Tuesday, 20 September 2016

New York, New York

Our last big city stop of the trip was, of course, the Big Apple. I’ve never been to New York City before and Evan only as a child so there was no way we could pass it by. The ride into the city was an experience, a twisted maze of toll roads that cost us dearly – over $35 each on the way in. We asked Google nicely for a toll-free route but it seemed this wasn’t possible. Sometimes there was a toll-free option, but this often involved being in one particular lane that was toll-free or making sure you used the correct level on a multi-level bridge, which of course wasn’t marked as such so we ended up paying over and over again. Traffic was heavy and slow and it was a relief to finally arrive and park up just off Broadway.

This time we’d had a few days to think about accommodation and so we’d managed to line up a couple of nights stay with Tentspace hosts #9, David and Francine. Slap bang in the middle of Lower Manhattan, in their 10th floor loft apartment on Broadway, we met David, an anaesthesiologist and Francine, a palliative care nurse. We parked up, lugged our cases up in the elevator and immediately Francine whisked us out for an evening stroll through Washington Square Park and Greenwich Village to the Highline, a park built above the city on old railway lines running alongside the Hudson River. We walked until our feet began to hurt and then we stopped for sushi.

We didn’t really have a plan as such for NYC, just to see as much as possible and so the following morning we put on our tourist heads and set off for the subway. I imagine the first thing most people do on their first visit to the city is head for the Staten Island Ferry and a trip past the Statue of Liberty. The ferry takes you right past Liberty Island and doesn’t cost a dime. Upon arriving back onshore, we slowly made our way up through Manhattan, past numerous iconic landmarks, none more so than the Freedom Tower and Ground Zero.

Every so often something happens in the world that shakes people to their very core, events that people say ‘everyone remembers where they were when they heard XYZ had happened’ and 9/11 was one of those dates. I was working that day on the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation on the grounds team. We’d been out all day, piling a bank if I remember rightly. Upon leaving work I got into my little old Austin Metro car and turned on the radio as I did every day. I hadn’t driven very far when I realised there was no commentary that afternoon, just continuous muzak. Every now and then it’d be broken by a brief message advising that further details of the day’s events would be provided as soon as they were available. Even at this point I don’t remember thinking much of it or that it was anything on the scale it turned out to be. I was still living at the time in a student house in Chelmsford and as I arrived home I was surprised to see that the gas fitter, who had been due to fit a new boiler in the house that day, was still parked in my space on the drive. As I went into the house I was surprised to find a gaping hole in the kitchen wall where the old boiler had been and the gas technician sat in the living room watching the television. Slowly my housemates returned from work and we ended up all sat there together glued to the news for the next few hours. There was still a gaping hole in the kitchen wall when the boiler man left, but somehow it didn’t seem that important.

And so, as must the same for most other visitors to Ground Zero, it was a very strange feeling standing looking down into the memorials in the footprints of where the twin towers used to stand and reading the names of the victims engraved around the edges. It was very sobering to see the names of whole fire departments, and inscriptions such as the one that read ‘Helen Crossin Kittle and her unborn child’. We lingered a while, remembering the atrocities that took place there, imagining what it must have felt like to be in the area when it happened. We declined to visit the 9/11 Memorial Museum which had a disgustingly high price tag of $24 per person. The other part of the memorial is the dominant, defiant Freedom Tower. While we were there it was a beautifully sunny day with clear blue skies and the sun reflected off of the uppermost facet of the tower, highlighting it even further. It’s certainly a poignant place.

When we left there we walked up through Chinatown, stopping on Francine's recommendation at a Vietnamese bakery for a fantastic sandwich, before walking back down towards the water, past some of the famous music venues to the Brooklyn Bridge. For some reason unknown to me, whenever I think of New York the first thing I picture is the Brooklyn Bridge. Maybe it’s because it’s such an iconic bridge, much photographed and the subject of many prints in the early 90’s in the days of Athena. It didn’t disappoint. The cables and wooden walkways set against a backdrop of one of the most recognised skylines in the world, we slowly made our way across to the other side before succumbing to the pain in our feet and catching the metro back home where a wonderful rooftop dinner awaited us. We chatted late into the evening with our hosts and their friends as the sun went down and the city night sprung into life below us.

The following day we went in search of street art in Brooklyn. Graffiti and murals have long held a fascination for me, the subversiveness and sheer ingenuity of some pieces coupled with never knowing what you’re going to find as pieces are painted over again and again. I’m not sure Evan has the same level of affection for them, but he was remarkably tolerant of me dragging him up and down streets looking to see what we could find. I knew of the Bushwick Collective so this seemed to be a good place to start. We walked miles that day and when we eventually found ourselves back by the river at a coffee shop adorned with a large Roa squirrel, we were ready to drop. My Teva’s are usually extremely comfortable for long days of walking, I mean I wore them to hike 20km every day into the Osa, but this time I wore my feet to their limit.

Despite the fact our feet were battered and bruised, we managed to find our second wind and spent the last hours of daylight that evening wandering aimlessly in Central Park before taking in Times Square as the sun went down and the lights came on. 

Riding out of NYC the following morning, taking care to find the free roads as we headed north, we rode through the beautiful open countryside of upstate New York. Just outside Prattsburgh we met our 10th and final Tentspace hosts of our journey north. Rich, the only host currently without a motorcycle, lives with his wife Carol on a beautiful plot complete with its own lake. We exchanged tales of travels whilst enjoying dinner with our new friends before setting off the following morning for the border. It was a fairly sombre ride, partly because by this point we were both tired, but also because somehow crossing back into Canada meant the trip really was over. After a quick (and free!) visit to the Curtiss museum in nearby Hammondsport, we reached the border and crossed with no trouble at all. Evan crossed first and when I followed him I was asked only what my status was in Canada. “I’m a tourist” I replied. The border guard raised his eyebrow and seeing his point, I smiled sweetly and re-phrased my question “I’d like a tourist visa please”. With a big smile the guy stamped my passport, said he hoped we’d had a great trip and told us to ride safely before waving us on our way.

Our first stop was of course Tim Horton’s for coffee. It was at this point that the emotions both of us were struggling with boiled over. On my part it was hard to have to contemplate the thought that in a matter of a week or two I’d be saying goodbye to Evan and boarding a flight back to the UK to earn some desperately needed funds. We also hadn’t really made any real plans for where we’d go from here. It seemed so final, the end of something that neither of us really wanted to end. After talking it out over coffee and a donut we rode the short distance up to Hamilton, ON for a reunion with Evan’s mum and dad.

After a few days in Hamilton and a coincidental side trip to the Friday 13th Rally at Port Dover, we rode the final miles back up to Big Bay, in a late spring snow shower for good measure; it felt the weather wanted to make sure it got the last word. And so it was over. 27,421 miles (or 44,130km if you prefer) and almost exactly eight months to the day that we left we found ourselves back in the place we started. After the initial round of welcomes were over, including a reunion with Shreddie (who by his face I'd say was extremely happy to see Evan again!) there was a definite sense of emptiness for a few days. Each morning as we awoke, after adjusting to the fact we were in the same place as we’d woken up the day before, we quickly came to miss the buzz of excitement you get from not knowing what the day will bring or where you’ll end up sleeping that night. The bottom line is that amazing things happen when you don’t have a plan and you’re open to any eventuality. The ‘choose your own adventure’ style of travel really is the only way to go.

Soon enough, after a far too quick round of hellos and goodbyes I found myself headed to the airport and England bound once again. We’d vaguely discussed the looming ‘What next?’ question but hadn’t come to any firm conclusions. Once again I’d come full circle and despite the fact I was physically heading for somewhere very familiar, mentally I was heading into the unknown. 

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