Do you ever, suddenly, get the compelling urge for a road trip? I apparently do. I never noticed before though. Having been a car-owner for the past few decades, I became accustomed to taking off on a whim to visit friends or to see sights. Carless since August 2021, I hadn’t missed car access during the past eight months because I’ve been busy working and, well, have during that time been to Costa Rica, and twice each to Paris and Pittsburgh. But air travel and road trips are qualitatively different. No airport visit is without its moments of anticipation, anxiety, stress. But once you get behind the wheel and hit the open road, FREEDOM!
Once day-job tasks slowed, I felt restless, had trouble concentrating, and then was struck by that compelling urge. Noting a three-day window of flexibility, I decided to squeeze in a quickie visit to my hometown, Buffalo. I wondered if driving 20 hours over three days was crazy, although I knew that wouldn’t stop me. And then, I thought of the route. That, I realized was a large part of the appeal. Up to Cleveland through Amish Country, then a tranquil, wooded stretch of Interstate 90 to Erie, PA, then north to Route 5, which hugs Lake Erie and eventually becomes Main Street in Buffalo and towns further east. Like life, it is the journey that thrills and enriches.
It was a brilliant, sunny day, not too warm, and spring had just arrived at the southern shores of Lake Erie. As I drove through the charming, tranquil town of North East, PA, I stumbled upon Mercyhurst University, a small collection of gray limestone buildings – including a Gothic-style church – atop a hill overlooking town to the south and lake to the north. A lump formed in my throat and tears welled up. I had heard that name many times growing up, because it was the alma mater of Sister Mary Leona of the order Sisters of Mercy, my Aunt Margaret. She was my maternal grandfather’s sister and my favorite great aunt. Aunt Margaret had studied art and that is what she taught during her career at a parochial school in South Buffalo. I never visited her convent, located, as I learned much later, beside Buffalo’s Irish Club, an appropriate location for a Reagan. I parked and walked around the campus – lilacs scented the air. On the back side of the main building were several murals, including a group of nuns, in the blue habits I remember Aunt Margaret wearing when she came on luncheon visits to our house with her friend-chauffeur, Sister Cyril. We spoke regularly on the phone, since she took special interest in me, perhaps because I, too, was an art lover. She supported me no matter what I did, attended my first wedding, and was compassionate when I divorced, sorry for the suffering that she imagined drove me to such a decision. Aunt Margaret was very chill for a nun.
Through Pennsylvania and part of New York, I had Lake Erie on my left, and vineyards and wineries on my right. There were many fascinating things to discover! The town of Barcelona has a small harbor and a lighthouse built in 1828. Route 5 passes through the Seneca Nation Reservation, where one finds gambling casinos, tax-free cigarettes and gas (I filled up), and, more recently, marijuana dispensaries, which sprang up immediately upon legalization, like daylilies after a rain.
Between the Rez and the imposing, magnificent-in-decay Republic Steel plant on Buffalo’s south side, Route 5 is one of those stretches, like Route 66 or Route 3 near Boston, with a distracting array of fascinating architecture and attention-attracting advertisements. The strangest thing I saw was Betty Boop in a phone booth with a man. Although I suppose and hope that he was rearranging the mini-installation, the discrepancy between what was actually happening and the range of activities one might imagine when seeing a man grabbing the thigh of a women in a phone booth made me LOL.
After my ritual dinner at Ted’s (hot dog and Aunt Rosie’s loganberry drink) and dessert across Sheridan Drive at Anderson’s Frozen Custard (chocolate-vanilla twist in a cup), I spent the night with Martha the Bassoonist. She just retired from the Buffalo Philharmonic, and I’ve known her since seventh grade. We played in the school orchestra together for five years (I played French Horn), studied piano with the same teacher, and she now lives in my old neighborhood. It always feels good when I’m there. Driving those familiar streets, one remembers vanished buildings and businesses and where friends once lived. Past events and people long gone compete for attention.
We did a quick catch-up in the evening and in the morning, Martha arranged a breakfast with my sister’s best friend, who lives nearby, and with the only other art historian in our high school class. I hadn’t seen Cheryl in more than 20 years, and she’s returned for retirement after a successful curatorial career at several major museums. We four, happily single women, avid travelers, and former culture workers had a gregarious, too short reunion before it was time to visit Dave, my best guy friend from college. We did our usual thing – listening to blues while hanging in his yard chatting about this ‘n that – as workers opened his pool for the season. Before departing for Cleveland in the late afternoon, Dave joined me for wings at the Anchor Bar, where Buffalo wings were invented. I’ve been an intermittent regular since high school.
I felt totally refreshed as I left. I took the Skyway out of Buffalo, seeing the mist of Niagara Falls in the rearview mirror. Another favorite spot, but insufficient time this visit. Next time, more friends, more beloved places. I took Old Lakeshore Road west, a scenic detour that rejoins Route 5 at the Seneca Rez. The contrast between the estates along the lake and the dilapidated trailers in which many of the Seneca live was dramatic. I feel White Shame whenever I see traces of the destruction of First Nation societies wrought by the encroachment of Euro-settlers.
As I arrived in Cleveland, a spectacular sight – the skyline appeared just as the sun was setting beneath Lake Erie. I slept well at Walt’s, my home-away-from-home in Cleveland. I woke to the aroma of corn meal pancakes, and after a relaxing breakfast in the cool, jasmine-infused morning, Walt showed me his childhood haunts – the town where he grew up, the stream where he discovered fossils as a child. I felt privileged to share his precious places – they are such intimate parts of our identities. After a relaxing late afternoon meal in the Flats, it was back in the car for an evening return to Purgatory. I rolled down the windows. The air was cool, humid, and smelled occasionally of mowed grass. As I pulled in after dark, I felt happy, refreshed, like I had been gone for much longer than 40 hours. I’m often amazed by the elasticity of time. That mini-adventure was more restorative than anything I could have done while ‘home’. In our transient society, we often forget the revitalizing and grounding effects of reconnecting with happy childhood people and places.