To Niagara Falls (Days 58, 59)


I slept my first night in Toronto in a ten-bed dorm with eight fellow travelers and a ninth. The first eight travelers were delightful: young, multicultural, friendly. The ninth was quite the opposite, grunting his way through the room, avoiding eye contact at all costs, then plopping his withered body on the bunk right next to mine.

Guest 9 suffered from sleep apnea. I have sympathy for his struggles. However, at 2AM that night, I had little sympathy for his choice to bunk himself with nine others, instead of in a private room, for his snoring and smacking and slurping kept us all up nearly the whole night, collective sighs filling the room each and every time his momentary silence was interrupted by yet another movement in his slumbering symphony.

The next morning, Guest 9 spent two hours, 6AM to 8AM, packing and unpacking his luggage, zipping and unzipping his noisy suitcase to the chagrin of us civilized sleepers. I rolled over and shoved my head inside a pillow case and groaned.

Finally, at nine, I woke myself, excited for a full day of discovering Toronto, especially after nothing but 1,000 miles of driving those past two days. I dressed, checked out, and scooted across town to my second hostel of the city, this one a uniquely posh establishment with shiny new computers and stainless steel appliances and the overall atmosphere of a Swedish spa. Mint green and chrome and slate and pewter palleted the space, common areas and dorm rooms alike stunning in their cleanliness and design.

After dropping my bag and renting a bicycle, I took off exploring. Back home, a friend who had spent some years in Toronto had sent me a wonderful list of things to do, and though it would have taken seven days, sixteen stomachs, and a taste for coffee to accomplish all Katherine had suggested, I aimed to squeeze in as much as I could during my short time in the city.

First on that list was a ride through the University of Toronto, just a few blocks from my lodging. Stepping into the cool Canadian air and onto the pedals of my rickety rental bike, it felt great to be cycling again, perhaps not as smooth as my Cannondale back in DC, but great nonetheless, free and light and quiet, no roaring engine between my legs, just the steady click-click-click of rusty chains and shifting gears.

My already elated mood ballooned when I entered the UT grounds. I'd seen a fair number of campi in my university days, including the privilege to study amongst Georgetown's immaculate lawns and eighteenth-century edifices, but the University of Toronto is quite possibly the loveliest I've come across, from its moss-strewn, vine-wrapped weathered-brick buildings to its magnificent arches, from its marvelous clock tower to its pleasant shady concourses. That campus made me want to go back to school, to read literature under its knotted trees and to laugh with friends on its sprawling grasses, to hole up in its well-worn dormitories and to run through its lesser-known backways at the break of dawn. Alas, I could do none of that, so instead I contented myself with a directionless pedal throughout it, criss-crossing and looping and zagging about aimlessly until my stomach growled and my lips begged for refreshment.

Katherine had given me no shortage of places to find quality food and drink, and somewhere between my vegan sweet potato muffin in Kensington Market and my vegan coconut smoothie near Chinatown, I understood why her list was heavier in things to consume than things to do: Toronto has excellent eats.

After stopping in Kensington Market for sustenance and a terrific opportunity to drink in another few chapters of Steinbeck's East of Eden, a tome I had been lugging around since Montana, I walked about the hip neighborhood, all graffiti-adorned alleyways and mismatched shops and the very smell and feel of organic culture, a perfect mixture of Brooklyn and Beijing, a delightful little place to spend a few hours, if not a whole decade.

When those few hours had elapsed, I hopped back on my bicycle and toured the greater area, Kensington to Chinatown to Queen West, then over to Trinity Bellwoods Park and back again, wandering southward toward the waterfront. On the way, I had been instructed to stop at a chocolatier for a special treat, so I sidled up alongside a street sign when I reached my pit stop, hopping off to lock my rental to the sign's post before heading in.

I dug in my bag for my U-lock, a thick steel horseshoe that latched into an even thicker bar, an instrument I occasionally used to cage up one of Rousseau's wheels if I feared a theft or a tow. I found the U-lock without too much trouble, pulled it from my bag, and then reached into my pocket for my keys.

Not in the left pocket: odd, I thought. I checked the right. Nothing. A tiny panic stabbed at my heart. Not to worry. I patted my back pockets, then those of my sweatshirt, and still nothing, but surely those keys must be somewhere. I dumped the contents of my bag onto the sidewalk and sorted through them, movements growing more frantic by the second. Passport, camera, sandals, book, all good ... but where the hell are my keys?

Just then, a flashback screamed into my mind's eye, a vision of me stopping at my scooter before heading out on the bicycle, keys into the ignition to pop the storage compartment  and U-lock right into my bag, but then those keys went back in my pocket, I was sure of it, but wait ... a cold dread came over me ... I had then turned around, went back to the scooter, keys back in the ignition to withdraw my sandals ...

In an instant, I'd scraped everything I owned off the ground and tossed it all into my bag with a hurried thump and ripped my bike away from the signpost and threw myself atop it and then I raced, cutting madly through unfamiliar streets, dread choking my lungs and closing in around me. I was normally a trustful person, preferring the potential for poached property over a paradigm of perpetual paranoia, but with Rousseau things were different, for she had already been stolen once before, and nearly stolen yet another time, and though I'd hate to lose her on any day, doing so a thousand miles from home would be simply the worst.

So I rode, sweaty and panting, crossing Spadina in a flurry and bounding down College Avenue, past my hostel and to the corner where I had parked her, scanning for her black chassis and bug-beaten windshield, and ...

There she was. Undisturbed, wedged between a telephone booth and a mailbox, she sat stoically, keys dangling from the ignition. Safe.

I breathed a sigh of relief, a whole lungful of it, and patter her seat lovingly. "Sorry about that, friend," I said as I tenderly withdrew the keys and dropped them into my pocket. "See you later."
I worked my way back down Spadina, more slowly this time, returning to the chocolatier in proper form, and slipping into their cool shady quarters for one shot of straight chocolate. I'm not much of a chocolate person, and the elimination of milk from my diet doesn't help that, but I must say that those 45mL of dark chocolate, downed in one hearty gulp, were some of the best I'd ever had. And then, after washing it all away with a cold glass of water, I got back on the road, winding to the waterfront.

When I'd arrived in Toronto the day before, I was disappointed to learn that it was the last day of Pride Week, a ten-day-long celebration of openness and acceptance and diversity observed annually around the world, but perhaps nowhere else on the scale of Toronto, birthplace of it all. After missing Jazzfest by a week in New Orleans, the Naked Bike Ride by a day in Portland, and Pride Week by mere hours in Ontario, I couldn't help but feel like I had embarked on my trip just a few days late, chasing festival season about the country but never really catching up to it.

But my dismay at this unfortunate timing was somewhat quelled by my abrupt realization and recall that it was Canada Day, a celebration of Canada's unification some 150 years ago, and that nearly all Canadians were on holiday that sunny Monday. I had noticed an unusual amount of bustling about earlier that morning, but I'd lost track of the days of the week months earlier and just took all the commotion for a Saturday, but nearing the waterfront around noon, no mistake could be made, what with the tiny red-and-white flags waving wildly and the parades a-marching and the Canadians in the tens of thousands flocking about. The rainbow capes from a day earlier had been swapped for maple ones, billowing flags breezing along bare backs, and everywhere, skin cloaked in Canadian clothing and temporary tattoos and celebratory accessories of every variety.

Canada Day, of course, meant unexpected traffic, and so I found myself trapped in a serpentine line about the shore's wharf, countless families and couples and groups of teens all seeking passage to the Toronto Islands just offshore. Those islands were my destination as well, and so I joined the throng in cramming onto an open ferry, bicycle to my side, and making for the west end of the tiny sandbar archipelago.

Arriving there just a few minutes later, I unboarded the ferry and boarded my bike, wheeling alongside many others down the islands' main road, closed to all vehicles spare a few service cars and shuttles that act as the only automotives on the whole set of islands. The traffic thinned as we made our way east, and a few kilometers into the ride, I veered right to meet the beach, a simple stretch of sand for some sitting in the sun, not so secluded on that busy day but perfectly pleasant nonetheless. I spent some more time reading, calmed by the gentle waves and the laughter of children in all directions, and then when I could feel my cheeks actively reddening, I got back on my bike and took it further east to Ward's Island.

Though most of the Toronto Islands serve merely as recreation areas for day-tripping Canadians, and some very touristy at that, amusement parks and all, Ward's Island is what remains of a once-thriving community along those sandbars, settled by Europeans in 1830 and still, in fact, inhabited to this day, a small village of some three hundred adorable homes, the largest car-free community in North America, a delightul hidden gem of narrow pedestrian streets and character-filled cottages, all with their own names, and spectacular views of the Toronto skyline to the north. Voyeuristically riding about the humble alleys and marveling at the sheer warmth of it all, I was pleasantly surprised to find the island's inhabitants so friendly, peering up from their gardening chores for a welcoming wave or hearty hello, superbly kind people all around.

Yes, I imagine if I ever run away in a fit of escapism, you'll know where to find me.

I saw a ferry near the island's east end some time later, so I put myself on it and took it back to the mainland, biking my way back to my hostel around five. Sandy from the seashore, I showered, then biked west to work up a fresh sweat at a nearby yoga studio that Katherine had recommended so highly.

After my hot yoga experience with Barb and Ray in Vancouver, regular old yoga felt a touch simpler than I'd remembered, but was still a great way to spend an hour, a much-need practice after weeks and months without it, and I left feeling relaxed and limber and, above all else, hungry, very hungry.
Katherine's very last plug was for an Ethiopian restaurant, which she described as, well, "the best Ethiopian food ever." Having once rounded up a bunch of college friends down in Delaware and driven them up to Boston on a whim one Friday evening for an Ethiopian dinner, I was something of an adventurist when it came to Ethiopian cuisine, with a high bar to boot, and thus, I was readily up for a try of Canada's finest.

So I entered Nazareth, just a short ride from the yoga studio, and squeezed myself in at the bar for a lager and a vegetarian combination plate. To my left was a quiet man nursing a dark beer, and to my right, two men in ranchero hats and a mess of empty glasses in front of them. One of them turned to me and said something, but between the thick Mexican accent and the slurred speech and the instant stench of alcohol overwhelming my senses, I couldn't make out a word he said. I asked him to repeat himself, and he did, down to the very syllable, just as unintelligible as the first time around.

I nodded a little, head cocked to the side, and he continued, and my comprehension didn't improve one bit. He paused and shrugged and said "Righha?" to which I nodded again and uttered "right, right."

He smiled at my agreement and went on talking, and I captured about one word per every hundred, which, as the minutes ticked by, allowed me to piece together an overall arc to his story, something generally misogynistic and very unkind to our fellow sex, something I certainly didn't agree with but didn't understand enough of what this man was staying to know precisely what to disagree with, and so I just kept on nodding, "mhmm"s and "sure"s peppering the monologue at requisite pauses, and all the while turning slowly and subtly in my chair until I had damn near by back to him, but the speech just kept on coming.

I felt rude retreating to that angle, staring ahead at the television and so clearly not welcoming conversation, especially while alone at a bar with no excuse for my sudden hermitude. But the man was making no sense, and the matronly bartenders were all out ignoring him, and so somewhere between him mumbling about it being acceptable to hit a woman if she hits you first and his assertion that it's best to juggle three or four so as to keep options open, all deciphered over painful quarter-hours, I shot a glance at the hostess with pleading eyes and she understood immediately, clearing a four-person table in the main eating area and ushering me there in haste, where she thought I'd "be more comfortable."

I certainly was, very pleased to have some peace and quiet and even more pleased to receive my delayed platter some minutes later. Greedily clawing up a hefty swab of injera and scooping a handful of fresh tomatoes with the spongy bread, I delighted at the familiar flavors meeting my taste buds, tart and crisp and spicy all in one bite. The food was, indeed, delicious, and though maybe not the very best Ethiopian I'd tasted, though maybe not worth a sixteen-hour road trip for one generous platter, it was undoubtedly right up there in the running.

Saving the ample leftovers for later, I departed, returning to the hostel and joining other guests on the roof to watch rogue Canada Day fireworkers set off colorful blasts in their backyards below, Toronto's CN Tower glowing in the distance, all of the city lit up before me. I slept, and the next morning I awoke so sad to be leaving that magnificent city. Perhaps my assessment of Toronto is colored by sentimentalism: the last full-day stop on my trip, my last Canadian city, my last hostel, my last of a great many things. Perhaps cycling around, like I did back home, made me feel like more of a local, more habituated. Or perhaps the truth is that Toronto is just wholly spectacular, which I think to be the case, a lovely place in which I could really see myself living someday.

After grabbing another muffin and some blueberries in Kensington Market, I left Toronto, driving just eighty miles south in as many minutes and arriving on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls late that morning. I found Niagara Falls to be a fitting last spectacle for my grand scoot-tour, something about its size and scale and scope so symbolically appropriate.

I felt the Falls before I saw them, a persistent drizzle raining down on the streets nearby, little droplets cascading down Niagara's cliffs with such force that they rocket into the sky some several hundred feet overhead and then sprinkle back down onto parking spectators in one wide wet radius. And then I actually saw them, just a quick turn to my left, and found myself surprisingly impressed, all cynicism stripped away by the sheer grandness of it all. I parked quickly and made for the railings, peering down to the rapids below, New York just over the chasm and the Horseshoe Falls, Niagara's iconic U-shaped cascade dumping over 700,000 gallons of water per second, to my right. It was, quite simply, absolutely breathtaking.

Beauty aside, Niagara Falls is likely one of the most commercialized landmarks on earth, tiny and weak-armed state and provincial parks doing little to stem the tide of gimmicks and gift shops that have flooded in over the decades. Niagara Falls is more amusement park than national park, more prized paycheck than prized possession, and this might turn some off, it may have soured the experience of a younger me, but there, at the final precipice of my journey, I judged not, and with a when-in-Rome spirit, I queued up for a spot on the next Maid of the Mist departure my very self.

Cramming onto the old steamboat with a bright blue plastic poncho in my hand, I joined my fellow North Americans in one of our continent's most treasured traditions: chugging into the heart of Horseshoe Falls for an up-close introduction to the most forceful cascades in the world. Riding out into those choppy waters, my heart pulled in a million directions, my mind overcome by the collective feelings of two months' worth of wonder and amazement and adventure and gratitude. We neared the Horseshoe, and tears and Niagara waters streamed down my face, Niagara waters flowing from the Great Lakes I had driven by days earlier, lakes filled from the aggregate runoff of mountains I had climbed weeks ago, runoff precipitating from clouds and sky that had followed me all around the continent, all fifteen thousand miles of my journey, for two endless, irreplaceable months, all and everything converging at that singular moment, the power of those falls calling out to the power of my spirit, worn and weary but never, ever happier.

And then I went home.


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