It’s my birthday this month—I’m turning 40—and I’ve wisely decided to spend June giving myself whatever I want in celebratory fashion. So far that has mostly meant teaching summer school and lathering on name-brand sunscreen for the bike rides it takes to get me there, but hey, that’s what pushing 40 looks like, apparently. I did, though, fit in a real-life full-on field trip last weekend: Niagara Falls! I had a Groupon, the ladyfriend had a couple of vacation days, and we hit the road with our bicycles for a romantical weekend staring at the falls, riding our bikes around, and redeeming vouchers at one of many fine casino establishments.
It feels pretty fucking fancy to take a vacation for vacation’s sake. It costs a lot in time and money, and I have no idea how people with children take the early summer trips TV suggests they do. This isn’t to say that I’m not in a pretty privileged position when it comes to leisure time. I mean, I’m a college professor. I work a lot more than most people think I do, but it is also true that I am largely in control of how and where I spend my time. I mean, I’m teaching two classes right now, and I could still take off for four days and just keep up with grades and email via the free WiFi at the Best Western Fallsview (total misnomer, unless you count a view of Margaritaville and a parking lot “the falls”). That’s some serious luxury that I never forget I have. At the same time, I also make a whole lot less money than most people probably think I do—you can look it up—and that means I can’t exactly afford fancy-pants vacations. I’m middle class enough, though, to afford these four days in a hotel, eating $40 breakfasts at the IHOP and tossing $20 here and there for various tourist trappings. I can see why everybody wants to save the middle class—I’m in it, and it is wondrous. More than anything, it means I can afford to take a trip that doesn’t fulfill some other obligation, like attending a work-related conference or seeing my mother. I can make a second trip to see mom later (and mom, if you’re reading this, I totally will—I’ll call you next week, promise).
When we rolled into Canadia and on to the Falls it was instantly apparent that we were not the only ones taking this particular vacation. Niagara Falls is a natural wonder, but a visit here is a highly curated event; it isn’t enough to just look at the thing. I checked us into the hotel and was given a folder of coupons for Outback Steakhouse, TGI Fridays, IHOP, and other assorted casual family dining establishments. Welcome, Americans—here are the eateries you requested. We carried our stuff upstairs to our room past families heading downstairs to the pool and a surprising number of people already donning their Niagara Falls tank tops. We caught our breath and then headed straight out to see the falls, passing the IMAX theater advertising a movie about the falls, the Skylon Tower advertising a bird’s eye view of the falls, and billboard after bus stop billboard reminding us of the many ways we could pay to have a better time looking at Niagara Falls.
We were content to just look at it with our eyeballs to start, so we followed the sound of the rushing water to the edge of things. They’ve built a lovely parkway to guide tourists along the view, from the comparatively sorry American Falls over to the main event—Horseshoe Falls and its iconic flow of water over the craggy bend of earth here. It is literally breathtaking (and I mean that literally). I opened my eyes as wide as I could, hoping I could really see it all, and see it forever and always. And then we turned to head into the mall that’s set back from the falls, because that’s where the road leads you next, and what next? You can’t just stare for three days, right?
And good god but this place had a zillion other ways to look at Niagara Falls. Everywhere we turned there was another sign pointing to another place to drop some cash, and everything could be made a better value if we would just pony up a bit more money up front. We could easily join the legion of fellow tourists with their lanyards and Niagara Falls Adventure Passes that would swipe them into at least four different attractions—a boat ride up to the waterfall, a walk behind the waterfall, an IMAX movie about the waterfall, a documentary about the making of the boat ride/walk/IMAX movie about the waterfall . . . the list went on and on. Canadian dollars, sure, but to “make the most” of our visit would have gotten me kicked out of the middle class to which I have only recently ascended. I was quickly overwhelmed by the feeling that even if I wanted to pay for all the things, I would not possibly have the time to get the “full experience” of the place. It was all too much at first, and then it was not enough.
So we walked away, spent the next day riding bikes forever on a path along the Niagara River that let us, on our return, come upon the view again, lose our breath, again. That part was just as curated as the rest of it, every park a man-made cultivation and staging, but it was a total bargain, and it made the beer we downed at Outback Steakhouse taste even better. We spent the cash to go on the boat ride the next day—absolutely and utterly worth $20 to get blown away by the power of nature from that different vantage point—but then spent the afternoon walking to downtown Niagara Falls for lunch. It was only a couple of miles away from the laser tag and haunted houses and casinos, but it felt like a different universe, a ghost town remaining after capital rolled from the city center to the T-shirt economy closer to the water. Money’s moving everywhere, the flow staunched and redirected just like it is over Niagara Falls itself. They can turn it down, even turn it off, you know, but it’s for the water’s own good, promise.