If good fences make good neighbors, these young men and women are the best neighbors in the world, because their back fence is the Niagara River and Niagara Falls. A group of young Latter-day Saints from Niagara Falls, New York, and Hamilton, Ontario, got together recently on the Canadian side of the falls to enjoy one of the most awesome borders in the world.
Their first, and most important, order of business was just looking. That may be a lazy sort of activity in some places, but here it taxes the imagination to its very limits. People often go away from the falls feeling they have not seen everything there is to see. Not, as with the circus, because there are so many different things going on, but because the one thing going on is too overwhelming for the mind to absorb it.
But what can be seen is worth seeing. The falls, rainbow-spanned, plunge into a deep stone gorge through which the river runs on between high banks, heading north toward Lake Ontario. Far below, mist-shrouded tourist boats butt against the current, and tiny people in yellow slickers walk along shimmering wet paths.
Above the falls, the river sweeps down in a broad turn of shallow rapids, forking around green islands. The Canadian falls curve away in a great turquoise and white arc, and on the other side of the river the American falls cascade down onto broken slabs of stone. The viewer feels himself drawn over the abyss with an overwhelming sense of power. The falls pull with a weight of gravity equal to the whole massive world, reeling the water and the imagination irresistibly downward. You can’t help thinking with a delicious shudder, “What if I were in a boat and …”
And yet, even as millions of gallons of water go thundering over, a strange illusion of silence and motionlessness reigns. Later, remembering, you will not recall the thunder, and the water will go over the brink in ponderous slow motion. At the lip of the falls the water is drawn so swift and shallow that you can see the bottom as if through glass, each rock distinct and unwavering, each little wave and ripple as motionless as crystal. And from the chaos below springs up a rich, thick mist, as sustaining to the heart as a feast of ambrosia.
Standing by the falls you seem lost in a wilderness, which is amazing because this is no wilderness spectacle. The river is sandwiched between two cities. Hotels, towers, curio shops, and parking lots crowd its banks. Nearby, wax museums, carnival rides, and side shows blare out to attract tourists. It is hard to imagine a more commercialized natural wonder, and yet it seems to shake all that off like an elephant dispatching a mosquito. There is a sense of delicious solitude, even though you must maneuver your way to the rail to get a viewing spot, rubbing shoulders with a sea of tourists speaking a babble of unknown tongues. You can imagine yourself an Indian standing here long ago in the young green wilderness, or a European explorer suddenly frozen in wonder as you first glimpse the thunder you have heard from far upriver.
For a long time the young men and women looked and looked and looked. All around them others from all around the world stood shoulder to shoulder with them doing the same thing. In one sense they had all seen everything there was to see at a glance, but in a truer sense they all knew that they had not even begun to see it yet, because there is a magic here that cannot be reached by seeing. It demands reverence. Even blind people have been known to stand by the railing and look and look and look.
But no one can look forever, and when the group had taken in as much of the reality as they could, they turned to other things—playing catch with a frisbee and a football, talking, relaxing on the grass, or just watching an incredible cross-section of humanity walk past—turbaned, tennis-shoed, or tuxedoed; gowned or grubby. They talked about the falls as a proud parent might speak of a bright child, feigning nonchalance, but enjoying the enthusiasm of others. They spoke reverently of the falls in winter—bearded, solemn, and venerable—as pagans might speak of some sacred object.
Leaving the falls behind after a few last looks, they crossed over to the American side en route to Fort Niagara, stopping for lunch at a drive-in. The American drive-in readily accepted Canadian money because here tourism is king, and money, after all, is money. The Canadian youth got a kick out of the “funny money” they got back as change.
Fort Niagara is built on Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Niagara River. The French established it there because from that spot they could control the water route into and out of the continent. The French flag was later replaced by the British and then the American. As the young men and women crossed the moat and walked through the heavy gates, they sensed that they were in a place where history lay as thick as incense. As they viewed the iron and stone implements of death, the hard wooden bunks, the musty stone chambers, the awareness grew in them of the hard life those early soldiers led. This had been a land abounding in beauty and solitude but very short on pity or compassion. As they went from building to building reliving the exploits of fur traders, generals, and colonists, they began to feel they knew these colorful, flint-hard men.
The fort was well designed for defense. On three sides impregnable sea walls rose from the lake or the river. The landward side was well defended by thick walls, earthworks, moats, and banks of cannons. The gates they passed through for an inexpensive ticket would have cost lives to breach in the old days.
But for all its hard past, the spot is peaceful and beautiful now, with a park outside its gates and the blue horizon of Lake Ontario behind it. The young men and women learned much about history there, and they learned about each other as well, forging bonds of friendship. The two groups, from different nations but one gospel, brothers and sisters forever, made plans for joint activities as they strolled through the fortifications. Then they parted, the Americans to return to their homes, the Canadians to theirs to put in several hours at their stake farm. As the Canadian youth passed the border stations on their way home, they knew better than ever that in the gospel there are no borders, and no passports are required except the ones we carry in our hearts.