Chasing Waterfalls

          We did go chasing waterfalls, looking not for a lost son, but for an unseen (by us) part of America and perhaps a long-lost youth.

          We drove the Honda Fit the six hours from the Poconos of Pennsylvania to Niagara Falls. I had done most of this drive before, but the spouse had not. I was happy to do it again since it is lovely countryside, but the point was not the hills and spacious valleys with well-tended farms, but those fabled Falls where neither of us had been. We had, of course, seen Niagara Falls many times, or at least images of it in pictures, movies, and television. That does raise the question of why go see something in person that you have “seen” many, many times before. Does your physical presence near a famous sight really add something significant to your already existing experiences of it? For me, it has varied. I, not surprisingly, “saw” the Eiffel Tower many times before I was in Paris, but I, of course, thought that a Paris trip should take in the Eiffel Tower. That in-person view did not affect me much. It did not seem to add much of significance to my life experiences other than that I could now check off that I had seen the Eiffel Tower.

          On the other hand, on each of my visits to the Grand Canyon I have felt that no picture could ever do it justice, and I was thrilled that I had personally seen the view from both rims. The differing reactions are not just because one is manmade and the other is a wonder of nature. I have seen many views of the New York skyline from the air—from planes or helicopters or buildings. But every time I went up to the observation deck or upper floors of the World Trade Center, I was mesmerized by the sight of New York City from even though I had “seen” it many times before. The spouse had seen many images of Chartres Cathedral, but when we finally went there, she was moved to tears.

          I have no theory about my different reactions in personally seeing a famous sight–why those personal views of the Grand Canyon or the city skyline made me see them fresh and anew and as if I had never encountered them in any way before, while the Eiffel Tower sighting was close to “Been there, done that.” But off I went to the I-already-know-what-this-looks-like Niagara Falls.

          That déjà vu feeling was certainly there for the town of Niagara Falls, Ontario, which we drove through before seeing the Falls. It may once have been a cute village, but now it is hard to separate it from many other tourist towns. It did not have its own unique identity but was seeking to be a mini-Las Vegas—tacky shops, huge hotels, casinos, light shows, Ferris wheels, and dancing fountains. But, of course, this Las Vegas wannabe has what the big LV does not have—Niagara Falls.

          We did not see the Falls until we had checked into the hotel and ascended to our room. We pulled back the curtains, and there was the promised view—American Falls, the higher but narrower cascade, off to our left and the panorama of Horseshoe Falls almost in front of us. Even though we were looking through framed glass, I realized that I was not glancing at a picture or a video; I was staring intently at something that seemed alive right in front of me.

          We walked to the Niagara River, but on the way, we encountered Niagara Falls, the town. We thought that we could take a shortcut through a casino that stood between our hotel and the waterfront, but, in good casino fashion, no route was straightforward thus forcing visitors to spend as much time in the gambling joint as possible. We got out of the casino close to where we entered, but then made our way down several steep blocks (which somehow were even steeper on the way back) to the well-maintained park at the river’s edge. It had perfect views of the two falls. We walked to the railing and stared. We then strolled a few feet, leaned on the railing, and stared. Walked a few more feet, leaned on the railing, and so on. It was hard to take my eyes off the Falls, partly because they played a great trick with the mind. They were ever-changing; the water that came over them would never go over the Falls again. But simultaneously, the Falls seemed eternal. Even though I knew that the Falls had changed in man’s memory as chunks of the ledges had fallen away under the water’s constant pressure, what I saw seemed as if it had always been there and always would be.

          The Falls made me think not only of time immemorial but also of my youth. I grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan, and some of the water I watched falling could have started its journey from Wisconsin rivers and streams. How likely was that? How long would such a trip take? We high school boys had a ritual of relieving ourselves of the excessive beer we had drunk into Lake Michigan off the end of the Sheboygan lighthouse pier. Was it possible that the cascade at Niagara Falls was partly me?

          Every time we could, we looked at the Falls. At the park, riding a funicular to the waterfront, out of our hotel room in the different lights of the day and night. They were always the same and always different. They are lit at night, which makes them different, but not really, from the day. At sunrise with the barest pink on the horizon, they had a different setting but were still unalterable. The mist, or the spray, or the fog, or whatever is the proper name for the water vapor that rises out of the base of the Falls, however, did change. It was always present, but its height varied every time we looked. Early in the morning it reached as high as our hotel room, fifty stories in the air.

          As is to be expected, we did a few touristy things besides gawk at the Falls. We went to a concept restaurant, but neither of us would recommend it. On the other hand, we took the walk under Horseshoe Falls. We descended in an elevator to an observation post nearly at the foot of the Falls. Then we entered tunnels under the cascade with portals that allowed us to stand a few feet behind the water. We could sense, but never truly comprehend, the power that was produced by this geologic formation.

          I would not say your life is incomplete if you don’t see Niagara Falls. On the other hand, it is not a waste of time to see them. In its literal meaning of creating awe, they are awesome.

Twenty-four hours at Niagara Falls, however, was sufficient, and the next day we drove to Mt. Morris, New York, to chase more waterfalls.

(Continued October 4)