Friday, December 27, 2013

Canadian Road Trip

(Merry Belated Christmas!  I'm terrible at deadlines, which is why this post is weeks late.  Better late than never!)

In my last entry I wrote about how stifled I've felt and how much I need time with friends.  So, when my friend D asked me, half-jokingly, if I wanted to accompany her for a short trip to Ontario, I jumped at the opportunity.
Oh, Canada
Oddly enough, the two English-language audiobooks D packed for the car ride were the same two novels I brought with me to Europe this summer, neither of which I had finished: I found travel too exhausting to allow for reading, though I started The Stranger on a train between Romania and Hungary, and The Alchemist in the schoolyard in Madaras during my breaks between teaching classes).

Bright and early, Monday morning, we loaded up D's Jeep and headed north.  Between the two of us, our "essential" luggage took up the entire Jeep, which is hilarious since both of us have lived abroad and should know how to pack light.  Anyway, among clothes, toiletries, and laptops, we had snack food and audiobooks.  And let me just say: I was pumped for this road trip.  Ever since I came home from my summer abroad, I've been itching to travel again.  Sure, Ontario isn't all that exotic, but it's the first chance I've had to visit Canada since the passport laws made it impossible for me to visit.  (Up to this point, my Canadian experience had been rolled up into two summer days of a family road trip when I was thirteen.  The water in our motel's pool totaled six inches and was coated with algae, while the walls of the pool house were lined with broken box springs.  At Niagara Falls the next day, my mom told me to get out of the car and stand in a parking spot.  Within five minutes, a French-speaking couple nearly ran me down with their vehicle.  It was also the 4th of July, which didn't matter in the slightest to the parking spot thieves).  In other words, when D and I departed on our wintery adventure, I sought a better impression of the vast, mysterious country to the north. 

The air outside the car was excruciatingly cold, but the skies were clear for us as we headed up 35.  Black ice was really the last thing on my mind, but out of nowhere, the everything started spinning.  The scene before the car spun twice, impossibly fast, yet somehow it was almost slow, graceful.  Then, as suddenly as it began, it stopped.
We were in the median, the right side of the Jeep firmly planted in the snow.  D and I were both disoriented; did that just happen?  For some reason, I couldn't help laughing, which I now realize was probably my coping mechanism for our near-death experience.  I was giddy that neither of us were hurt, and the car hadn't sustained ay damage, either.  Unlike me, D owns a cell phone, so she called AAA to tow us out of the median.

Thankfully we'd had sweet potato chips to gorge ourselves on for comfort as we waited for the tow truck.  Apparently being ditched in the median is more dangerous than being stuck on the side of the expressway, so the tow truck arrived less than an hour after our mishap.  I suppose at that point, any rescuer would be a glorious site to us, but D and I agreed that we lucked out on our young, chivalrous, farm-boy handy-man of a savior.   (Man, did he know how to rock a pair of wranglers! We considered asking him for a photo together, but decided against it for the safety of the other cars on the road.  Sadly). 

After a pit stop at the gas station for a bathroom and the loading up of Nut Goodies, we were safely back on the road.  D and I continued our girl-gab, gushing over our rescuer and lamenting that we would never have that picture together.  D opted to drive considerably below the speed limit to avoid other ice patches.  We didn't stop again until Duluth, where we mildly tortured ourselves by walking outside in the freezing air before getting a bite to eat.  The hours went by and we found ourselves buying gas across the road from the Beaver Bay Mini-Mall.  Classy.

By the time we reached Grand Marais, we were both hungry for an actual meal.  Food could wait, though, because the sunset over Lake Superior was too sublime not to photograph.
The sheets of ice kept shifting in the powerful current as I took this photo.

My fingers froze in the winter air, but I think this picture was worth the pain.
I made the mistake of ordering a $20 bowl of soup from the local tavern.  The bartender serving us was excessively rude and obnoxious, but I couldn't stiff him on the tip.  Something inherent about being a waitress stopped me, which is unfortunate because he absolutely did not deserve a penny from me.  (Not to mention, the soup was arguably the worst ever boiled: soggy spaghetti and moldy tasting shrimp.)

Since the sun had set back in Grand Marais, the last stretch of our drive was in the dark.  As we approached the border, D and I dug our passports out for inspection and she assured me that the checkpoint was all a formality.  Recalling the endless border agent protocols in Eastern Europe, I was pleased to hear this.  Unfortunately, the Canadian border patrol proved to be more trouble than any of the officers I had encountered abroad.  He regarded us suspiciously from the moment we gave him his passports, rattling off questions that only became more pointed as the list went on:
What is the purpose of your trip?
Whose family friends?
What are their names?
What is his occupation?
How do you know a member of Parliament?
Where are you staying?  At his house?
Do you have any firearms in your vehicle? (He didn't trust our simple "no" but elaborated).
No automatic or semi-automatic weapons, hunting rifles, shotguns, handguns, mace, or knives?  (I was surprised that he failed to ask about throwing stars, blunderbuss, or bear spray).
But what about my Bear Spray?  Is that allowed, Mr. Border Agent?
At any rate, he ordered us to park and come inside for further questioning.  D was as surprised as I was at this sudden detention.  I handed my soup to her to toss in the trash can outside of the station, but it spilled all over her seat and had to be wiped up with my fleece blanket.  Joy.  In the station, we were ordered to sit until a snotty female border agent called us up to the window.  She proceeded to bombard us with personal questions, writing our responses on a coffee-stained napkin before handing us back our passports and allowing us to leave.  Welcome to Canada.

We finally made it to our hosts' house, but not before getting lost and facing mild despair.  They were relieved to find us safe and intact, feeding us hearty Canadian food before showing us to our basement rooms.  Mine was the bigger, windowed room, complete with a temperature of arctic proportions.  I shivered on my bed, waiting for the shower as I turned the space heater full blast on the nightstand.  I was occupied with chatting to my mom online when out of nowhere, everything but my computer screen went dark.  In the bathroom, D's blowdryer went silent.  For a few stunned seconds I sat in the dark, disoriented by the shock of cold air that now smothered me in the absence of my heater.  Freezing, I jumped up to find D and learn what had just happened.  The combination of the hairdryer and my space heater had apparently shorted the circuit in the bathroom and my room.  Since our hosts had already gone to bed, D and I decided to share her room, which was smaller, windowless and, most importantly, had power.  Between several layers of wool blankets, the space heater, and shared body warmth, the cold wasn't unbearable.

D had some business at the local college for a good chunk of the next day, so I settled in to the campus library, surreptitiously people-watching while pretending to read.  Most of the students near me seemed to be finishing their term projects for finals week, which made me terribly nostalgic.  Oh, how I miss the campus life.  Sadly, I didn't find an opportune moment to actually talk to anyone, thwarting my ulterior motive for the trip.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to bring home the souvenir I wanted.  Boo.
That evening, we explored Thunder Bay for decent photo-ops.  I misplaced my mittens in the Jeep, not realizing the very real dangers of -23° C; my battery died and my fingers went numb very, very quickly in the cold.  We were freezing, hungry, and exhausted by the time we made it back to the car and over to the Kangas, a Finnish restaurant and sauna we'd planned to visit.
Frostbite is a small price to pay for a stunning winter portrait.
We shared a plate of pierogies and pancakes, and I ordered a sandwich to top it all off.  I certainly can't complain about Canadian cooking!  Anyway, after we ate we went down to the sauna.  I always forget just how thick the hot air is in there, but it was a welcome change from the cold.  I also realized that this was my third international spa experience, after the bathhouse in Budapest and the hot springs in Reykjavík.  (I'm moving up in the world, apparently).

When we got back to the house, we had another full meal and played board games with our hostess into the wee hours of the night.  D and I both packed our things so we could load the car quickly in the morning and get started on the long drive back.  We also wanted to leave early to get a few sunrise photos.
Sunlight over cattails
The quintessential parka pose
The drive home was less nerve-wracking than the drive to Thunder Bay had been, but it was still a long trip.  Since it was a few degrees warmer, we made several stops for photos.  This time, we had no trouble crossing the border.
December Trees
Lake Superior
Me and D at Split Rock Lighthouse
Despite spinning into the median, choking down bad soup, detention at the border, PMS crankiness, and generally freezing, the trip was exactly what I needed to pull me out of my funk.  I definitely want to spend more time in Canada... but maybe next time I'll go when it's warmer.

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