The pilot made the announcement, and the airplane adjusted in speed and altitude for landing. As I looked over the wing and saw the close view of the ocean surface, my stomach sank. Where the heck was the landing strip? Our five year-old son straightened his back, smiled and pretended to steer an invisible wheel. "Don't worry, Mommy, I'm flying the plane now!" he said. Two thoughts occurred: Why couldn't life be that simple? and was I that transparent? The little judge that sat in my head removed all doubt: Yes, you're a horrible mother; you're supposed to inspire confidence, but you've switched roles!
That moment stayed with me for over two decades, and I thought of it along our day-long travel to visit our son.
I tapped off the GPS and opened the map to trace our whereabouts with my fingertip. We'd driven five of the ten-hours from Long Island to Niagara Falls, New York, to see our son and his wife.
There's something comforting about the pages of the Rands McNally map. Maybe it's because Dad always pulled out a map whenever we prepared for an adventure. Though I lacked the attention span to stay glued to it, I enjoyed looking at the intersecting roads and the familiar shaped landscapes. My husband always said that one shouldn't become too dependent on GPS (or calculators.) A map helps a traveler to know the roads, the direction, and how and when routes and pathways intersect.
The effects of long-distance travel are different for everybody. Some people stress or focus on the speed with which he or she gets from one destination to the next. If I'm not sitting in traffic, I tend to enjoy the journey. Especially when traveling through mountainous regions, where tension is lifted through its ponderous landscape.
As we drove along, I recalled a retreat that I attended after we lost our first son. I was in a nonabsorbent state, but attended anyway, feeling like a dandelion that broke through a crack in the cement sidewalk. If it rained, perhaps I'd absorb something.
The speaker was a priest, and an alcoholic in recovery. He spoke about the low points or painful terrain along life's journey, and he nodded towards the pictures of saints that hung on the walls. "They didn't look like that in real life," he said. "Nobody walks around wearing those expressions all day, all pious-like. They were flesh and blood human beings, he said. They made mistakes. They fell, they prayed, they trusted, they struggled. They experienced joy and sorrow and the full range of human emotions. If we needed to reconstruct them into something other than human, then we denied the miracle that it was to be alive and fully human, as is, as we were created.
He spoke about powerful experiences in the life of Christ, noting they took place on mountaintops: Mount Tabor: transformation; Mount of Olives: where he prayed for us before his sacrifice; Mount Calvary: the crucifixion, to name a few. He said mountaintops are vantage points from which one can look down and survey the roads, see how they connect, making sense of the journey. Sometimes the only way to deal with the mountain that appears in our lives, he said, is to to climb over it. And sometimes pain has to be walked through. And since I couldn't place the pain of our loss into the proverbial spiritual elevator and send up as I'd managed to do in the past, his words alleviated the pervading guilt and despair that nothing felt right and the fear that perhaps it never would.
So as we drove through the majestic mountains, I thought of the priest, whose journey through addiction transformed his life and touched so many others, mine included. And it seems that there are people who come into our lives for a period who do just that, they touch some part of our human experience and make the difficult parts of our journey lighter in some way.
One sure way to break the suction of deep thoughts on a road trip is to pull into a rest stop that features countless fast food counters and the smell of fried foods so thick you gain three pounds just breathing. And it's worth the wait on a mile-long line at Starbucks for a chai tea latte that ramps energy without delivering the shakes. Then, to restore blood circulation, one could stop in the rest room and put their head under the hand dryer that these days seems powerful enough to orbit your body to your destination without a vehicle.
But we still didn't have a precise destination.
While it's a good idea to book a hotel room in advance, none of the hotel ratings were impressive enough (in my mind) to warrant an advanced plan. Besides I thought it would be fun to decide along the road. I read a few reviews on hotels.com and along the drive, I booked a hotel in Canada, close to Niagra Falls.
The falls has two stunning views, one from the New York side and the other from Canada. Both are spectacular. But the first night, we booked a room in The Tower on the Candadian side. There wasn't a falls view from the hotel room, but it was within walking distance.
I felt unsettled when we stood outside and looked up after we checked into the hotel. And it clicked why there weren't any stops on the elevator for, say twenty "floors." That's because there weren't any. So it was like we'd been perched on the upper most portion of an enormous lollipop stick. Our room was on the top floor, which required two elevators. The room was trendy and clean and the large window that allowed a view of all the lights was beautiful and city-like.
It was about 11:30 pm, and my husband wanted to drop our stuff and head off to the Falls. There was no rush, I said., but sure, we'd mosey on over. I just needed to first arrange and rearrange our belongings in the hotel, sniff the soap and dilly-dally. Heck, we were on vacation. "I know, he said. But they shut the lights at the falls."
"Shut the lights at the falls? They're not going to do that," I insisted. "That would be so cheesy!" I giggled at the absurd thought, grabbed my phone and we left, but all along the road to the Falls, I stopped and took photographs of the charming walkway, lined with flowers and hanging baskets. As we approached, the falls were colorfully lit and just as beautiful, powerful and unsettling as I remembered from when I was twelve years old and stood beside my brother, sister and parents. The mist covered us, causing a chill when a breeze blew. I aligned my phone in camera mode to snap a photograph when the lights flipped off. I mean it... flipped off!
All that remained as we stood by the rail was the eerie roar of the rushing river and the saturating hairspray-defying mist. A huge "I told you so" hung in the air as I skulked along quiet, all victim-like over my ill-advised dilly-dallying. Damned timers! Then we explored a well-lit casino and forgot all about it (until morning.)
The hub suggested that we eat breakfast in the hotel. We never did that before. It was always either overpriced or something better was down the road. The sign in the cafe said breakfast was $7.95. Something had to be wrong with that. Maybe we'd have to pay for each and every cup of coffee. I counter-offered. There was an iHop down the road. They'd hook us up with a pot of coffee, something hearty and we'd be good for the day.
Well, not really. Breakfast was $40, and it wasn't as hearty as I'd imagined. But we were good to go to the falls, and my great ideas shifted into neutral for a while.
It felt odd that while walking alongside businesses and buildings in a city-like atmosphere, one turned a corner to face an enormous hole in the earth with water rushing down it. It was a collision of senses that I still haven't assimilated, like eating jalapeno-flavored ice cream. I like both flavors, but can you do this?
It was over two decades since my son "landed" our airplane in LaGuardia Airport. Now we stood on a military medical plane on which he was being trained, and we listened to him explain how it's set up with bunks and equipment to transport and treat the wounded and infirm. Two thoughts collided in my head: I am standing on holy ground, and That's great. I'm so proud. Now get back in your stretchie and into your crib! I hoped he didn't "read" that thought the way he did when he was a small boy and that he only saw the love and gratitude I felt. The rest I'd have to work out with the same God who brought him into my world.
After the trip to the base, we went to dinner near the falls and visited the New York side, which is a beautiful, scenic walk to the falls. Unlike when I was a teenager, I didn't want to leave. But then we decided to make one more stop at Letchworth State Park, dubbed the Grand Canyon of the East...