The Wonder of Niagara State Park
Succumbing to the pull of the falls.
Zach Bowman has sold everything he owns, slapped a camper to his high-mileage 2003 Dodge Ram and has taken his family on the road. His clan numbers three, counting wife, Beth, and their infant daughter. They are touring America, working and discovering, and are sending The Drive periodic dispatches from the road.
I pushed us to Niagara. I don’t know why. Our route had us running to Syracuse to visit with Beth’s brother, and the falls are on their way to nowhere—the breathing definition of "out of the way." I’d been once before, back in 2010. Beth has stood on the ragged edge of Victoria Falls and seen the wonder from the Zimbabwe side; America’s version was bound to seem small, crowded, and commercialized by comparison. Still, I dragged us up there. Planned a series of camps along the way, the last of which was no more than an hour from Buffalo.
It seemed perfect. We’d get up, take our time with breakfast, skip rush hour, and roll into the park on a weekday morning, beating the frothing weekend crowds. Except my grasp of the calendar has slipped a bit: What I thought was Friday was actually Saturday, and our easy breakfast put us in the thick of traffic trying to get a glimpse of the water. The state park’s lots were already overflowing with smarter visitors. We muscled our way through the current of massive tour busses loading and unloading passengers from Germany, China, India, and Ohio. We jousted with Camrys intent on cutting us off just to sit an extra 20 feet ahead of where they were.
It doesn’t take much to get the voice going. The one that insists you knew better. That this was a stupid idea, that you’re going to have to pay $20 to park in a crowded lot, then walk an extra mile with kiddo screaming her head off on your shoulders. After more than five months on the road, we’ve gotten better at listening to our guts, at skipping the tourist bait for quieter, more secluded treasures. I’d spent a week ignoring that inclination for no reason at all. Couldn’t have said why if you asked me, and here we were, mired in humanity.
My temper’s at a shout, so I implement the golden rule of the road: I am bigger; you will yield. I shove us out of traffic and double back. Beth catches a small sign that points over a bridge. Niagara State Park. We take the gamble, cross the river to the far side where it’s empty, somehow. I have to laugh at the cruelty of a traffic pattern that funnels everyone to a small and congested corner of the place, leaving the arguably nicer corner abandoned.
Kiddo’s happy to get out and stretch her legs, and happier still to be hoisted up on my shoulders, squealing as she goes. Beth feeds her Goldfish crackers from below as we walk the shaded paths of the park. It’s crowded, sure, but not impossibly so. Our daughter waves at strangers, exercising her newest vocabulary.
“Hello? Hi. Buhbye.”
And then, “Wa?” She sees the river, working its way toward the cliffs. More moving water than she’s ever seen. I look over my shoulders to see her brow furrowed, her eyes locked on the smooth surface, bending and curving with the rounded rocks below before taking flight, turning to mist before our eyes. It’s so quiet at the edge. The air is heavy with water, laced with rainbows here and there as the late morning sun comes pouring through. Kiddo’s ecstatic, kicking her heels and bouncing with the strangeness of it, pointing at the small smudges of white sailing so far below us. Gulls twisting in the updrafts.
She doesn’t see the crowds. She’s not eyeing the casinos on the far shore. There’s not a scrap of disdain in her, no voice of doubt scratching at her ear. She’s here, fully. Engrossed in this moment.
That’s why we came. Because pilgrimages aren’t about what you see when you get there, but what you learn when you do.