Tuesday, February 18, 2014

In which we see the world

It was the summer of 1982; we were thirteen, and the beach had begun to pall.  We wanted a real adventure, and so, over the monopoly board one evening, my cousin and I hatched a plan: we would ride our bicycles to Niagara Falls.

We enjoyed a lot of freedom.  Once the breakfast dishes were washed, and the living room vacuumed, we were free to roam at will.  It was assumed that the furthest we were willing to travel on foot or on bicycles was automatically about as safe a distance as it was for us to travel: a natural tether.  Nobody had ever specifically forbidden us to ride our bikes to the Falls because nobody imagined we had that much stamina.  But I had been given a shiny silver ten-speed bicycle as an 8th grade graduation gift.

We had both, of course, been to Niagara Falls with our parents many times, but we had no idea of the distance, only that it took about half an hour in a car.  It's actually fifty-two miles, round trip and so about forty-nine miles further than we had ever travelled by ourselves before.  We couldn't ask my aunt and uncle about the distance because they would have become suspicious immediately, and fending off parental objections was not part of the plan.  What was part of the plan?  Breezing into the house at dinnertime, saying casually, "Guess where we went today."  We truly believed that the only sentiments expressed by the adults in our lives would be those of admiration.

In the morning, we did our chores and set off east on the Dominion Rd, past old Fort Erie and under the Peace Bridge and onto the Niagara Parkway, which follows the river.  Not the most direct route, but the only one we could take that wouldn't get us lost.  Because as long as we hugged the shore, we were sure to find the Falls eventually.

Knowing how we rolled, we probably packed a sleeve of saltine crackers. There was no such thing as a water bottle in 1982.  The idea of carrying your own water supply was unknown; one drank from public fountains or not at all.  We stopped for a break near the southern tip of Grand Island.  We were very thirsty and the saltines made us more so, so we clambered down the bank and each took a cautious sip of river water.  It tasted so terrible, it seemed better to go thirsty, and believe me, we were very thirsty to have even entertained the idea of drinking from the Niagara River, let alone actually do it.  For years afterward, (decades, even) I felt like I wore an an invisible stamp of shame: I DRANK OUT OF THE NIAGARA RIVER.  Even today, I am not sure I can publish those dreadful words.

We pushed on.  The route was mostly uphill, which doesn't make sense, but that is how I remember it. The only other detail that I remember is a car passing us, blasting one of the iconic songs of 1982.  It was either "Should I Stay or Should I Go" by The Clash, or "I Ran" by Flock of Seagulls.  For a brief moment, the sound of my favorite song spurred me on; then cruelly faded away.  After what seemed like forever, and was certainly far longer than we imagined it would take, we felt the first refreshing drops of mist, which hangs in a cloud over the falls.  We paused to admire the Falls, pushing our bikes through dense crowds of tourists, but we hadn't come to see the Falls, but to see more lurid attractions which our parents never took us to.

Niagara Falls, Ontario

First on the list was the wax museum, which I recall was either closed or too expensive, or probably both.  We stopped into a McDonald's to ask for cups of water and I remember exploring a subterranean punk rock shop in which I couldn't afford to buy anything.  Eventually, dispirited and hungry, we turned our bikes towards home.

The sun was still shining when we left, but it must have been well on into the evening because it was dusk by the time we arrived in the environs of the Peace Bridge.  We stopped at a Chinese restaurant in a seedy neighborhood in Fort Erie and conferred about whether we should try to find a pay phone.  In the end, it seemed unwise to stick around in that neighborhood and we wearily climbed onto our bikes for the final leg of the trip. It is nearly eight miles from the Chinese restaurant to my cousin's house and it was pitch dark by the time we got home.

Any idea of a triumphant arrival and general astonishment and admiration was long gone.  We knew we would be in trouble, and we were, although I think my presence as visiting cousin helped temper the anger, which quickly degenerated to, "It certainly was plucky of you two, but next time, tell us where you are going."  Still, my aunt and uncle must have considered the incident serious enough to inform my parents, because my parents were duly informed and they were not happy.

I probably stayed at my cousin's for at least a week before I had to go home and face my parents' wrath, which the passage of time had done nothing to diminish.  I was grounded forever.  I would never be allowed to leave their sight for as long as I lived, except to work a dull job or possibly join a convent.  I was absolutely forbidden from ever taking my bike to Canada again.  This edict forced my cousin and me to use an ancient tandem bicycle in future summers, which led to another disgraceful incident two years later, which forever eclipsed the unsupervised ride to the falls.


  1. Great adventure, although I shudder at the thought of drinking the river water.

  2. I love Niagara and grew up near there in western NY and still live not far away and was there a couple months ago and totally understand why you wanted to do this! The whole region is like going to NYC or Chicago or something, it is just such a thrill, the river and the falls :) Great story of yours!

  3. What a great story, and great memory :-)

  4. Holy smokes! YOU BIKED to Niagara Falls? YOU DRANK OUT OF THE RIVER!
    Ah, to be young and blissfully ignorant and take such terrific risks. And to have the story to tell for the rest of your life.

  5. You told me a couple of years ago that you once biked to Niagara Falls, but you surely did not mention that it was so far or that YOU DRANK FROM THE RIVER.

    We're going to need to hear that tandem bike story, as it sounds epic.

  6. Wonderful story! Now I want to hear about the tandem bike.

  7. I totally understand your need to drink FROM THE RIVER. Good gracious, you rode so very many miles! (I got in trouble for much less at that age.)
    Please PLEASE please tell us the tandem bike story!