The rule had been spontaneity from the beginning, and while our lack of preparation had in some regards baffled and infuriated our parents – who would fund the excursion – our commitment to the cause – to travel from Toronto to Vancouver without plan or money for hotels instilled a quiet envy in their worry.
The car was packed and the night’s rain had lifted on a humid morning and a lunch full of last-minute advice and referrals toward various points of interest. In our aunt and uncle’s Oshawa home, we listened as Wayne, our father’s brother, passed on lunch – nervous stomach, he claimed – and directed us toward sights along the southern shore of Lake Ontario. We were unwittingly the first Jacksons to see Wayne fraught with nerves in some time.
“You’ll need to check out Maid of the Mist,” he told us, mussing his thin hair and looking on with tired eyes. “The drive down there is very nice.” He rose from the couch and we finished our lunch and made way to the driveway. Last-ditch efforts at input rebounded away from our eagerness.
A summer had been waited out in anticipation of this moment. In the driveway, we hugged goodbyes and climbed into the well-stuffed Subaru and drove toward the 401. The road stretched west for us toward Vancouver, but for now Niagara Falls was our destination, and we itched in our seats as the coming afternoon rush hour slowed all eight lanes.
We inched past the CN Tower and Lake Ontario, the metropolis divided into countless suburbs and half-million-dollar subdivisions on the edge of town.
We were on our way.
The ambition of so many young travelers is to shed ourselves in a foreign culture where they might begin again in some small way. The need to escape, and see, and discover the world is in each of us, and youth, with its confusion, provides more than ample motivation to strike out and find the world, and hopefully ourselves.
Our age seems a time to pursue the abandon of sprawls through Asia and Amsterdamned tours of Europe in search of obligatory history and an idea of relaxation and refuge from defeated workdays and schools. Melissa and I had no such ambition, but rather were driven forward with the daydream of endless possibility.
If we could do anything? life seemed to be asking us that summer, and in our assaulted visitation of the vast wilds of Canada unfolded, we gave our best response.
We had spent a week in the cement jungles of Ontario and Montreal, and as the day drew nearer to our meeting with the land, so omnipresent and taken for granted north of the 49th parallel, our hearts and imaginations swelled with the unknown that was to come.
In the long line of natural wonders which was to come, Niagara Falls seemed the least pressing and yet the first we were to encounter.
There was a sunshower as we passed Hamilton and went east, the lake running quietly into the rolling vineyards near St. Catherines. As we came into town, traffic slowed again against the volume and geography of the border town. Niagara is a Vegas loop built around the massive gorge, and we circled town, seeking a chance view of the attraction.
We passed through town three times without seeing the falls and our frustration grew. The camp site which seemed so close to town on the map was actually more than forty-five minutes into the country, we were told. The streets were full of Griswold family vacations in every crosswalk and duty free shops stood, packed, across the street from the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum. Hotel towers loomed near the spray to the south and the sun was falling on our ideas of finding a place to stay for free within the chaos. In our best estimation, there was nothing in Niagara Falls that wasn’t making money for someone.
The afternoon had seemed long enough when we withdrew from our trusted expense account to find much less than we had anticipated in reserve. We paid to enter our campground and were relieved to find ourselves a pitch of grass in the sun facing a march of dancing bulrushes.
We had no food, and half the money that we had expected, and as it happened, the Chevron Card Melissa had swiped from dad the week before coming to Arkansas would be obsolete until we crossed the border into BC. Apparently the gas giant is a regional franchise.
We were several thousand kilometers from home laughing at our plight with tears in our eyes for an hour.
Melissa had come to Arkansas with our family a week before my graduation from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and we had the illustrious plan of a summer spent out of doors in the Deep South for two months before trekking across our own country in finale.
I had worked the previous summer as an intern summer camp counselor with the Boy Scouts of America, and the organization had offered a promotion – to the Director of the Aquatics Area – and a position for Melissa as my assistant (she being a heavily certified lifeguard and competitive springboard diver). The first part of our tour would kick off in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains at the Gus Blass Scout Reservation.
We would live in the hundred degree heat and fend for ourselves in the brittle woods home to black widows, brown recluses, cottonmouths and copperheads and three hundred rednecked youths a week.
Melissa’s reservations about the first leg of the trip were well deserved.
There was reason for pause, at the very least, on Night One sleeping out beside the Subaru. We had ventured into the bedroom lakeside community store near our site, and stocked up for the evening with Chunky Soups and Munchies. The country road was flat and the dust air filled the windows to the store and back. Matthew Good was playing loud in the speakers and it felt very good to be back in Canada.
I had been away for five years, on and off, and Melissa had endured her first stretch away from home in the past two months. We had defended and informed of our homeland endlessly, and each time we would see a Canadian flag across the country we were lit with the same gentle welcome we received on our first night on the road. It was then that we began to realize the victory lap we had been afforded after such glaring exposure to the state of the union in the south of post-nine-eleven America.