Friday, September 28

A trip down memory lane (aka Interstate 81)

In July 1983 I travelled to the United States of America to spend a year as an exchange student. For almost 12 months I lived with a regular middle-class family in the city of Syracuse, New York. Syracuse a small regional city located in upstate New York, about 6.5 hours north of New York City itself. The experience was life-changing.  My mother has often said that I left New Zealand a boy and returned home a young man.

Since 1984 I've returned just once to see my teenage home town.  I made a weekend excursion to Syracuse in early 2001 courtesy of the then recently launched budget airline, JetBlue. Today I returned for a second visit, this time with my parents along for the ride. It seemed the obvious thing to do while we were staying in Gananoque, Ontario as Syracuse lies just 110 miles south of the border. From Gananoque its an easy drive straight down Interstate 81.

We began our day with a brief stop at the Skydeck on Hill Island, one of the 1800 islands that give the Thousand Island region its name.  The Skydeck is a observation tower, a mere 500 metres from the Canadian border, that offers spectacular views of this incredibly scenic location. My parents loved the vista, as did I. The tour guide that escorted us was even able to help Mum spot a distance freighter travelling through the St Lawrence Seaway towards Lake Ontario.

We then crossed the border into the USA.  The crossing was quick and easy with only a few cursory questions about our intentions before we were on our way.  Two hours later we found ourselves wrestling with the confusing maze of freeways that encircle Syracuse. As my navigator, Mum's had to learn how to use software maps on a tablet computer in real time.

I made our first stop the Fairmont Mall, one of my favourite teenage haunts, before heading across the parking lot to Wegmans Supermarket to buy lunch. The supermarket was just as I remembered it.  For a young man from a small country town in New Zealand its mind-blogging array of groceries and fresh food options was an awe inspiring testament to the power of American capitalism.

It was then on to the quiet, leafy suburbs of Westvale where my host family once lived. They've long since relocated but remarkably their house is still there, looking just as it did almost thirty years ago. As we sat looking at the home I surprised my parents with an album of photos depicting the exact same view. My mother was delighted as you can see from the photo that opened this post.

Perhaps the most memorable incident of the day occured when I inadverently missed a stop sign in Westvale. Within seconds of gliding through the empty intersection I had blue and red lights flashing in my rear vision mirror. The local sherrif pulled me over and we had a brief road safety discussion before the topic turned to my life as an exchange student. He let us go on our way with a quiet warning.  Mum later wished she'd had the forethought to ask the sherrif for a quick photo opportunity.

We stopped outside my old home for a quick photo shoot which I'm sure had the neighbours scratching their heads.  We then continued on to visit my old high school before venturing across town to see the Carrier Dome.  The dome is an indoor stadium that seats 55,000 people. I'd once watched a thrilling college basketball game here and our high school had played a regional football championship in its empty confines.

Dad was keen to see downtown.  So we made our last excursion for the day a brief tour through the city's civic centre. Unlike cities in Europe and Australia, Syracuse's lacks a conhesive central business district and so the heart of downtown is rather souless.  However, I did my best to show Dad some of the highlights I recalled from my teenage years. A final stop outside Founder's Park for a few quick photos completed our trip down memory lane.

Today was also our last full day in Canada (and the USA). Tomorrow we drive 300kms to Toronto to catch our respective flights back to New Zealand and Australia. It's been an incredible vacation, one that's exceeded my parents wildest dreams. We return home with more wonderful memories and my father's bucket list all but complete.

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