American Sabbatical 006: 9/3-4/96


9/3 (continued)..Western NY.

From Seneca Falls we took the old highway west, touching the tops of the fingers. The lakes, that is. Stopped for lunch in a park at the north end of Lake Geneva. Sweeping lawns and towering catalpas and locusts. Indeed the trees have soared up in these rich lakeside bottomlands. Familiar breeds lofting into a grander maturity. We forget how close to the edge (of the deciduous range) we live in Maine. And the land is stretching out here, long rolling hills with only an occasional escarpment on the southern edge of our view. Big dairy land, grapes, and of course corn. Brand name signs advertise the rows. Pioneer 4586 is doing better than DeKalb 8736. One yellow barn makes us smile, along with shadowman, who has overrun NY State. There is also shadow miss, shadow critters, shadow horse-and-buggy, shadow dog and cat, you shadow name it. Who says lawn ornamentation is a Maine thing? Just travel the side roads.

Highway Wine

(And kids, you’ve met your Waterloo. In W-loo NY, “Birthplace of Memorial Day”, there is a tomb of the unknown middle-schooler. Strangled to death by his teacher in 1976. Nobody came to claim his remains. How sad. Just a thought for those of you starting school this week.)

We must be getting close to Buffalo. Our first encounter with heavy traffic, angry commuters, and then: superhighways. As the landscape flattened out, even the back roads felt like highways, and the semi traffic began to convoy. Maybe it was too much of the resort mentality that had me down on the Adirondack skirts. This is the real America, throbbing with diesel on 18 wheels. We’ve got Tony Rice and Bela Fleck booming on the noisebox, and we’re bluegrassing through the hick burbs, eeeHah. Even had the finger flipped at me in Buffalo traffic. They sure know how to welcome strangers in snowball city.

KOA Niagara (Bryce)

We finally rolled out of the dust and diesel into KOA Niagara. It has all the ambiance of a highway truck stop. Long rows of gleaming busses (megaRVs), all in chrome and dayglo. All with satellite dishes aiming into the sunset. Dang. Turn up that shitkickin music, Maggie.

(Memo #6)


Who? promoters and daredevils

What? Niagara Falls

Where ? St. Lawrence River between far west New York state and Canada

When? whenever

How? individual initiative plus national park

Topics: American icons, cultural tourism, the origin and creation of American icons.
Niagara Falls-image and reality

Questions: What are the American icons of yesterday and today (the things that symbolize America to ourselves and to foreigner)? How were the icons created - consciously or not?

Peggy at Falls

Niagara is approached from the highway with an industrial tank city on one side and the river on the other. The first sign of the falls is a mile or so of rapids. Then comes the actual national park (the first in the nation). You park and can then view the American falls from the riverside, or walk over a bridge to Goat Island or go over a larger bridge to the Canadian side. The far shore has several viewing towers and hotels visible. The park on the American side is really lovely, well-groomed lawns and huge trees with flower beds and benches and viewing machines. A group of young Mennonites added a lovely touch. Few tourists at 9 in the morning. Very misty. Two impressions, one is of subtle colors - the water is so green and the foam so white, second the NOISE. The roar of the falls and the endless cascade is hypnotizing. You find yourself staring at one point near the brink as the water falls over. What is it about water? There is mist coming from the foot of the falls and then large trails of foam moving down river.We could see the boats that take tourists right under the falls (our budget tour didn’t allow, but no disappointment).

Peggy's Falls
How do you describe either in words or picture something like Niagara Falls? I think it was Frederick Church did one of the best - the scale of the huge canvas was right. Painting water is really really difficult.
How did Niagara Falls get associated with romance and honeymoons? Was it a railroad company that lured passengers through the creation of this image - much as Hallmark cars created Mother’s Day to sell cards? The other image of Niagara has to do with danger and dares - the people who go over in barrels. There are videos available of people going over the falls in barrels, and wonderful pictures of tourists fifty or a hundred years ago. But where is the association with energy? If you look very carefully you will see some power generating intake towers two miles up river from the falls. They do not look like huge suction pipes but like odd solar collection towers. No huge sell on hydropower possibilities. Odd. Do we still need to glamorize the wild image?

Iconic Images

AMERICAN ICONS - Statue of Liberty, Liberty Bell, Plymouth / Plimoth Rock, White House, Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Uncle Sam, eagle, Empire State Building - Mickey Mouse, Coke, blue jeans.

9/4... Niagara.

In the last installment our heroes had joined the circle of RV busses at KOA Niagara, and were watching a sour sunset glistening off the rows of chrome. In our Festiva we felt like a poor Mormon family with a handcart, among the better sorts’ Conestoga wagons.

Up with the sun again we took the highroad to the cataract, following in the footsteps of Father Hennepin and the millions of others. Nobody warned us that industrial civilization and the tourist economy has swallowed Niagara whole. There is a rough symmetry here though, one of the great power places as magnet. The Weehawkenish fuming and thrumming in the air, the tank towns and rusty refineries, the majestic lines of high voltage towers marching to the horizon, the convergences of pavement, railroad tracks, and Kodak-packers, all culminating in a spumeous plunge, IS an apt emblem of the American Dream (and you wake up needing to pee).

Bryce at falls
The holy site had the requisite hoards of Oriental pilgrims, posing in groups for posterity. In fact, the clicking of instamatics is continuous enough that Niagara time warps in the condensing air, as all those memory traces in silver perpetuate through the family albums of a million generations. Posterity congeals in the humid thunder, is almost palpable, just the other side of that lens.

Peggy kept sneaking around, trying to get a cluster of Mennonite gentlefolk in the picture. Peoplewatcher on the prowl. That must have been when she lost her wallet out of her bag. Some voluntary simplicity thing? In any case we didn’t discover the loss until we hit a toll booth at Buffalo. O the breathless sinking feeling of a lost wallet. O identity. O plastic money. O shit.

We really have crossed over into a new age, however. Your hero did NOT utter recriminations. Did NOT say the #$@%&* he was thinking. Didn’t even tremble violently and kick the car. We did boogie back up the asphalt with our brains aboil. Came to a screeching halt on I-197 out back of the KOA. I jumped the fence and quartered our campsite, no go. Then explained to the trooper lady when I got back to the car why I was playing alongside the traffic. She wished us luck. Heart in mouth we pulled up to the gate at the falls. The same attendant waved us through again (no fee for Festiva Pilgrims, apparently), after directing us to Park Info for Lost and Found.

While I went back to the overlooks and stared at the ground (kind of like pointing at the sky in Times Square), Our Heroine said to the Info Lady, “My name is Margaret Muir...” “And you’re from a town in Maine I can't pronounce,” she said. We danced the dance of the redeemed, to the roar of Niagara. Reborn, or at least re-plasticized, we made our getaway! "Have you got your wallet, Peggy?” is our new mantra.

Bryce's Niagara

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