By Sandra Hutchison
This summer I took a 3,000-mile road trip inspired by…
- The need to do some research for my next novel;
- The desire to bring home some bulky items left over after I helped my mother clean out my grandma’s house (you would not believe how excited I get by free power tools I will probably never use); and,
- The desire to check a few places off the bucket list.
That last one had felt more urgent after my last (plane) trip to my parents’ house. My folks now refuse to travel serious distances. (Ocala, okay. Tampa, no.) They also refuse to get on a plane. Dad isn’t comfortable sitting in one place for any length of time. But it’s not just that. At one point during lunch in Crystal River I suggested a visit to their recently renovated park, which was apparently a good place to see manatees. Their response: “If you’ve seen one manatee, you’ve seen them all.”
That’s when you know your parents are old.
This suggested to me that someday I, too, might not be interested in manatees, or in getting out and doing anything that doesn’t revolve around a good cheap lunch. And you never know how soon that moment might arrive. So it was time to get cracking!
My first destination on this road trip was Niagara Falls. I always love waterfalls, yet had never gone there. Hadn’t even really thought of it. If anything, whenever I heard “Niagara Falls” I thought of what my ex-husband would immediate quote. (And he did it again, when I told him my plans.)
But because of the novel I was writing I wanted to better visualize a scene set there, when hero and heroine accidentally cross into Canada.
While it’s possible to google a location and read about various people’s experiences with it and maybe do some interviews and then fake your way quite through a lot (God knows I do plenty of that), there’s nothing like actually being there.
Also, I was puzzled by the number of people who claimed to have accidentally crossed the Rainbow Bridge to Canada. (That’s the real bridge to the real country, not the metaphor for pets who’ve died.) How, really, could that happen?
So I drove off to Niagara Falls as the first stop of a very long road trip west and then south and back — about 3,000 miles over 10 days. This first half would include one night in Canada, one with a friend in Pittsburgh, one with another friend in Berea, Kentucky, and one in a hotel in Tifton, Georgia, mostly because I didn’t want to arrive at my parents’ after their bedtime, which has moved earlier at the same pace as their interest in manatees has shrunk.
The trip did not start out well. I was not even halfway along I-90 towards Buffalo when I noticed a cloud of vapor billowing behind my car. Luckily, an exit appeared just then and I was able to coast through it to a gas station, where I discovered a long trail of liquid behind my car. Two hours later, after negotiations with my insurance company for a tow to a local garage that lasted nearly as long as the transmission hose replacement that followed, I was back on the road, hoping that was the last car problem I’d have.
I was pretty frazzled at that point, which may be why I didn’t even attempt to ask the officer on the Canadian end of the bridge if a lot of people REALLY arrived by accident. She wasn’t the least bit friendly, for one thing. (When I got to the hotel, I realized I’d left a big scary garden knife just under the front passenger seat — after telling her no, I had no guns and no knives. It can really pay to be a harmless looking white lady.)
Anyway, I was tired, but I walked down the hill anyway before the light was gone and, yes, the falls were amazing.
I walked around, but it was getting late, and I was hungry, so I hiked back up to the hotels, hoping for a little comfort food before bedtime. Almost every restaurant in Niagara Falls, Ontario appears to belong to a huge tourist chain. I finally settled on oddly disintegrating pancakes at IHOP for $15.99, which was, apparently, the minimum you can pay for anything in that area unless you go to Tim Horton’s, which I hadn’t found yet.
The next morning I went down the hill early, before breakfast. It was worth it because of the beautiful morning light.
After a couple of hours of exploring and having a long conversation with a lady from Singapore who just wanted to talk and eating breakfast at Tim Horton’s, I checked out and hit the road and the Rainbow Bridge again.
I didn’t even try to ask the very friendly American official at the end of the bridge about people accidentally crossing. I’d already figured I’d need to change my plans there. Really, who could accidentally cross that bridge? There were plenty of signs. Even if it sometimes happens, people would think it wasn’t plausible. (There are A LOT of things in real life that don’t seem plausible when you put them in a book.)
I figured I’d at least stop in at the Niagara Falls State Park, since it was easy enough to drive in and park. You don’t even have to pay parking if you stay for less than twenty minutes. And the falls are RIGHT THERE, so it’s easy enough to pop over and take a look.
This park has been renovated recently, apparently (renovations are still under way in some places), but it’s AMAZING. I had so much fun, I stayed half the day. The falls are one thing, but the river streaming towards them is beautiful in its many various sections, too. The park is beautifully laid out with walking trails and overlooks and, if you want, the Maid of the Mist and other attractions. The people-watching is great, too.
I decided to forego anything that would drench my shoes and leave me blinded by spray on my glasses for long stretches of time. Still, at moments I felt overtaken by sheer awe. It’s amazing to stand RIGHT THERE next to all that pounding power.
Time was passing, and eventually I needed to head for Pittsburgh. Once there, I told my friend Ann that I was going to have to change my plans for the book, because there was no way anybody was really going to go over that bridge accidentally.
She said, “Well, I’ve got a story to tell you.”
Turns out a few years back Ann was hosting an exchange student from Thailand when she and another host, Peg, rented a van and took a load of exchange students up to Niagara Falls. Just the American side, because the students were here on visas. Crossing the border would be way too complicated. So they left their passports at home.
After a fun day at the park, they decided they wanted to go eat dinner, and voted on pizza. (Or Chinese food. There’s some disagreement between Anne and Peg on this.) So they put that in their GPS, followed its directions and suddenly realized they were already on the approach to the bridge and could not back out (literally, their tires would be punctured if they tried).
So they drove into the duty-free shop, where the woman said oh yeah, it happens all the time, the Canadians will give you a sheet of paper to say you didn’t really enter, and send you back.
But what about all those students who might be denied re-entry without their papers?
Oops. So Ann walked them to an ice cream shop just off the bridge, while Peg went ahead and drove across with the van. The Canadian officer laughed and responded just as the duty free clerk said she would. The American officer, however, was suspicious. Peg got questioned at length, with the same questions over and over, and then he searched the van before finally letting her go on her way.
Oh, man. Never have I been so glad to hear someone’s GPS horror story.
So, Kathy and Diego get to accidentally cross the Rainbow Bridge after all, and will have to cope with all that follows.
It’s just the power of suggestion, probably, but I see Niagara Falls everywhere now. On the way back up from Florida, they were in a painting in Juliette Gordon Lowe’s birthplace in Savannah (that city was a bucket list item), in Jefferson’s dining room at Monticello (another bucket list item), at the Farnsworth in Rockland, Maine (a stop I make every year), and at the Albany Institute of History and Art (couldn’t believe I’d never been there before!).
I’d love to take this as a sign I’m being carried on to something good with this book. It could just as easily mean I’m heading for a fall. More likely, I’m just noticing something I hadn’t noticed before. And that is good enough for me.
If you’d like, comment with your own GPS horror story, or some of your bucket list items.
Next month’s blog post will feature another author interview (and a chance to win a free copy of THE FAR END OF HAPPY) with the talented women’s fiction author Kathryn Craft.