Albany, NY to an Ohio Rest Area


I left early from Clifton Park (the archetype for upstate NY suburbs), at 8 in the morning, after an early breakfast at IHOP with my family (tiramisu pancakes…). Although I don’t anticipate my trip being an international one, I guess thinking ambitiously never hurt anyone.

I took I-90 west towards Buffalo, and although it took an hour to really settle in, I was soon making good time, with energy drink in hand. It’s funny – a sizeable percent of cars on the road were from Florida – far more than I typically see further east in the state. Perhaps also the demographic on I-90 is different from that of I-87. From Albany to Buffalo is about 5 hours, but I decided to take a small detour to visit Niagara Falls. I’d seen them once before but only as a small kid; my recollection was that I wasn’t impressed.

The stretch from I-90 to Niagara Falls was a harrowing 20 mile criss-cross of roads and expressways, filled with swerving/braking drivers.

Niagara Falls Panorama
A panorama of the Falls

Arriving in Niagara Falls, I was greeted with a full parking lot and the desperate misery of searching for a parking spot in a touristy location (luckily I found 2-hour parking; I had only planned to stay for 2 hours). Niagara Falls is a Category II tourist trap desperately trying to reach Category I. There are three Space Needle-esque towers which peer above the hotels and office buildings on the Canadian side of the falls, like prairie dogs sticking their heads out from their warrens. Not to mention the frequently grotesque prices ($15 to ride an elevator down to the base of the Falls) and the near-constant buzz of tourist helicopters circling above.

Like many tourist traps, the attraction of Niagara Falls, for me, lies primarily in observing the tourists. Given the fact that there is little else in proximity to the Falls, I assume that most of the foreign tourists are either visiting Toronto, have been mislead about just how dramatic Niagara Falls is, or are stopping by on a road trip, like myself.

I noticed the requisite German, Japanese, and husky American-flag wearing tourists, as well as a sizeable contingent of French Canadians, but there was also a new variety: the Indian tourist. I’ve never seen so many Indian tourists before, and the Falls seemed (perhaps) to cater to them, with at least 4 Indian restaurants within walking distance of the parking areas. Either more Indians are traveling than before, or they’re particularly attracted to Niagara Falls for some reason.

Tourists huddled underneath the Falls

When you get away from the crowds and the tacky tourist pavilions, the area is actually quite beautiful, with the feel of a carefully maintained park next to a roaring river. In many ways I preferred the rapids to the Falls themselves, as the raw power of the river was visible in the current – by contrast the Falls themselves dissipate into the mist. It’s true what they say, the Canadian side must be better – all the various parts where water actually falls are on the American side of the border, so the Canadians must have a wonderful view.

Niagara Falls Wildlife

Leaving Niagara Falls I realized that I hadn’t figured out where to head next (my first target is Badlands National Park in South Dakota); I tried entering Chicago in my GPS and it routed me through Ontario; not wanting to deal with customs I switched to Erie, Pennsylvania, which sits directly in the middle of the weird little tail of the state.

Traveling through Buffalo was saddening. It’s clearly a rust belt town that’s seen better days, and yet – from the vantage point of the highway, it seems like an appealing place – the tidy downtown core of many small American cities, the sweeping overpass of the highway, and plenty of water nearby. Yet the town is oriented all wrong, with the highway separating the downtown and water; closer to the water are only run-down industrial buildings. Supposedly Buffalo’s peer, Pittsburgh, has rejuvenated of late, and maybe Buffalo can do the same.

The tail of Pennsylvania was quickly traversed, and I only had about an hour to take in the classic peculiarities the state presents to the highway traveler: the frequent fireworks stands, the strange ultra-high gas-station signs with their glowing prices (much cheaper than NY – I refueled as soon as I crossed the border).

Then it was into Ohio. I both loved and hated traveling in Ohio. I believe that I traveled through about 60 miles of highway construction, during which time I saw a single solitary crew of workmen. Most of the construction took the form of additional lanes being added or repaved, and the traffic was rerouted in a novel way: three lane highways were reduced to 2 lanes, with one lane occupying the shoulder of the original highway, and the other lane traversing the median and then running against the traffic on the other side of the highway. These single lanes were enclosed by cement barriers, which gave the impression of flying down the canyon on the surface of the Death Star. This proved exhausting, nerve-wracking driving (given that I had to do 6- miles of it!)

But when the highways weren’t under construction, I loved driving in Ohio. Most of the roads were three-lane highways, and after Cleveland, the land flattened out into nearly imperceptible hills; this must have been forested land and there are still plenty of trees, but the bulk of the scenery is now corn farms. The highway (I-80) has huge sweeping curves and long straightaways: perfect for comfortable driving (the speed limit is also 70 mph). I made good time and it was with some regret that I finally pulled over in a rest area for the night: I wanted to keep driving and didn’t feel tired; rather I felt a sort of weariness. The rest areas in Ohio are wonderful too – all brand new and immaculately kept; the state must have received a lot of federal grant money.

I’m writing this in the back of the van, with curtains up and bed laid out. I can hear trucks barreling down the highway to the left of me, which I find to be a comforting sound. Tomorrow, I hope (perhaps too ambitiously) to reach the border of South Dakota. I’d like to hit the Badlands midday on Sunday, and then take a break there.

Random info:

  • 3 States Driven
  • 667 Miles Driven
  • Funniest Sign: “State Penitentiary Nearby: Don’t Pick Up Hitchhikers

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