Tag Archives: Niagara Falls

Kitschy but good

Someone on my Twitter list mentioned yesterday that she would soon be embarking on a trip to Alaska, and I immediately thought of the train ride Susanne and I took over in Skagway. At least four people told us to make sure we rode up and back on the old gold mining trail, so we booked our tickets well in advance of our cruise, and then we climbed on.

It was nothing short of amazing. The White Pass & Yukon Route train was a bit too modern to have jumped out of a steampunk novel, but it belched and groaned like a steam engine all the same, as it dragged us up 3,000 feet into the Canadian Yukon. We sat for much of the trip on the way up, but at the end the conductors moved the engine around, and our front car became the caboose. We didn’t miss the chance to stand on the end, marveling at the mountain ledges, miles and miles of the tallest evergreens I’ve seen in my life, and the detritus those thousands of Klondike miners left behind.

So it occurs to me that there are, in the quadrillions of tourist trap options available in the US, a few very choice gems that should get some fair due. They may be popular, they may be hyped, but they’re worth, say, wearing bright blue plastic ponchos. Here are a few favorites I want to mention:

The Maid of the MistNiagara Falls sounds like a great tourist destination, if it’s 1952. There are a lot of depressing buildings screaming out for fresh paint, and filled with plastic-wrapped souvenirs, but just follow the signs to this boat ride. I think the Maid of the Mist is more fun if you’ve gone to look at the falls from the top first, to help with a sense of perspective. It’s true that the Canadian side of the falls are more majestic; the US side is taller, but our neighbors to the north have the “horseshoe falls,” which I captured from the boat. No matter whether one takes the boat ride from the US or Canadian side, it will still travel into the heart of the falls. I couldn’t believe I was surrounded by hammering, plummeting water. As tall as the falls are around the Maid of the Mist, that’s how much water she’s sitting on—170 feet on both counts. You better wear the silly blue poncho.

Old Faithful at Yellowstone National ParkIt can be argued that my entire generation first learned about this geyser from Yogi Bear and Jellystone National Park. I’m happy that Susanne didn’t rend me limb from limb as I repeated my Yogi Bear impression as we wandered around the wilderness. It might not be the prettiest geyser there, it’s far from the most colorful, like the “paint pots” were, but it was shocking to witness, the smooth vapor all at once belching and hurrying out of the way of boiling white liquid. This is 3rd grade science fair to the 20th power. Once it’s done with its 5-minute show, take a walk on the rest of the geyser platform, and by the time that’s done, Old Faithful will be just about ready to have another conniption.

The Baltimore AquariumLess kitschy and more just plain overcrowded, the Baltimore Aquarium is organized by ecosystems, very accessible, and proportioned well. I don’t feel like I’m in a tiny building with smelly fish, and I don’t feel like there’s a lot of wasted space (I’m looking at you, new MoMA). Plus it has puffins, the globe’s friendliest, funniest bird species, in my humble opinion. There are dolphin shows, it’s true, but at least they’ve gone to some trouble to unpack how the animals are treated, and they have a fairly prestigious breeding program for bottlenose. That said, it is expensive, so try to get your hands on some coupons or group deals, because at more than $30 a ticket, the cost adds up fast. But the sharks and manta rays, inches away from the homo sapiens, are really not to be missed.

Have any kitschy touristy fun? Pipe up and add your own in the comments!

A very not advisable way to wake up in the morning

How nice that cell phones come equipped with alarms you can set. So it was that my little LG Rumor phone woke us up at 5:30 so I could take Susanne to the airport. She’s set to teach tonight, after she flies to Denver, changes planes, lands in Spokane, drives 3 hours to Walla Walla and gets to exhale a couple of times before the debate begins.

I turned around at BWI and drove back to the lovely Michael’s house, checked email, and fell back asleep at 7:30. At 11 I groggily got up, walked through the closet and then connected guest bathroom. Turn on the hot and cold taps to the shower. Shuffle in. Stand under the water, fumbling for the shower gel. Then I transferred into “awake” from the semi-dream space of an odd-hour nap. (I call those “poison naps,” but that’s for another story.)

I am practiced at turning off the hot and cold taps together, for I greatly detest having a last spurt of too-hot or too-cold water just before I’m toweling off. Hey, it’s my shower, I get to be as controlling as I want. So, both taps closed. But water was still coming out the top of the shower. My brain was a little slow in computing that something was wrong. I opened and closed the cold water tap. Still flowing. I noticed that the pipe itself was turning, not just the handle. Uh-oh. Before I could really compute how to fix the problem, the faucet blew out of the wall like a torpedo and suddenly a hard jet of water was slamming across the shower and all over the wall, and then it took the 90 degree angle and raced across the bathroom onto the floor. It looked like this:


The shower unplugged

The shower unplugged

Okay, I’m exaggerating a little. But it was quite the forceful thick stream of water! I called out to Michael’s roommate, who himself took a moment to realize someone was calling his name, and a little desperately. He gently knocked on the bathroom door. I was in the shower holding the water off with my back, draping the curtain over the front of me, in some stupid attempt to preserve my regular level of modesty. 

“Come in!”

He heard the pounding surf and asked what happened. I held up the faucet and four-inch section of pipe.

“Oh, shit,” he said. My thoughts exactly.

I asked him to find the water cut-off for the condo, since trying to put the pipe back in place didn’t work at all, what with the pound force of pressure working against me. I could hear him looking everywhere for the valve, next to the washer/dryer, the water heater, out on the back deck in the utility room. Nowhere. He thought maybe such a thing didn’t exist, but I’ve watched enough Holmes on Homes to know every house in America has a freaking cut-off valve for just such a water crisis. By this point I was standing outside the shower with my hand over the stream directing the water to the back corner of the shower stall, but the level of water was rising faster than the drain could take it away. Watching my left knee I moved a couple of towels onto the drenched floor to sop up the mess.

Michael’s roommate stuck his head back in the bathroom. “I can’t find it anywhere! He was starting to look a bit panicked. “Call Michael,” I shouted over the din. 

“I called his office three times.”

“Cell phone,” I shouted.

“Oh, right!” he shouted back at me.

At this point, 1.2 miles away, Michael saunters into his office, having a busy but productive morning at work. His assistant tells him his phone has been ringing off the hook. Michael also sees a message on his cell, and as he’s checking it, sees that his roommate has also been calling his desk. So he calls back, saying, “Hey there,” in a merry sing-song tone.

“No,” says the roommate, which at that moment became a shortcut for “stop talking and help me find the water cut off valve.”

For those of you unfamiliar with Michael, let me just say here that the word “nonplussed” came into existence in part because of him. For even when he’s livid, he’ll just tell you quietly that he is currently very angry, and that’s about it. If hothead is one polar extreme, Michael is fairly close to the other end.

He calmly directed his roommate as to the location of the cutoff, and I felt the water ease and then cease, dribbling out and then ending like a grizzly bear succumbing to a massive dose of tranquilizers from a scientist’s dart. 

I suppose this means I have not been a very good houseguest, so the plan now is to make a nice supper of lamb shank, roasted tomatoes and orzo, and a mixed green salad. I’ll need the water back on, of course.

Back online for the moment…

A raging thunderstorm in Missoula took out the Internet connection of our hotel, and we haven’t had Internet here in Walla Walla until we had the chance to stop by a Web cafe today, so this is my first chance to update the blog. I’ll start back at Lang, Saskatchewan, where my Mom grew up. (Please note that WordPress won’t let me rotate vertically-shot photos! I don’t know why…) It’s as small a town as she suggested. Here are some shots:





Train driving through Lang

Train driving through Lang




Grain storage in Lang

Grain storage in Lang



United Church of Canada

United Church of Canada

It was a lot dustier than I’d imagined, though just about as flat as Mom had told me. Emphasis on “flat.”

We barely made it through immigration the evening before, the Canadian officer asking us “Why Lang,” as if to say, okay, I’ll bite, this ought to be good. Susanne did all the talking. We made it through, thinking crap, we shouldn’t have gotten rid of all that wine (each person can only take two bottles across) because three times through, nobody looked at anything other than our ID. But four times is the charm, as I’ll mention later.

The towns were very small in the flats of Saskatchewan, but none smaller than tiny Ralph, which apparently consisted of one house. One. Probably Ralph. I had this image of a stubborn farmer who went to the provincial monthly hearing insisting he get his own town name, and 30 years later, he had a sign on Highway 39. That persistent Ralph! Wish we’d taken a picture.


Grain silo in SK

Grain silo in SK

So the plains were interesting, lots of farms, steer, farms, steer, farms, steer . . . and by the 14th hour it was much less interesting. I suppose people are born there and live their whole lives there. Every so often we’d pass a graveyard right next to the state highway, in North Dakota, Saskatchewan, or eastern Montana, marked only by a wrought iron gate with the name of the cemetery. For being such an Easterner, it seemed very lonely to me out there, in the same way that being used to lots of green suburban lawns made me find Phoenix, with its miles and miles of desert dirt, seem unfinished.

I wonder how long it will take to adjust.

We spent about twenty minutes driving through Lang, where we didn’t see another person, but they must have seen us. I can only imagine what a big guy and little lady in a car from Washington DC who kept getting out and taking photos of random things looked like to the townsfolk. We’d have gone into the local grocery but it wasn’t open for the day at that point.

We turned around and headed back down Hwy 6 into the very eastern corner of Montana, and alas, they pretty much looked through the car, checking the amount of wine we had and calling out Chuck, their agriculture “specialist” to read the label on our cherries that we’d bought back home.

Chuck: Where’d you get these?

Us: In the states. At Costco.

Chuck: Where?

Me: The Pentagon City Costco, in Arlington, Virginia.

Chuck: Oh.

Other Customs Guy: Do you believe them?

Chuck: Oh, I believe them.

Me: That’s also American ice in that cooler.

At that point I felt Susanne’s virtual foot kicking me in my virtual shin. So I shut up. They let us into the US, cherries, wine, and all. I think after telling them about how we got married, they thought we were on the stupidest honeymoon they’d ever heard of. If only they’d seen us on the Maid of the Mist!

We pulled into Montana and my camera battery gave out. Susanne’s got some photos on her camera, so hopefully I’ll upload those soon.

Meanwhile, another list of animals we saw from SK through Missoula, Montana:

porcupine (combing his hair like a narcissist)

several elk

many, many cows

young buck deer and female deer following him


two prairie dogs on separate occasions



bison (! amazing !)

Miles traveled by the time we pulled into Missoula: 3,140.

Next up: driving through Montana, the state with no fixed identity, and Trixie’s restaurant at the top of the storm, Missoula and late dinner with Anna, driving across Idaho

catching up in pictures

Photos and videos from Friday:

I can’t seem to get an .AVI file on WordPress, so until I find a solution, please go here to see the video:


Empires tame and tacky


Emily and Jamie's cat Cindyrella

Emily and Jamie's cat Cindyrella

We started off today with a quiet cup of coffee with my sister Kathy on her porch. Well, rather, I started off today that way. The good doctor started off by getting some much needed sleep, having spent the past several nights up very late either packing or, in the case of last night, driving. We knew in advance there would only be one way to handle breakfast, by going to King’s in Newtown. This is a small building by the side of the road that is somewhat TARDIS like in its interior, with three separate rooms for dining and an outside gazebo. It features crazy, over the top meals like pumpkin spice and mascarpone-stuffed french toast, triple-decker burgers with all kinds of toppings, and absurdly good turkey gravy lovingly surrounding the most flaky, delicate biscuit you could ever sink your teeth into.


King's restaurant

King's restaurant



The problem with going to King’s, really, is the evil flag pole in Newtown. I suppose there are ways to get there without passing what is in fact, a car killing machine, not a symbol of patriotism, but it’s more fun to pass by it and snark about it. A recent Newtown transportation report said, “Because the Flagpole sits in the middle of a busy intersection with five roadway legs, it has been the site of many accidents, which tragically include fatalities.” The flagpole dates back to the late 1800s, and the current flagpole was erected in 1950. But dead people? Come on, residents of Newtown, let’s put something around this thing other than tiny green signs that read, “Keep Right.”

At any rate, the food is fantastic at King’s. Susanne ordered some Frankensteinian monstrosity of brunch cooking when she requested a cannoli cream-filled crepe that tasted amazing. I had the “Asparagus Lenny,” which was a creative way of saying ham, asparagus, and poached eggs with hollandaise sauce over English muffins. My nieces were nearly dismayed that anyone would choose to order something as disgusting as asparagus, but they pulled themselves together.

After breakfast we said our goodbyes and headed out, promising to visit again for Christmas.

New York is a big state, the Empire State, which basically means that all the drivers think the roads are for them to go as fast or slow as they like. There are also more angry bumper stickers out here than in most places–the jerk driver of the day today was a woman driving a small SUV with a hitch, and the hitch had a bad wheel that was wiggling as it went and, replete with the following message: If you hate logging use plastic toilet paper. Gee, I’ll have to make a note of that one. So it’s either . . . decimate our forest land and stress out endangered species and other wildlife . . . or wipe myself with Tupperware? Good to know those are mutually exclusive!

We drove across New York for 4 hours and into Syracuse, where we made a pit stop at my alma mater, Syracuse University, and I gave Susanne a somewhat frenetic tour of the campus, enough to show her the quad, memorial to the students killed on Pan Am 103 in 1988, and give her a sample of how ugly and far away the dorms (actually they’re delightfully called “residence halls”) are from the classrooms. We had some pizza at Cosmo’s, which is where I met my best buddy Lori, and there are only two changes to note from the last time I was there, one sad and one positively liberating–George, the pizza maker extraordinaire, who looked like Mel from Mel’s place, if he got caught in a taffy-pulling machine, has passed away, and the women waitstaff are no longer required to wear skirts or dresses. I’m happy to report that the pizza tastes exactly as I remembered it. I told the new pizza guy that he made it almost as well as George, and his response was, “well thank you, I sure hope so.” Lori’s former boss was there, a not-very pleasant lady who had a rather homophobic and short-sighted way of looking at life, and it was interesting to see that after all these years, she’s still in the same place, literally and figuratively, as if she built her own cell and locked herself right in. I’m not sure if she’s happy, but she’s never looked happy, I guess.


Bar stools Cosmo's Pizza in Syracuse

Bar stools at Cosmo's Pizza in Syracuse

We traveled on after our supper, getting back on the New York Thruway and cutting through small mountains, drumlins, and rich, green farmland. I took pictures of cows. I smelled the cows. Rather, I smelled what the cows made, but I know not to complain about the scent of cow manure, for I have also smelled pig manure, and wow, that is one of the worst smells I have ever encountered. It makes cow manure smell like Elizabeth Taylor’s latest perfume creation. Or maybe I have those reversed. Hmm.

Thruways and turnpikes and other toll roads are interesting inventions. Susanne made the point that out in Michigan there aren’t any toll roads because the residents pay taxes that support the infrastructure, but then they have to pay the toll to use the New York roads, too, even though that support doesn’t happen in reverse. I was nice and didn’t mention that no New Yorker was ever going to drive to Michigan. Anyway, though the Thruway may be getting loads of tax dollars for say, new asphalt, it doesn’t seem to be getting many funds in the way of nice printers for its fare tickets. Ours looked like this:


New York Thruway fare ticket

New York Thruway fare ticket

I won’t go into the usability of the design here, at least not today. Suffice it to say it was vaguely better than a butterfly ballot.


At any rate, we logged mile 710, pulling into the endlessly gaudy Seneca Nation Casino in Niagara Falls. We were at once swarmed by smiling, helpful valet service personnel, who gladly took our car and are, at this very moment, joyriding through Ontario. Little do they know we got complimentary wheel locks on our CR-V, which I’m sure will come in handy. If they blow my trip B odometer count, I’ll be pissed.

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