a map.

Another difference between driving in the US and Britain, aside from the obvious, are speed limits, which are set at state level and varies from slow to really slow. We picked up a hire car at Duluth, on the western most tip of Lake Superior – the cheapest car available, naturally. We were delighted to hear that Avis had run out of really crap cars and so had to supply us with a not-so crap car. It was a Chevrolet and predominately white. The steering wheel had more buttons than an F1 car, including an array of tempting instruments for cruise control. What excitement.

It wasn’t long before I was playing with the cruise console to see if I could drive the car without using the pedals. Approximately 2.4 minutes into this experiment, the rear view mirror was awash with familiar blue flashing lights. The cop who pulled me over seemed barely old enough to drive himself and asked me why I was driving 20mph over the speed limit. I had no decent reply for him, so I gave him a faultless impression of Hugh Grant instead. His smug, follicle-free face soon developed deep furrows when he took my British driving licence that screamed “bureaucracy” to him. Begrudgingly he handed back my licence after 5 tense minutes and suggested I watch my speed. Thanks Hugh.

We decided to spend the first night in Marquette, Michigan, 250 miles down the dull road from Duluth. Due to the complete lack of bends, I assumed we were on a Roman road, but I have it on good authority that they never made it this far. Michigan comprises of an upper peninsular running east/west and a lower peninsular running north/south. The lower peninsular contains 99.9999% of the population, with the remaining 6 people on the upper peninsular (figures approx). The night was black, the road empty with the exception of startled deer lurking dangerously by the roadside. One of Alison’s cousins recently had an incident with one of these dumb animals, causing terminal damage to both car and deer, so our minds simultaneously filled with visions of a similar catastrophe – right in the middle of bumblefuck nowhere (technical expression). We slowed down and drove nervously to Marquette, arriving at 11pm, exceedingly knackered. So what did the hardened, committed campers do? That’s right, we checked straight into the Ramada Hotel and got a wonderful night’s sleep.

3th July

Next day we explored Marquette, slowly. Slowly because I had a burnt foot from accidentally walking on hot coals the previous week and as it had started to swell up, the only walking I could manage was on my toes. I tried my utmost not to look camp. Michigan is not noted for its liberalism, so Marquette was quite an anomaly – an exceeding clean college town, with delicious bakeries run by hippies and a breakfast café run by God’s staff. The local school kids had been hard at work creating “grandma tribute” boards on the path down to the marina, substituting for historical figures where necessary (either that or there were some very old school kids).

We popped into God’s café for a Godly breakfast that also housed a small bookshop selling all manner of self improvement guides, with God. “How To Get Your Man (with God)”, “How To Find The Perfect Wife (with God)”, “How To Cut Your Toenails, God’s Way”, “I Used To Be An Idiot, But Now I Write Useless Books – With God!!”. Spooky. By our table there was a door that opened up directly onto the car park, 3 stories below. Troubling. This is religious country and, unlike me, they take it very seriously indeed. We thought it only appropriate to buy a small statue of Mary for the car for $3.20 (not bad for a saint) – kind of divine insurance and set off for the next destination.

mary in a dash

You may gather by it’s name that Lake Superior is quite large. About 400 miles across, which is like having a lake that stretches between London and Glasgow. Driving along the lake was too tempting for Alison who suggested a swim. I declined. She swam. She was having way too much fun out there. I also swam. The odd thing is that it’s big enough to have proper waves just like a real sea, except with unsalted water. Of all the pollutants it did have, salt wasn’t one of them.

Alison’s brother Eric, kindly donated some CDs for our trip, with various Beatles offerings and other choice songs like “Love Me, Love Me, I’m a Liberal”, “Are You Drinkin’ With Me Jesus” and “Atomic Power” – all sung in satirical country style (ex Dead Kennedy’s, for the music aficionados). After 3 days we had, for some reason, stopped listening to music altogether. We were far too busy talking nonsense and playing futile eye-spy, a game not designed for the American Mid West.

First campsite, Otsego State Park Michigan (just past, ahem, “Gaylord”). In my idea of camping one brushes with mother nature and attempts to get back to basics, attempt self sufficiency, bond with earth, sky, sea and fire (oh, especially fire) and generally rekindle that primitive spirit that’s been suffocated with the sterile trappings of modern life. Well, you get the idea. Americans feel a similar calling, except they do it with camper vans the size of apartment blocks, with generators, satellite dishes, gas powered BBQ racks, sound systems, bicycles and speed boats. The following day was 4th of July – Independence Day (the day when the British gave the US to the Americans as an act of good will, or something like that) – and an excuse to deck out the sites in lavish decorations, giant flags, bunting, flashing lights – reminiscent of Hamleys on Christmas Eve. We had a tent, a small car and some smelly clothes, and felt satisfyingly invisible. Everything Americans do is 46% larger, 54% brighter and 83% louder than everyone else.

The tent construction had become a slick operation by now, with the noticeable exception of the inflatable double mattress for which we tried, and failed, to find an appropriate foot pump to match my obscure European model. It took 15 minutes of headrush puffing and a cold beer, which was to become a daily ritual.

4th July – American Independence Day

The following morning we witnessed the (hilarious) 4th July parade where all small children were dispatched to do a lap around the campsite, on bicycles smothered in more bunting. The campsite was awash in red white’n’ blue and yee-haw! By the time the procession got to us they were on the home straight and the tail end were looking decidedly shabby, much to the angst of the proud parents on this most important of days as they pushed little Tommy Jr. towards the finishing line (wouldn’t do to be last, I guess).
4th july

Our tiny gas-stove meal comprised of ham, lentils, onions, stock, potatoes and was truly delicious. I suspect that roast badger would have tasted good to us as expectations of gastronomic fulfilment are never high when camping, so anything vaguely nutritious becomes a culinary triumph. This became our staple diet over the next few says, until the point at which we both instinctively declared “oh not bloody lentils again”. We soon switched to authentic mountaineering-grade meal packets of dried “stuff”.

Heading down the southern peninsular a lake swim was calling in Lake Huron. Our so called “map” steered us to the sunny shores of the lake via numerous dead ends and terrifying country roads that lived in an age somewhere between Deliverance and Mad Max. Eventually Mary, begrudgingly perched on the dashboard, directed us towards lake Huron, complete with a swamp and a bunch of dead fish. This was both pretty shocking and saddening, especially for Alison being a native North American. So, no swimming for us.

Back in the car and towards Detroit, home of the motor car and Motown. Sadly, Detroit’s proud industry has taken a bit of a nosedive, mainly thanks to Ford, and the centre has turned into something of a black ghetto filled with unemployed people who cannot afford to leave the city and continue their ‘American Dream’. I wanted to drive through and take a look for myself, but was dissuaded on grounds of personal safety and time. When you drive in America, the roadside is littered with huge billboards that shout “MAC DONALDS!!”, “REAL ESTATE!!”, “TACO BELL!!”, “HUGE CASINO!!”, “YOUR DREAM CAR HERE!!” etc etc, everything encouraging you to invest your bucks in this or that indulgence. When you approach areas of deprivation, the billboards are suddenly concerned with your health & welfare and every conceivable type of insurance is insisted. One, for example, offering help after your impending stroke, as if having a stroke was an inevitable consequence of living. All rather troubling, but at the same time the American Way Of Life was all starting to make sense. Am not sure what happened to the Great American Dream, but it seemed more and more like the party had ended and the hangover was starting to kick in.

We went to a Walmart. Oh my God. If you can imagine 40 Asda supermarkets stapled together, then you still haven’t come close to the sheer monstrous size of these shopping hellholes. You may think that choice is a good thing, especially in the capital of consumerism, but the truth is that you don’t get that much choice, just different brand names of the same sterile processed junk that they laughably claim as food. The fresh veg section is predictably minuscule and largely avoided by the shopping masses as they waddle around with trolleys the size of cement mixers. By law in America every food package has a table printed on the back entitled “Nutrition Facts”. This makes interesting reading but omits the fact that the majority of staple ingredients are genetically modified. Europe has so far, thankfully, resisted GM foods – on the surface at least. And as for any organic produce in Walmart, forget it. There was, however, the longest isle of cookies I’ve every seen and plenty were purchased.

The suburbs of Detroit are, by contrast, very white and very affluent, and so we headed for another liberal haven called Ann Arbor, which was full of wifi cafes, students, Tibetan prayer flags and Birkenstocks. After all, we were on holiday and not on a sociological discovery, so we had a guilt-free feast before setting off for South Bass Island, on the south coast of Lake Erie, somewhere between Detroit and Cleveland. It was on this road that I discovered that Idiot Me had restocked on dollars at an ATM in Ann Arbor, but had walked away leaving my card poking out of the machine. D’oh.

The campsite on the island was stunning and the view from our tent over the lake was postcardesque. We were hot, sweaty and aching for a swim. The lake was an improvement on Huron, but the presence of floating green algae by the shore was troubling as this is often an indication of bacteria from pollution, so we restricted our bathing to matters south of the chin. We weren’t alone in the lake by any means, it’s just that everyone else was attached to either a noisy jet ski or huge power boat.
south bass

5th July

The site was run with military precision by a couple of distinctly odd man, seemingly acting out a ‘good host’/’bad host’ ruse with firewood. One would reluctantly sell you a bundle whilst the other staked out your site to nick it back at the first opportunity. The good host – wide as he was tall – affably discussed with us his ambition to travel to Ireland next year, “I just love islands!”, he exclaimed whilst donating back to us our own firewood. Almost certainly discharged from the military, almost certainly Iraq, most definitely disturbed.

6th July

South Bass island was so pleasant that we decided to give ourselves and the car a day off. We ventured to the main town on the island, the tourist part – big mistake. People don’t walk in America – I think it was banned a few years ago – they are obliged instead to use any type of 4-wheel vehicle. The preferred mode of transport for this town was golf carts, literally hundreds of them. Even the smallest of distances could not be negotiated without the aid of one of these silent, beige, electric blobs and alcohol for the driver appeared mandatory. This town, “Put-in-Bay”, was so ghastly that we sought sanctuary and found, of all places, a church. This gave us such a breath of sanity and peace that we lingered, in blissful silence for 10 minutes until serenely stepping back into the melée (even tripping over the doorstep on the way out couldn’t spoil my karma). Maybe this was what made religion such a magnetic force to Americans?

We were now at the southern most point in our trip – time to swing round to the east and cross the border towards Cleveland, Ohio. Curiously, in the US it’s customary to pronounce town’s name, followed by it’s state. In the UK we’d never say “Barnsley, Yorkshire” or “Guildford, Surrey” because the county is implicit. When you have a country where the regional areas are of similar size to most European countries, one cannot make the same assumption. The town of Springfield exists in 34 US states, and Richmond in 28. I know because I counted them on our “map” during a particularly tedious part of the journey, not that that’s any guarantee of accuracy. And so on we travelled through Pennsylvania (briefly) and into New York State, all in a single day.

Alison had cunningly booked our stay at South Bass Island in advance, which would account for our prime-spot campsite, but from now we were on our own, boldly going where the hell we liked. We asked Mary for some divine inspiration, who (somehow) guided us towards the Finger Lakes region. I made her a fetching sun hat made from banana skins for her troubles.

mary skinning up

With no more pre-booked campsites, there was always the possibility of being welcomed with “sorry, no vacancies”, after all, we were in peak holiday season. Thankfully most state parks reserve a number of tent sites for those who just arrive unannounced. Several times we’d find ourselves occupying one of the last available sites, but we were thankfully never turned away. It’s not like Europe where you can camp pretty much anywhere, albeit discretely; Americans love guns and landowners have the legal right to shoot trespassers first and ask questions later, not a recipe for a peaceful night’s sleep.

The Finger Lakes is a series of long lakes that resembled sinister long claw scratches and is a place of historical significance with its natural source of radioactive mineral springs. We chose Watkins Glen state park to camp for no other reason than it was the second closest to the the interstate road (we figured that the first closest site was statistically more likely to be full, based on 2% calculations and 98% hope)

Ironically, we chose a campsite devoid of any lake, but ample compensation was provided by a spectacular natural gorge. Our only problem was the depletion of our gas camping stove that was a type utterly alien to Walmart and the myriad of hardware stores we pestered. The proprietor of one such store had immense problems with my accent such that I gave up after the umpteenth impeccable English pronunciation of “camping gas”, only to discover that he was, in fact, deaf as a door post. We built fires, cooked our staple lentil broth and brewed our espresso coffee with satisfying ease.


7th July

After a trek up the gorge and a swim in the pool (urgh, chlorine) we headed for a state park in New York State called the Adirondacks (the pronunciation of which I have trouble with to this day). The Adirondacks is 3.5 times the size of Yosemite, which makes it really, really big.

As we entered the state park, we got a sense that we were venturing into real wilderness, a corner of the US whose mountainous expanse was faithfully preserved and conserved as authentic nature. This illusion was quickly shattered as we drove through a town called “Old Forge” that boasted a huge water slide park proudly entitled “Enchanted Forest Water Safari”, reminiscent Wally World, if you’ve ever seen the movie National Lampoon’s Vacation. Our toes curled and we sighed whilst passing this aberration, but we soon re-entered nature, with mountains, rain, pine trees, lakes and utterly deserted roads. Here we encountered a potential problem; we appeared to have broken the car. Not sure what we’d done but complaining noises were emerging from the engine department which had also lost the majority of its power. Alison helpfully suggested that the car was probably just tired and needed a rest.

By the time we’d put suitable distance between us and Wally World, it was getting late, dark and the car was apparently tired. We chose a campsite on Forked Lake (featuring a fork in the lake), situated just before Long Lake (featuring a very long…). The State Park boasted #5 in the top campsites in the US, an accomplishment we weren’t going to dispute. Yet again, the park was impeccably run and beautifully located. When we checked in there was, however, an additional legal formality that they appeared to take quite seriously: a “bear disclaimer” form. They were very insistent that we use the special bear-proof lockers for all edibles (including toothpaste, after all, have you every seen a bear with bad teeth?) I was almost tempted to leave some food out that night to try and lure an encounter with these cuddliest of creatures, but was reminded that out beloved tent was no match for razor sharp bear claws.

bear bait

8th July

The night was free from interference from bears and we awoke to gaze over another stunningly beautiful lake which was, am happy to report, unpolluted. We had developed the ability to sleep in to 10am each morning – a feat not usually associated with camping (top tip: ear plugs!), and this night was no exception. Following a tasty breakfast of oatmeal, blueberries and Walmart maple syrup, not only did we go for swim but we also ventured out in a canoe (which us Brits happily – and incorrectly – call a kayak). The first 10 minutes were spent mostly going round in circles, but we soon found our rhythm and sped along the lake with remarkable ease. I even witnessed my first beaver damn, something that is so commonplace in North America as to be seen as a nuisance, but I was still incredulous at the apparent tenacity of these furry little engineers – surely it won’t be long before they master hydroelectric power. Otherwise, still no convincing sign of life in the lake.

nice beaver

We set off fearful of the car’s health but, to my astonishment, Alison appeared to be quite correct in her mechanical prognosis and the car was positively raring to go. I added Automotive Guru to her long list of talents.

Next stop, Lake Placid. We had promised ourselves that our last night would be spent in the relative luxury of a cheap hotel, and Lake Placid, home of the 1980 winter Olympic games, would surely provide ample accommodation. For some reason, I was expecting a sad looking, derelict ghost town overbuilt for a transient global sporting celebration. After all, most post-Olympic cities seemed to suffer a permanent hangover from planners with a 2 week vision. Oh boy was I wrong. Lake placid is the Chelsea of New York State with monumental private chalets, lavish restaurants and an disturbingly large number of boutiques selling all thing horse riding. We treated ourselves to a meal at a yuppie diner that was as rich in decoration as the food was lacking in taste. It felt like we’d come form a different planet, and I suspect we might have smelled like it too. After all the miles we had travelled, could we sell our liberal-camping souls and rejoin civilisation in a hotel? No, like hell we could. Like a couple of startled rabbits, we ran for our car and headed for the sanctuary of the nearest campsite which was, fortunately, not very far away.

Wilmington Notch state park was virtually deserted, and lay within 200 metres above a roaring waterfall. The office staff at this this site were so laid back that there was in fact no office, just a bunch of hairy dudes drink beer around a campfire, wood for which they generously shared, There were no bears, but plenty of chipmunks and red squirrels. The staple food for the disarmingly cute red squirrels is not nuts, but in fact cookies. One such squirrel was spotted jumping into the car before scampering out a second later with a particularly favourite cookie in its mouth. Naturally, I gave chase. Across half the campsite I ran after the little bugger until he reached the refuge of a large tree. After 6 laps of the tree I did the old suddenly-switch-directions trick, but he had exactly the same idea and peered at me from the other side of the tree, cookie in mouth, sniggering, before disappearing up said tree in gleeful triumph. I returned to the tent to see Alison doubled up in unsympathetic hysterics. He was back 10 minutes later for more bounty, but was continually thwarted by a closed car door. I flaunted my opposable thumb at him and walked away victorious. Meanwhile, the chipmunk was busy burrowing tunnels under our tent, for what purpose was never discovered as we probably squashed him that night.


9th July

And so to the final day that required a short hop across Lake Champlain to Burlington in monsoon conditions, and to the airport where our beleaguered and less than white car would be returned. The plan was to take a Greyhound bus for the remaining 100 miles into Montreal. Why not just take the hire car back to Montreal I hear you say? Good question, but for reasons known only to the US and Canada authorities, talking a hire car across the border is curiously prohibited. Upon arriving at the airport, we found that we had but minutes before the infrequent bus left. We somehow stuffed our lives into our smelly bags in record time (including an exasperated Mary), ran through the airport – chucking the car keys at the Avis desk on the way, dived into a taxi and sped to the Greyhound bus terminal as fast as the taxi driver was able. Which wasn’t actually very fast because he was so engrossed in prattling on about the virtues of Burlington that he plain missed the bus depot altogether. Fortunately the bus was late (very).

Travelling across the border in to Canada was certainly an eye opener. Within an instant of entering Quebec, the fields were smaller and greener, the cars had shrunk, the billboards didn’t so much shout but “presented”, the houses tattier and homelier – the difference was as marked as it was gratifying. After just over 2000 miles of America, we were home, back in Montreal, to familiarity, civility and comfort. We had no idea how much we missed Montreal until we arrived but I guess that’s always the way when you go back home after time away – something immensely satisfying by existing in an environment in which, surprisingly, nothing really surprises you. We had had an amazing journey across and an amazing country, but by God we were pleased to be back. As the memories of our trip unfold my head I can reflect with great fondness of where I really come from and of the person with whom I could share such a wonderful experience.


Thanks for reading

Will & Alison