This morning is a late one – the moisture in the air caused Caleb to toss and turn in his bag causing more droplets to rain down from the tent ceiling which in turn got Piggy wet enough to start drying herself off. This should’ve been enough to get me up early, but 6:30 am would have to do. I stumbled over to the shower located amongst the RVs and got out still feeling dirty. Caleb was quicker than I and already back to the tent shaking excess water off before rolling it up.
I decide to put on jeans, instead of my usual tights attire for this trip, on my birthday. I’m not wearing them to look fancy, but they feel unusually rough on my skin that has gotten used to elastic material. I’ve successfully made another rotation around the sun. Today will be my 9,862-nd day celebrating life on Earth. To make this one a little more memorable than others I will be crossing the border, again, to set foot under 750,000 gallons of rushing water – otherwise known as Niagara Falls, the first American state park.
Exact numbers may be hard to find, but it’s easy to tell that millions of people cross this border each year, hence why there are now four bridges to aid with traffic and of those millions we are but two that are here to see twenty percent of the world’s fresh water flowing over the three falls located between New York and Ontario. The border agent on Rainbow Bridge inquires about our plans to stay for the day only. We just spent a week and a half in Canada and we are here for the falls.
It’s partly morning fog, but mostly the mist from the falls that we are driving through as we make our way over the bridge. I figure we will try to park as close as possible as all the other cars seem to have done in the sun, but we need shade for the dogs. We drive around for a while and end up in the Fallsview Casino parking garage. Just being near the falls could be enough for me – so much water, rocks, and mist – so much beautiful action.
I’m grateful that the International Joint Commission was able to come to an agreement about not removing the sloping mass of rocky fragments from the bottom of the falls. And that the falls are able to power hydroelectric generators and still put on a good show. The falls have only been stopped twice – once in 1848 due to an ice dam, and the second time in 1969 by engineers and scientists that tested the rocks and river bed for aesthetic purposes and anti-erosion methods that would be worth the cost and keep the tourists happy.
Luckily the project was deemed too expensive and wasn’t what the people wanted then – or now. It has taken over 10,000 years for the falls to erode almost seven miles. I’m sure they will be just as pretty in the year 12, 542 regardless of what cities the mist decides to cover – or if the falls get tired and quit flowing they will still be in the history books as a world wonder and the power plants would have to find a new source of energy, but for now the water flows at a pace that keeps a balance between visitor funding and local industry.
We find an information booth that only sells the Adventure Pass – admission to Journey Behind the Falls, Maid of the Mist, Film: Niagara’s Fury, White Water Walk, and two days of bus transportation. It’s a great deal if you plan on spending all day at the falls (which is totally possible) with another day or two to explore the surrounding attractions. I recommend a bike to cover the 31 miles from Fort George to Fort Erie. Our time here is limited due to our foot speed and having a week left of our trip to drive over 3,000 miles.
From the booth it’s a 15-minute walk to the Maid of the Mist. Our $40 gets us a 10:00 am departure, an elevator ride, a blue plastic poncho to wear, and a boat ride with anywhere from 300 – 600 other passengers past the American and Bridal Veil Falls and into the mist of Horseshoe Falls. It’s windy, wet, and scenic. What’s not to like – the woman with the two feet of curly hair that decides my face is the best place for her head mess. Caleb quickly switches spots with me (a few inches can always make a big difference – referring to his height) and my smile comes back.
The closer we get to the middle of our tour the denser the crowd gets, like a concert when the headlining band takes the stage, to get more pictures. People take turns and soon our six minutes are up. Total ride time is about 30 minutes – and I’m caught between time freezing so I can enjoy the moment longer and time flashing in a second to where if I didn’t have the pictures to prove it I might almost believe I wasn’t even there. Being able to add another item to my Building A Sandcastle list has built up an appetite.
We stop at a fast food place within the Maid of the Mist shopping plaza for a veggie burger and poutine to share. We take our quick meal to a table with two chairs and a view of the falls outside the large window – how romantic. I’ve had some delicious cakes and thoughtful gifts before, but starting a tradition of experiential birthdays is definitely more memorable. Full of carbs and gravy it’s time for our Journey Behind the Falls. Unlike the Maid that offers rides from both countries, this one can only be seen from Canada.
From one ride to the next is another 15-minute walk. These tickets are $36 and get us a yellow poncho, an elevator ride at 11:00 am, and a tour through tunnels about 150 feet below ground level and equidistant from the falls. Making our way to the elevator we see pictures and signatures of famous visitors, such as The Temptations and Tom Skerritt; and information about the ice boom, a series of pontoons cabled together and anchored to the river bed, that helps prevent ice accumulation that can interfere with the hydro-electric water intakes and cause flooding and damage to property along the shoreline.
We decide to read the fact placards as we make our way between Cataract Portal and Great Falls Portal, a distance of 650 feet, and save the viewing platform for last. People aren’t so patient – photo bombing us and squeezing into the spot we occupied before someone else gets it – and I understand. No amount of media can prepare someone properly for the amount of beauty seen and amazement felt once they arrive to a place so many want to visit and that they were able to afford.
The viewing platform is two levels. On the top-level I get a special feeling of awe as I stare at both sides of the falls and consider the power of water – to give and take life, to supply energy, and a place for sports. Making our way downstairs I pass a boy in his 20s carving his initials into the rock while his friends take pictures. The damage was already done and he wanted to carve deeper. I wasn’t sure of a language barrier, but it seems I made myself clear to him and all the others around us too scared to confront someone ruining this park for future visitors. Then I noticed all the names that have been carved before his.
We reach the You Are Here! sign located below the Table Rock Complex on the second level of the viewing platform. There is a lot more mist down here. As soon as we are back upstairs I begin to take off my poncho to keep me from sweating. We spend some time in the gift shop looking at the eight-foot moose named Murray, trying on hats, admiring the sculpture of pink Portuguese marble, and buy a shirt to commemorate our day in Canada on my birthday.
Our last snack was two hours ago and I’m hungry again. We stop at Cold Stone Creamery. The ice cream specialist hears a mention of birthday and reaches to grab me a scoop. I tell her instead to get us peanut butter cheesecake ice cream with KitKat candy pieces and strawberries in a medium cup. The daylight hours are half over and we plan on returning to the falls for the evening lights so we decide to tour Buffalo for a while – which is why I called my dad last night for some ideas. We return to the States via the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge.
First on our list though is the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site, one of the oldest homes in Buffalo, on Delaware Avenue. We walk in just in time to join a group on a tour. Our guide takes us back in time to the days leading up to the death of President McKinley and Roosevelt riding in from the Adirondack Mountains to take the oath of office in the home of Ansley Wilcox on Sept. 14, 1901.
We were filled in as if we were in the moment and the people still in the room figuring out what to do and what to tell the country. The city of Buffalo was in the middle of the Pan-American Exposition, running from May 1st to Nov. 2nd. We learned about the carpets, wallpaper, woodworks, portraits, and the books on the shelves – not actually belonging to the house, but good literature that could’ve been found up to the historic moment.
We take turns reading aloud written Morse code messages from the Western Union Telegraph Company with 21,000 offices in America at the time – that now has over 500,000 locations around the world. Upstairs are displays that show the connection between things the way they were then and now – presidents to parents, a room of macro-shots of items from the Pan-Am Exposition, another room with political cartoons, and a presidential desk where I practiced approving or vetoing bills.
On the way from one place to the next, we planned to walk to Santasiero’s (restaurant recommended by dad), I call my mom after receiving a birthday text message. We don’t talk long as I notice a Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, one of two within a half mile of each other. We get to see sheet music with the handwriting of Mendelssohn and a sales agreement for Polonaise in A-Flat Major by Chopin along with other pieces from the Romantic period.
At the corner we are stopped by a man in his van. Tony pulls over to get out of the lane to give us recommendations on art and music things to see while in the city – and that we were fine with. It’s when he started talking about politics and such that I was more than ready to eat. A few blocks later we realized how far this walk was – not long on the legs, but that we would see less if we tried to hoof it all. I kept walking towards the restaurant while Caleb went back to get the car.
Each house is unique, each pet is cute, each kid is loud and playful, and their parents curious and kind. We are in a college neighborhood so I’m easily confused for a local if not a university transplant. Twenty minutes go by and I worry that Caleb will not find me and have trouble doing so because of the one-way streets. I hear him asking if a couple had seen me as I come running up to the car, ”There she is!” A few turns later and we are outside Santasiero’s that advertises spaghetti and roast beef on their sign.
I feel like a dunce when I think the place is closed. I just didn’t pull the airtight door hard enough. It may be warm outside, but once we are through the second door the temperature drops and we take a seat at the bar. It’s a small, family business with a simple menu and cash-only policy. We order a half-spaghetti and a half-eggplant parmesan and get bread with butter and water with lemon while we wait. For dessert we drive to Fowler’s Chocolates in Tonawanda – paternal grandmother’s favorite and she gifts some to my dad every Easter.
I am overwhelmed by the pink on the walls and the milk, dark, and orange chocolate with different fillings. We buy a double-decker variety box for me, a triple pack of bars for Caleb, and some cubes of dark chocolate with orange sponge candy inside. I would’ve bought more, but we were afraid of it melting or the dogs eating it. With enough sugar to last three days we drive south again to the corner of Tonawanda St. and Progressive Ave. to a firehouse with my 2nd great uncle’s name, A. Kurchhoff, carved into a concrete sign on a brick wall for painting the building.
The sign was posted in 1894, so I know there is no chance of meeting him, but there’s something neat about seeing the work of my ancestor and imaging what life was like when he was alive. The front is beautiful and the windows dark, but the back addition leads to a door with men in lounge chairs inside. I knock. They are humorous and kind and more than willing to show me the chipped paint that remains under layers of new paint.
We get an official tour by Lt. Weitz whose father was a captain here. He shows us the lounge where they watch the news, the kitchen where they cook, the lockers where we talk about the TV drama Rescue Me, the tool bench with clothes on it, a fuel dipstick from the 1900s, the bedrooms with maps on the wall, the pole hole – sexy in film and dangerous in life, the foot of space in the dropped ceiling, and of course Engine 26. We learn that the locks were removed because the truck is keyless and that intersections have numbers that match key-boxes located around town, so that even when a business is closed a fireman has access.
We thank the guys for their generosity with our intrusion into their evening, though perhaps they too enjoy the history of the place and sharing that with inquiring minds. Now it’s time to visit my great aunts, Lillian and Ann, that live across the street from each other on Delta Road. Unfortunately no one is home and we ride off towards a beautiful sky and the Love Canal – a fenced-in memory of a “… failure to exercise a sense of concern for future generations” by dumping toxic waste in a residential area.
With Dad’s recommended tour, on short notice, of things to see and eat in Buffalo complete we are ready to head back to Niagara Falls to see the water lit up when the sun goes down. We don’t feel like crossing the border again so we park by the Niagara Falls State Park and get to enjoy a bit more of the river before the falls. There are trees touching the swirling, rushing water and I hop down on a rock to join them. The birds begin to fly as the skyscraper lights come on.
Walking along the fence my pictures could give the impression that I’m in the river, but I don’t want the lights in my eyes, so we will look for a different spot. We walk to the Niagara Falls Observation Tower where a crowd is starting to gather on the far side of the elevators so we set up closer to land. As we stood there mid-conversation I for some reason took off my ring and we spent some time discussing how Caleb would go down, 282 feet, to fetch it if I happened to drop it – I put it back on and the show started.
The lights start off white and slowly fade to shades of red, purple, yellow, and blue and will stay that way until midnight, but not us. We are in need of a coffee for the road and a warm bed for the night while we dry out our tent. We find a coffee shop nearby and I order something tall with lots of sugar and caffeine. The walk back to the car is relaxing – a little too much in fact. I thought we would sleep somewhere south of Buffalo to be closer to home in the morning. But we are able to find a room under $100 at the Economy Inn in Tonawanda and we take it.
We were driving down the street to check with the competition, Budget Inn, when I spotted a skunk. I parked the car and crossed the street. I didn’t want to scare it, obviously, but I wanted a picture. Well, I got one of a black blur in tall green grass. Totally worth it to risk smelling like ass until we found industrial size tomato sauce cans to bathe with, but I’m sure the manager wouldn’t have allowed us in. No refunds, No pets. Room 106 for $61.46. While Caleb filled out the form I could see the man’s wife in bed in the next room and hear the movie she was watching. It feels weird bringing in the tent and leaving the dogs in the car, but I need sleep and no pet fees for unauthorized guests.