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Posted August 2, 2020 in Adventure Journals by Jim Markel
Anyone who has traveled anywhere knows that vacations do not always live up to expectations. It’s easy to picture yourself on a sunny beach, sipping a drink, and reading a good book from the comfort of your livingroom couch. But sometimes, when you get there, you discover a hurricane has washed away the beach, the bar is closed, and you forgot to pack your book. With a little planning, you can avoid a lot of unpleasant travel situations, but life happens, and things don’t always work out.
The story that follows is all about a road trip that didn’t go according to plan, and how this dedicated member of the herd ended up making the most of a bad situation to still have an enjoyable time.
Thanks to Nick S. and partner for their intriguing introduction, here is their harrowing "Honorable Mention" Summer Adventure submission.
For this trip we were leaving straight after work and going to a wedding which means that we were packing the night before to ensure we could get to work in the morning. Our favorite bag to pack is a duffel bag that Nick has owned since his childhood. It has one cavernous pack that we can jam clothes into and is easy to fit into spaces in the trunk and the two side pouches are perfect for socks.
For wedding attire, we have a bag that is able to hold a week’s work of formal wear but can still fit in an overhead bin on the plan so we packed that up as well. We also threw a change of clothes into the back seat for after work, as sometimes business casual can be a little uncomfortable in a long car ride.
In 2018, we had a wedding to go to in northern New Jersey. The ceremony was planned for the week before Thanksgiving, and since we were heading to New York for the holidays anyway, we decided to drive out to the wedding and then stay through Thanksgiving. For longer stays, we actually prefer road trips! Not only is it cheaper than flying, it’s more reliable in the winter, and it might offer the opportunity to see things along the way.
Unfortunately, the drive from Michigan to NJ (about 9 hours) is a drive we have done a number of times. So the trip along I-80 through Ohio and Pennsylvania is pretty boring, and any sights along the way were either familiar to us, or so far off the road that they weren’t worth the extra time.
One option we considered was going to Pittsburgh and spending the night to break up the long drive. However, this added about 1 hr 15 minutes to the total trip, and we had both spent a lot of time in Pittsburgh before, so it wasn’t that appealing. Cleveland was closer to our route, but Nick had spent many family trips there, and he had no desire to visit again. With no other major stopping points to consider, it seemed as though we were destined to repeat an uneventful, long drive.
One of the unique things about Michigan’s geographical location is that you can actually cut through Canada to reach certain destinations on the east coast.
Out of curiosity, I mapped our drive through Canada instead of through the U.S.. Although it was an hour longer, the route took us straight through Niagara Falls, and then within 40 miles of my college town, Ithaca. Although we had both been to Niagara Falls and Ithaca, we had never been to either place together. I love visiting my college town, and I was eager to share my experiences.
After some mapping, internet searches, and hotel finding, we decided to leave after work on Thursday, driving through Canada, and grab dinner around Niagara Falls. After visiting the Falls, we would then continue the drive to stay in a cute B&B about an hour north of my college town. In the morning, we would drive down to Ithaca, visit my old stomping grounds, visit friends in the area, and then head down to NJ with plenty of time to spare before the rehearsal dinner Friday night.
Sounds like a good plan, right?
We left Michigan around 2:30 on Thursday afternoon, planning to get to Niagara Falls around 6:30 pm for dinner, and our hotel by 9:30-10. Immediately, conditions weren’t ideal. As we drove away from work, snow was lightly falling, and the roads were a little slick. However, snow in Michigan isn’t exactly breaking news, and we naively assumed everything would clear by the time we left the state. Traffic was light and we had plenty of time baked into our schedule for a bit of snow, so we turned on some music, and crossed the bridge an hour later to enter Canada.
It turned out we were very wrong about the snow. Two hours into the trip, well into Canada, the snow hadn’t slowed. In fact, conditions had worsened. With temperatures right at 32°F, the weather was alternating between freezing sleet and actual snow, and roads were slick and treacherous. It wasn’t long before we started to hit traffic from accidents.
About midway through the Canadian portion of our trip, night fell, and we got stuck in a traffic jam that had us averaging around 1 mph for about an hour and 15 minutes. When we finally passed the jackknifed semi that had caused the holdup, it was only to find that the snow was falling faster, and the snow plows couldn’t keep up. Without 4WD, we were sliding down the road more than we were driving.
Frustrated and tired, we reached the border back into the U.S. just before 9 p.m.. The B&B had been calling us, annoyed that we were going to be late, and their anger made us even more irritable. We abandoned our plans for Niagara Falls to try to make up some time and grabbed a quick dinner at Five Guys as we headed east from Buffalo. Although it hardly seemed possible, the snow was falling even harder in NY than it had been in Canada, and we couldn’t safely go much faster than 40 mph.
We limped into Waterloo, NY around 11:30 p.m., and were able to check into the Gridley Inn, our reserved B&B. We were relieved to have arrived in one piece, but both agreed that this was one of the worst trips we had ever taken. Our six hour drive from Michigan had turned into a nine hour and 30 minute disaster, and we had been forced to abandon one of our two stops. Feeling discouraged, we climbed into bed, and hoped that tomorrow would be better.
After a good night’s sleep, we felt refreshed and a little more optimistic. Although our trip wasn’t going according to plan, we had made it to our lodgings, and in the daylight, we could see that they were quite cute! The room had a beautiful four poster bed, and a large bathtub, and we both enjoyed a relaxing soak to ease away the aches of a long road trip before heading downstairs for breakfast.
In the dining room, we met the owners, and the only other guest who had braved the snowstorm, a young man from Arkansas visiting NY on business. We chatted about the weather and bonded over our love of travel and shared experience in surviving the storm.
One of the best things about traveling is getting to meet new people and learn from their experiences, and as he shared his experiences living in rural Arkansas, I began to think that maybe this road trip would turn out ok.
When breakfast arrived, a delightful combination of a blueberry dutch baby and sausages, I became more certain things were turning around.
The owners had kindly shoveled the driveway of the inn, so after a quick effort to dig out our vehicle, we set off for Ithaca. Our scenic, one hour drive there took us down to Route 89 for some lovely views of Cayuga Lake. With a fresh snowfall the night before, the view was truly stunning. The landscape sparkled in every direction and the lack of people around gave the region an "other worldly" feel. Despite the night before, we both agreed that the trip had been worth it.
Before reaching the town of Ithaca itself, we pulled off for a short trip to Taughannock State Falls, a gorgeous waterfall that I had visited several times in my college days. In the winter setting, the waterfall was even more spectacular than I remembered. Water crashed down into a nice-covered river, framed by snow covered pines. With park nearly empty, we enjoyed the view by ourselves for several minutes, then headed down into the main town for a tour of Ithaca / Cornell.
Our final stop was Collegetown Bagels, my favorite coffee and breakfast spot just off Cornell’s campus, where we reconnected with an old college friend. Nick enjoyed his first taste of "CTB" (College Town Bagels) as much as I had, and we left, full and satisfied. With a final farewell to the finger lakes region, we set out towards NJ and our eventual destination.
The trip had certainly not gone to plan, and we both regretted not being able to stop at Niagara Falls for dinner.
Weather issues can make even the most well planned trips utter chaos, and the key to making the most of these trips is being flexible.
By being willing and able to adapt, we managed to turn around an awful road trip, and make it into a memory we can now share happily. I can’t wait to plan our next road trip, but maybe we will aim for one during the summer next time!