Tourist Traps and Bittersweet Nostalgia

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*all photos are from September 2001*

Niagara Falls, Canada – August 1978

My brother, Billy, spouts off facts as we stare down at the Horseshoe Falls from the observation deck. The water that tumbles over the Falls ends up in the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway. And so on. Billy is eight years old and has already memorized our encyclopedia.

This is our first family trip outside of Michigan. We can afford to do one tourist attraction in Niagara Falls. The Maid of the Mist® is too expensive, and we shouldn’t waste our money on wax museums and other tourist traps. The Journey Behind the Falls® is the most interesting thing in our budget, according to my mother.

Afterwards, we visit the free Daredevil Museum and learn about the people who went over the Falls in barrels. Most of them died, but the first successful person was a woman from our hometown – Bay City, Michigan. My little sister, Pebby, declares that she wants to be a daredevil when she grows up.

We go to the lookout point over the whirlpools, and then we pass by the Floral Clock. My father asks me if I want to stop, since my new interest is horticulture. I glance at the clock and shake my head in disappointment. It’s too well-behaved. I prefer wildflowers. My mother says that she’ll give me a corner of our garden next year, but I shouldn’t be too disappointed if wildflowers won’t grow there. Some plants cannot be tamed.

Back at the motel, we eat sandwiches and chips and watch my father’s favorite show, All in the Family. We laugh together. Billy, Pebby, and I haven’t fought at all on this trip. My father has been a lot nicer to my mother since he quit drinking, but sometimes a shadow still passes over his face. He hasn’t drunk in over a year. He switched AA groups because he didn’t like how they talked about God all the time. His new group is no different, but he has suddenly become interested in God. He now says that he already knew everything in the Bible. He just forgot for a while.

When the show ends, my mother says that we have to go to sleep, because we have to go to church in the morning.

My father says that we can skip church this week, because when we get home he’ll start going with us.

We stare at him.

He flashes his goofy grin. “I’m ready to go back.”

Billy, Pebby, and I cheer. My mother smiles at us.

In a couple of weeks, I will start the fifth grade. Then I will turn ten. I’m at the big kids’ school, St. Joseph’s, and I finally have a best friend. The Clique doesn’t bother me as much. And now I have a normal, happy family. Everything is going to be okay.

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September 2001

My sister, my husband, and I stare down at the American Falls from the observation deck. Two Maid of the Mist® boats glide under the Falls. They look like plastic toys in a bathtub. A cold wind blows. We shiver. Instead of going on the boats, we opted for a haunted house – Screamers House of Horrors®. My husband is still baffled by the whole experience. They don’t have haunted houses in France. They don’t consider fright entertaining.

My sister ended up becoming a professional daredevil. For several years, she worked for a circus company at water parks around the world. She dove into pools from platforms up to ninety feet high. She’s recently retired from that profession and has begun to study ethnobotany.

Does she remember anything from that trip so long ago? She was only five years old at the time. I want to ask her, but she’s hungry and grouchy. She’s lost weight, even though she needs to eat every two hours.*

Looking back, I realize that the voices had already begun to whisper into my father’s mind, but we were too blinded by hope to notice. He had chosen religion over drinking. That’s all that mattered. It’s okay if he says that he knows everything in the Bible. Just let us be happy.

And, for a short time, we were.

 

*Just after this trip my sister found out that she had picked up pinworms while living in Korea.*

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An Illustrated Map of Arizona

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It is said that Sedona has four vortexes of spiritual energy. They interact with a person’s inner self and can facilitate dramatic transformation. I visited Sedona twice. Both times, I felt a strange kind of vertigo. A squeamish bliss. Like that feeling you get when you have that one drink which pushes you beyond pleasantly buzzed and into the realm of drunkenness. As I drove away, the feeling transformed into intense nausea and a vicious migraine. It took me an entire day in bed to recover.

Arizona is a monumental territory in the cartography of my existence.

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I took shelter for the night in Flagstaff during cross-country trips from California to Michigan and back. The Petrified Forest welcomed two different versions of myself – one broken in spirit, the other reborn. The massive Meteor Crater and wacky Tombstone were to be the last places my brother Billy and I would have the chance to bond. An aficionado of tourist attractions, a fun fact inevitably emerged from the intricate recesses of his mind. We became the silly kids that we used to be.

My husband and I, spontaneous newlyweds, stopped by the Grand Canyon on our way back from Las Vegas to my place in Mesa, Arizona. At the lookout points, we held hands and shivered in the bitter winter wind. Monsieur and Madame. What the hell have we done? At the Chief Yellowhorse shop on Highway 64, he bought me ring of polished petrified wood set in silver. We kept our union a secret for years.

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I was physically present in Arizona for eight months. Most of this time was spent waiting for permission to join my husband in New Caledonia. I signed on with a temp agency. I made no effort to make friends. On the weekends, I would drive away from the perpetual brown haze of the Phoenix area. Arizona became my companion. The map was my guide. Turn here. Hairpin turns up ahead. The road turns to dirt here. Those are the Superstition Mountains. This is the Salt River Canyon. The two roads that run through the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument intersect at a town named Why.

Whenever I passed by the town of Superior, my chest would constrict. A sinister hum, a rattlesnake vibration, invaded my cells. Years later, it would come as no surprise to learn that the nightmarish film U Turn was set there. Those who stop are doomed to stay forever.

The loops widened with each passing week. Two hours became six or more. The road stilled my turbulent thoughts. Frustration with the visa process. Anxiety about my hasty decision. Mental preparation to leave my country behind. Forever.

On Highway 260 to Show Low, a cop pulled me over. I had been going slightly over the speed limit. He walked a slow lap around my pickup truck. He made me turn on my blinkers and open my ashtray. Finding nothing out of order, he demanded to know what I was doing way up there. Where I was going. Why.
I’m just out for a Sunday drive. He narrowed his eyes. You drove up here for fun? I nodded. He curled his upper lip. Well, just watch your speed. He crept along behind me for miles.

These three low quality photos are all that I have of Arizona. I believe that they were taken with a disposable camera. My brief time in Arizona was before the digital revolution. Back when photography entailed more money and effort. When the average person perceived rather than documented. We had, at most, thirty-six shots on a roll of film. Nowadays, we need one hundred photos to prove that we were someplace. But how present were we really? Will my memories of more recent voyages be as spellbinding as those of Arizona?

My biggest regret: not visiting the enigmatic Hopi. No photos, recordings, or videos are allowed. If you are fortunate enough to witness a ceremony, you must never discuss it. Imagine the power of this: knowing that it is the only time you will experience it through the eyes of the person you are now. Like landscapes and seasons, we change. Your perception will stay locked in your mind. Only and forever yours.  Memory is the coolest retro filter of all.

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