We visited Niagara Falls on Saturday. By volume one of the largest waterfalls in the world, the falling water sounds like thunder. Swirling winds pick up the spray and drench the overlooks, where rainbows appear and fade in the mist. Like the Grand Canyon, it was almost too big to comprehend – undeniably powerful and impressive. I have to say, it was also fairly awful. Monetized. Built up. Teeming with tourists who apparently never developed a sense of appropriate public behavior – elbowing their way through the crowd only to stop suddenly to take cell-phone photo in the middle of the sidewalk, letting small children and dogs jump on strangers, sticking their heads into photos.
The RV safely parked in a gigantic lot, we walked across the famed Rainbow Bridge and crossed the border to Canada. Surprisingly, the U.S. side of the falls felt remarkably restrained; a state park graces the edges of the Niagara Gorge. The Canadian side, with its better views, was a tawdry maze of theme restaurants and mini golf and neon-lit mega hotel casinos. It’s like Disney Land and Las Vegas mated and produced Niagara Falls, Ontario. Trying to get into the spirit of things, I thought we should go up to a revolving restaurant and grab a drink at the bar. But there was no bar; there was only a $34.95 per person (plus tax, gratuity and drinks) all you can eat buffet where food quality was certainly not the draw. We slunk into the Hard Rock Café instead. I mean, we’d just walked to Canada. Didn’t we deserve a drink?
I began to think unkind things about all the people around me. And then, quietly, I began voicing these things so only Patrick could hear. Our nerves were shot, but we couldn’t leave. Oh no, not yet. Each evening giant spotlights shoot over from Canada to illuminate the falls. Not just any spotlights, but 5.25 billion candlepower worth of color-changing spotlights. So you may enjoy the falls glowing bright orange or red or blue. Am I jaded because I prefer the falls plain? I know I talked about glowing waves, but those were natural and unaccompanied by a group of teenagers whose only means of communication was yowling.
Visiting dozens of National Parks and countless National Forests on this trip has my deepened my respect for these institutions, which preserve dramatic natural sights and protect them from the kind of commercialization so evident at Niagara. Are National Parks, monuments and historic sites crowded? Certainly. Together they receive more than 275 million visitors every year. But the focus is on the natural scenery and education about its 84 million acres of protected land. The Canadian parks we visited, too, helped maintain a distance between commercial areas and major natural features. I don’t wish to begrudge anyone a souvenir photograph or fun night out at a casino, but my lasting impression is that Niagara has been exploited. Support conservation! While I’m at it, Choose Organic! Say No to GMOs! Buckle Up, Save the Whales and KONY 2012. OK, I’ll get off my soapbox now.
Oh Niagara Falls, if I had worn blinders so that I saw only your rushing waters, I would have been so awed. But I was distracted by the glitz, the spectacle, the tour buses. Though I love traveling this country and marveling at its sights, I am not a tourist at heart. Give me a quiet stream in the mountains. Let me be the only there.