Monday, July 14, 2008

Last Days in USA

Extract from Eventful Woman's Land Rover Expedition

Expedition Time: 19 May 1998

Our passage back into USA from Canada was effortless. It was a huge contrast to the west coast, when we drove down from Vancouver in our “antique buggy” with those red apples on board.

Upstate New York is rolling, green and pretty like Vermont. While the countryside was beautiful, we wanted to cover as many miles as possible to ensure a short run to JFK International Airport the next day. We decided on a toll motorway to get a few miles under the bonnet.

It was easy driving and I didn’t need to concentrate on navigating for awhile. We talked over the expedition to date and both of us agreed that Yosemite National Park and Niagara Falls had been the top scenic views.

The hardest thing to cope with had been F2’s unexpected and destructive behaviour and we still had major concerns about this for the future.

We also agreed that, even in a county that had good roads and easy-to-follow signs in English, some things took a lot longer than planned or didn’t happen as they should have. This had been the second hardest thing for me to cope with.

I loved to plan and organise, but I couldn’t plan for every contingency and this had created circumstances when I became uncharacteristically indecisive. In turn, this had forced TH to become more decisive than previously, which he wasn’t comfortable with. While he took an active part in longer-term decisions, he was usually content to just to sit back and let me make any instant decisions that cropped up along the way. My dithering had sorely frustrated TH. In return I had become angry when he didn’t try to help me out when I had trouble making decisions. Both of us had been waiting for the other to take the lead and were confused when it didn’t happen.

We had learned a lot in the two months we had spent driving around North America, but we’d need to become a lot more resilient if we were to survive the tougher stages of the expedition, which were still ahead of us. Managing stress and changing circumstance can be relatively easy for a 2-week jaunt or maybe a slightly longer holiday. Most people can cope because home and rest is not far away. But, this was a long expedition and it would be relentless. We would solely dependent on our own resources and we’d have to cope for a whole year, whatever happened.

We pushed our troubles aside and turned off the toll road to take a look at the Finger Lakes. This is an area of long, narrow lakes, spread out in a loose fan shape rather like fingers on a hand. The area was originally Iroquois land, and many of the lakes still retain the names of the sub-tribes that belong there, such as Seneca and Cayuga.

Countless years ago the area was thickly forested with oak, hickory, maple and chestnut trees. However, the Iroquois burned-off the flatter areas to create a large prairie on which to run a large herd of bison. The area was still pretty with lush, wooded hills and clumps of trees clustered around the lakes. Today herds of dairy cows have replaced the bison, along with endless rows upon rows of vegetable crops and grapevines. Sadly we had a plane to catch and there was no time to stop and sup the local vintage.
Photo/map credit:

Around an hour later we found a motel with trucks outside. Truck drivers always go for value and we weren’t disappointed with our basic, clean and comfortable room, which was a good price. Amazingly, we had our own coffee-making machine right in our room, with all the ingredients provided.

We had a big sort out of our gear and repacked to be ready for our departure from USA in the morning. I am a bit of a squirrel when it comes to tourist information and brochures. I just love to read up on any area I am in and then keep all the leaflets as a reminder of a visit. But, tonight, I had to be ruthless. Once we returned the rental car, we could only carry what would fit into our bags. It was either my clothes or the tourist brochures and, fetching as those coloured leaflets were, they had to go.

We had a restless night, thinking about the drive and day ahead and we were up and gone before 8am.

We kept well away from toll routes and enjoyed the scenery on parkway roads until we were almost into New York City. The parkways were aptly named and allowed us drive among the trees, while the ugly suburbs and city areas are well hidden. We made good time and stopped for an early lunch. We were down to our last few dollars.

Before we ordered our meal we looked at the map, noting we had one last toll bridge to cross. All toll bridges had cost us either $1, or $1.50 at the most, in this part of the States. We calculated the meal price and the bridge toll. TH wanted to tip the waitress as is customary in USA, but I hate this practice as I feel that it allows employers to exploit their staff by only paying a pathetically small wage. I prefer New Zealand’s system where employers must pay a minimum living wage, so workers are not reliant on tips in order to live. Tipping is still not common in NZ and long may that continue.

However, TH is a great one for “when in Rome” and so we did end up tipping the waitress after our meal. That left us with just $US2.84. Now, there will be some who ask why we skinned ourselves so short. Well, this was an expedition on a shoestring and everything was tight. Due to the costs of changing currencies, we hated having too much local money remaining when we left a country. We thought we had enough and we did have those marvellous gold MasterCards. Yeah right!

Just over an hour later we were on the access way to the last toll bridge – the Whitestone Bridge. There was a traffic jam and we were only making slow progress. However, we had over two hours to travel to JFK International airport and we estimated that it would only take ½ hour once we had crossed this bridge. We inched closer to the tollbooths.
(Photo from

TH has sharper eyes than I do over long distance. “Oh, no”, I heard him mutter.

“What is it?” I asked

“The sign says it’s $3.50 for cars. How much did you say we had?”

“$2.84. I told you not to tip that waitress!”

There was silence while I searched for coins down the sides and underneath the seats, but I had no luck. I did have one British pound as well as thirty-five Canadian cents in my wallet, but I didn’t think they’d accept that. We had already passed the last off-ramp before the toll bridge, so there was no chance to get off the motorway. We were stuck fast, almost at a complete halt, and I sized up our neighbouring motorists. I idly considered asking one, “Hey buddy, can you spare a dime (or 7)?” But, they all looked pretty angry to be in a traffic jam, and I didn’t pursue that idea.

Instead of wishing the traffic would hurry up like we had been doing, we now hoped for further delays, so we could think of another solution.

“We do have our gold credit card”, I said to TH in a hopeful fashion. This had worked wonders at the Canadian border.

We considered all options but the card still came out as our only hope. If they didn’t accept that, what would happen? No doubt there would be delays and we might even miss our flight. Surely we wouldn’t get arrested?

We looked ahead to see if any cars stopped at the booths without money. Everyone had their $3.50, handed it over and zoomed on through. Four cars to go, then three, then two and we were there.

TH had prepared his best smile and hangdog look.
“Do you take credit cards? I don’t have enough cash.”
He waved our gold card in what he hoped was a friendly manner.

The toll collector screamed at him for not having money, for wasting her time and holding up her line of cars. She then growled that she wanted his driver’s licence and the registration number of his car. TH hurriedly handed over his New Zealand and International driver’s licences and stammered out our car’s licence plate number.

“Get over there and wait for the sheriff”, she screamed some more, and pointed to a waiting bay to the right. Poor TH had to edge our Chevrolet through several lanes of tooting and annoyed motorists to get there.

We waited in the hot sun for ten minutes and I watched the second hand on my watch circle around the dial. TH just sat. We didn’t know what to say to each other and we didn’t dare speculate on what the sheriff was going to do to us.

We were parked with the car nose into the waiting bay. TH had his eyes on the rear vision mirror, watching the door of the building behind us. Suddenly he sat up straight, “Here he comes.”

I turned in the seat. The sheriff was in a uniform, was around mid-height, middle aged, had his hair tied back in a ponytail and, of course, had a gun in a holster on his right side. He was sifting through some papers, as he walked towards us. I recognised one of them as a New Zealand Driver’s Licence.

Looking stern, he leaned down into TH’s window and said, “We know the car is a rental and it’s obvious from these documents that you’re tourists. Where are you headed?”

“JFK International”.

We also added that we were sorry we had underestimated the price of this last toll bridge.

He nodded. He’d probably already figured our destination, as it wasn’t that far away. He continued, “I’ve never seen a New Zealand Driver’s Licence before but it looks legitimate. However, what is this?” He held out TH’s Rover Car Club of Auckland membership card.

In the scramble to give his licence to the screeching tollbooth woman, TH had also accidentally pulled out his Rover Car Club card as well. Rover cars weren’t common in the States. We explained that we owned two classic Rover cars at home and what they looked like.

The sheriff looked very interested in all this. Then he said, “We want you to have had a good time in New York with no bad feelings. Just give us the money you have and you can be on your way.”

TH gave him the $2 in notes while I scrabbled with the coins.

“Just the $2 will be fine, ma’am”. He gave me a kindly look.

Dazed, and very relieved, we stammered out thanks and drove off before he could change his mind.

We were at the rental car depot in less than half an hour and took the shuttle bus to our air terminal. It was a huge “mad house” of an airport and the shuttle driver used his horn more than any other device on the vehicle.

After check in, we scooted straight to the departure lounge. With only eighty-four cents left there was no point lingering in the airport shops. Last night I had written a postcard to my cousin Susan, which I already had a stamp for but had forgotten to post on the way to the airport. I couldn't see a post box and I asked one of the security personnel for their location. He advised that there weren’t any mail drops on the air side of the terminal. Seeing my disappointed face, he offered to post it for me, when he got off his shift. I was delighted and thanked him very much.

“My pleasure, ma’am” he replied. I noted his New York accent.

Waiting for our plane I reflected on our experiences that day. New Yorkers are heaps better than their bad press suggests - apart from tollbooth operators, of course. I had learned that the world is a better place than I thought and people can be more understanding and kind than expected. As such, I should learn to trust that it was possible to negotiate a safe path in difficult times and this probably would be the same in other countries, too.

New York had been a good learning opportunity. As they say, New York – what a town!

As for the next leg of the expedition – bring it on!

© Eventful Woman, 2008

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