I have covered a fair few road trips through the years but there will always be one that really stands out. Away from the UK, away from Europe, and away from pretty much everything I at the time know. It was both terrifying and fascinating which is the making of a most memorable of travels. And my random road trips from New York are memorable to this date.
This was back when Continental Airlines would fly out from Belfast International Airport to New York (Newark Airport). It was also in September 2008, when Robinho moved to Man City and thought he was at Chelsea, and on it was on the run-up to the Presidential Election when Sarah Palin was described as a pig in lipstick, and Russel Brand fled America after calling George Bush a retarded cowboy on the MTV Music and Video Awards. And these were the memorable TV moments from hotels, motels, and holiday inns at the end of each night on these random road trips from New York.
The New York Road Trip
I actually started this adventure the day before labour day (01/09/2008) where such memorable moments included having my car window bashed by a homeless guy in a sandwich board after a wrong turn to Delaware. Stopping and speeding in reverse from ghetto fights in the near-centre of DC, and near being smashed into by joyriders straight minutes later. As the US can be weirdly 3rd World in parts as you’d never expect.
Otherwise, my more enjoyable experiences on these road trips from New York included massive beef hoagies, Slim Jims for breakfast, my first-ever Wendy’s (The Baconator) and Taco Bell. Sightseeing-wise it was a helicopter over Niagara Falls after being kicked out of Canada at the road border. The Peach Festival in Lewiston was kind of cute. And of course, partaking in America’s pastime of shooting guns.
Real American Muscle
I have been to New York a couple of times now but this was my first experience and it was kind of big and brash and intimidating from the very start, just when walking in the NYC city centre. So I wouldn’t recommend driving out from New York city centre itself and instead I stayed a bit in the city before hopping back from Penn Station to Newark Airport to find some cheap car hire from the airport. Plumping for the cheapest Dodge Charger.
My first mistake was renting a car for its Americanness but that also fits my tiny budget. And when I turned up to Newark Airport’s Dollar Car Rental I was completely clueless. They threw me the keys, I jumped into the driver seat ready to go, to find it’s automatic gears, weird letters on the gear stick… there’s no clutch? Not only is it a beast of a car but it’s automatic gears, with rear-wheel drive and I don’t remember ever feeling in full control of the car. Driving on the right side of the road had become an afterthought.
Driving in America?
My next mistake was probably the hangover from the previous night beer sampling at New York’s Heartland Brewery. And our road trips from New York didn’t start well. So once I was on the road I was lost. I had no GPS or smartphone (2008) and I kind of expected road signs to point to Washington DC 230-miles away. “Is it north or south?”. Thing is. America is a fair bit bigger than Northern Ireland.
So after harassing random strangers, I am pointed to a ‘Best Buy’ for a map, and here I am pointed to a GPS (satnav). This was in fact the 1st time I’ve seen GPS and I wouldn’t travel without it since. So I bought a satnav and plugged it in etc. and we were well on our way. Only my travel-bud ‘accidentally’ set our track some far-flung clothes outlet when checking out local attractions. And it was 7-hours (normally 3hrs30mins) before reaching Washington DC.
New York to Washington DC
This was by far the most eventful part of the journey when coming to dark and I misinterpreted the GPS and followed an exit to the centre of Delaware and was straight stuck at traffic lights at an empty junction. Here a homeless guy, a blackfella wearing a sandwich board, stands in front of the car to stop me, then moved to the driver window and starts bashing it beside me. So I sped right off.
The GPS brings us on track again and we are back to the quickest direct route to Washington DC. Unfortunately, there is no ‘bypass ghettos’ option on GPS and close to midnight we pass the outskirts of Washington DC. Where I am the only honky in town driving a bright vanilla Dodge Charger through some of the sketchiest streets I’ve ever seen. I always thought Washington DC was a clean-cut, amiable city, far from poverty and crime. How wrong was I?
The Washington Ghettos
It’s around 20-minutes driving circles around Washington DC, when, past midnight, I see some black lad running from a side alley before falling face-first on the road. Quickly after him, he’s chased by three other guys. One lays into him, while the other 2 grab weapons from the roadside, what looked like a chunk of wood and a brick. I had obviously stopped the car by now, in the centre of the road, frozen, shitting myself…. where’s the reverse… I fumble into reverse, spin the car around, and back to the main roads.
But this was smack in the centre of Washington DC and just minutes away from the main monuments of the city. Within walking distance. So I was literally shaking by this point when I pulled up to the next traffic lights and some joyrider came skidding and near smashed the side of my car. No clue if they were involved in the attack but I was thankful they had no interest in me. 5-minutes later and I had checked into St. Gregory Hotel and was sipping my complimentary bottle of Champagne. Quite a contrast.
Upstate New York
The streets were empty in Washington on Labor Day and I could literally drive from one attraction to the next before my thankfully less memorable return journey to Upstate New York. For most my time I would be based in a Days Inn in the small town of Nanuet beside a friend who lived in the small commuter town of Pearl River. It’s about 25-miles from Manhattan Island. It’s also, coincidentally, very Irish, yet very American.
Anyway, this would be our base for road trips from New York, at the same time it was perfect to explore local life and to do as American’s do. I was shooting guns, eating hoagies, picnicking on junk food etc. and immersing in the white picket fences and great American Dream. The area is also near to state parks including Bear Mountain (25-miles), and then a fair bit further to the Catskill Mountains (108-miles). We did some picnicking in Bear Mountain.
New York to Long Island
This was the first road trip from New York that I did alone, leaving out from Pearl River, to travel down past New York City crossing the Washington Bridge. From there it’s not far to reach the main straight of Long Island which is pretty much one direct road from beginning to end. And while I did stop at some iconic destinations, like the Hamptons, I never quite made it to the iconic lighthouse at Montauk in the end. It’s a nice area, but it isn’t the most exciting on the straight roads, and most areas are quite private with rich residents. So I didn’t stay long.
New York to Niagara Falls
It’s 400 miles and 7 hours from our Pearl River base to Niagara Falls, and it’s a journey we took on during hurricane warnings in the New York State adding a bit of excitement to the road trip. Normally I would suggest stops along the way at Bear Mountain, and the Catskills. Otherwise it’s a near straight drive north to Syracuse before following the border of Ontario Canada west to Niagara.
We had a fancy hotel with views of the falls booked that night on the opposite side of the falls and the Canadian border. And while I had no problem entering Canada (British Passport) my friend was working in America on a Thai passport hence needed a VISA. So the border guards turned us back into the US. But when asked why we were returning from Canada I maybe shouldn’t have said ‘they kicked us out’. Resulting in the car keys being taken as border police phones in a check on our IDs. It was funny.
So instead we stayed on the American side of the border in a slightly less extravagant motel. The next day we then did the tourist sights, we went under falls on the Maid of the Mist, and finally crossed the Canadian border (in the sky) by helicopter with a quick tour over Niagara Falls. But some of the more memorable experiences was the Niagara County Peach Festival hosted in Lewiston which was another fascinating glimpse into smalltown USA. Before another 7-hour drive back to New York.