Having done a couple of housesits in Ontario and waited for the weather to fine up, we had made our way down to Crystal Beach, adjacent to the US border, and were now ready to join the Adventure Cycling Association’s Northern Tier route and head west across America. We would begin the American leg in the city of Buffalo, New York State and head out around the bottom of Lake Erie.
We have now done just over 400kms coming down from Port Severn in central Ontario, but we will still need some more time to “get our legs” as we have once again started our journey completely unprepared physically, not haven ridden a bicycle since finishing our last trip some two and a half years ago.
So, no pain, no gain … and here we go …
Crystal Beach, Ontario to Buffalo, New York: (16kms)
We sadly said goodbye to Teresa and made our way up to the bike path that runs all the way to the Peace Bridge at Fort Erie. According to what I’d read, we found ourselves at a gate in the boundary fence, a small sign said to ring a number and someone would come an collect you and your bike. This had to be the weirdest border crossing we’d seen – and we’ve seen some!
A lady walked past with her small dog. We asked if she knew anything about the gate and the crossing. Sure, she said, people come through the gate all the time – especially at night! We looked at each other, bemused, but Sharyn rang the number anyway. A woman answered and said she’d be right over with her van.
As the bridge had some major refurbishments happening, there was no pedestrian footpath to cross on, so all bicycles went over in the van. This had meant we had no interaction with Canadian Customs and Immigration, no stamps and no proof we’d even been in the country! To add to the trepidation of US Border Control (the source of many negative stories we’d heard from our travels), our US Visa, a 6 month, multi-entry valid until 2020, was in our old passport (which we had on us, of course). It’s a special B2 visa we’d obtained in Vietnam to use for Puerto Rico (not a US state, but a US territory just the same), for our Caribbean sailing trip.
At Border Control the guard looked at our passports, all of them, pretty dubiously, and decided he didn’t want to deal with it. So, he sent us over to a building on the side, got us to unload the bikes and wait in a processing room with lots of other people. After about 10mins, we were called over to an interview window and a young girl began to grill us about our reasons for entering the US, how long were we intending to stay and how much money we had to support ourselves etc…. She seemed to have trouble comprehending our plans to ride bicycles across the country carrying all our luggage. The hardest question (and you don’t want to hesitate when asked) was how long this little endeavour would take us. A curly one! Angling for the full 6 months, we mumbled something about it would only take us 5 months. She seemed surprised and studied her computer screen hard again. How could we possibly know?? It was our first time in the States and we’d never ridden in the mountains before. She looked a bit bewildered, our hearts were starting to beat faster. About 18 months of planning would be for nothing if she refused us! She mumbled something I didn’t get, then smiled and stamped our passports, informing us she’d given us 6 months – until November 22nd, and, if we needed more time, just to contact these people on a card she gave us and ask for an extension. We both let out a sigh of relief, thanked her very much and quickly made our way back to our bikes. The whole process took about 45mins, but at no stage had anyone been nasty to us, they were just doing their jobs.
We had arranged an Airbnb in Allentown, only about a km from the border. It was a nice tree-lined suburb with a great collection of colourful, rebuilt timber period houses. It was too early to go there, so we settled down in an outside cafe and ate a hot roast beef roll each. It was cloudy and cool still and the hot food felt good going down. Our room was pretty basic and nothing to really mention, but we did find a nice pub called The Alley Cat down in the heart of Allentown, a young, arty district that caters for the university crowd. It had a great selection of craft beers and the young regulars were quick to strike up a conversation. It was a nice welcome to the States!
(If you don’t have an Airbnb account yet then use THIS LINK to join and get the equivalent of AUD 55 off your first booking over about AUD110)
Buffalo to Evangora State Park: (72kms)
After trying to stay another night in Buffalo because of the long weekend, we headed out of Buffalo early, the sun shining and not much traffic to speak of. Americans like to fill up their State Parks on long weekends and we’d been warned to try and avoid them then as finding a pitch could be problematic.
The ride out of Buffalo skirted around the downtown area and down through an old and grimy industrial area. It was not a great first impression of a country. Not having had breakfast, we eventually found a Burger King open, so we went in and got some coffee and a breakfast burger – at least it was quick, we had a long ride today and didn’t want to waste time early.
The southern neighbourhoods seemed quite poor and mainly black, something we hadn’t seen much of in Ontario. These inner areas gradually gave way to more affluent estates with cookie-cutter houses that are relatively new and well designed, but are squashed in together and all look the same.
We found a Verizon shop on the side of the road along the way and Shazz went in to get a US sim card for her phone. She was told her phone wouldn’t work in the US and she’d have to buy another one. So, about 90mins later, we had a new phone – not a fast process! While I waited outside, I met another cycle tourer, Tobias from Germany. He was also cycling the Northern Tier west to east. We spoke for a while and exchanged contacts. If he was riding ahead of us, he could warn us of any route changes and supply us with any up to date information about the ride. So, we said goodbye and he headed off down the road while I waited for Shazz.
Our route took us down through Orchard Park and then up to Hamburg through some very lovely scenery with lush green properties with horses and mega mansions, obviously a much more wealthy area. A couple of older ladies on bikes stopped us and asked us the usual questions and wished us happy trails.
We stopped for lunch in Hamburg, would you believe it – the home of the Hamburger and a festival each year to honour America’s number one gastronomic offering to the world. It had gotten hot and we sat outside in the shade so we could keep an eye on the bikes. The weather had changed so much in such a short time, we were now wearing summer clothes on the bikes and applying sunscreen to avoid being burnt.
The road out of town became quite hilly and we had to negotiate a couple of really busy highways to get to the lakeshore. The road lost its shoulder and the surface got progressively worse. Large cracks opened up across the entire width of the decaying tarmac, a result of the winter snow, a problem we don’t have in Australia.
Living by the lakeshore means upkeeping of a gigantic mansion, and there was no shortage of these places. Grandiose entrance gates led down long, curving driveways with manicured gardens and lawns to the columned front entryways. The other sides of the houses facing the lake must have been awesome! At least they took our minds off the state of the road and the constant shockwaves coming up through the bikes.
We stopped and shopped for dinner at a small supermarket before the State Park, and, after we took a wrong turn-off, we eventually found our first campsite in the US and set up the tent. Shazz cooked dinner while the place remained quiet. We chatted with an older fellow next to us and wondered where everyone was. Apparently, tomorrow is when everyone turns up. So, we made the best of a peaceful night and both got to sleep early.
The next day, Saturday, was a rest day for us as accommodation around the lake would be scarce over this long, Memorial Day weekend. We had leftovers for breakfast and watch as the campground filled up. Almost everyone had bought their dogs, they all seemed to be attack dogs though and needed to be restrained from launching themselves at whatever or whoever walked past. It was pretty intimidating, just to walk around the camping area, I really don’t get this, why buy a dog that you can barely control and that you know will cause you major trouble if it gets off its leash. Bringing them to a campground full of people, especially children, is just the height of ignorance.
Other than the ridiculous dogs, our only other beef with the campground was the distance to the toilet block – 200m! We were eventually riding our bikes as our bladders were just about bursting before we got there. Our usual trick of going out the back of the tent behind a tree for a wee wasn’t possible with all the people around. We’ll need to be mindful of long weekends in future.