The journey from Canada
We took the train from Montreal to the US and it was a pretty straightforeward, if slow, trip. The train was well over an hour late and no message of apology ever came. This seems to be a given. This, I would imagine, is why people don't take the train in the US.
A couple of tips for anyone taking the train from Canada to the US (this train was the New York city train):
- When you arrive at Montreal there are some porters hanging about who for a tiny amount (I can't remember exactly what it was but as backpackers we didn't bat an eyelid) will look after your luggage when you arrive at Montreal station so you can wander about and then take it down to load on the train so you get on first (seat aren't allocated). This is apparently due to the recent rules since the Boston bombings - people have to get on with their luggage so if your luggage is looked after and put on - you have to go with it. It was all kind of odd and a bit unofficial seeming but it all worked perfectly and we got great seats nice and early.
- Your ESTA form is not valid for travelling overland into the US. We had to cough up some more money to pay for our VISA entry into the USA. We were a bit p'd off at this as it had not been mentioned anywhere when we'd looked up travelling in by train. The reason seemingly is because the passport check seemed to use no technology whatsoever. Our passports were manually checked over by someone who came to each passenger. If they though you'd have to pay of there was anything that needed talking about - you went and sat in the buffet carriage and waited for someone else to come around to chat to you. This process took forever - we must have been there a good hour and a half. It just seemed bizarrely disorganised and as is too often the case, some of the passport control guys had attitude problems. Our's seemed very annoyed that he had to look through our very full and disorganised passports and even more grumpy at the concept we'd been travelling. But we didn't get it bad at all compared to anyone who was hispanic or asian. Jeez. I guess you don't often witness the questioning of people so close at hand but downright rude seemed to be the order of the day and if they didn't speak English well, then just loudly, aggressively, impatient repeating seemed to be the order of the day. This wasn't all the staff to be fair but the bad ones are the ones you remember aren't they? This experience definitely put me off getting into the country this way again. It was undeniably good value but turning up with a bad taste in your mouth and super late, is never a fun start.
Experiencing the real US of A
So, my main reason for visiting upper New York state was to visit family so I won't go into the personal details of my utterly delightful stay but will just talk about some of the things we did/places we went, because as well as loving being with my family and getting huge crushes on my gorgeous nieces and nephew - we also got a bit of a crush on this lovely area.
We were staying at my sister Patty's, in a place just outside of Maine, Broome County with the largest big city being Binghamton and the postal code being Johnson City. The signs as you drove through said Johnson City Village - all this was rather confusing to say the least! My other sister, Shani, lives in Harpursville - a 45ish minute car ride away which in these parts is considered close by. Being such a vast country, it's such a long journey to get anywhere, however, the roads and quick, the traffic, quiet by UK standards (VERY quiet by south east england standards), so the journeys tend to be smooth so not a big deal. Patty and my niece Kim picked us up from Schenectady (we never worked out how to pronounce this) which was a couple of hours drive each way for her (not to mention the wait for our delayed train) but she was cool about it as she is so used to such distances. When drives to relatives and dentists and such like are that kind of distance, it's not such a big deal. We definitely found that the journeys weren't remotely arduous - as compared to travelling the relatively short distance from say London to Devon - the whole thing a blood pressure inducing crawl, these smooth, big roads, in big comfy cars were a doddle. On the way back from the station we got to stop at a proper diner too which was cool.
We were staying properly out in the country but you could be in the centre of Binghamton super quickly - everything was super convenient but of course you have to drive! We were fine of course as we were ferried about by long suffering relatives but you definitely see how much of the US gets missed out by anyone travelling/back-packing as it's not so easy to get about and explore unless you have a car. I definitely want to do a huge road trip at some point. The landscape around here was lush, green and pretty epic. There's lots of wildlife - large deer are particularly common and we saw some hanging about out front of the house one time. You can also tempt them in with apple cores apparently.
Deciding to get a bit of exercise and explore one day we walked to the end of the road and back. My niece Kim does this walk regularly so we thought this would be a lovely idea. Wow that was a hike - especially the large uphill bit on the way back - Kim is clearly way, way fitter than us two layabouts. Despite knackering ourselves out - it was a lovely walk - nice to check out the local properties - huge houses - mansion like to people from England - manicures lawns, out-buildings and barns the size of a Brighton apartment block!
Much of our stay was spent hanging around with family and I was lucky enough to go out and about to do a bit of girl shopping without a moaning Mark in the background.I had my first real 'shopping mall' experience. I've obviously been to them in cities, but never a kind of everyday out of town one. Could have knocked me down with a feather at the price I paid for some jeans and a top - you'd be lucky to pay that in a charity shop at home. I was also quite bewildered by all the sch-peal from the shop assistants - your rounded up change going to charity and doing surveys online and yada yada. It quite bewildered me. I cottoned on soon enough and by the time I hit NYC I was no longer a rabbit in the headlight at cut them off pretty sharpish.
I was also sadly excited by the supermarkets. Wegmans is a great store. I was impressed that they had special attention on things that were in season - peaches were big time while we were there. And not only that the produce tasted so good. This being an area with lots of farms, they clearly aren't going to accept fruit and veg that tastes of nothing that we get so used to in the UK from supermarkets. And also - in the kids sweets section, they had an overhead model train - how can you not love that????
We also sourced some yorkshire tea here and lots of cheese. I was being proper spoiled!
The local farm shop was obviously a delight. Corn from their cornfields growing right next door (with dried corn cobs decorating the wooden building that holds the shop). Freshly baked pies. The hugest, juiciest peaches and lot's of other interesting bits and pieces.
My brother in law, Steve, runs a construction company and has a bunch of trucks, diggers and the like. Mark and I were like little kids climbing into the driving seats of things and pretending to drive. Yep, we made broom, broom noises and everything. It was ace!!
Check out the big shed that houses a load of stuff which uses old lorry bodies as walls:
I noticed in this picture also, that you can see the kind of landscape of the area too.
Our biggest thrill (who needs theme parks when you live round here!) was getting to have a go on the big excavator type thing - we went out with my nephew, Ryan, and the three of had a bit of a go at excavating rubble. I went first and was a little gun-ho and swirled the cab round at quite a speed that gave Mark a bit of a heart attack. It hadn't occurred to me to check that the digger arm was hanging higher than the rubble. Luckily I was clear by a few inches - may have rocked the cradle somewhat if it hadn't been. I think my brother in law had given me a little more credit for having common sense, than I deserved!! Once you get the hang of the controls it's actually a super enjoyable, almost meditational thing - picking up the rubble on one side and swing round and position it on the other. Sounds odd but I could do it all day. Apparently it's not quite so enjoyable in smaller vehicles that are a lot less sturdy and therefore produce a bumpy ride.
Riding high (and low and in a ditch)
Other countryside toys included the atvs (quad bikes). They owned a couple of fields a little way up the road which were perfect for bombing about in.
Mark was keen to have a go and my teenage niece Jenna basically gave me no choice. We were sensibly helmet-ted up (don't let the photos/vids of Mark fool you - he took the helmet off to look cool (which is the least cool thing ever, right?).
I went out on the back with Jenna (trying not to cling on too hard to the poor girl) and she was, I believe, quite enjoying herself as we went over big dips and she charged a group of cows, only to turn at the last minute while I screamed. "You're such a baby" I seem to recall her shouting, gleefully!!! But I have to confess it was great fun and I did, just about, trust her not to kill me. Mark was in his element and thought he was Evil Knievel or some such hero.
I did have a go in 'the easy field'. It was quite fun but I think I enjoyed being the passenger as I don't trust myself. I was hurtling at quite a speed (read very slowly and tentatively) when I heard "mind the fence" - there was a low wire fence which I hadn't noticed at all. After realising I couldn't trust my senses at all I went off the idea a bit. Plus my hands had seized up where I'd been clinging onto the handles so hard!!
My second fail was trying to climb Jenna's favourite tree. It had a few helping notches but I couldn't pull my weight up onto the leg that was sprawled out into the air. And when my hip nearly seized up, I realised I was also the least cool person around - along with Mark. Though he did manage to get up the tree - where they both sat, looking down laughing at me!!!
Mark had a second atv experience with my nephew Ryan. They live much more out in the sticks, surrounded by woodland and so that was a bit more of an adventurous, rough, ready and wet ride, as of course, 16 year olds have no fear.
And his third go was going out one evening with Steve. This was apparently quite a hard core experience - going right into the woods through terrain he didn't think a bike could go. He was quite pale when he came back. "I thought I was going to die" he whispered to me. Though he was also exhilarated and you bet, given the chance, he would have gone out again the next day. I was ok with it - he's quite well insured after all!!
Woodland, waterfalls and wine
We went out on day out with my sister Shani and brother-in-law Bill where we headed up to Ithaca, home of Cornell university and the finger lakes.
On the way we went to an open bird sanctuary area connected to a college, I can't remember which. This was a gorgeous hideaway - though not many birds about, wrong time of year, maybe, it was a magical little place. Lush and green, ponds covered with lilly pads - a really peaceful ambiance.
I got quite excited by seeing a bit of word that had been gnawed by a beaver.
Sounds sad I know, but when you see it and you haven't seen it before, it's kind of cool because it looks just like you'd imagine or how you'd see beaver gnawed wood appear in cartoons. We also, while looking over the huge pond area, saw 2 large red deer with white tails having a drink by the waters edge.
This is where Mark had his first bout of camera envy. Bill's had amazing lenses and he was getting great shots of things we could barely see if we took on our SLR.
We headed further south up to Ithaca itself which had lots of big, interesting houses and seemed an interesting, vibrant place.
We went to Walmart which I was chuffed about as I've never been to the infamous Walmart. We got ourselves a lovely little picnic and went to go eat by the massive, gorgeous lake at the Allan H. Treman State Marine Park. This is kind of the beach for people living round here, it being so far from the coast. People have their leisure boats moored up here, some simple, some very grand and swish. The water is clear and the scenery is breath taking.
After our picnic and walk around the edge of the lake (and Mark becoming dr doolittle trying to befriend some ducks) - we headed north to go to Taughannock Falls. I was super happy as with all our travelling we'd not really seen a proper scale waterfall anywhere. We'd not seen one at all since Fiji, getting on for 2 years ago. And this waterfall is definitely impressive. There was what seemed to be a wedding that had gone on there which was must have made for some great wedding shots. Mark and I both actually had an intake of breath when we rounded the corner of the viewing steps and saw the waterfall for the first time. Wow! Impressive to say the least. This is where Mark almost gave up trying to take photos when he could see the great ones Bill was setting up.
Next stop was for a wine tasting. Not too shabby for Katie Believe it or not, wine lover that I am, I have never done a wine tasting and it's something I'd really wanted to do on this trip. After not doing it in Oz I thought I wouldn't get the chance after Napa got knocked off our list of places to visit so this was a great bonus for me. A waterfall and wine tasting in one day Yey!!! And the place was a gorgeous. A vineyard looking out over the lake and the mountains beyond. Talk about giving any view in Tuscany a run for it's money.
We did a panoramic photo of the view but it really does no justice.
So, we did a tasting of 4 wines. It said which each one was and the price and it was interesting to find your preference and how the preference changed slightly as time went on. I was surprised just how much wine you got. Shani was designated driver that day and for sure, you couldn't get away with driving and having one tasting - it's a lot, not just a sip. Beautiful wines. Would have loved to have gotten one but wouldn't have been able to carry such fragile cargo - all the room is taken up carrying Mark's fragile ego - boom boom!
It was quite a drive back but a great chance for a girlie gossip as the boys in the back both fell asleep. Luckily we only did the one tasting - tempting as it was to go on, because if we had we'd have been in no state to enjoy the evenings festivities.
A little bit of country baby
This Tim McGraw gig had come up before we went so we knew my sister had gotten the tickets which I was proper excited about.
I don't know a lot of artists but have experienced a few road trips in the US and more surprisingly, Australia, where the only music radio stations we could get were country and predominantly I always think of country as fun. The words to the songs are amazing and quite often tongue-in-cheek. One of the songs that popped on the radio when we were on the way to the concert was legendary - it was all about getting his red neck on. I LOVE this and decided then and there that was what I was going to do that evening - get MY redneck on.
The concert was put on by Dick's Sporting Good - how all american does that sound for a star - and was setup in the grounds of a golf course. It drew a pretty impressive crowd and we traipsed through armed with our foldup chairs. How prepared is that - I am terribly unprepared for such things normally and it was so worth it to have a nice seat while we waited for proceedings to begin. They weren't going to pussy foot about with a support act (super pleased about that - it so drags out an evening) and pretty much bang on time Tim came on. For those of you who doesn't know who he is (I did know of him but not really any of his music), he is famous for wearing a black cowboy hat and is married to Faith Hill, who is a little more famous in the UK. We'd lined up our chairs in 2 rows and during the wait, my nieces Heather and Jenna amused themselves taking photos. I shouldn't have pulled those funny faces as those photos have come back to haunt me on facebook, let me tell you!!!
There was a bit of a problem with the sound, so people sitting on one side of the stage - us for instance - weren't able to hear the words very well. This actually ended up being a blessing as lots of picky, not used to things being spot on, type people didn't like it and left. So - we had loads more room around us - result!! I didn't need to hear the words from Tim because either the crowd were singing them loudly or my sister Patty (who is a fun drunk without the drinking!). There was some real hum-dinging tunes I can tell you (see I have my redneck on).
There's Something like that with the lines "I had a BBQ stain on my white T-shirt, She was killing me in that mini-skirt". Then there was Truck Yeah - with the song title being the heavily chanted chorus, Mark decided to change the words to other vehicles in honour of our fun trip "atv, yeah" "digger, yeah", "excavator, yeah" and so on. Mark also knew all the words to one of the songs, as he'd recorded in his music studio, unknowing it as a Tim McGraw song. Shani said she was surprised when all of a sudden she heard someone belting out the song from behind her, to turn and see it was Mark I think the fact that for some reason, I guess as people had driven and it was quite a family event, the line to the beer and wine stand was pretty much always non-existent, aided his newly found enthusiasm. Yes people of Britain - you didn't have to queue to get a drink at a gig - utopia?!?! I was personally rather partial to 'Live like you were dying'. I can't remember the others - I must get my family to write me up a playlist.
We'd been lucky enough to get to park nearby in a friend of Shani's yard. This says it all about the size of houses etc round here - this was a town house but he'd fitted 80-90 cars in the back garden. We hung about on the street for a while waiting for the traffic to clear but once we got out it was 15 minutes home. Patty thought this was terrible traffic - I've had worse on a work commute! Really seeing the appeal of living up round here.
Especially after being entertained on the way home by my super talented niece Jenna.
Come on baby light my fire
Now I love a good fire. Burning things is so satisfying no? It's not something you get to do much these days. In fact, you don't even get many bonfires on Guy Fawkes night - it's all about the fireworks, which I love, but fires have become few and far between in our over packed with people, health and safety conscious britain. Well probably not in the country, but I didn't hang out there much these days. Anyway, one night we had a massive fire. It was huge and Mark and I's eye boggled. This was just burning general waste from the woods and construction sites etc. And we only burnt about a quarter of it. And by all accounts this was an incy fire compared to the one they had at my niece Kim's graduation. I'd totally forgotten how relaxing and lovely it is to sit around a fire. Well, sit for a while - then realise your face is melting so back up a bit, only to 10 minutes later realise your eyelashes are singing so move back further, until 20 mins later as the fire calms, you shuffle forward again. Add to the lovely ambiance of a fire and family - what's that we hear in the difference - only bloomin kayotes, that's what??? How cool is that? Howlingly cool! I was feeling a bit Dances with Wolves. Of course if anyone had left me out there in the dark, on my own with the howling, I would have been howling myself, like a baby, in about 30 seconds.
We also got to try Smores. This is, if I can remember it correctly, Graham crackers (remember Brit's it's not pronounced as we would (*coughs* properly) but as 'Gram', with chocolate and marshmallows sandwiched in the middle and then put on a stick and stuck in the fire. Yum! The dark choc one was definitely the way to go.
Our first big family meal with all my nieces and nephews would have been great regardless of the food but let's say that the mac n cheese cooked by my nephews own fair hands - for the first time - was pretty darned good. The second batch he did a few days later was even better (Heather was right - it did need a little bit more cheese!). I could eat that all day everyday - best comfort food in the world.
Patty doesn't much like cooking but she dropped herself in it by rusling up a peach and blueberry cobbler which was so bloddy tastey that we badgered her until she agreed to do another one before we left.
This is a locally loved thing which is essentially marinated chicken pieces. The key is in the marinade. I first got a whiff of it at the concert and then having had it a couple of time on the bbq, I see what the fuss it about.
I'd never had an american pie so was keen to try one. It was yummy but was surprisingly sweet. I think it's when I have had pie as desert in the UK - probably back a few decades - it as usually quite tart - rhubarb, apple etc.
We went out for breakfast at a nearby farm. It had a few animals including a friendly (and hungry goat) who wondered freely about the place and who Mark was quite taken with until the goat ditched him with no bye or leave, for someone else with a handful of food.
As part of the breakfast I had a side of sloppy, cheesy potato heaven-ness. I had small pancakes which were pretty big in my eyes and it was proper lovely. Luckily we had my nephew, with hollow legs, with us to finish up what we couldn't manage.
This was a big treat for me, brought over my some of my sister's relatives, also from the UK - very much to my delight. The american contingent hadn't heard of them/tried them before and I can confirm they went down VERY well indeed! I of course instructed that you need to bite the head of first.
There's lot of interesting wildlife in them there woods - most of which we never got to see. Mark was dying to see a woodchuck but it just never happened. At Shani's house which is in a lovely location - even more out in the sticks and surrounded by woodland - they have some even wilder animals - bob cats and fisher cats - no I hadn't heard of them either - check them out on google- they are rather weird looking - kind of like a large weasel. Unfortunately the downside to all this wildlife is there's a lot to watch out for on the roads. A few days after I left a day trip was ruined for Shani & Bill after they hit a deer. Those big deer do a lot of damage!
Things that made me smile
- I learned that referring to the Boondocks is similar to saying 'the back of beyond' and love to use this now!
- The announcement of the lost girl at the Tim McGraw gig described her as a young girl wearing tight blue jeans - she was 11, so this sounded kind of creepy, bless him!!
- The snow mobile that Steve has tucked away in the garage awaiting action - I sooo want to go on this one day!
- There is a very old lady who lives down the road who is a bit of a character. She's pretty deaf and pretty blind but is certainly an independent old chicken. She collects her mail from her mail box by driving down her drive way, parking her large car straight across the road - covering it so no-one can get by. Then slowly (for she is elderly) getting out and getting her mail. Which she goes through. Slowly. Then gets back into her car and either drives back up to the house or goes off into town . It's best to go the other direction as, as I say her eye sight ain't too great.
We'd heard about her as folk lore and then we got to see if for ourselves. While we were waiting (quite a while) for her to finish up, we got the opportunity to take a snap.
Trip down to NYC
I had decided to break our journey to New York City down by stopping at Lazy Meadow motel, in the catskills on the way. The stopped proved to be pretty un-necessary as the drive was really easy and quick - great American highways again. But it did give us the chance to explore the area a little.
On the way we went through some cute touristy towns where we picked up some food for the evening in our cabin.
I had always wanted to go to the Lazy Meadow - which is a motel that was brought by Kate from the band the B52s. She had then set about decorating it in a kitschy retro stylee - hence my desire to visit. There's a few suite rooms, a couple of cabins and even an airstream. It wasn't quite out in the sticks as I'd thought and was in fact set back off a main road but it did back onto a rather amazing creek.
The room was very cool, but I'm not sure they'd made the most of the site. It felt a bit like the enthusiasm for looking after the place had waned over the years which was a shame - especially as the prices are pretty high!!
The suite rooms had vcrs (how retro is that!) and a range of cult movies to choose from. They had great furniture and each one had it's own themed. I'd opted for the one that had gnomes white water rafting. There was a kitchenette so we'd decided to enjoy having our own place for the night before we went to an airbnb apartment in NYC.
There was a cute chipmunk who pottered around outside our suite. He looked just like chip and dale!!
Down by the creek, for whatever reason, there were little piles of rocks - so we added our own. I'd gone exploring with a glass of wine in hand - hence the red glass.
Woodstock is a funny old place. It definitely has the feel of what it is - a nice, rural liberal town full of ex New York City folk. Incredibly right on with expensive tastes!!
Check out Janis who was interestingly juxtaposed behind the virgin mary!!
They had these big blue signs all over the town - standing up against the unjust!
We finished off our mini roadtrip the next morning with the quintisential diner experience. A nice old fashioned one - not in the chrome 50s diner style - but in a brown, 70s, seen better days style with characterful people - an old lady waitress, a grumpy chef and some crazy russian locals moaning about their health issues.