Monday, November 5, 2012

I've Already Been to Vegas

Casinos with gaudy decor inside and neon displays outside tower above convenience stores and pawn shops. Cheap buffets, or at least semi-affordable buffets, compete for the hungry tourists. Wedding chapels, using the term "chapel" quite loosely, advertise on bus stop shelters and benches. Gift shops charge double or triple what a t-shirt should cost so you can prove you saw the sights. You can catch a show featuring the "Original Platters" or another recreation of a group without any original members. On the edges, there are the gentlemen's clubs and adult shops.

And if you look for it and walk past the casinos, buffets, and trinket shops, you just might find the little bit of park that includes the Niagara Falls.

I've been to Las Vegas several times. Personally, I like Las Vegas for what it is: proudly artificial. It's a homage to all things fake and fleeting.

Niagara Falls? If anyplace shouldn't remind me of Las Vegas, it would be Niagara Falls.

Tacky "Indian" teepees near the "Smokin' Joe's" tobacco store? I don't remember much about early American history, but I recall the Seneca tribe built longhouses. But, I guess tourists want teepees and wooden Indian statues in front of tobacco stores.

The Seneca Casino sells so many tacky (not kitschy, simply tacky) "native American" toys and trinkets from China that it reminded me of the stores near the Grand Canyon. Disneyland's Frontierland is a more authentic experience.

The falls? They are incredible. But they occupy a relatively small space in the Niagara area.

When my wife and I decided to take a detour to Niagara Falls after a family memorial, I had visions of a glorious national park. It was a cold, rainy, autumn afternoon. Coming from California, we're used to parks that are… a bit more natural. I expected a park like Yosemite or Sequoia. I expected open spaces and woodlands. I didn't expect what we found. It was disappointing.

Yosemite and the Grand Canyon were a bit too "touristy" with hundreds of cars and thousands of people. There are snack bars, hotels, and the requisite gift shops. I don't mind the paved walkways, the nice observation decks, or the other niceties for tourists. The parks are so immense that you can easily leave the tackiness behind and find nature. Leave the parking lots, the tourist cabins, and the organized camp grounds and soon you feel the wonderful sense of being apart from civilization.

You can't really get that feeling of being apart from it all at Niagara Falls. You look across the falls and you see… casinos and buffets and the tacky gift shops on the Canadian side of the river. The Sky Needle on the Canadian side is impressive, but I bet the view would be more amazing without it.

We'll go back to Niagara Falls in the spring or summer. It will be crowded and more absurd. Yet, seeing the falls on a sunny day will be worth it. If nothing else, we can people watch.

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