Barry Boyce visits Niagara Falls.
Imagine you are making your way through thick forest, cutting a narrow pathway in uncharted territory. In the sylvan quiet you detect a rumbling. As you continue on, the rumbling becomes a roar. The ground beneath you trembles; the air above you is moist. As you emerge into a clearing, what appears to be rain turns out to be a rolling mist overtaking you. Then awestruck you stand at the threshold of a massive torrent. The Iroquois called it Onguiaahra, the strait. We know it as Niagara.
Some 12,000 years ago, this must have been the experience of the first people to stumble upon Niagara. I can scarcely imagine what they might have felt, because as many times as I have visited Niagara, each time I am taken in by its immensity. I wander about slack-jawed, unable to take my eyes from the water as it rushes over the 2200-foot-wide rim of the Horseshoe Falls.
I rarely go for more than a few hours because Niagara is not about doing something. It is just about being there. The one time I did stay overnight, my family put up on the New York side in the seediest hockey team motel in America. The last time I visited, my companions and I decided to have lunch on the Canadian side and ended up on the main drag of Niagara Falls, Ontario, distanced by several decades from the ersatz downtown next to the falls.
There is probably no place on earth where kitsch meets nature so strikingly as at Niagara. The premier attraction in the real downtown is Basell’s, whose card proclaims it “The Bus Driver’s Choice.” Upon entering you are immediately greeted by a nine-foot-wide painting of the Parthenon on the back wall. Demitri, your server, lets you know that “Basell” has been cut out of the middle of a longer name beginning with “Papa.” The counter sports mustard-colored Naugahyde seats, a Formica top printed with multi-colored irregular polygons, and a tower of flower-trimmed coffee cups and saucers heavy enough to do some serious damage. Rod Serling has already taken his seat at the back.
In the tinselly downtown near the falls, one is greeted with endless opportunities for gee-gaw hunting and amusement of the Ripley’s Believe or Not, Movieland Wax Museum, or Casino Niagara variety. But the real amusement is still the falls themselves. No amount of man-made entertainment can squelch it.
The falls are really three falls, arrayed along an immense arc stretching from the main cataract of the American Falls past the small Bridal Veil Falls and on to the Horseshoe Falls. From the U.S. side, you look across the brim of the falls. In Canada, you get the full picture of a million and half gallons of water rushing toward you each second.
When you look for a while into the falls, not only is there excitement and amazement, there is profundity. If you keep looking and rest your gaze, the falls become like one of those magic eye pictures. It is both singular and plural. You see it as one thing, and then you see it as many, and then back again. The Buddhist metaphor of the waterfall is actualized. The falls appear to be one very big stationary thing-like your ego-but then you see that it is not one thing. It’s never the same water: it’s simply droplet after droplet, the entire Great Lakes making its way to the sea.
It’s also never the same falls. It’s constantly eroding, becoming a different falls with each passing day. In the 17th century, the pronounced U of the Horseshoe Falls was nearly a straight line, hundreds of feet downstream from its current location. Knowing this, you can appreciate a larger time scale: geologic time.
Because it’s such an international tourist attraction (or trap, some would say) in the high season the crowds emit a buzz and clamor in a variety of languages, the tweeter to the falls’ woofer. The crowds gawk and crane and weigh themselves down with bags and cameras. They appear bored and somewhat puzzled as to what to do with themselves, but a few of them crowd on to the Maid of the Mist, the boat that travels directly into the center of the horseshoe, and something happens.
After exiting the elevator that takes you down to the river from the ledge above, you are handed a compact piece of blue plastic, your raincoat. When you put it on as you board, it seems silly. Who needs it? You’re not actually going under the falls, only into the mist cloud. Some people get a little irritable. It’s tight quarters on the boat. It’s hard to maneuver your video camera wearing flimsy hooded rainwear. For the first part of the trip, the claustrophobia of being jammed together in pursuit of a tourist attraction with everybody yacking intensifies.
But at a certain point, everyone stops talking. You are entering the center. Your hearing is now surrendered to the falls. It’s a heavy mist. It’s a hard-driving rain. It’s buckets of water drenching you. Your touch, taste, and smell are surrendered to the falls. Now your sight is given over to the falls. There is nothing else. The only remaining human sound is laughter. Peals and peals and whoops of joyous laughter. The mind is dissolved in the ionic charge of a massive dose of H2O, and you’re falling like water itself.