Here’s a truck stop instead of Saint Peter’s…

So I went to Niagara Falls this weekend, and came home with a fairly wicked sunburn.

This — for those of the readership not au fait with So. Ontario springs — is, to put it mildly, odd. The wind- and rainstorm that’s now blowing up in the sun’s wake is more typical… assuming this were mid-July, that is.

That said, I had a pretty good time at the Falls. Not that I’m unfamiliar with the wet’n’wild marvels themselves; Shoemom is native to the area, meaning they were routine scenery on weekly Sunday family drives, and later a mandatory timekiller for the grandkids’ visits. 

The thing is, the surrounding area has… developed… a bit, since Shoemom was a little sneaker. She recalls Clifton Hill as a sedate collection of swank little shops, her mother’s trips to which required actual dressing up. Every commercial advancement past that has been met with curled lip, if not outright contempt. That most of these encounters happen in tourist-snarled traffic does not help any.

I myself, on the other hand, am a bit more ambivalent. In my lifetime the Hill has always been tacky, the concentrated essence of all those roadside attractions than used to flourish along American highways. ‘Come See the Amazing _____!’ the signs would blare, and even the most savvy kid would be at least uncertain, because if they did have what they claimed, it really would be incredibly amazing, and who’s to say that just this once…

This is the principle that Clifton Hill embraces with all the gaudy shamelessness of a particularly desperate Victorian tart. And I’m here to announce that it works… not as well as when I was little, but still, I couldn’t see the harm so much. Thus pleasure drives along the Niagara Parkway tended to be a trifle tense.

"Hey, Mom, check it out — ‘Birds of the Lost Kingdom’! You remember how crazy about birds I used to be in grade school? While the other kids were reading Nancy Drew, I was into World of Owls? This could be cool!"

"Not cool enough for what they’re charging, I’ll guarantee you that. Now, keep an eye out for strollers, will you? Those last idiots nearly winged us…"

"Look, Mom, all I’m saying is we’re in Niagara Falls. On a holiday afternoon. While I totally welcome the opportunity to pass Laura Secord’s homestead for the 18 squillionth time, it seems like there’s stuff here we could be missing."

She remained immovable. Time after time we drove past the rainbow of fun. Sometimes stopping at downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is the adult yuppie version of this experience… but my inner child had seen the double-pupilled guy outside of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum, and remained stubbornly unsatisfied.

Then came this weekend, and the forecast for unseasonably glorious weather. I needed a way out of suburbia, and Shoemom & sis have just recently moved to an area that features a cheap connecting Falls bus. The inner kid barely had time to squeal "Yippeeee!" before I was packed and outta there.

I found a bargain hotel — because 30mins walk out from the action, hence the sunburn — then went to all the attractions I had wondered about, and it was… happifying. It did turn out, on close inspection of several, I’d somehow acquired a bit of discernment in the twenty years since childhood; but the day was sunny and I had lots of day to spare, so what the hell.

I only got seriously ripped off once, at the Guinness Book of Records Museum, which may itself hold a record for Most Typos in the Descriptions of Strangely Unfulfilling Plastic Exhibits. (I especially like the one on the placard listing Wayne Gretzky’s NHL records. Under one is the note ‘Shared with Wayne Gretsky.’)

I can forgive the museum, though, because it had The Golf Shoes. The ‘mink-lined golf shoes with 18-carat gold embellishments and ruby-tipped spikes’, Most Expensive Shoes Ever, that had so haunted my childhood daydreams. Talk about the ultimate in decadent impracticality.
Staring down at the little case (these things were clearly about size fours, which strengthens my conviction that they were never actually intended to be worn) I realised I now could picture a use for them: as skank-bait for Tiger Woods. "Hey, honey, those rumours about my spikes being solid gold? All true. Ruby-tipped. Wanna come see?"

Weird things happen at the intersection of childhood and reality. I am considering suing the Woods estate for this one, while he is still feeling guilty enough to fall for it.

Then there were the wax museums. This is one area in which adult commonsense triumphed — that, and the rise of the Internet. I mean, let’s face it, wax museums are places you go to see: lifelike replicas of famous people. This was always gonna be way more of a thrill before photography was invented, and it’s all been downhill from there.

Nowadays, the only interest is in seeing how detailed and lifelike the replica can get — and to that end, let us just say that the Clifton museums are not doing themselves any favours by showing their actual wares to passers-by. The Movieland Wax Museum’s big draw was the new Hannah Montana exhibit. This was illustrated by a poster of what looked like Miley Cyrus. Or possibly Lindsay Lohan. Or possibly my neighbor from down the hall, in a blonde wig.

Wisdom was less successful in dissuading me from the Hershey Store, although it did at least stop me from spending six bucks on a cellopak of Kisses that cost three at the drugstore down the street. I must give props to the bakery section, though; its decadent delights — like two huge double-fudge cookies sandwiched with peanut butter, and a PB cup on top — had grown women fleeing in terror. (Seriously. I watched a couple of’em go by while I was waiting to buy my cookies-n-cream mousse.)

The Bird Kingdom, on the other hand, was everything I had daydreamed about and more.Basically it is two large rooms stuffed with free-flying tropical birds of all kinds and colours. That is, suddenly I was nine again, and my bird books coming to glorious life all around me. It was the most natural thing in the world to wander around muttering things like "Sparrow, eh? Y’know, with a bill like that, could’ve sworn you were a finch!" Or, "Ahhhh… Not flamingos, scarlet ibis! That was why they looked a shade too pink from a distance!"

At one point, having been assured by the placards that a Red-Whiskered Bulbul was in the house, I searched eagerly until I found him, sitting quietly in the shadow of a water bowl. He cocked an eye at me, in that particular "You’re gonna make me move, aren’t you?" way birds have.

"Sorry," I told it hastily. "It’s just that… well, I’m a big fan."

Yes, I was kidding. I think.

Afterwards, I hiked out to a restaurant at nearby Fallsview for dinner, then back across the park to the Hill. By this time, dusk was falling, and the neon was starting to glow. I was tired and footsore and still had a long way back to the hotel…

Suddenly it all looked cheap and tawdry and alien. Just like it must look, I realised a moment later, to Shoemom. I had officially turned into my mother. Which I guess it’s a good thing it happened before I made it all the way to Vegas or whatever, but still.

I headed back along the Gorge to the hotel. The great empty space to my right was filled with velvet darkness now — save for what must’ve been a campfire, aways down by the river, too remote to be — quite — real. The glimpses of that tiny dot were strangely soothing as I trudged along, playing REM on the iTouch.

If you believed
They put a man on the moon
If you believe
There’s nothing up my sleeve
Then nothing is cool

Next morning — this morning — I went out again and took eighteen straight pictures of the Falls, foamy white in the brilliant sunshine. Then I hung out in the formal gardens, finished the Eric Idle book, and ate ice cream. A little while later, Shoemom picked me up, and I told her all about the Guinness golf shoes, while she growled at the traffic.

All was cool.


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