Niagara Falls was an afterthought; my husband and daughter were most excited about our three days in Boston, while my son and I were psyched for Acadia National Park.
This trip, affectionately called “The Great Unslump of 2016” (with thanks to Dr. Seuss for the title) wasn’t just a vacation; it was part of my masterplan.
After a long hard spring, a sad June, and an uncertain future, I wanted us to see parts of the country we hadn’t seen before. I wanted us to all recognize that Macomb, IL wasn’t the only place to live and work. I wanted us to realize that we have choices, even when things are hard.
What I didn’t know then was that memories of this trip would sustain me when things are looking more hard, uncertain, and difficult in light of the presidential election.
Playing cards in our tent under a canopy of pine trees, the stars bright white pinpoints against a blackness, coffee al fresco, paying for showers, we left Acadia with me thinking “Everything I wanted for this trip has been accomplished. Thank you, universe. Thank you, Henry David Thoreau” (who seemed like a good guy to invoke since I had just had a spiritual experience at Walden Pond).
When you drive across the country, it’s good to come home a way that means that you get to see new things, exciting things like New Hampshire, Vermont, and Buffalo, New York.
We set up camp at New York’s Four Mile Creek State Park on the shore of Lake Ontario. In the morning, before we ventured over to Niagara Falls, we dipped our toes in the water and stared at Toronto, a skyline just visible on the other side of the lake. Oh Canada! Home of healthcare to all and a year of paid maternity leave. We all looked longingly.
Peanut butter sandwiches in the car, wet clothes tucked between the seats from impromptu swimming, we arrived at Niagara Falls, NY, in a state of relaxed confusion.
We’d seen the postcards and knew what natural wonder awaited us, but the town itself gives little away. We were going to find wonder here in the land of concrete? Opening the car door answered our question. The roar of the water can be heard from the parking lot.
Standing in the ticket line, Brian and I decided to approach this experience with reckless abandon—“You know what? Let’s do it all! Boat ride to the Falls! Absolutely! Board walks through a cave behind the Falls! Yes, please! Educational movie with dramatic recreations? Have you even met us? Of course!” We spent more on those tickets than we had on lodging whole previous week.
We traded our shoes for the required sandals and donned clear-trash-bag-like ponchos stamped with the park’s logo—Niagara Falls is the United States, complete with our desire to brand everything.
Clothed in our matching attire, we stood on the deck of The Maid of the Mist with about 100 people. Despite the similarity of our costumes, we couldn’t have been more different. People on my right chatted excitedly in a language I’d never heard before, the plastic
obscuring bright saris; on my left a group of young Amish couples quietly spoke another language. Three young women with spray tans and shiny straight hair that did not move despite the wind whipping around us snapped pictures with Coach cell phone cased smart phones. They crossed the deck to ask me if I would take their picture together. Being a “safe” looking white woman, this isn’t a new request. I seem to be universally recognized as someone who will not steal your phone.
As the boat chugged into the spray of water our little groups gave a collective “Oh.” Sharing the universal sounds of amazement and wonder, we pulled up close to where the falling water met the river below. Our faces hurt from smiling. Even our grouchy teenager was in awe. I peaked out from under my clear plastic hood—what was it that I was feeling? Amazement, gratitude to be here with all these people feeling the power and grandiosity of what nature can do, what God hath wrought. Niagara is magic.
Later, we watched the movie. It could have been entitled “People Who Went Over the Falls and Managed to Live—But Some Didn’t.”
The most fascinating story is that of Annie Edson Taylor, who braved the falls in a barrel. That part of the story is famous. What isn’t so well known is why she decided to make the stunt. A retired school teacher, Taylor found herself unable to make ends meet. In an attempt to gain publicity and donations, she did extensive research before making her successful trip. While she was famous for a time, sadly this experience didn’t result in financial stability. I took this opportunity to stage whisper to my family, well actually the whole room, that I was grateful for Social Security and everyone else should be too.
We rode the trolley around the park and were treated to a monotone soliloquy. “On your right,” the teenager intoned, “You’ll see Goat Island. Named this because a man brought his livestock to survive the winter where they would be safe from predators. It was unfortunate timing. New York experienced a very harsh. When the man came back in the spring he found only one animal, a goat, had managed to survive.” “Tough goat,” Sam muttered. “Stupid man,” replied Annie.
It’s not just that the sunlight through the spray makes Niagara Falls look magical. It’s the fact that something as simple as water on rocks produces a deafening noise and the power is so great and you are so small.
These months since the election have been hard as I moved from shock to acceptance and active resistance. I’ve been searching for hope, seeking it out.
And so I’ve been thinking about Niagara Falls--the boats and barrels and most of all the water and power and glory. I’ve decided that Niagara Falls IS America. The beautiful things, the diversity of people, but also the hard parts, the abandoning goats and making little old ladies feel forced to do death defying stunts in order to take care of themselves. Maybe I’m still squinting toward Toronto in my heart sometimes, but I’ve decided to believe in the promise of the Falls. I think that our admiration for what we hold to be true and meaningful can win.
I choose to be hopeful. If we can stand on a boat, all of us: Amish, Indian, Midwestern, Southern, native born, immigrant, and so many more, sharing in admiring the same things, the same power and glory, we have hope. If we can have these moments that bring us together, we can do the work to ease the moments when we are divided. We may not agree, and we’ll maybe have to fight, but I’m teacher, so I believe in the power of teaching others. I have to believe in Maya Angelou’s words “When you know better, you do better.” We can do better.
I’m not saying it will be easy, but I’m saying it’s possible. Just as a family can reconnect in a Toyota Camry, watching mountains give way to corn fields, driving down the highway singing and proclaiming “I am not throwing away my shot!” at the top of our lungs, communities can be forged in places of division.