Road Trip to Toronto and Back


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May 28th 2013
Published: May 30th 2013
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Road Trip to Toronto


Niagara Falls is one of the places that you just kind of just have to see if you're an American or a Canadian, and still a pretty damn iconic destination if you're not. Having spent the majority of my life in DC, I had never been, even though it's fairly close. And yes, I consider 400 miles "close" since it's drive-able in a weekend. I've also wanted to visit Toronto for ever since I worked for a Toronto based firm in Las Vegas. So I figured Memorial Day weekend 2013 would be as good a time as any to make the drive up to our neighbors to the north.

I had originally wanted to go straight up to Toronto, but when I decided to leave on a Friday I figured it would make more sense to spend that first night in Pittsburgh, since miraculously I had never been to Pittsburgh before either, even though it's only 240 miles away. Pittsburgh isn't exactly on the way to Toronto, but it's not far out of the way. I left work at about 11:00 on Friday for the 4 hour drive to the Steel City.

Of course I got lost trying to get out of DC and find I-270. I hate driving in DC, so I never do it. I take the metro every day to work. It's the worst city to drive in other than NYC. But even in NY it's tough to get lost, since it's one giant grid, like normal cities. Not DC. If you are curious why DC is set up the way it is I encourage you to look it up. It is kind of crazy. So anyways, I get lost like three times trying to get out of the city. If not for Google Maps on my iPhone I don't know what I'd do. What the heck did I do before I got my first iPhone in 2010? I guess I had to use paper maps, huh?

I finally find the highway and I'm darting north up through Maryland and into Pennsylvania. It's not bad scenery on this drive. I'm crossing The Appalachian mountains, which I call "hills," and even see a pedestrian bridge for the Appalachian Trail, which runs about 2000 miles from Georgia to Maine. I've actually done this drive once before, in 2005 when I drove to Ann Arbor Michigan. But I don't remember the Pennsylvania Turnpike or its outrageous tolls. I get on the Turnpike, I-76, in Breezewood, and I almost puke in my mouth when I see $11.25 next to the exit for Pittsburgh on the little cost card they give you. Are you kidding me!? $11.25 to drive on a Federally mandated interstate highway!? Money that goes straight to the state. I decide that the state of Pennsylvania must be ridiculously rich as I debate the legality of making money off of a federal highway with myself. I vow never to drive on I-76 again. I'll go out of my way to take back roads out of pure spite if I drive to Pittsburgh again.

I debate whether or not to say I have no cash or refuse to pay the toll, but by the time I'm pulling off the highway I just want to get there and I pay the outrageous toll with a solid frown. I'm only about 8 miles outside of downtown Pittsburgh yet I'm still in a dense forest. I see a few houses, but it's not the sprawling suburbs I was expecting. It hits me then that this is a normal city. Places like DC, LA, NY, Chicago, Houston, Dallas... those are anomalies. Most cities don't have the kind of sprawl that we have in DC. You have to drive pretty damn far to get out of the DC metro area. I look up the statistics: DC metro area has about 9.3 million people, Pittsburgh area about 2.6 million. Big difference. I vastly prefer the cities without the suburban sprawl.

I'm staying in a room I rented off of Airbnb.com, a website that lets people rent out their room to strangers. It's far cheaper than a hotel. I pay about $60 to stay in a nice little room in this girls house about 3 miles from downtown. The website it based on trust and the kindness of strangers, but it seems to work. I check in and the girl gives me a parking pass and the key to the house. I thank her and I'm off downtown, which I still can't see yet because it's hidden behind a big hill.

My first impression of Pittsburgh is that it looks like a nice little city but a little rough around the edges. I definitely don't want to get lost and end up in the wrong neighborhood. I get off the bus downtown and begin a little walking tour I make up as I go. I explore downtown for a bit. It's about 5:00 on a Friday so people are leaving work and going to happy hour. I end up crossing the river and going to ride the little cog railway to the top of the hill as my friend suggested. There is a nice view of downtown from up there. Unfortunately it's blistering cold and windy, so it's hard to enjoy. Yes, it's May 24 and I am dying without my hat and gloves. It's about 45 degrees with a wind chill in the low 30s. Start of summer, huh?

I walk along W Carson St., past just about every high school kid in Pittsburgh, posing for pictures in front of the downtown skyline. It's prom night. The girls look freezing. There are hundreds of these kids everywhere. I feel a bit out of place so I hurry down the other cog railway and cross another bridge back towards downtown. Point State Park is closed for construction so I walk by it and across another bridge over to where the stadiums are. More high school kids taking pictures for prom. I can't escape.

I pass PNC park walk around that part of town a little bit before crossing yet another bridge back downtown. Now I'm getting pretty hungry and it's time for some dinner. I head to "the square" since I had walked by it earlier and it seemed to have some good places to eat. I end up getting a seat at the bar at Nola on the Square, a Cajun restaurant that was apparently hosting a cougar happy hour. Too bad my cougar bait shirt is back in my room. I have some Cajun pasta and a few local Pittsburgh beers while I watch the Penguins game, secretly rooting for them to lose. I hate the Penguins!

For as many people I know from Pittsburgh I don't know a single person who actually still lives there. So I'm on my own on this cold Friday night in Pittsburgh. And I definitely don't know where to go. I wander around going in and out of a few bars, but nothing seems to really be going on. Nowhere appears to be popular. I know there are some other areas outside of downtown with some bars but it's freezing and I've already walked about 8 miles and I want to stay downtown. This doesn't give me a whole lot of options. Around 11:00 I give up on trying to find a "hopping" bar and walk into a strip club I had walked by earlier. 1 hour later I'm $150 broker and I head back to my room. My night in Pittsburgh is over. It's only about midnight but I want to get up early tomorrow for the drive to Toronto so I can maximize my time there. I have a good feeling about Toronto.

Up early Saturday morning, I almost freak out when I turn the ignition in my car and it doesn't start. I hesitate and sit still for a moment before trying it again. Luckily it starts this time and I have no more problems the rest of the trip. I've never had this happen before, other than when my alternator broke and I had to get it towed. I figure it must have been the fact that the past week in DC had been in the 80s and now all of a sudden it was 33 degrees. I'm going to go on believing that. So after almost losing my mind about being trapped in Pittsburgh I'm on the road heading north on I-79 to Erie (of course I got lost trying to get out of downtown Pittsburgh...).

I had already picked out a place to get some brunch in Erie. I get to the Summer House Cafe (no known website) at West 26th St and Washington Ave at around 11 AM and I'm pretty damn hungry. I get myself a meatball omelette. I've never thought of this combination of food before, nor seen it anywhere, so I'm immediately intrigued. It turned out to be awesome, and if you're even in Erie for breakfast go try it. After brunch I head down Peninsula Drive, which takes me out onto a small park that sticks out in the middle of Lake Erie. It's too cold for anyone to be at the beaches, but some people are boating. I've never seen Lake Erie before, so I sit for a few minutes on the beach just looking out to the open water. I'm in awe of how big the Great Lakes really are. I know Canada is over there somewhere, but I sure as hell can't see it. Lake Erie looks nice on a clear day, but my destination is on Lake Ontario, so I've got to get going. I drive through downtown Erie on my way out trying to find the electronics store from That Thing You do, which is actually one of my favorite movies, and taught me everything I know about Erie, PA, which isn't much, but I don't see it. Probably because it was a movie.

The drive up I-90 to Buffalo is actually pretty scenic, made better by the fact that there is virtually no one on the road. But that soon changes as I pass through Buffalo and make my way to the Canadian border. This is only my second time ever going to Canada. The first time was in Vancouver when we drove up from Seattle for a night. I don't remember how long the border check took there but I'm sure it wasn't as long as the Peace Bridge into Ontario. It was a parking lot for about an hour. Then it was finally my turn. "I'm going to Toronto. I'll be there one night. No, I don't know anyone here." Yadda yadda yadda. It must be boring asking the same questions to every single person all day. Glad I'm not a border patrol agent.

The Queen Elizabeth Highway is just like any highway in the US except the signs are in kilometers. Home Depot is on the right, Walmart on the left. Wendy's and McDonald's are everywhere. Then there are the Tim Horton's at every exit, like Waffle House in North Carolina. Canadians love their Tim Horton's. I'm not big on donuts so I pass on the opportunity to go to a Tim Horton's. The highway wraps around Lake Ontario and somewhere around Grimsby I get my first view of Toronto, across the lake, still a solid 50 miles away. The CN tower really stand out. In a few hours I'll be on top of that beast.

The traffic starts around Mississauga, one of the biggest suburbs of Toronto. I wasn't expecting traffic on a Saturday, but with over 6 million people the Toronto area is more like DC than Pittsburgh. I'm a bit annoyed by the traffic since it's almost 4:00 and I just want to get there already. I have a lot to do in
Hockey Hall of FameHockey Hall of FameHockey Hall of Fame

The Actual goal that Gretsky scored #802 on
little time. I'm staying at the Canadiana Backpackers Hostel in the entertainment district (http://www.canadianalodging.com). It's easy to find from the highway and instead of driving around without use of my Google Maps I park the first place I see near the hostel even though it costs me a solid $30 to park overnight. I will soon find out that Toronto makes DC look inexpensive.

First stop is the Hockey Hall of Fame. I meander through Indian tourists on the narrow sidewalks and reach the hall of fame with plenty of time to explore before closing. As a hockey player since childhood this is probably the top thing I want to see in Toronto. I mean, the Stanley Cup is in there! I read some exibits about the great players, Orr, Howe, Hull (Bobby and Brett), and of course The Great One. They actually have the net that Gretzky scored his 802nd goal into, which I think is pretty cool. After wandering around for a while I make my way up the stairs to the hall of trophies. And there it is in all its glory. The Cup.

Professional hockey players won't touch the cup unless they've earned it. So they're not going to visit the hall of fame and have their picture taken with it. But I gave up on my professional hockey dreams when I was about 5 years old and I chose to focus on soccer instead of hockey, so I am eager to touch The Cup and get my picture with it. There is a guy there watching it, but it's really just out there in the open for you to see and feel. I snap some photos and get my picture taken with it, in which I look as happy as someone who actually won it. It's important to note that the original Stanley Cup is locked behind a glass barrier. It was created a time when they weren't looking 100 years in the future, and it's quite small. The newer cup, on the other hand, is frikin' huge. Best trophy in sports. Hands down.

All the other trophies are in there too - The Art Ross, The Calder, etc. I take pictures of them all before it's time to leave the Hall of Fame. I make a quick stop at the gift shop on the way out and buy myself a Hall of Fame hockey puck. It is displayed in my room and probably never see the ice.

My next stop is the CN tower. At 1815 at its peak it is still one of the tallest towers in the world (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_tallest_towers_in_the_world), and the tallest in the Americas. It's interesting to note here the difference in opinions of all of these tallest building lists. If you look up tallest buildings you won't see the CN tower or the Space Needle in Seattle or the Stratosphere in Las Vegas. That's because they are not occupied buildings. They are just giant blocks of concrete that rise from the ground into the sky with an observation deck at the top. The CN tower is primarily used for television signals. Contrast this to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai which is a hotel, condo, and office building. Then on top of that there are also "structures" that rise 2000 feet into the air but have cables supporting them in all directions. These types of structures are used for TV and radio signals as well. I don't think those should count.

So anyways... I make it to the CN tower around 6:15 and I'm told there's a 45 minute wait to get to the top. It stays light till almost 10 at this time of year so I'm not worried. I'm more thrown back by the price to get to the top. $36!! It makes the $16 you pay for the Stratosphere in Vegas seem like the deal of the century. Even going to the top of the Willis Tower in Chicago was only $17 I think. But I didn't come all this way to not go to the top out of spite for the price (seems to be a common theme this trip, huh?). I wait in line with seemingly half the population of Mumbai as the time approaches.

The elevator to the top takes less than a minute. My ears pop twice before the we reach the observation deck. This deck is at 1,136 feet, not even close to the top of the tower, as you can kind of tell from the pictures. There is a higher observation area called the Skypod, but that's another $50 to get to or something like that, and at 1,136 feet we're still above every other building in town so I'm OK with it. The view from the observation deck is beautiful. It's a nice clear day, not a cloud in the sky. I look for Niagara falls, but can't see quite that far. From the deck I get a sense of just how big Toronto really is. Skyscrapers protrude in every direction. The US city I can compare it most to is Chicago. I really didn't except it to be so big. I walk around the deck taking pictures of each direction and just enjoying the view.

From up here I notice just how many buildings are under construction in Toronto. And not just buildings - high rise buildings. No less than 25 new high rises are currently being constructed downtown. It's unbelievable. I've never seen anything like this before. Everywhere I look there's a building under construction. It's a contractors paradise. And apparently a great place to be a structural engineer....

I walk to the outside observation deck for minute and I'm immediately blow over by the wind. Well not quite, but the wind is gusting at least 50 miles per hour. Being a structural engineer I know that wind gets stronger the higher in elevation you are from ground level. And I'm
Downtown TorontoDowntown TorontoDowntown Toronto

View from atop the CN Tower
pretty high up. I only last a few minutes outside before I can't take it anymore. After a quick peak through the glass floor at the lower observation level I'm ready to get going. you don't need to spend too long up there, but it is definitely the thing to do in Toronto.

I stop for a steak at a place that looks pretty lively. The waitresses are wearing short skirts, so I'm not expecting the best food in the world, so I'm pleasantly surprised when the steak is actually really good. I try a few local Toronto beers then head across the street for a beer at Hooters. I like going to Hooters' in other countries to see what they are like. I don't know why. Oh wait, yes I do. I don't stay long though, as I need to get back and shower before the hostel sponsored pub crawl at 10. I have a feeling it could be a long night.

I like doing organized pub crawls when I'm traveling alone, for obvious reasons. There are about 20 of us on this one and I immediately make friends with the girls who just graduated from Ohio State (even though I hate Ohio State, sorry OSU friends) and the Swedish guys. I think the OSU girls are on a mission tonight so I make sure to stay close to them. We start at a karaoke bar and I get myself a few Molsons. When they tell you the price of a beer in Toronto they say $6 or $7 (yeah, it's pricey) but that doesn't include the 13%!e(MISSING)verything tax. Add to that the fact that you tip just like in the US and you're looking at $8-9 a beer. Like I said, it's an expensive city. But it's my only night there so I'm not about to skimp. I buy a round of shots for the OSU girls and the Swedish guys before we head to the next bar. I'm pretty buzzed by then and we head to this place: http://crocrock.ca/ which is actually a pretty cool place. A few Molsons later and I'm making better friends with one of the OSU girls. I don't remember how late I was out but it ended up being a fun night with people I will never see again. Sometimes those are the best nights.

Sleeping till about 10:30 allowed me to get rid of most of the hangover. I was on the road by 11:00. Next stop: Niagara Falls.

I roll into the town of Niagara Falls, Ontario around noon. The whole place is a tourist trap, but it's nice looking at least. There's a casino, a Planet Hollywood, a Hard Rock, and all the big American high end hotel chains. There's also an observation tower, the Skylon Tower, though it's only about one third the size of the CN Tower. I'm sure the view of the falls from up there would be amazing, but I decide to skip a ride to the top. I follow the signs towards the falls and end up driving along River Road all the way past the falls and heaps of tourists before I finally find the parking lot. The falls are free to view, but the parking is where they get you. I pay $20 to park and walk back to the falls. As I get close I see the mist rising from the waterfall and I start to get a bit wet. I speed past the other half of Mumbai to get a better view.

The waterfall is overpowering. It's a breathtaking sight. It's not the tallest waterfall, but its width and sheer volume is unmatched. I notice a boat down below packed shoulder to shoulder with people in blue rain tarps. They must be getting soaked down there. After watching the falls for a few minutes and taking my pictures I head into the visitors center to see about this "Journey Behind the Falls" experience I have read about. It's only $15 so I figure I'll check it out. But when I get to the teller to by my ticket she tells me there is no availability until the 5:00 tour. Considering it's just past 1:00 I decline. I wasn't really up for hanging around for four hours. Once you see the falls and walk around for a bit it's pretty much time to go. I eat lunch at one of their restaurants before heading back to the car. I'm glad I finally got to see Niagara Falls. It was an easy one to check off the bucket list.

Crossing the US border at Niagara Falls took no time at all. In fact, there were so few cars that the Border Patrol agent decided to search my truck. She didn't find anything good. I rolled into Buffalo around 2:30 and tried to find my hostel. But something was strange. Something just didn't seem rightl. Where are all the people?

It's 2:30 on a Sunday afternoon on a holiday weekend and I've entered a post-apocalyptic society. There is no one around. No pedestrians on the sidewalks. No cars on the roads. No buses. Hell, no planes in the sky either. Where am I? I am in downtown Buffalo, the largest ghost town in the country.

The silence is creepy. It's eerie, even if Lake Erie wasn't a few blocks away. I've never seen anything like this before. Downtown Phoenix is pretty dead on the weekend, as people flock to Tempe, Scottsdale, and Glendale, etc. But this is a league of its own. I'm staying in the theater district. There a ton of theaters, not one of them open. Everything is closed. No shops, no markets. There is construction going on Main Street. It just adds to the eeriness. I do see the occasional bum and the random thug walking the streets. Some places I see people loitering. Not doing anything, just loitering. It occurs to me that I could get mugged or shot and no one would be around to hear my cries for help. Or be a witness. Not a comforting thought.

I can't check in to my hostel yet so I drive down to the waterfront and walk around for a bit. And guess what I saw? People! There is a Naval museum and some old war ships by the First Niagara Center, where the Sabers play, and a decent little waterfront area, so there are a few people around. There is also a Hispanic woman belly dancing. I don't understand, but didn't care to ask.

I return to the hostel to check in around 4 and decide I needed a nap. I was laying on my bed reading when a fellow traveler in my room began to talk to me. He was from England and was about my age. He had quit his job at the beginning of the year and was traveling around the world. He had spent time in Australia and was now touring around the US. He had been everywhere, as it was his third month in the country. I asked him why he was in Buffalo of all places and as I expected, it was so he could see Niagara Falls. Toronto was his next stop. His trip made me incredibly jealous. While I had to go back to work a few days later his travels would just continue. It seems that wherever I go I meet people doing this, and they are never American. It's like a rite of passage for a European to take a year off of real life to travel. We Americans are often just too afraid to do it. We need to grow some balls.

He tells me that Buffalo has been this way all weekend, and that I didn't just catch it on a bad day. I figure since there's nothing really to see I might as well take a run and get some exercise. Least I don't have to worry about stopping at streets to let the cars pass. I end up in a sketchy neighborhood but at least there are some kids playing at the park. Witnesses. Arriving back downtown the emptiness greets me again. I'm still not used to it.

After a shower I am off to do the only thing that I came to Buffalo to do: eat wings at Anchor Bar (http://www.anchorbar.com/), the place that invented what we know now as the common chicken wing in 1964. Up until that point no one ate the wings of the chicken. They were either thrown away or throw into a crock pot for stew or broth. In case you were ever wondering why they're called Buffalo wings, well now you know. The bar isn't far from my hostel so I walk there on the desolate streets. I can't decide if it's going to be busy or empty. All the people who live here must be somewhere right?

I open the door to a jam packed restaurant. The bar is packed, and people are waiting for tables everywhere. I can't get a seat at the bar but I get a little two person table in the bar area that's open and perfect for just me. 10 wings is $13 but 20 wings is $20, so I opt for the 20 wings, even though I'm not that hungry. They only have 5 types of sauce: mild, medium, hot, suicidal, and spicy hot barbecue. I don't like hot sauce, or Buffalo sauce for that matter, so I go with 20 mild wings. I'm a little disappointed that they don't offer anything like normal barbecue or Teriyaki or some other type of flavorful sauce. But since they are the originals I cut them some slack.

I sip on Labatte Blue as I wait for the wings. I find it strange but kind of cool that all the bars in Buffalo have Labatte Blue and Labatte Blue Light as their cheap beers. I didn't see Bud Light, Coors Light, or Miller Lite on tap anywhere. My wings arrive on a huge plate. I've ate 20 wings before no problem. And these are some good sized wings. They don't skimp on size. I could do a full culinary review on the wings, but to sum it up: eh, they were okay. They were definitely not the best wings I have ever had, but not the worst. I didn't like the sauce, so maybe if they had a barbecue I could have had on the wings they might have been better. But we'll never know unless they change their famous menu. I'd say that people go there more for the novelty than for actually enjoying the food. But I'm glad I went. I can't even finish the last wing. I am stuffed.

By then it's like 9:00 so I decide to head down to Chippewa st, where my friends from Buffalo have told me to go to find some bars. It's a Sunday night, but it's the night before Memorial Day, a party night. Not in Buffalo apparently. Most of the bars on the street are closed. I find one place called Chocolate Bar that is open (http://originalchocolatebar.com/). They have a wide range of martinis on their martini list and I opt for a peanut butter one and a banana cream one. They are both delicious, but not very strong I don't think. There are a few people in the bar and I talk to a couple who lives in Buffalo. They tell me no one lives downtown and that's why it's so dead on the weekends. I head across the street to the other bar that is open for a few beers. That's where I see my first real life Jersey Shore guidos. They look like Pauly-D. And they are of course with two hot girls. I almost puke in my mouth looking at them, but hey girls dig it. That's pretty much when I decided I needed to go to bed. It was a few minutes after 11 when I left and a few other bars on the street were open, but for the most part it was still really quiet. As I'm walking back I see a group of 21 girls on a bachelorette party (yes I counted) and wonder where the hell they're going, and why the hell they chose to have a bachelorette party in Buffalo. I don't stick around to find out though. My time in Buffalo has come to an end. I head back and get some rest. I've got a 380 mile drive tomorrow.

The drive back to DC isn't bad. Western New York and northern Pennsylvania are nice. I have to get back on that damn Pennsylvania Turnpike for a few miles, then I get stuck in traffic when I get into Maryland, but other than that not any problems. I arrive home around 5:00 pretty tired. It's been a successful trip. I did everything I wanted to do and saw everything that I wanted to see. And I didn't spend too much money, not as much as I could have. I'd like to return to Toronto, wouldn't mind hitting up Pittsburgh again on a warm night, and could live without ever going to Buffalo again. I'm back home for five weeks now, locked at my desk finishing up the 100% drawings for my project before heading off to Alaska at the end of June. The Last Frontier awaits me. Bring on Alaska!

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