It’s odd how we sometimes journey to the ends of the earth to see something exotic and new while leaving the marvels and mysteries of our own backyards unexplored.
In the past five years, I have lived in six states, two countries, and hitchhiked over 5,000 miles; yet I never once thought to travel through my own hometown.
I grew up in Wheatfield, New York—a small rural-suburban town spaced between the struggling urban centers of Niagara Falls and Buffalo. Although I’ve lived in Niagara County for over twenty years, I know the area about as well as the Portuguese explorers who’d sketch sea monsters on the uncharted portions of their maps.
I set off on a twenty-four hour, non-stop hike to explore my home-region anew.
But my journey had another purpose: I wanted to know how many miles I could walk in a day. As a backcountry ranger for the Park Service and a hiking enthusiast, I wonder, constantly, about my physical limitations.
I had been on two previous twenty-four hour excursions when I lived in the arctic. On each, I wished to climb formidable mountains on my weekends. But between the rough terrain and elevation changes, I never managed more than a mile an hour.
The flat roads and mild spring weather of Western New York, I thought, would be ideal conditions to tally up as many miles as I possibly could.
I packed light, taking a small backpack that contained a hoodie, camera, cell phone, water bottle, small notepad, pen, $15 in cash, three meatloaf sandwiches and five pieces of banana nut bread, which my mother made the previous evening. I left at 1 p.m., and left a note on the counter telling my family I’d be back tomorrow.
While packing, I became unexpectedly jittery. I couldn’t wait to embark on a romantic adventure; a noble crusade whereon I’d thrust myself into the very throes of life. I was going to live, damn it!
But what I had yet to realize was that the trip would be about as romantic as a forced march to a Soviet Gulag camp. Souls who’ve spent a night in Dante’s Purgatory could commiserate with me over the tortures my feet and legs would endure.
It was the worst hike of my life.
I decided to walk due north towards a giant checkerboard of farms, country villages, and swathes of forestland that I had never seen en route to Lake Ontario, eighteen miles away. Then I’d head west towards the Niagara River and, as long as there was time left, south to the storied cataracts of Niagara Falls, which, on all my many previous visits, I had never given more than a fleeting glance.
As I strode through my boyhood neighborhood, I couldn’t have been happier with my hiking conditions: a uniformly blue sky, a crisp 62˚, and a stiff breeze that slung my tee shirt tight against my chest.
Venturing north past fallow corn fields, dilapidated barns, and trim country homes—complete with immaculate gardens and lawns as long as football fields—I felt like Muir or Thoreau who extolled the virtues of nature, travel, and walking.
At each cluster of houses in the sleepy hamlets of Pekin and Ransomville, I strolled through a gauntlet of dogs that came out of nearly every house to bark at me. At one house, five large dogs watched me pass, sitting as solemnly as church dignitaries at a Papal Coronation.
I reached the lake earlier than I had anticipated. I was eighteen miles into my trip, clipping at a non-stop, 3.43 miles per hour pace.
Earlier, however, I did note a stinging sensation in the center of my left foot. As an avid jogger and hiker, I was surprised that I was showing the effects of my hike already. But whatever worries I had were alleviated when I reached the beach and caught a view of the sun’s crest projecting a murder-red spotlight skyward into the clouds. To the east, across the lake, I could see a mite-sized silhouette of Toronto.
I continued west on a quiet coastal road towards Youngstown and Fort Niagara. My morale was high but my gait slackened now that both my feet, upon hitting the asphalt, received sharp, icy-hot zaps.
I then realized I had erred—big-time—in my choice of footwear. I opted for a pair of threadbare, but lightweight sneakers over my heavier, but more foot-friendly hiking boots. I began varying the way in which my foot hit the ground by putting pressure on my toes or my foot’s side, but this only redistributed the soreness.
The sky was overcast and a light breeze swept in from the lake. I strapped on my hoodie, put my head down, and plodded along.
When I reached Youngstown—the home of Fort Niagara—I thought of the French and British who occupied the fort centuries ago, which was built to control access to the Great Lakes. I wondered: did the British—in their colonial heyday—brandish their muskets and red uniforms on this same path? Did the Iroquois who lived here go for long walks to the lake just for the hell of it?
As I passed historical signs describing various battles during the French and Indian War and the War of 1812, I realized I wasn’t the first person to suffer on this road.
In December of 1813, a cocksure American General crossed the Niagara River into Canada and burned Fort George and the adjacent town to the ground. A couple of weeks later a larger British force of 500 regulars, aided by their native allies, went tit-for-tat by crossing the river at night, capturing Fort Niagara, and burning the village of Lewiston to the ground. The women and children, cold and homeless, were forced to trudge to a native Tuscaroran village for sustenance.
Fifty years earlier—in a more harrowing case—the Seneca’s, upset that their historic portage route was seized, caught a British wagon train by surprise along the Niagara Gorge at what is now called Devil’s Hole where warriors peeled off several dozen scalps, killed the Brits’ animals, and flung the wagons over the cliff and into the river.
This area was also the last stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves who had been on the run for months. When I looked across the river and saw Canada, I remembered how—as a thirsty nineteen-year-old—I used to cross the border to legally drink. But for the slaves, the implications of our country’s borders weren’t so trivial; it was the dividing line between freedom and slavery, life and death.
Even while acknowledging the more taxing adversities of my journeying forerunners, I couldn’t pretend that I wasn’t suffering too. As I turned south towards Lewiston on River Road, which parallels the Niagara River, my stride, no longer confident and spry, was reduced to the waddle of a wounded bird.
My sharp pace slowed to 2.2 miles per hour. I had run out of water nearly six hours before and began feeling drowsy and experienced a never-before-felt tightness in my chest. Afraid that I was going to fall asleep in mid-stride, I hid behind a mansion’s stone wall and tried to sleep for a few minutes. Too nervous to doze, I recognized that dehydration was exacerbating my condition and set off for Lewiston where I thought I might find some water.
One by one, the quaint colonial-style homes wafted passed me, like fireflies, set aglow by flashing TV sets and bedroom lights. It wasn’t until this point, around midnight, that I realized how silly this hike was. A romantic adventure into the unknown? Hardly. Oh, how I wished to be inside one of these homes, making love with a beautiful wife of my own.
I thought about all my dreams and how foolish they all were. A walk through South America? Become a mountain man in the Brooks Range? Travel the world as an ascetic wanderer? Garbage. Rubbish. Inanity. Just like that, my most dearly-held dreams dissolved.
I was just as upset with how quickly my feet gave up on me. Though I had been walking for twelve straight hours and I had gone nearly thirty miles, I didn’t expect to be suffering quite yet.
I plodded on, melancholic, parsing over my revelatory thoughts and second-guessing what I had thought was my iron-clad mettle. I began worrying about my mother who I knew was worrying about me.
It was 2:00 a.m. when I shuffled onto Lewiston’s main drag. The town of 16,000 has tried to emphasize its colonial past by outfitting its business district with brick sidewalks and old-fashioned street lanterns.
My search for water was interrupted by a police car that, upon seeing me, cut an impromptu 180˚ turn and stealthily crept alongside my flank. I kept walking, pretending not to notice the steely glares from the two cops inside. Did they think I was a bum? Or were they worried that I was the first of a slew of zombies to penetrate town? Finally, I broke the silence.
“Hi there. What can I do for you?”
“What are you doing out here?” they asked, blankly.
“Oh, I’m just out hiking.”
“Hiking?” they queried, incredulously.
“Yeah… I know it sounds a bit eccentric… I’m a big hiker.”
“Where are you from?”
“Where are you going?”
“Niagara Falls!?” They looked at each other with puzzled expressions. “Someone fell in the Niagara Gorge today. That wouldn’t happen to be you, would it?”
“Umm. No. Definitely not."
“How long have you been hiking for?”
“Since one o’clock this afternoon. I went up to Lake Ontario and followed the shore down here.”
(More confused expressions.)
“And you’re sure you haven’t been anywhere near the Gorge?”
At this point they seemed quite baffled. Not quite sure about how to deal with me and suspicious as to if I was, in fact, the legendary gorge-jumper, they asked for my ID and continued to assail me with questions. I remained calm and articulately responded until they let me go.
I reached a Sonoco soon after, where I bought a bag of peanuts, a cup of tea, and refilled my water bottle before wandering down the dark and lonely Robert Moses Parkway towards Niagara Falls.
Fatigued and tired, I entertained the idea for a moment: maybe it was me who fell in the gorge. Could this whole night have been a trauma-induced hallucination? Was I even who I thought I was?
Clearly I needed rest. At this point I told myself that I was going to walk to the falls, look at them, call it quits, and take the bus home, regardless of whether I reached my 24-hour goal.
I don’t mean to stack woeful adjective upon woeful adjective but the soles of my feet—at this point—felt like tenderized hamburger meat. My shoes might as well have been lined with thumbtacks. The pain began encroaching upward into my calves, knees, groin, then finally into my lower back. For the next eight miles, I’d average a pitiful 1.6 miles per hour—a speed that most any septuagenarian retiree with a well-oiled walker could eclipse.
When I made my way into the city of Niagara Falls, I hid behind a large tree in a park and slept for half an hour. Curled into the fetal position, shivering on a patch of city lawn, I again deliberated about how dumb this all was. This wasn’t fun. I wasn’t learning anything. Nor was I experiencing anything of any spiritual value.
I still hoped, though, that seeing the falls would make all the toil worthwhile. Perhaps it would be special this time. On all my many visits, the roiling waters and thundering cascades never evoked a sensation that I thought the natural wonder deserved. If I walked there, toiled, suffered—perhaps like the first European pioneer—I might be stunned by the sublime.
When I awoke, teeth chattering, I could see the soaring hotel windows on the Canadian side shimmering in the dawn light just behind the billowing mist of the falls.
I limped down the squalid Main and Third Streets past a stretch of abandoned buildings and boarded doorways where shoppers, decades ago, admired the window displays of hat shops and toy stores. I felt as if I was a part of my destitute surroundings. Between my straggly beard and hobbled gait, I comfortably disregarded the poor and homeless who ambled past me. Surely, no one would mug, let alone beg for change from one of their own.
I moaned and groaned all the way to the falls. When I reached them, it was 7 a.m. and I was the only person there except for a Japanese couple in the distance. I sat on a bench overlooking the water, intermittently changing my gaze from the rapids to the couple who were gleefully taking pictures of themselves.
Suddenly, a rainbow was thrown from the sky into the curve of the falls like a fallen Hail Mary pass. It was a beautiful sight. But I hardly felt a thing; perhaps because the pains in my feet screamed so loud that they drowned out all other sentiments. I wanted nothing more than to be home in my warm bed. Where’s the nearest McDonald’s, I wondered.
I walked to Pine Avenue—Niagara Falls’s “Little Italy”—where I hoped to buy a McCafé and find a bus that would take me ten miles back to my home. My legs were like two heaving tree trunks that I had little control over. I simply flung one in front of the other, hoping that my movements would resemble something close to walking. My feet felt pulpy. I flinched before each step, awaiting the inevitable sting.
Yet, I had reached my apex of pain hours ago. Things weren’t getting better, but they weren’t getting worse.
As I drank my coffee and stuffed the last piece of an Egg McMuffin into my mouth I decided that however foolish my little adventure was, I was going to see it through to the end. No bus for me. It was 8 a.m. and I still had five more hours until I hit the 24-hour mark.
As I walked down the Niagara Falls Boulevard, my tempo increased to a slow, but steady 1.94 miles per hour. I had driven up and down the Boulevard hundreds of times before on my way to part-time jobs at The Home Depot and Tops Supermarket. The memories of my old jobs swirled in a nostalgic haze. While I thought of pushing carts in these parking lots lovingly, I remembered that, at the time, I hated my jobs there more than anything.
I passed the ubiquitous medley of cheap, sleazy motels: the Bit ‘O Paris, the Caravan Inn, and Sands Motel among others, before crossing onto the sleepy side streets of Wheatfield where I took a shortcut through a fallow corn field that led to my parents’ backyard.
At 11:45 am, after twenty-two hours and forty-five minutes of almost non-stop walking, I reached home, climbed the stairs, stripped to the nude, and slept for seven straight hours.
That night—barely able to move—I was tickled at the thought of what I just did. As the pain subsided over subsequent days, I began to look back on my hike with the faintest glimmer of fondness. My desires to walk the world were renewed; my dreams resuscitated. How deceptive are our memories! The pains in my feet were just as ephemeral as my memories of them. Who to trust: the eye of hindsight or the pains of the present?
Our memories seem to be artistic renditions of our experiences; never like photographs filed away for safe-keeping, they are colored, hued, and sometimes abstracted versions of the original. They come to life during this process. Rewritten and revised, they become lines in the story of our lives. And in making sense of the senseless, sometimes our most mundane or miserable experiences can be distorted into something meaningful.
In just under 24-hours, I walked 51.7 miles. I accepted each step as punishment for my inflated hubris and idealistic naiveté. And with each step, I regretted embarking on this “romantic adventure.”
Looking back, though, do I regret my journey? Strangely, not a bit. In fact, I can’t wait for my next one.