Earlier this week, I was on a shopping trip bound for Erie and Grove City, PA. Unlike the others, however, my purpose was not to shop, but to explore Erie and digitally capture many of its sights.
Before boarding in St. Catharines, our tour director issued me a name tag and told me to sit “anywhere you want.” Since I didn’t get an itinerary beforehand, I asked for one and was told rather snottily, “You’ll get one.” The lack of assigned seating is most uncommon, and this was the first bus tour I was on where the itinerary was guarded like a state secret.
Following the last pickup point at Thorold Stone Road in Niagara Falls, our tour director introduced herself and our driver. Since my experiences with them and the tour company are not all positive, I shall not name them publicly.
Our tour director noted that our driver was female, which was a first for me on a bus trip. Much like her male counterparts I’ve had on other bus trips since coming to Ontario, however, she was a good, safe driver who was attentive and alert at all times. It continues to amaze me as to how much better the drivers are here in Ontario than in the SPRM, where I’ve often wanted to kiss the ground after stepping off the bus.
Between Niagara Falls and Fort Erie, our tour director mentioned that there were 42 passengers on board, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the majority of them were seniors. Being a shopping trip, I was expecting a busload of teenage princesses. Only two of the passengers were male, and our tour director, unaware as yet as to my purpose for coming along, referred to us as “pack mules.”
The first official stop, and the only stop besides the one at U.S. customs, came at the Peace Bridge Duty Free store. Before going in, someone from the store came on board to explain our exemptions, then held a drawing for two $10 gift cards. I made no effort to answer the ridiculously easy questions to qualify, since I figured there would be nothing there I would want. After walking around the store, my instincts proved to be correct. The only thing of interest for me there was the free bathroom.
During the hour-long wait, our tour director finally decided pass out copies of the itinerary. As she passed my seat, I made a point to tell her that I would be going my own way tomorrow and not to hold up the bus on my account. While speaking, I could immediately see the bubble caption forming over her head with a big question mark inside of it. With her brain on serious overload, she asked, “Uh, so you’re not checking in at the hotel?”
Slowly, and carefully, I had to repeat myself, but the concept of someone doing what they wanted to do on a trip was something she could not seem to understand. I think she finally got her head around it a couple of days later, but for all I know, her head might still be spinning.
Reading the vague and skimpy itinerary, I wasn’t the only one who noticed we were scheduled to go shopping immediately after our arrival in Erie instead of first checking in at the hotel. One woman seated in front of me, understandably weary after spending the entire day on the bus, stopped the tour director on her way back up front and asked if it would be possible to go to the hotel first.
Evidently still trying to process what I had told her, the befuddled tour director just couldn’t understand the simple request, and the poor passenger eventually gave up the fight after trying time and again to make herself clear.
While this was going on, memories of the SPRM came raging back as a truck from Bison Transport pulled up next to us. Loyal readers may recall my last crossing at the Peace Bridge when a truck from Reimer Express passed me by.
In good time, we were allowed to pull up into the bus lane next to the customs office, where our driver went outside to light up. This would be a recurring pattern throughout the trip. During every break, long or short, she would never miss an opportunity to smoke, often right next to the door. On one occasion, she lit up inside the bus before stepping outside, and on another, she blew some smoke inside. I’ve encountered many smokers before, but few with this strong of an addiction. She needs help. Seriously.
When the CBP officials finished with the bus in front of us, we all had to go inside and present our passports, and they had us in and out in a flash. The only question I was asked was, “Are you Curtis?” before being ushered off to the side with the other passengers. As is normally the case on these bus trips, they knew we were coming and had already pre-screened us, so there was no need for further interrogation.
After clearing customs and once out of the Buffalo area, our tour director then put on a movie to irritate us all the way to the Quaker State.
In Erie, before dropping us off at Target, our tour director regaled us with the first of two stories on how hard it is for her to find shoes to fit her 9½-size feet. This is not information we needed to know. She also made a specific point to make sure we leave our passports on the bus. My immediate reaction to that announcement was, “Are you nuts?” That will be the frosty Friday I’ll leave my passport unattended.
In a recurring theme over the next couple of days, I would discover that this area is anything but pedestrian-friendly.
Where there were sidewalks out in the suburbs, they would be like this one, beginning and ending in the middle of grassy patches. Either build one to cover the whole route or don’t bother at all. It’s like building a bridge that only goes halfway across a river.
On the way, I spotted a haggard old bum slumped on the sidewalk near the eastbound I-90 on-ramp looking to thumb a ride. Along with his long, straggly beard and his dishevelled appearance, he had the look of someone who had just crawled out of a dumpster. My jaw nearly hit the pavement when I saw a woman in 30s or 40s actually stopping to pick this guy up. She should consider herself very fortunate if all she got from this encounter was a car full of fleas.
Before returning to the bus, I spotted a billboard showing the name and mug shot of a wanted man. I could only imagine how bleeding-heart socialists would decry stigmatizing those involved with the criminal justice system. After all, crime is just a theory. Or not.
Moving on, we finally checked into the hotel around 5:00. Despite being pet-friendly, the room was clean, and there was little smell throughout the hotel. For anyone considering a visit to Erie, I can recommend it.
The following morning, I caught the M3 bus to downtown Erie, and purchased a day pass from the driver for $2.70. Even though it isn’t that far to the downtown bus terminal, it is a long ride because it goes into each of the malls along the way instead of directly down Peach Street. The bus, however, was clean, with no graffiti, vomit, used gum or condom wrappers anywhere to be seen, unlike the case in the degenerate capital of the SPRM.
At Millcreek Mall, one guy who was trying to skip out on the fare was giving the driver a song and dance about there being a problem with his transfer. The driver gave him a hard time, but the guy eventually ended up with a free ride.
After getting to the downtown bus terminal, I went inside to take advantage of the free washroom. I was pleased to see that the washroom and the entire terminal were spotlessly clean and free of bums. As I’ve said before, this is a concept I could get used to.
I headed back towards downtown, and after passing by Gannon University, I was again asked for directions, as is most often the case on every trip I take over the border. Unfortunately for the lost tourist, I was unable to help.
I then headed south along Raspberry Street, where I came across this park, which reminded me of a place in northeast Minneapolis. I stopped for a few minutes at the bench near the gazebo to rest and write some notes before moving on.
I stopped at this Vietnam veterans memorial near State Street for another rest. I could really have used a lunch break at this point, but I can never seem to find a Subway when I need one. When I’m not in need, however, there’s seemingly one on every street corner.
Continuing on, I walked past Beirut Auto Sales towards the junction of PA 8 and PA 97. Sadly, I was not exactly welcomed with open arms in this neighborhood, and I have no doubt the locals hanging out on the street are still scratching their heads wondering about the dude who was walking around taking pictures of highway signs. Needless to say, I got my pictures and got out of Dodge, watching my back all the while.
Farther north on State Street, I finally found a Subway, but not before walking through a dark railway underpass very reminiscent of the Higgins and Main underpass readers from the SPRM can relate to. I was careful not to make myself an easy target for the would-be hoodlum hiding behind a post and his likely accomplice on the other side eyeing me up.
I spent about a half hour at that Subway recouping some lost energy while listening to a couple of infants screaming and bawling. Once they left, someone came around to clean up, wiping down the tables and the seats with the same rag. It’s not the first time I’ve seen it, and I know it won’t be the last. That’s why I only eat out when I have to.
After the break, I covered more of the downtown area, passing by the Erie Insurance Arena, home of the OHL’s Erie Otters, whom I’ve seen in St. Catharines three times already.
Later in the afternoon, I ended up back at the waterfront and the bus terminal, where I caught the bus back to the hotel. It was anything but an enjoyable ride, as it was jam-packed with foul-mouthed teenagers whose favorite words were “like” and another four-letter word beginning with “F.” Making matters worse was that a big, fat guy so large they should have charged him two fares got on and sat right next to me.
The following morning, hotel staff picked up our bags and took them to the bus, then we got on for more shopping around the Millcreek Mall before heading home. Upon boarding, all of us were thrown for a loop when our tour director, without any prior announcement, stuck seat rotation tags throughout the coach. The move was most unwelcome for those who had already stuffed many bags in their overhead compartments.
I had initially assumed the reason for the seat shuffle was to allow those getting off first to sit up front, making it easier at each dropoff point. It would have been a logical thing to do, but our tour director instead must have just drawn names out of a hat. There was a couple from London in front of me and beside me was a woman from Collingwood.
The new crowd around me did make for some different chatter, however. Seated behind me were someone who was fawning over the many dogs she owns before announcing, “Oh, my butt has grown bigger,” as if it was a badge of honor. Later, she would lean across the aisle and ask, “Do you have a beer to borrow?”
While the others went to shop, I took the opportunity to get some more pictures, treading very carefully in the busy, pedestrian-unfriendly area around the mall.
I couldn’t resist this shot for a former colleague. I’m sure he will take note that his name is spelled in upper case.
There was one particularly interesting episode when I went behind the mall to get a shot of I-79. As I was taking pictures, a security van quickly pulled up, evidently to make sure I wasn’t up to no good. I would later spot that security officer strutting around the mall with his 10-gallon hat like he was a state trooper. Some people do let their job titles go to their head.
Following a lengthy stay at the mall, we made an hour-long stop at Wegmans grocery store, then left for home. En route, we were treated to another annoying movie, interspersed with instructions on how to fill out our declaration cards for the CBSA. At Canadian customs, we had to go inside the office and present our passports and declaration cards, but we were in and out in 12 minutes.
As we made our way down the QEW, I couldn’t help but reflect back on the many bus trips I made to Minneapolis, when I dreaded the prospect of returning to the SPRM. This time around, it was completely different. I was genuinely happy to be returning home, and it was an awfully nice feeling. All the hassle and effort we expended in relocating to St. Catharines continues to pay off.
At the dropoff point, both the driver and tour director seemed a little miffed when I left without giving a tip. For the driver, forcing someone with sinus problems to walk through a cloud of smoke at each stop doesn’t warrant any financial reward. With the tour director, had there been a collection going around, I would have been seriously tempted to take money out. She was annoying, less than organized, and very self-absorbed. I would have enjoyed the trip more had she stayed home.
As for Erie itself, there are nicer parts to the city, including the zoo and Presque Isle State Park, but I didn’t have a chance to see them on this trip. I hope to if I make a return visit.