Monday, August 21, 2023

O Canada (and part of New York)!

I’m just back from Canada. 

If you don’t count walking across the bridge to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls in 2018, the last time I went to Canada was a brief trip to New Brunswick and Campobello Island—where FDR came down with polio—in 1979.   

Cut to 2023, so when a good friend invited me to her family’s summer cottage in Ontario, I said count me in! 

What I know about Canada wouldn’t fill a thimble: PM Justin Trudeau is hot, Canadians are like Americans but nicer, and they aren’t even fat though they eat a grisly French fry dish called poutine.  Oh--and they have a tuneful national anthem! Who doesn’t like to sing that one?  

My, it’s a long way there. My GPS said it was about eight hours to where I was headed. And that doesn’t count the time spent waiting at the border to do whatever they do there. When I went in 1979, I didn’t need a passport. As they say, Thanks Osama (bin Laden).

Since a good houseguest brings adult beverages, I stopped at the duty-free store in Buffalo to pick up some hooch. I’d never bought anything at a duty-free store and was surprised by how Soviet it was, unlike the sparkling duty-free shoppes in airports in Mexico. 

The store was dim, the selection of booze limited, and I made the mistake of asking the clerk something innocuous like “How are you?” In case you’re wondering, she was tired and hates her job and went on about that at some length. I’m guessing she won’t be named Employee of the Month. Ever. 

After buying my booze I made a quick stop at the men’s room since who knew what Canada’s embrace of the metric system was going to do to a urinal. I wasn’t taking any chances. 

I pulled up to the border crossing at the Peace Bridge and edged my way into the sea of cars waiting to go across the border.  And then I waited and waited and waited.  I have a knack for picking the wrong line. 

When I finally got to the checkpoint, the Canadian border guy asked where I was going and I replied, in my best Pepe LePew accent, Pointe au Baril, which he corrected to English, as in Point O’ Barrel. Upon hearing my answer, he seemed a bit friendlier which I took to mean that he was relieved I was not going to some sort of B-list terrorist spa or maybe a podiatrists’ convention. 

He asked me a few more questions--did I have any alcohol, tobacco, or firearms? Who’s your favorite Beatle? What’s the capital of North Dakota? And so on. By the end of the interrogation/speed dating, I had full-on Stockholm Syndrome and had pretty much decided that why sure I'd delay my trip to have a short and lacking in emotional involvement affair with him.  Before my three-second reverie ended, he thanked me for my time and told me that I was good to go.

Because I wanted to arrive at C.’s place in the morning, I stopped for the night at a hotel in Generica, which is one of those words that’s the same in both American and Canadian English. My chain hotel (yeah, I like the points) was no great shakes but it had one of those breakfast-by-morning-bar-by-night areas off the lobby. My evening beers and morning eggs were top-notch. Yay Canada!  

I was out the door early to commune with my now metric (WTF?!) GPS.  A stop for gas was a treat since the gas pump wanted me to say how much gas I wanted in advance. Canadians are apparently polite AND good at knowing this sort of stuff.  I was no good at guessing--as my father used to say, I wasn’t cleared for clairvoyance. Plus, gas is sold in liters and Canadian money, so yeah, American tourists have a math problem on their hands. 

What started as a crowded multi-lane expressway in Generica ended up as a deserted two-lane highway in the town of Parry Sound 130-ish km later. 

I almost stopped in front of a spiffy new Tim Hortons (Canada’s favorite roadside coffee shop) to take a selfie for IG, but by the time I decided that maybe it wasn’t a pretentious dick move, the opportunity was gone. 

But I had to check in with C. when I got to Parry Sound and what better place to do it from a different Tim Hortons? Determined to spread my tourist dollars around and about, I had a coffee and a donut. 

Added bonus: I stood in line next to this guy, who kindly let me take a photo of his shirt.  

And, pretentious dick move be damned, I took a selfie too.

Having checked in, I followed my GPS to Desmasdon's Boatworks, a large marina in the middle of nowhere. I was to meet C. here since the rest of the trip would be by boat—her place is on an island. 

I headed to the office to sign in my car.  An earnest young man showed me the way to visitors’ parking in a golf cart and gave my backpack and me a lift back after stowing the car in a far-off lot. 

The earnest young man had seemingly walked right out of a Bruce Weber photo shoot. He had an athlete’s body; his blonde waves stuck out from under his baseball hat; he wore stylish but still butch sunglasses.  Trying to be friendly but not creepy, I asked if he were a local. In a pronounced Canadian accent, he said no, but that his family had been “cottaging” there for a long time. I don’t know about you, but I don’t often hear the word cottage used as a verb. As I like to say, travel is very broadening. 

C. was at the boatyard, as promised, waiting on the dock. I had one of those How Cool Is It That I Am Actually Doing This? Moments but I worried about using up too much emotional bandwidth so moved on quickly. 

C. had me hop into her boat, help cast off, and we were off into Georgian Bay, or at least some body of water that eventually became Georgian Bay. 

We passed tons of islands. Small ones, big ones, islands with big rocks, other islands with small rocks. Some big islands held a cottage or two.  Small or large, the houses didn't shout the way that summer homes at the NJ shore do. It was all very Canadian, low-key, polite, and enough to make me think, "Why can't more of America be like this?"

After a while, we tied up at C.'s dock. We walked up the stairs, and then the walkway became a giant rock in sort of a Japanese zen garden kind of way. 
There were more stairs at the end of the rock, and then a deck with Adirondack chairs, and more stairs up to the house. 

The house was a modernist take on a dogtrot house with a generous dollop of hunting camp thrown in for good measure.  The entrance was through a central breezeway, with a bedroom pavilion to the left and a pavilion for the kitchen and living area on the right. Large windows on the front façade framed the spectacular view of the bay and islands. At the far end of the living pavilion, a screened-in porch served as the dining area.  There were two smaller guest houses on the property. 

I stayed in the smaller one, a short walk from what Southerners would call The Big House. 

While it was rustic, it was no hunting camp. There were, as my friend Martha says “real books” instead of back issues of Field & Stream and Pennsylvania Game News

The kitchen had an entablature of tennis trophies while pans were hung on the wall a la Julia Child. There were some tchotchkes, and some—but not too much—statement furniture, leavened by a generous amount of outdoorsy stuff.  In other words, just add the J. Crew models and it’s a fashion shoot. 

There was some solar electricity but I was glad I had the gizmo that holds a couple of charges for my phone. The fridge was powered by propane and we lit a gas lamp over the sink when we did the dishes at night. Thanks to Elon Musk’s Starlink system there was enough internet to keep my phone happy. I felt guilty appreciating Elon.

When we weren't eating, drinking, or just yammering, there was fun to be had. I got to tool around on a WaveRunner, which I thought was the best thing ever. It was so much fun. It took me back to my brother Rob and me on our Honda 50s playing croquet mallet polo in our backyard in Park Hills. 

When I was in college one of my friends told me that her mother got a WaveRunner for her 60th or 65th birthday. I thought that was the craziest idea ever. What would someone older than dirt do with one of those? Big surprise: now that I'm her mother's age and then some, I understand perfectly why someone would do that. 

C. gave me some basic instructions, here's forward, here's reverse, don't fall off, and off I went. I'd ridden a WaveRunner before, at the shore, and that time there were lots of waves. This time, the bay was quite smooth, except for the occasional wake.  So you could go like a bat out of hell, or just putz around, though going faster was more fun. I had one helluva time…until I decided that I was lost. 

All the islands and all the summer homes started to look the same. Of course, they don't look the same. Each island and each house is unique. But to someone having the time of his life zipping around on a jet ski, well, you’re not exactly paying attention to navigational landmarks. At least I wasn’t. So I had to figure out what to do. 

After a few minutes of wondering what to do, I saw a bunch of people getting out of boats at one island—they looked like they were going to a party. I tooled over there and yelled to see if anyone knew where my hosts lived. And miraculously someone did. A very stylish woman in pink capri pants told me to go past the house on the cliff and then keep going, look for the small channel and you’re there. And voila!, as they would say in the French-speaking part of Canada, she was correct!  

When I wasn’t getting lost, we took a couple of cruises in the boat, went to the Ojibway Club for lunch, enjoyed delicious food, and just might have drunk all the gin in the house. 

Mindful of the adage that fish and guests are lousy after three days after two nights I said my alohas, which was a challenge since I’d had a great time. The next morning, C. took me back to Desdamon's Boat Works so I could continue my trip.  

Instead of returning the way I came, I went north toward Sudbury, so I could return via Manitoulin Island. 

Sudbury is hard to miss since it’s the home to a giant smokestack at a nickel smelter. The Inco Superstack has been “decommissioned” but while it awaits demolition, Wiki says at 1,250 feet it’s still the world’s second-tallest freestanding chimney after the Ekibastuz GRES-2 Power Station in Kazakhstan. But I’m sure you already knew that. 

I only looked at the smokestack from afar since I’d never go to a nickel smelter without my friend Martha (of the good books fame) who joined me at a borax mine a few years back. 

Plus, I had a reservation on the 3:30 ferry from South Baymouth to Tobermory, which meant enjoying scenic Manitoulin Island...

...or at least what I could see of it from the southbound lane of Route 6. 

C. told me to take time to enjoy some fish and chips, and that they were to Manitoulin Island as lobster rolls are to coastal Maine. I love fish and chips; lobster rolls, not so much. Yes, I have low-end taste buds. 

As I was waiting for the MS Chi-Cheemaun I bought fish and chips at the food truck that served the folks waiting for the ferry.  They were so good. As in a Wow! level of so good. I even went back to the food truck and told them that they were the best fish and chips I’d ever had---the secret apparently is a touch of dill in the batter—and they rose to the level of religious experience. I think she thought I was a nut. 

Not too long after I stuffed my face the MS Chi-Cheemaun (“Big Canoe” in Ojibwe) pulled up to the pier. 

At 360 ish feet, it's about a third the length of the Sudbury smokestack but still has room for 143 vehicles and over 600 passengers. 

The ferry was fun but had a pronounced list which was a tad disconcerting. Perhaps it had something to do with one of the last vehicles to come aboard: a tractor-trailer rig—I'd call it an 18-wheeler but in Ontario, they have up to 30 wheels—carrying, no joke, giant rocks. 

Once I became accustomed to the ferry’s list, the people watching was excellent. My fellow passengers included a large man with a white beard wearing a Toronto Blue Jays Tee shirt that said one BJ (represented by the Toronto Blue Jays logo) is better than three Yanks (represented by the NY Yankees logo). Then there was the lady with the neck tattoos accompanied by the guy with gauges in his ears and their feral hippie children. Of course, I checked out the presumably gay couple where one guy was really attractive and the other guy was really unattractive. (It'll never work out.) I decided that the tanned couple from Florida driving a big honkin’ pickup truck towing an Airstream Trailer lived in The Villages.  He had a video camera with a mic shielded by a fuzzy cover. It made me think of merkins. 

After an hour and forty-five minutes, we de-ferried in Tobermory.  I was glad that I hadn’t booked a hotel there. As Gertrude Stein might have said, not only was there no there there, but the there that was there reminded me of Altoona only smaller and in the middle of nowhere Ontario.

After about an hour of driving through a part of Canada that's never going to be in a tourist brochure, things started to look up.

Farms became enormous and very prosperous looking—corn taller than an elephant's eye—and the occasional town started to look brochure worthy.  After seeing men and women dressed like Amish folks, and signs warning of horse-drawn buggies I figured out that I was driving through Mennonite country. It was passing the "Conservative Mennonite Church” (that’s a thing, I guess) that sealed the deal. No one is ever going to mistake me for Sherlock Holmes. 

And even weirder, was that in one moment I was driving through farmland, and in the blink of an eye I was at a highway interchange with four or five different chain hotels, fast food joints, and all the other crap of modern life. Unlike the USA, Canada seems very good at containing sprawl.
The next morning, after a stop at Tim Hortons, I was off to the Peace Bridge and the USA.  Fortunately, my Global Entry worked like a charm and I didn’t have to participate in the huge line of cars waiting to go through the border. I held my global entry card so the border guy could see it, took off my glasses so I looked vaguely like my photo and bam, I was good to go. 

My next stop was right on Lake Erie, just a bit south of Buffalo. Graycliff was the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed summer home of Darwin Martin. According to the docent, the Martins were the only family to commission two Frank Lloyd Wright houses. Something tells me he also designed two homes for the Herbert Jacobs family. (It's true, I looked it up.)

There were about twenty people on the tour, mostly my age or older, and they all seemed normal, as opposed to folks who have been to every Frank Lloyd Wright building that there is and have the tee shirts, baseball caps, and tote bags to prove it. 

The tour was fine, the docent bright and chipper, but the house, at least in its restored state, seems as if Wright was just phoning it in. Our tour occasionally had to make way for a group of Martin family descendants to play through and that was a bit annoying, especially considering the price of the ticket. 

As far as I was concerned, the highlight of the tour was the married couple with the unbelievably cute husband. On a scale of one to ten, he was an easy eleven.  Based on this body he was a long-distance runner when he wasn’t being mistaken for a gay dad at Starbucks. As the tour concluded and we were shepherded to the gift shoppe, I noticed a huge scar on his ankle. So that’s what a blown Achilles Tendon looks like. Ouch. 

After Graycliff, I set my thankfully back to non-metric GPS for East Aurora, famous for being named by the website Niche in 2015 as the third-best town in New York for raising a family.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to go there?

East Aurora was also home to our 13th President, Millard Fillmore, one of our lesser presidents. I wasn't shocked that his home was closed. I made do with a brochure.  While East Aurora is the birthplace of Fisher-Price Toys, I really visited because it was where Elbert Hubbard established the Roycroft community in 1895. 

Elbert, not to be confused with Scientology founder L. Ron, was a significant figure in the Arts & Crafts movement in the US. 

Inspired by William Morris, the Roycrofters made furniture, worked in metals, designed and published books, and so on. It was all fun and games until Hubbard and his new improved wife (apparently, he couldn’t keep it in his pants) Alice perished in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. Tastes changed and the community went into a gradual decline until it closed in the 1930s.  

Today, The Roycroft Inn offers sort of an immersive-ish Arts and Crafts experience in the same way that the Williamsburg Inn is an immersive-ish 18th C Virginia experience.  

I stayed on the third floor in the Susan B, Anthony room, which was chockablock with reproduction arts and crafts period furniture. Unfortunately, Elbert Hubbard died before the invention of the docking station, something I think all decent hotel nightstands should have. 

After checking in, I set out to explore the town. Who did I run into in the Roycroft artisans’ gallery, but Mr. Blown Achilles Tendon and his wife from Graycliff! It turned out that they were locals, celebrating their 21st anniversary, having left their three kids at home. I was this close to saying “Motel sex!” 

But instead, I asked about restaurants and they gave me the lowdown on the food scene in East Aurora. They gave a thumbs up to the restaurant at the Roycroft Inn, which is where I saw them a third time a couple of hours later. As the maitre d' led me past them en route to my table we enjoyed a good chuckle. 

Have I mentioned that he was unbelievably good looking?

I spent the final day of my trip in depressing Jamestown NY, the birthplace of Lucille Ball. Jamestown seems to have peaked sometime before the invention of the shopping mall. Its downtown had more than its share of vacant buildings, and lots of street people. It’s a bit grim. 

My first stop was the National Comedy Center. It’s a museum (sort of) that’s supposed to be more fun than a barrel of monkeys.  That is, once you get over the shock of the ticket price. The senior citizen combination ticket, which includes the Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz Museum is $38. Call me a cheapskate, but that seems like a lot considering that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is only $22.  

The chirpy ticket seller affixed a hospital wristband containing a chip on my wrist and sent me to a kiosk where I could select my favorite comedians, movies, and TV shows so that I could "personalize" my experience. They also wanted to take my picture and my email address so they could email me some of the personalized "content" I created. (I passed on that.)

It was all very noisy and sort of relentless. But yes, I did enjoy a few chuckles even if getting to the museum’s “content” felt unnecessarily complicated. When I entered the galleries, most of the folks from the ticket line had already turned into couch potatoes. 

They were sitting in darkened rooms in front of screens as they guffawed at their “self-curated” content. In one exhibit, I got to add sound effects to a silent clip of the campfire scene of Blazing Saddles, quite possibly the most Bryant family activity ever. 

The Center also displayed a few old costumes and props. I had a chuckle at Johnny Carson’s Floyd R. Turbo costume...

...and got a charge out of one of Betty White's dresses from The Golden Girls, the gayest sitcom of all time. 

Having had my fill of comedy, I walked up the street to the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum. Visitors enter the galleries through the gift shoppe, so Lucy and Desi get you coming and going. 

There’s plenty of “content” for Lucy (and Desi) fans, and boy were the fans out in full force. There was a book signing and maybe there was a bus tour or maybe a retirement community had been evacuated for a bomb threat.  Whatever the reason for the crowd the place was packed. Of course, no one there was younger than 65 so that could be a problem for museum attendance in the future. 

Lucy and Desi were hard workers, incredibly creative, and for a while at least, a great team. The museum is cheesy but if you're a fan and in the neighborhood, do stop.  

After Lucy and Ricky, it was time to head back home. Jamestown was a depressing note to end on, but the rest of the trip had been great. I heard my first loons, depended on the kindness of strangers, and made memories that will last a lifetime, or at least until dementia sets in. I'm ready to plan my next soon as I find my car keys, that is.  

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