Our 2004 Road Trip, Part 2 of 10: Niagara Falls!

Niagara and Horseshoe!

I’d considered naming this chapter “NIAGARA FALLS! Slowly We Turned…” but maybe three readers would get it, and none of you under 40.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Once upon a time in 2004, Anne and I got married and had a honeymoon! A week later, we (and my son) embarked on our fifth annual road trip: a drive northeast from Indianapolis up to see the watery wonders of Niagara Falls and its adjacent tourist traps.

Spoiler in our lead photo: we got to Niagara Falls! Our MCC remastering of the original 2004 travelog continues…

* * * * *

Welcome to New York!

New York City and Niagara Falls: the only things in New York.

This was the first time that my son and I had been to New York State and Anne’s first time actually stopping there. We were both intrigued at the beautiful roadside vineyards and disgruntled at the copious toll roads, of which we have maybe two or three in Indiana, all in the Chicagoland area. Toll roads would become a recurring nemesis in future vacations, especially that time we drove most of the Pennyslvania Turnpike in 2010.

We weren’t too far down the road from the hotel when we caught our first sign proclaiming, “NIAGARA FALLS INFORMATION CENTER AHEAD” roughly 100 miles away from the Falls, and recurring at almost every interstate exit afterward. It is our conclusion that roughly half of the population of western New York is in the Niagara Falls Information Curation business. We don’t look forward to the day when they make the transition from Niagara Falls Information to Niagara Falls Informatics. That’ll be one messy, competitive sight.

We decided to indulge one “visitors’ center” on the way at Buffalo’s Walden Galleria. The mall architecture was fascinating, but their alleged “visitors’ center” was a wall rack filled with brochures plus a small counter-island filled with cheap souvenirs. All of this was redundant compared to the notes, maps, and brochures I brought with me.

We didn’t stick around the Galleria for too long. That’s one trap we’ve fallen into on past vacations, where we’d go to other states, notice they have malls, and go check all of them out under the impression that their malls would somehow have stranger, rarer, more exotic merchandise than our malls back home. We were disappointed almost every time. Ultimately, unless you’re wealthy enough to visit upscale malls nationwide, the mid-to-lower-scale malls all pretty much have the same stuff.

Also a waste of time was the massive construction at the I-90 & Walden Ave exit, which delayed our return to the trail more than I would’ve liked. We reached the Hampton Inn in Amherst around 5 p.m. or so, noting postcards on sale in the lobby proclaiming Amherst as “the second safest city in America”. We admit that Indianapolis isn’t Mayberry, but we’ve always felt pretty safe here. Admittedly, we were never once propositioned by panhandlers, besieged by muggers, pandered to by Amway salesmen, or swarmed by ninja in Amherst, so perhaps they’re sincere in their bragging rights.

The attractions at Niagara Falls are open late for partyers and latecomers like us. We dumped our possessions at the hotel, got right back in my car, and sped off to the general Niagara area on the map. We took our first drive across the Grand Island Toll Bridges, which are among the coolest-looking bridges I’ve ever driven across. They’re enormous, narrow, sharply inclined, speedy of limit, and suspended very high right over the Niagara River. I savored a heady action-film sensation while maintain the minimum 55 mph speed, much to Anne’s visible discomfort. There was some polite disagreement over how the bridge driving should be handled — on the one hand, thousands of people drive over these bridges at 55 mph daily and don’t all wind up in fiery crashes. On the other hand, that one bridge-crash scene in the trailers for Along Came a Spider made a convincing case for her hypothesis that large bridges are best treated with the delicacy and gravitas of an eastern European minefield.

Grand Island Bridge!

This way to daredevil stunt spectacular adventure! And some waterfalls.

As we approached Niagara Falls, NY, we all shook our heads and laughed as the Niagara Falls Information Centers increased in per capita density as we neared the Canadian border. Several of them moonlighted in other occupations so that you had potential sites such as the Niagara Falls Information Center and Hotel, the Niagara Falls Information Center and Convenience Store, and (not making this one up) the Niagara Falls Information Center and Healthcare Association. One can only wonder what scientific marvels and peacetime accords could be achieved if all of these diverse Niagara Falls authority figures were to hold a convention and compare notes on the results of their doubtlessly fascinating, unique individual studies.

My son groused about the factory smoke on one side of the road and grumped about “POLLUTERS!” (his exact word and tone). We were sorry to see white smoke obscuring what was possibly Niagara Falls, Canada, across the way on the other side of the highway…but as we approached, it became apparent that the white obstruction on that side wasn’t pollution but was, in fact, the massive cloud of mist constantly generated by the Falls themselves.

Deck with Strangers!

Up close, that powerful Niagara mist looks purer and less like smokestack effluvia.

The Niagara River is huge and wide, with many violent-looking rapids that pour right into the Falls. They face away from the American riverside but are…well, they’re still all that, honestly. Photos don’t do them justice, words don’t fare much better, and scenes from films set there just can’t capture the immensity or the beauty.

Niagara City South!

Your view of Niagara to the south, with Horseshoe Falls in the distance…

Over Niagara Falls!

…and your view to the north. You’ll note the glitz and glamor of Niagara Falls the city on the far Canadian side, muted in so much dull cloudiness.

Niagara Falls!

Below is the scene of many a casualty where too many foolhardy trendsetters ended their vain, fatal attempts to go down the Falls.

We paid for parking along the US side and walked over to Goat Island, the ultimate vantage point between Niagara Falls and its distinctive sibling Horseshoe Falls, both fanciful parts of the Niagara River. We spent time just staring and staring and staring at the falls. You can get right up on the edge of Bridal Veil Fall, the smallest of the bunch. A bit further northwest on Goat Island is Terrapin Point, from which we got a great view of Horseshoe Falls.


Every visitor is required by North American regulations to pose for photos with the Falls. Anne here is just doing her part as a law-abiding citizen and potential postcard model.

Niagara Falls!

Some onlookers don’t like having their enthrallment interrupted. Sorry, kid — Niagara photos are the LAW.


A rare shot of me with my old 35MM camera attached to one of my Star Wars Celebration lanyards.

Niagara Mist!

Eventually modeling time was over and we could get back to staring at God’s creation and feeling insignificant and damp.

Niagara Falls!

In the distance is the Rainbow Bridge, no relation to any Marvel Comics mythologies. We’ll come back to the Bridge in Part 8.

We even paid a few extra bucks to ride up to the top of the Observation Tower, a construct on the US side that gives one a more advantageous view of the Falls in general and the Canadian side in particular.

Observation Deck!

Full disclosure: while most of the original text has been left in the same order, I have absolutely no idea which pics came from which vantage points. The point remains clear: Niagara Falls!

At about 9 PM, the Falls were illuminated by different colors – red, green, orange, purple, rotating at intervals. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. By the time the light show started, though, we were all beat down from the earlier drive and from the mile or two of walking we’d already done, both around Goat Island and at Lake Erie early that morning. We made the long haul back to the car, and left the Niagara area tired and starving. I hadn’t mapped out any restaurant options before coming to town, assuming as in past vacations that our hotel would be in a fairly commercial area. We headed toward the general vicinity, then veered away in a random direction, determined to stop at the very first restaurant we ran into.

We headed due northeast from the hotel, which took us near or around the SUNY-Buffalo campus. 15-20 minutes later there it was, the first restaurant in sight: a Subway, my recurring nemesis from our 2003 trip to Washington DC. To make matters even more undesirable, we’d arrived precisely five minutes before closing time.

If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, or tried to visit a quick-service restaurant a few hours before closing, you know that the workers only give maybe 20% of their full attention to actual customer service during those hours, while the rest of their brain (if they’re worth half their pay rate, anyway) is fully obsessed with cleaning and shutting down and performing as many pre-close tasks as allowable before closing time whether sanctioned by the local Health Department or not, so that when the manager mercifully locked the doors for the night, the crew can finish up and flee the premises as soon as possible. Interruptions are not welcome. Interruptions mean that the crew will take longer to finish up after close. Worst of all, interruptions mean that the crew has to work. Heaven forbid.

We entered the store to find three guys working, and noticed that all the sandwich ingredients had been removed from metal pans and placed in disposable containers, the better to get all the metal pans washed. It’s a common pre-close tactic, a tactic I used during my time back in the biz, regardless of how much disposable packaging is wasted in the process. Not one of the guys even feigned a traditional customer-service smile or attitude. We really didn’t expect them to. We all understood each other — we wanted food, they wanted us to leave. As the customers, however, the ball was in our court. If they would throw us the idol, then we would throw them the whip.

Five minutes of awkward ordering and paying later, we exited with our grub. As we got into the car, one of the guys ran up to the front doors, locked every possible lock, yelled a one-word profanity that the intervening glass doors graciously rendered inaudible but wasn’t hard to guess, then ran to the back to (presumably) waste ten minutes griping and moaning about those frickin’ customers who ruined their entire night.

We returned to the hotel, downed our late supper, collapsed for the night, and preferred to think of Niagara Falls instead.

Maids of the Mist!

The ferries traversing the river are the Maids of the Mist. We’ll come back to them in Part 6.

Mini Falls!

As I recall, this is our lone shot of the Niagara River as it leads up to the Falls. It’s pretty to walk along, but next to the Falls it’s “just” a river.

Niagara Falls!

Near the bottom of the Falls, that walkway at left belongs to the Cave of the Winds. That’s our Part 7 waiting in the wings. Foreshadowing: your key to quality blogging!

To be continued!

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email signup for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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