Tag Archives: travel

Chasing West

My friends and I departed on a Friday afternoon during the peak of summer, leaving behind our homes and any concerns for the time of day.

We’d entered into a losing race with the setting sun, united by our common western destination, winding through those vibrant green New Hampshire mountains without a look back. 2,297 miles, 35 hours and six questionably hygienic gas station bathrooms later we arrived in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I was raised in the excessive familiarity of an isolated New England town, a town boasting a thriving tourist scene and more ski resorts than people of color.

JAMES GAUDREAULT. B-Side.

Although my family certainly traveled, we tended to limit our excursions to the east coast, exploring Maine and New Hampshire tirelessly, yet content with gleaning knowledge of the distant “West” through National Geographic photographs.

I think this was the root motivation for the trip – the idea of the vast unknown and the unfamiliarity that accompanies it. My friends and I had never ventured more than five or so hours from our homes, limiting ourselves to day trips and overnight hikes in the seemingly limitless White Mountain wilderness.

We’d had romanticized talks of “pilgrimages” out West. We had daydreamed of dropping everything and exploring the Pacific Crest Trail or the boundless beauty of Yellowstone. We’d had visions of camping under the stars, living off hand caught fish, and spending our days wrapped in the arms of mother nature.

While it wasn’t possible to fully realize our fantasies so soon, this past summer I was able to take that initial exploratory step.

For the first leg of the journey I was fortunate enough to have the help of one of those old friends, Ian Lubkin, who was on his way to New Mexico to study at Albuquerque University. With his dog Alta as our third amigo, we piled the sum collection of our belongings into his blue Subaru Outback and headed on our way.

On that first night we left home with only one final destination in mind and no obligations in between. We cruised through the first few hours comfortably, passing familiar New England territory, bubbling with a freedom-fueled energy, as if our newfound independence would sustain us for weeks to come.

Conversation and laughter flowed freely that night as our motley trio left first New Hampshire behind, then Massachusetts, before pushing deep into the winding rural roads and thickly-wooded hills of upstate New York.

We weren’t sure where we stopped for the night, and it didn’t matter much. As the gas gauge crept low and the clock edged into the early morning hours, we pulled off into an abandoned field, the swaying grass standing nearly as tall as the car itself.

JAMES GAUDREAULT. B-Side.

Once we cut the engine and surrendered ourselves to the natural world, a kind of surreal realization of our situation settled in: we were doing it.

We pulled a tent from my 45-pound all-inclusive hiking pack, unrolled our sleeping pads and bags and made ourselves at home with the crickets and the distant giggles of an enthusiastic creek. We gathered a few twigs and fell into our dinnertime camping routine, resulting in a “feast” of ham, potatoes and toast.

We rose with the sun, prepared some farm eggs, and, with the help of Alta, packed up our things back into our miniature makeshift RV.

Saturday was spent in the car. We continued through New York, stopping only at Anchor Bar in Buffalo, the famed birthplace of the buffalo wing. From here we drove nearly straight through the night, stopping every few hours to walk Alta and alternate behind the wheel.

Surprisingly, this wasn’t the unbearable gauntlet we’d been bracing ourselves for. Up until this point we both had limited long-drive experience, and we’d braced ourselves for the pain and boredom of those 4-5 hour family vacation treks, each minute agonizing, without a second unnoticed or uncounted.

Instead we fell into a routine not far from enjoyable, napping off and on, our attention shifting from music to books and inevitably back to the unrelenting stretches of highway laid out before us.

As we passed through Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Kentucky and eventually Texas, the color gradually drained from the scenery flying by. The tall pines were the first to go, leaving only their distant shrub-like cousins and occasional oak towering over the livestock fields.

For miles on end our only company was scattered cattle and thundering semi trucks emblazoned with massive brand names, advertising to the empty fields.

Soon after the sun rose we entered the desert zone, passing through Amarillo, Texas, the gas prices declining with our latitude.

Before noon, New Mexico swallowed us, and all greenery with us, leaving only bleak high desert plains stretching on for miles uninterrupted. Although we were running on little food and even less sleep, it was the excitement of the destination that pushed us those last few hours into the sandy city of Albuquerque.

Rather than rising magnificently, it seemed to almost grudgingly emerge from the plains, the few ranches sprinkled about morphing into a cohesive civilization built with the ingredients of asphalt, billboards and oppressive heat.

JAMES GAUDREAULT. B-Side.

The city was no exception to the bleak Southwestern palette, each and every building created with a severely limited spectrum of browns and grays.

For the next eight days Albuquerque was my home. These were filled with desert hikes, canyons, camping, swimming, dog walks, sunsets, laughter and new friends, each of which could be a story of their own.

The following Tuesday I gathered my limited belongings and carefully traced out a cardboard sign: “LA or West: (probably not an axe murderer).” I planned to hitchhike, a kind of surrender to the flow of the highway and the spirit of the American adventure.

I spent the following seven hours stranded on highway curbs and rest stop entrances, presenting my sign and upturned thumb, doing my best to convince passersby that the straggly 19-year-old with a ratty Hawaiian shirt and even rattier mustache would be good company for the next few hours of their road trip.

JAMES GAUDREAULT. B-Side.

While I did receive several ride offers to Mexico and one gentleman who attempted to recruit me to rob a bank (promising plenty of “guns and scary masks” in his truck), the kind-hearted family or truck driver never pulled to the side to take me under their wing.

As dusk settled in and my crude sign was lost to the swallowing darkness, I decided to dig into my shallow bank account to buy a one-way Greyhound Bus ticket to Los Angeles.

The Albuquerque bus station was an adventure of its own, inhabited by diverse and fascinating specimens: a young father and son with only the clothes on their backs sharing a seat in the corner, a large older woman with a shopping cart and colorful pajamas sprawled over a three-seat kingdom, and a collection of nearly identical latino men dressed in tank tops and army shorts, engrossed in an ‘80s crime drama unfolding on a small pixelated television.

My bus left 2 a.m., and I’d arrived at the station 5 hours prior. As we entered the morning hours and the bus to LA was the final ticket left to board, the group grew, and the smell with it.

JAMES GAUDREAULT. B-Side.

We finally boarded, the veteran driver grudgingly checking each ticket as if he had a personal vendetta against each and every paying customer. The following 17 and a half hours were some of the most grueling of my life.

We drove through a sleepless night, the air conditioning struggling as if clogged by the tangible stench hanging in the stagnant air. The sun rose with the temperature, the bus reading an exterior temp of 110 degrees, the interior not far behind.

Brief desert stops interrupted the rest of the journey, each mile adding another drop of sweat to my shirt.

When we eventually rolled into the Los Angeles station, the first half of my journey ended. From here I jumped to San Francisco, Northern California, Chicago and finally back home, colorful stories to be saved for another day.

All in all, there is no universal moral to extract from this story, no motivational pitch or grandiose inspirational message to concluded here. Rather, I hope that this serves as evidence, if nothing else, that sometimes “winging it” works out just fine.

Sometimes just going for it produces the best memories and most powerful experiences, even if your idea of “it” isn’t fully articulated at the onset.

Not everyone can drop everything and head across the country (I certainly I wouldn’t have made it more than a few miles without the generosity of friends and sufficient savings) but regardless I hope more people will expand their definitions of what is feasible, and ask themselves “why not?”

48 Hours across the Border

It’s a strange feeling to hop in your car for a short ride and suddenly be in another country. It’s a little like slipping through some Fairyland portal to an alternate dimension where everyone speaks French, the money is multicolored, and teenagers can go to bars. Only Fairyland is just Canada — and it’s a little chilly.

As my friends and I stumble stiff-legged out of our VW bug after an hour and a half car ride, a bright, crisp Montreal afternoon greets us. There’s still slush in the streets, but the sunshine makes up for that, and everyone is in high spirits as we make our way through the neighborhood to retrieve the key for our Airbnb  apartment.

The key retrieval requires us to follow a series of Kafkaesque instructions involving hidden mailboxes, multiple sets of keys, and cryptic directions. But somehow, my rusty French skills manage to get us where we’re going.

None of us have ever used Airbnb, so we had some reservations about our health, safety, and sanity. Aside from a mysterious chicken bone on the bathroom floor and a closet that looks designed for hiding corpses, the apartment is nice. And we especially like the heated floors.

Latin Quarter, Montreal, QC. CAROLINE SHEA. B-Side.
Latin Quarter, Montreal, QC. CAROLINE SHEA. B-Side.

Travelling on a college student’s budget can be tricky, but resources like Airbnb can make it  much easier. You get a more authentic feel for a place because you’re in a residential area instead of the main tourist traps. And most importantly, you don’t have to shell out tons of cash for a sterile hotel room–our  studio apartment only cost $35.00 for two nights. 

After appreciating the amenities at our temporary home, we brave the Canadian wind again to go exchange money. It took us a while to figure out where to do this, but bus stations are usually your best bet. Although some places in Canada do take American money, and you can use your debit card, it’s worth exchanging some cash — if only because Canadian money is about a million times cooler than ours. Plus, the exchange rate is great right now at $1.28 Canadian dollars to one U.S. dollar. 

There’s lots to explore in Montreal, but we decide to make the Latin Quarter our home base. Close to McGill University, the neighborhood is popular among college students and is packed with restaurants, cafes, shops, and clubs.

Montreal, QC. CAROLINE SHEA. B-Side.
Montreal, QC. CAROLINE SHEA. B-Side.

We grab dinner at a local pub, Le Saint-Bock, which I highly recommend. It’s casual enough for us to feel comfortable in  jeans, and it sports a diverse crowd of patrons. Wedged at a little table, we’re surrounded by a mix of businessmen, families, married couples, and 20-somethings starting a  night on the town. Saint-Bock boasts an impressive 31-page beer list, but we were mainly there for the poutine. If there’s a happy way to have a heart attack, it’s that Quebecois concoction of fries, gravy, and gooey melted cheese curds.

When you tell people you’re going to Montreal for the weekend, you get knowing looks, usually accompanied by the question — “You’re not 21, right?” and a sly chuckle. And there’s no denying the city is known for its nightlife, so after dinner we slip into our going-out clothes and force our bemused friend, Mike, to take an excessive number of pictures of us.

There are plenty of well-known, bustling clubs in Montreal, but we opt to take the road less travelled and explore some smaller joints. One of my favorites is En Cachette Speakeasy, an underground bar set back off of Rue St. Denis. Inside, hardwood floors and slick, brocade wallpaper shimmer in the candlelight. Small armchairs, tables, and settees dot the room while people mingle and chat over the thud of catchy French pop hits.

Also not to be missed is La Distillerie. We huddle outside with our fellow explorers, waiting to get in, eagerly eyeing the warm interior. La Distillerie serves Goldfish, popcorn, and an extensive selection of cocktails organized by taste and strength. I found myself wondering what more you could need, since Goldfish basically constitute my ideal meal.

If you’re looking for live music instead of the pulse of recorded bass, do yourself a favor and swing by Bistro a JoJo. Also on Rue Saint Denis, the Blues Bar features an array of cool musicians and performers that have the entire room dancing and stomping their feet in time.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, QC. CAROLINE SHEA. B-Side.
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, QC. CAROLINE SHEA. B-Side.

The next day, we take on the city with renewed energy. We spend the afternoon at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts, which is currently featuring a stunning exhibition on Pompeii with artifacts on loan from many collectors. Regardless of the exhibition, though, the museum is worth a visit. A glass ceiling refracts light throughout the lobby, and slate stairs wind between galleries. Plants line an upstairs walkway, spilling from their pots and framing a panoramic view of the city’s skyline.

I spend most of my time trailing through the upstairs art galleries, working my way from the medieval era’s anatomically questionable baby Jesuses, to Baroque portraits with gilt frames, to haunting 19th century paintings of shipwrecks.

After I am dragged away from multiple tempting gift shops, we treat ourselves to Italian food at a restaurant we have yet to be able to find on any maps. The walls are bedecked with various nationalistic regalia, and all the lightbulbs have been replaced with red and green colored lights. A very large, very fake tree looms over our table. Whether this place really exists or was just a figment of our over-tired, hungry minds, I can promise you the tortellini is to die for.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, QC. CAROLINE SHEA. B-Side.
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, QC. CAROLINE SHEA. B-Side.

The next morning is our last in Montreal, so we start where any self-respecting person would: a cat cafe. Le Cafe des Chats is home to several adorable felines and an incredible number of vegan pastries. I really don’t think I need to provide you with more incentive to go there. I spend entirely too long eating my delicious herb-grilled cheese because I keep getting distracted by the cats jumping on the tables, basking in the morning sunshine, and chasing each other around the cafe.

Our final stop before we leave the city is Mont Royal Park, described as “the jewel of the city’s parks.” We hike up to an overlook that takes in the whole city. It’s a beautiful day that hints at spring, and it seems like the whole city is out with us. Little kids swing from their parents’ hands, couples shyly stop to kiss as they stroll up the hill, and people perch precariously on the overlook wall laughing, jostling each other, and posing for selfies. We take a short walk around the park before reluctantly piling back into the car. Someone mentions something about class tomorrow and we all groan. Even though we’re only a short drive away from campus, dorm life, and homework, last Friday seems like a decade ago.

Montreal from Mont Royal, QC. CAROLINE SHEA. B-Side.
Montreal from Mont Royal, QC. CAROLINE SHEA. B-Side.

“I bet Mont Royal is beautiful in the fall,” someone says as we wind our way down the hill.

“Yeah, dude, we should come back in the fall!”

“We could come up for a weekend this summer, probably.”
We are planning our next trip before we even cross back over the border, content for now to upload our pictures and start our reading for class, but already eagerly looking forward to our next adventure.