Some of the best experiences we have in the United States occur when traveling and some of our best experiences when traveling are due to spontaneity. I am always driving around the U.S., either for work or fun, and more often than not an impulsive detour is part of the agenda. One of the more enjoyable, and surprisingly economical, detours started off as a weekend visit to Pittsburgh, PA. It quickly became something more.
From my home in Elkhart, IN Pittsburgh was only about five and a half hours away. That was my sole criteria for planning that destination. I had an urge to go somewhere new, and I had never been to Pittsburgh. I was sitting in my living room, looking at a map, and thinking of how I had heard of the city, but knew almost nothing about it. The next thing I knew I was in my car, halfway to Steel City.
Upon arrival, it became abundantly clear why I had heard so little about Pittsburgh. At the time the city was on the cusp of a renaissance following years of economic hardships. Tech companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft (to name a few) now generate over 20 billion dollars a year for the city, and it is clear where a lot of the money goes. The streets are cleaner, and the once yellow rivers are clearing up.
Unfortunately, I did not get to experience those improvements during my brief visit. I spent one Thursday night walking around the downtown area with a feeling that at any moment I would have to defend my wallet or my life. As exciting as that sensation can be, I made other plans very quickly. Another city that I had never been to was another five hours to the East. I figured that I’d come this far so why not?
The sun was coming up when I arrived at The Sonesta Hotel in downtown Philly. After a short nap, I hailed a cab that took me to Independence Hall, which the driver assured me was within close walking distance to other points of interest. After a few hours of sight-seeing, I felt I had absorbed enough history and followed my urge to experience something else for which Philadelphia is famous.
The Philly Cheesesteak
Despite the seemingly endless attractions and activities that Philly offers, the most common recommendation always seems to be the cheesesteak. For the uninitiated, this is a sub-style sandwich piled with flat-grilled steak. From there the remaining ingredients are among Philadelphia’s most vicious debates. Some like it with provolone or American cheese, while purists insist that authenticity lies in cheese whiz.
To be safe, I ordered one of the sandwiches following the recommendations of the cook at a Compo’s on Market St. It was loaded with steak, peppers, onions, and of course cheese whiz. The cheesesteak was divine, but after the first two bites, I realized that it was more than I could handle. With great sadness and a sense of failure, I deposited the remains in the nearest trash receptacle and made my way on foot to my hotel.
Philadelphia felt a lot safer at night than Pittsburgh had. It was just after Christmas and some seasonal lights were still on display in Old City. By the time I reached The Sonesta, I was satisfied that I had experienced enough of The City of Brotherly Love; but it was only Friday, and I still had the rest of the weekend at my disposal.
Riding the Megabus to New York
The main reason why I love road trips is the freedom. When I’m in command of my vehicle, I’m in control of my journey, and all the stops included. There is nothing more relaxing and comforting than being behind a steering wheel staring at an open road. When I woke up that Saturday morning in Philadelphia, however, I knew I’d be stepping out of my comfort zone.
I was satisfied with my time in Philly, but not wholly satiated with the overall road trip. I still had three days of my long weekend to fill and an urge to explore another place that I had never been. I was a little surprised and very excited when a quick Google search showed New York City only a couple of hours away.
I started packing when something occurred to me. Although I had never been to New York, I was well aware of the obscene traffic. If I was to drive there those two hours could easily become five or more. The solution came with an $18 ticket aboard a Megabus. I had ridden some Greyhound buses many years earlier that made me swear off of public transportation, but I parked my car in a garage in Philadelphia and hopped aboard the Megabus with an open mind.
My seat was on the upper level at the nose of the bus, giving me a high angle panoramic view of the road ahead. The surrounding seats were all empty; the wifi signal was strong, it was my lucky day. I relaxed with the theme song to The Sopranos in my head as we passed through New Jersey and before long I could see the New York City skyline ahead. Soon after, I arrived at Union Station.
Using IHG Rewards points, I was able to book a room at the Candlewood Suites just around the corner from all the action of Times Square. I checked in and downed three large cups of coffee. I hadn’t had much sleep in the last two days, and I was confident I wouldn’t remedy that in New York. Rest was not a luxury that I could favor over exploring The Big Apple.
The first thing that I noticed about Manhattan was the lack of pedestrian regulations. There were crosswalks, and those crosswalks had signals, but at some point, the citizens of New York decided it was in their best interests to completely disregard them. In the city that never sleeps, the people never stop moving, even when struck by a moving vehicle.
The next thing that struck me was the smell. I had been given the impression, mostly from movies and television shows, that New York reeked overwhelmingly of urine. What I found was quite the opposite. The dominating fragrance was of food. Any noxious odors that might have been present were masked by the aromas coming from the dozens of food trucks lining the sidewalks.
I wandered around Times Square, unprepared for how amazed I would be. I suspect the novelty wears off for those who spend enough time there but for a first-time visitor, it is electric. Even the barkers, soliciting tickets to shows I would never see, contributed to the atmosphere. It was an only in New York experience that made me want to sample more, and the subway seemed like an appropriate next step.
Upon submerging into the tunnel, I found a transit map that looked to me like a Jackson Pollock painting. Nothing about it made sense. The more I stared at it, the more confused I became until I finally decided to play subway roulette. I boarded the next train and avoided eye contact until the LED board above the door flashed something familiar.
Wall Street and the end of a movement
I left the subway tunnel and was greeted by the famous bull statue on Wall St. Ahead I could see a small group of people at a park, holding signs. They were the last of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and their low level of energy showed that the end was near.
It was dark by the time I ended up in Battery Park. The January cold that was blocked by the Manhattan skyscrapers was now fully evident. I could barely make out the Statue of Liberty in the distance across the water and was disappointed to learn that it had closed at 4:00. Still, the day had been eventful, and I was eager to return to the hotel.
After a long subway ride back to Times Square I stopped at a small bodega near my hotel for something to eat. I walked out with a cheesesteak that rivaled the one I’d eaten in Philly, a perfect end to a perfect day. Sleep would come easy that night.
When I awoke the next morning, I knew which part of New York I wanted to explore next. Every major city has a Chinatown that usually ends up being my favorite part. Nowhere is a culture more densely concentrated in a city, and no more so than in New York.
The layout of New York’s Chinatown is one of its more interesting features. It engulfs Little Italy and Five Points, two other notable locations. You could be walking through, looking at shops selling fresh seafood out of buckets and plastic novelty Buddha statues. Chinese writing covers brightly colored signs. Then you round one corner and all of a sudden by Italian flags and restaurants with green and red canopies surround you.
The food in Chinatown is not like what you would typically find at your local buffet. Some of what I sampled was recognizable, but other items on my plate looked questionable. Still, I put my faith in the culture and trusted that the cuisine would do me no harm. I don’t know what I ate, but I didn’t regret the meal.
Mahayana Buddhist Temple
When I was young, I read The Teachings of Buddha on the recommendation of a friend who had brought the tiny book home from his deployment in China. I found it fascinating and developed a keen interest in the Buddhist faith as a result. I was excited to come upon The large Mahayana Buddhist Temple while walking along Canal St. and decided to go in.
It was quiet inside, as one might presume of a Buddhist temple, and I was very respectful as I looked around. There was a giant golden statue of Siddhartha against the far wall with kneeling benches lined out in front of it. There was a group participating in meditation around a large table in the middle of the room, and a monk approached and invited me to join.
I was shy at first but felt at ease when he took me by the arm and led me to into the room. An hour of ceremonial meditation was just what I needed to center myself after four days of constant moving and little sleep. I left The Mahayana Buddhist temple feeling like a new man.
The rest of my evening was spent roaming the winding Doyers Street, a favorite area for visitors to feel like they’ve stumbled upon a secret. Because this section is tucked away from some of the higher trafficked spots in Chinatown, it can feel like a world unto itself. Tourist traps litter other streets, but Doyers and Pell cater more to locals with fish markets, herb shops, bookstores, and other staples of the residing Asian culture.
I hung around Doyers and Pell late into the night, enjoying the streets more as they emptied and grew quiet. The markets and shops were closing, and only a couple of proprietors were left sweeping the sidewalks. I couldn’t imagine a better way to wrap up my first visit to New York.
The next day I would take a Megabus back to Philadelphia, retrieve my car, and return home with a strong sense of accomplishment. It had been a spontaneous four-day trip that cost me under $300 after gas, food, lodging, and other minor expenses; and served as an effective way to gauge the cost of my next road trip. Like Philly and New York, I had never been to Arizona and California. My experiences with traveling to the East Coast cemented the decision that I had been on the fence about for a while. I would journey West, and April seemed like the perfect time.
This article is Part 5 in an ongoing series.