Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Buffalo Shuffle

I confronted a grim-visaged customs agent at the Canadian border. What? No passport or birth certificate? He was unhappy, but upon seeing my bike and my massive legs (The Guns of Navarone), he had to submit to my desires. A world champion recumbent cyclo-tourist will not be denied. He made a couple of starts into his carefully memorized lines about Canada being a "multi-cultural community" and how they have to treat everyone the same--yadda, yadda, yadda. But no one treats the recumbent cyclo-tourist like everyone else. Besides, the agent was a cyclist, too, so there was no helping it. He waved me through.

I quickly picked up the Niagara Recreational Trail and zipped along to The Falls. I was confronted soon enough by The Horror: a clot of development, a hideous gorgon of Las Vegas and Disneyland overlooking the Canadian side of the falls--space needle, rides, cheesy attractions. I resolved not to spend a dime in the area. Then, of course, I wouldn't have to deal with exchanging currency.

The good thing about the Canadian side of the falls is that you can get very close and have better views generally. And you can turn your back on the lousy glitz and just think about all that water, Great Lakes changing places over immense drops. The magnitude of this cascading ocean is difficult to comprehend. Like most of the world's great dramatic features, it tends to shut down our chattering minds for a moment and make us feel very small. Our meager self-importance dissolves like the mist rising in vast clouds from the churning cauldron below. We are nothing and this proves it. I enjoy that feeling--as must the untold multitude with whom I was sharing this private little moment.

Afterwords I called Jodi from a park and for the first, last, and only time I got to say this and mean it: "I've got to shuffle off to Buffalo." On the way I had a funny encounter. Needing to use a restroom, I pulled into a construction site to use one of those blue outhouses. A hardhat wearing foreman of some sort emerged from a nearby building. "I just need to use the outhouse," I said.

"Sorry," he replied, "but you don't have proper protective equipment." I laughed and pointed to the helmet on my head, surely sufficient for the radical dangers of a wee tinkle in a booth of blue plastic, but he would have none of it and sent me packing. Canadians are tough customers, that's for sure.

By early afternoon I was cranking over the Peace Bridge back into the USA, Buffalo, NY, to be exact. I slipped into an area of semi-urban blight, such a drastic change from the multi-million dollar estates along the Niagara Parkway and the quiet forest scenes along the canal. Buffalo has its rough edges as I was quickly discovering. I soon found my way to my host's place about an hour before he was due. Since Justin wasn't in, I hung out with a group across the street--a tangle of laughing little kids and adults sitting in the shade on their front steps, the kind of scene we rarely see in Tehachapi. Three able-bodied young men were in the group along with several women coming and going. I wondered about these working-age fellows doing nothing on a weekday afternoon. When I asked to take their picture to help document my journey, there was a lot of laughing and smiling and comments like, "No, no, I don't think you'd better do that!" implying a subtext of a life that is better left undocumented. The one with the big Dior sunglasses looked particularly interesting. Another photo-journalistic opportunity best let go. At their suggestion, I photographed the kids instead.

Justin finally showed up and helped me get settled in. I'd stumbled into a nest of mostly twenty-somethings, a classic big house with a constant flow of people coming and going, the expected disarray, everyone as nice and easy going as they could be. This would do! Justin lived in back in a rough loft over an aging garage with his dog, Dutch, a sweet big goof, excellent doggie fix for me.

That night I got to visit a bit with his family, his father Jan especially, who also rides recumbents, and then we hit the town for a stroll and brew at a local watering hole. The Elmwood district is where the locals go to socialize, eat, soften brain cells. Justin told me a lot about his life, including being with a friend in a rough part of town when he was shot down before Justin's eyes. Edgy Buffalo, what? The friend lived, but that event along with other changes has led Justin to the adventurous, questing life he his now pursuing. About the time I get home, he'll be headed out for New Zealand with a friend for three months of travel. He then plans to just wonder the globe for a while, working, seeing, living, finding, as he says, another part of himself everywhere he goes. Good man. Don't let the bastards hold you down.

So I'll lay low here for today, assiduously avoiding certain parts of town, and head out west tomorrow. I may sample some of the "wings" that Buffalo is famous for, and there are some other classic food items I've been told are local must-eats. We'll see. Dietary restrictions are pretty much out the window at this point. Bicycle touring does terrible things to a man.

Note some new photos and a little video on earlier posts.

Until next time, your faithful correspondent signing off from The Frontier of Human Powered Travel in the Great American Outback.

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