Friday, June 27, 2008

Look to the North

If you would like a pleasant alternative to the toll roads of I-80, veer off at Gary, Indiana and drive into Michigan. For years I’ve been traveling between the Midwest and New England by driving through Michigan and Ontario instead of going south along Interstate 80. It is almost exactly the same distance from Chicago to Niagara Falls or Buffalo regardless of which way one goes.

There is such an obvious list of positives that make it clear why I drive via Canada as opposed to staying south of the Great Lakes. The first difference is economic: There are no highway tolls to pay by going north. The two $4 bridge tolls going into and out of Canada are less than paying to drive through Indiana, Ohio, and southern New York. I also noticed the stark difference in the stress levels depending on which way one goes. Staying on I-80 invites rising blood pressure levels due to high speeds, heavy truck traffic, and extremely unattractive roadside scenery. By contrast, driving through Michigan is akin to a trip through a very long, tree-lined park, and Ontario offers a serene countryside with relatively light traffic that moves at a leisurely pace. It wasn’t until about 100 miles into Ontario that I was struck by the most revealing difference: I had seen no billboards. This was in such stark contrast to U.S. roadsides that are littered with huge glaring rectangles whose messages unceasingly assault the traveler. Ontario thus is such a pleasurable experience for drivers: No ugly distractions, just mile after mile of pastoral splendor. Once I had made this observation, it came rather as a shock when I actually came across a gigantic billboard. In 220 miles of driving in Ontario I counted exactly three, which one would expect to find per mile in the States. The last ten miles into Niagara Falls didn’t count, as apparently, the urge to advertise the scenic wonder is just too hard to resist, even in Canada. For the most part, in the U.S., roadsides shout at you; in Canada, they whisper.

If you wonder what it would be like to escape the crass commercialism along the freeways, take a cruise through Ontario sometime on your way between upstate New York and Chicago. Besides the easy-going drive (vehicles are about a half mile apart on the highways) there are interesting sites to explore, such as Canada’s “Tomato Capital,” the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Niagara Region wine country. If you are headed to northern New England, consider adding to the enjoyment by staying in Canada and traveling through Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City (Don't forget to take your passport or birth certificate). An added bonus: You just can’t beat the iced cappuccino at Tim Horton’s along the way.

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