When you’re from New England, the whole concept of taking a “Road Trip” means driving an hour to the beach. So when my friend Beccy suggested we take a road trip to Niagara Falls during our kids’ spring break, I mentally padded the usual duration with an extra hour or two and impetuously answered Yes.
As I’ve established, I’m notoriously terrible with directions. I should have paused before answering. I should have considered that Beccy is from the Midwest, where folks will drive for two hours on a Sunday morning just to worship at church. She comes from a place where people traverse vast distances over flat earth to get almost anywhere. Or, nowhere: When my friend Jen was growing up in Nebraska, her parents routinely piled six kids into their Country Squire just to head out for a drive.
So this is how I found myself, last week, journeying the 8 hours west from Massachusetts to Canada, with Beccy, her two daughters and one of my own.
From Boston, Niagara Falls is pretty much a straight shot west and then slight arch north, through the greenest parts of Massachusetts and New York. We passed fields of dark soil freshly plowed for spring, small hills dotted with cows and sheep, and horse paddocks attached to red barns. We shared the road with truckers. In fact, this easily could have been the Midwest.
Were it not for Beccy’s Acura and the iPods plugged into the kids’ ears in the back, it also could have easily been 1958. It’s easy to lose track of time on the road… not just the sun marching across the sky, but the sense of feeling untethered to place, in a black hole of space and time. Traveling a mostly empty tarmac, passing at high speed farms that felt unchanged for decades—were the cows grazing on that hill the offspring of their cow ancestors who grazed there, too?
And what of the cows—what do they think of us, hurtling past them? Do we seem unchanged to them, too?
In part, this sense of the being frozen in time and place was the essence of our destination. Niagara is a decidedly retro place. As you probably know, Niagara Falls is a collection of massive waterfalls on the Niagara River, straddling the border separating Ontario and New York. The Falls were formed when glaciers receded at the end of the last ice age, and water from the newly formed Great Lakes carved a path through the Niagara Escarpment en route to the Atlantic Ocean, creating the most powerful waterfalls in North America.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this before last week. All I knew about Niagara, in fact, I gleaned years ago from a decorative gift-shop plate I used to see hanging on a neighbor’s wall when I was growing up. The plate was about 8 inches in diameter; with a filigree border edged in gold paint. Printed on its face, like numbers on a clock, were tiny pictures of Niagara highlights—an indiscernible figure going over the falls in a wooden barrel, a cable car traversing the river, the Maid of the Mist boat. And then there were the tiny renderings of the Falls themselves—Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side of the border and American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls on the US side. On that plate, grossly out of scale and dimension, I thought they looked like the water bubblers at school.
Up close, of course, the Falls are far more impressive. Awe-inspiring, even. And the natural attractions are largely unchanged since the time my neighbors most likely bought that plate. Niagara felt close to the freer, looser place I imagined they must have experienced: a time before national fears made security measures standard at major US attractions. We waited in lines that didn’t snake through metal detectors; we carried bags that weren’t searched.
When I mentioned as much to Beccy, she said something about this being Canada, not the US, and what did they have to worry about? I conceded that she had a point.
So we made the most of it. We toured the damp passageways dug behind the Falls, the floor slick with cold puddles. We mugged for pictures in front of the Falls, feeling the mist chill our skin even though we stood at far away lookouts. We watched an IMAX movie about Niagara’s history and saw the contraptions some crazy souls rode over them before the entire carnival of it was banned in 1970s. Some of us rode the cable car suspended slightly downstream over the Niagara River, which we then followed to Lake Ontario. It was the first Great Lake I’d ever seen, the first lake I couldn’t easily see the other side of, a marvel I couldn’t help but point out repeatedly to the girls as they hunted for the best kind of rocks to skip over its smooth surface. At night, we slept in beds that looked out over the Falls, lit up in a successive riot of blue and red and green.
In essence, we uncovered every vantage from which to view and feel the Falls, to experience their power, to impress the awe on ourselves and on our kids. We soaked it all in. Who knew when—if ever?—we’d be back? I contemplated buying a plate.
As most anyone who has ever embarked on a Road Trip will tell you, the trip back is never as much fun as the trip there. And it was then that I also lost that sense of being suspended in time and place, of the freedom and looseness that had pervaded most of the journey.
Rolling out of town, with the Falls still within easy view, we stopped at the Rainbow Bridge border checkpoint and produced our passports. The way into Canada had been uneventful, but the US guard was less easygoing. He looked carefully at each passport, eyeing us, looking at the three girls in the back seat, and then back to us again.
He fired a series of questions at Beccy, who was driving: “Are you all one family? How long were you in Canada? Where did you stay? How do you two know each other?” and in between other queries, he repeated, twice more, “How long were you in Canada?”
Slightly flushed and surprised and breathless, she answered truthfully and as simply as she could. I chimed in, too, but tried to keep the guilt from creeping into my voice. Not because I actually had anything to feel guilty about, of course. But after years of Catholic schooling, it’s second-nature to assume I do.
Who knows what prompted such questioning of two 40-ish Moms traveling with three young girls? Who knows whether something had happened at this border crossing in recent history, whether this was par for the course or a reaction to generally tighter security measures, or whether we’d chanced on a guard who enjoyed the power trip? But Beccy was shook up, and the rest of us sufficiently intimated, to continue to ponder the issue aloud well into Buffalo.
Almost immediately, having just crossed the border back into the US over the Rainbow Bridge—and there we were: rooted anew in the present.