Editor’s note: I wrote this a few years ago, possibly for the 2000 or 2001 New Year’s show, and never posted it until 2005 because other thoughts came forward. But in re-reading this one, I decided it was too good to simply toss away. I’m glad now I did post it because it’s gotten really good feedback. I’ll repost it now, in the hope you enjoy it.

Goat Island, Niagara Falls, NY—New Year’s Eve 1999

Goat Island, as seen from a chopper on the Canadian side of the falls.  CAnada is under you and to the right hand shore... and the US juts out into the bend on the river.  THere's a lot of new development on the Canadian side since this picture was taken... high rise hotels, mostly Goat Island proper is the larger body of land in the middle of the river.Click on the pic for full size. The Skylon Tower is to the extreme right lower in this shot.

For this New Year’s Eve, I’m sitting, as in years past, on Goat Island… a little spit of land out in the midst of the mighty Niagara River, just above what is likely the most famous waterfall in the world… Niagara Falls. (Slowly I turn….Step by step…… Oh, never mind)

We’ve done this show for several years, now. Each year for the last few, we’ve had the rather unique situation of leaving Rochester sometime after 9pm and heading the 90 miles west to the Falls. Usually, we leave on such trips in the morning.  It’ll be 02:30 by the time we get home, tonight, I think, feeling somewhat tired, already.

As I say, we’ve been coming here for a few years, now. It was to the point where I had actually checked around on the web to see if there was anything else besides here, that was of interest for my family and myself… something else to do on this night… and frankly the pickings were slim this year, (at least what they listed online) didn’t look all that great.

Oh, look, I know.. there’s a lot of folks who have always wanted to visit here, and never get the chance on ANY day much less one like tonight. Most people would leap at the chance. Yet… well, frankly, Niagara has rather lost it’s charm as an attraction, per se’, at least for us. They say that many folks who live in Vegas never make it to the strip. Similarly, Niagara, at least, for us, has gotten to the status of an old friend… Not boring, exactly, and certainly not unwelcome… but.. we wanted something different, this year. The effort toward finding that something different ends up being harder than it sounds. For one thing, I’m limited by logistics; Given the hours involved, I need to be no more than about 2 hours away from home. The Falls suits fairly well, being only about an hour and a half from our house.

We could stay home and take part in what’s going on locally… which isn’t much. Rochester itself seldom has much for New Year’s. They usually have a fair enough fireworks display, but not much else… and you usually have to battle the drunks to see it.  Eh…. thanks… but, no, thanks.

New York City is off the list right off the bat, being it’s about an eight hour run from Rochester; a point that amazes many people not from around here.

Corning, is only about 90 miles out, and similarly, has something smallish going on in the Gaffer district out along Market Street, with the addition of local bands. No offense, Corning… the event as you listed it is doubtless big by small town standards, I suppose, but then again I’ve never been small town. Perhaps it’s why I didn’t stay for long when I was working At WCBA there some years ago.

Similar noises for Ithaca, Oswego, Jamestown, and any number of smaller bergs within shooting distance.

Syracuse, is also about 90 miles out, and likely has something going on, but I’ll be dipped if I could find it online.

Buffalo doesn’t have much as a rule, being only a few miles from the Falls; and so I didn’t even bother looking.

The only sure bet for tonight is here in the Falls.  Oh, well. Better than nothing, I suppose.  So, here we are again.

Now, most folks collect either on the Canadian side, in the immediate area of Queen Victoria Park, or on the American side in the area of the Hard Rock Café, and the park next to it. The heavier partiers are on the Canadian side, given they have hotels to crawl back to, once the show is over. They tend to pack right along the rail for the show. Too crowded for me, even without the boys in tow.  Many of the revilers tend to stay in their Hotel rooms, given their view of the falls is very good indeed, with so many very large hotels being built of late on the Canadian side all designed for good views of the gorge. Although, I must say, I think all that building has changed the landscape around there… and not for the better.

Queen Victoria park at the base of Clifton Hill, which is directly across the river from where I’m standing tonight, has the added attraction of a huge outdoor stage…  I can hear the band from across the river. They actually sound pretty good.  The locals set up this stage every year, and put some of the best acts going on it, all through the month of December. Tonight, as in years past, the site has the added bonus of being ground zero for New Year’s Eve in Canada. One of the Canadian TV networks is doing a live broadcast from there tonight, which will go out to the full Canadian network, and likely to some of the ‘states as well. I’ve seen US networks pick up feed from there at or near midnight in the past.

They’ve also got a holiday light show they set up every year for the last 20 years. It’s starting to show it’s age, frankly, but it still looks pretty good from this distance.

Thing is, the crowds of people on both sides of the border… Including the drunks always included with such celebrations, are not exactly kid friendly. So, Goat Island is the way to go, for us tonight.

Amusement Park in the Skylon's basement.

This location places us almost directly across from the Skylon Tower, to the rear of the Queen Victoria park. The Skylon plays large in the fireworks display; They actually shoot fireworks off the top of the tower, as well as up out of the river gorge, near the docks of the dormant- for- the- winter Maid of the Mist. The people in the Skylon’s revolving restaurant must get an earfull when the show starts! (I’m only assuming, of course, that they actually let people up there when the show is on; I don’t know, and can’t see anything from this angle.) To give you an idea of how big the Skylon really is, they used to have a pretty fair amusement park in the basement, complete with a roller coaster and a Ferris wheel. These days, they’ve restricted it to a fairly good sized slot amusement area.

Goat Island gives us a wonderful view of all the shows at once. It also puts us right next to the brightly lit American falls… Basically next to the Bridal Veil. The whole thing is color and light. And yes, I said ‘shows’. You see, usually, there’s a fireworks show from the American side as well, off the top floor of the Rainbow Center parking lot, which is about a quarter mile behind me. The end result is that you’re surrounded by fireworks displays.

The sound is a unique thing, too.  You get the sound of the falls themselves, of course, and all the fireworks from every angle, which also tend to echo off the gorge walls as well as the buildings. You also, however, get the music from the stage on the Canadian side… Amazingly clearly, given the distance… You also hear the crowd reaction from both sides of the border… Again, amazingly clearly… Even down to the occasional individual voices.  Usually, you can’t hear what they’re saying. The best comparison I can give you is a large office party, or a wedding, with a few hundred voices around you. With all the crowds on both sides of you, and the water all around you, you get the impression you’ve got a rather special perch to watch it all from. An altogether remarkable experience, this.  Intense.

American Falls at Night. The Horseshoe falls are in the distance. The Skylon is to your direct right and the Gorge display is somewhat behind you. The lights to your right are on the Canadian side.

Oh, not that we’re totally alone, here, on “The Goat”. There are perhaps 50 to 60 other people here with us, which actually is a bit more than we’ve seen in past years. It’s a decidedly smaller, and somewhat more sober crowd here, than on either shore… Families, mostly. One couple I spoke with came from just east of Rochester, a family from Buffalo, another family up from Erie, PA about 90 miles south and west of here.. and another couple, I’m surprised to learn, is here from Plymouth, England on their honeymoon. I’m enchanted with the accents, which are apparently made all the thicker by their excitement. Are they EVER fun to watch, and just to be around. You see, those not from around here tend to give we locals a fresh view into the excitement the place has. We’ve been here so often we forget sometimes. But, it’s all new to them, and that almost childlike excitement is a nice thing to be around. You share their excitement, in an almost vicarious relationship.

The Skylon at Midnight.

Just now, all of them… the people around me, my family, the people on Canadian side and the people behind me on the American side, all have their faces tilted upwards at the Skylon. The Show’s just starting, as the “bug” elevator runs up the eastern face of the building, a Roman candle secured under it. The trip from bottom to top of the 520 ft tall structure takes exactly 52 seconds, during which time the crowds quiet to a low murmur, barely heard over the sound of the great Falls themselves.

Once it reaches the top, the silence is dramatically broken, with the entire top of the Skylon quite literally exploding in light and sound, and the gorge and the Rainbow center answering with their own sound, light and fury, along with the cries of delight from all assembled, in both countries, on both sides of the Niagara. This pic is of the top of the Skylon, just as the elevator reaches it’s upper floor. The downward moving flame you can see along the side of the elevator shaft, is the roman candle I spoke of.

Given that when you’re in the tower, you have about 80 miles of view, I assume that the fireworks display off the top of the tower can be seen a similar distance, and I can imagine as I stand here, people from miles around watching.

Standing at the center of all of this is… well… loud. It’s akin to a stadium where AC/DC, the Who, and Deep Purple, are all set up and playing, each trying to ‘out loud’ the other… all at once… and you in the middle. The only thing in real life I’ve seen that comes close is The Blue Angels airshow taking off, while you’re directly under their flight path, as happened to us last summer, during their show in Rochester. I have a mental picture of myself standing with my family at the end of the runway… and we could see the jets coming, like cats on the hunt. It’s nearly silent, though you can see the event coming… and then suddenly, you’re standing in a full force gale, your chest vibrating, your ears complaining about the pressure, and your eyes not wanting to blink for fear of missing it. What a rush!

As I become adjusted to the aural and visual assault, I manage to look away from the show briefly… and I watch the reaction of my boys intently as they look upwards at the sky; They’re getting bombarded with input, from several different angles, and neither one quite knows which way to look, and their faces, in the light and color from all around, are a study in delighted perplexity. I look too, at the other families. I smile at the sight of the English couple, unseen by them. Their excitement and their joy in both the show, and particularly in each other, is infectious, as they snuggle together in the cold, looking up.  I silently wish them luck in their new relationship; may it always be for them, as I’m seeing them at the moment.

As I consider them, I am reminded of our own honeymoon, which was here, and not so long ago on a November night not unlike tonight..  I turn and look at the now long line of tall hotels on the Canadian side, as the booming from the show echoes off their walls, trying to find the room we stayed in, back then. As I look, I note every one of the windows has a large number of people in them… some in bedclothes, apparently planning on hitting the sack as soon as the show is over. I wish I had that option to look forward to. Maybe someday, my wife and I will have the time and the money together on the same New Years. I look at her, again, unseen, and think to myself that she deserves such a night. We haven’t stayed there again since that night.  Hmmm… perhaps not New Years….perhaps for our 20th in ’09. Oh, well, that’s a few years, yet. I file the thought away for now, and return my attention to the show.

After some time, all three stages go to ‘shock and awe’ mode for nearly three minutes, in a blaze of glory that must only be surpassed by the space shuttle lifting off…  and then, as one, everything is suddenly silenced. The show’s over.

After a few seconds, waves of cheers come up through the still rebounding echoes from both sides of the border, and mix with the car and truck horns blowing from people who have managed to find a good parking space to watch the show, and the sound of the ever present falling water. All of it adds up to a sound nearly as loud as the show itself.  They’ll be talking about this one for days… and certainly the newlywed British couple will have this night to remember, always… one to tell their kids about.

We’ve been coming here for years. This show has always been pretty much the same each year we’ve come, and it’s never failed to please totally… before now. This year, I come away from this wonderful show faintly disappointed… and questioning that emotion. The show was everything I expected. My wonderful wife, and my two boys are having a great time. I couldn’t have done better than this, so why am I complaining? I recognize I’m not going to answer that until later. I mentally shrug, and my wife and I wordlessly herd the boys toward the lot, the car, and the 70 mile road home.

We leave Goat Island, up the mainland the few city blocks to the I-190, over Grand Island, and I-290 though the now- quiet northern Buffalo suburbs, and finally on to I-90 and east. It’s a trip I’ve made perhaps a couple hundred times, over the years, so I know the road well, as do my wife and the boys. They begin to relax as the heat comes up in the car. Apparently, we lost track of how cold we were. Traffic is moderate, and the trip is a quiet one.

About half way to Rochester, we stop at the Flying J Truckstop at Corfu, NY, which is one of the few restaurants open along our path between the Falls and Rochester, and have a bite. We usually try to stop at a Flying J when we get the chance; we’ve stopped at several. There’s one just down I-81 about 3 hours, in New Milford PA, another in Austenburg Ohio, about 3 1/2 hours out, for when we’re headed west, and a few others, as well.  The food’s usually at least good, often first rate, (The smorg is a favorite) and the fuel prices are attractive.. Usually the lowest for several miles.  OK, It’s not Delmonico’s, but that’s not what we’re after. (No, I’m not getting anything in return for the mention.)

The meal is a quiet one, as quiet as the trip here was, and I realize that all our energy has been spent on the shows. The kids eat like starving Huskies at the end of a long trail… a simile made all the more potent by the snow outside, and the way they normally are yipping at each other about something or another. They’re not doing it now, though, being too busy eating and trying to stay awake. My wife nibbles at her toasted cheese. They’re all tired. My sandwich fills in the cold empty places.  I’m usually not much on comfort food, but sometimes it just hits the spot, and this is one such time. I begin to see just how cold we’d gotten standing out there watching that display. But, I recognize it was worth it, though. They had a good time.

The waitress knows her stuff; She banters with me about the snow that’s started falling outside. Wants to know if it’s snowing to the east. I tell her no, we just came back from the Falls, and no it wasn’t snowing there when we left. The cup of coffee she pours me without asking is enough to set the hair on most people straight back, like the guy in that old Memorex commercial. In my case, since I’m used to it rather strong anyway, it’s enough to merely raise a Spock- like eyebrow, but it’ll get me home. She continues to banter and handles the kids as if she has some of her own. She’s earned herself a nice tip tonight.  Or, this morning. Whatever. We eat, and head back out to where the car’s waiting, with it’s fresh coating of light fluffy snow.

I brush off the car and fuel it up, and we jump back into the rather light flow of traffic on the interstate. The car’s still pretty warm inside, and between that and the food, both my wife and kids are out like lights before I get another 10 miles up the road. Amazing; The boys never fall to sleep that fast when we’re at home. I imagine the old coffee commercial…(“Phil NEVER has a second cup at home…”) I almost wake them with the resulting chuckle.

I’m enjoying the drive. Truth be told, I usually enjoy driving anyway, and particularly so at this hour of night, when there’s few other drivers to contend with. In recent years, however, I’ve found quite a new and unexpected reason for enjoying these late night runs. I don’t quite understand it myself, so I doubt I can explain it well to you, but here it is; There’s something about having your sleeping family in the car as you scoot off to some distant place. Something that is primitively comforting… Something that touches the soul. Something…. something right about it. We’ve ended up doing this many times over the last few years and it’s always caught my breath.  As I drive east down I-90 toward Rochester, home, and a much needed bed, I glance at at my sleeping wife and dozing boys. In the dimly reflected light of the dashboard, and the headlights on passing cars, I can see rather contented looks on their faces in my rearview mirror.  The gentle snoring coming from the back seat is comforting, in it’s way. It’s mental pictures like that, that stick to a soul. You end up carrying them in your head all your life.

I am reminded of Michael Caine, who a few years ago, related a story of how he and Gregory Peck were once on the street in Los Angeles, apparently at the airport. A woman walked up to them and recognizing Caine at once, related to him how he was the only movie star she’d met in two weeks of being in LA., and today was the day she was leaving. Turning, slightly annoyed, to Peck, who apparently she didn’t know for who he was, she blurted words to the effect of “You know, you never see movie stars on the street, here.” Peck, without blowing his cover, shook his head, and said to the woman, “No, you really don’t.” The woman left LA for her flight, faintly disappointed, and never knowing who else she’d been chatting with.  (Editor’s note: Or was it Cary Grant?… shrug..)

As we drive along through the dark, I look at the decorated houses… the ones still lit, anyway… a few have gone to bed already…as well as the occasional decorated tractor-trailer rig… one just now passing us with a lighted Santa on the grille… and I wonder if that’s not the answer… if I was disappointed simply because I wasn’t able to find anything else to attend tonight… If the reason wasn’t simply that I was wrapped up in that knee-jerk reaction Paul Simon spoke of in “Train in the Distance” , “…the thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains”.

As if in answer, and in a bit of timing I can’t even guess the odds on, an eastbound freight train is just now running over the bridge east of Batavia on I-90, as I drive under it.  As many times as I’ve been over this stretch of highway, I’ve seen perhaps two or three trains on the bridge as I’ve gone under it.  The timing of the event and the image itself, combines to solidify the thought.

I wonder a bit, that in trying to make things better, in chasing the sound of that train in the distance, we tend to lose sight of the reality around us… the reality of how good we already have it.

And, I begin to understand.

Perhaps that’s why we make these kind of treks…  Not just on New Years, but to all the places we’ve gone over the years… Some of which I’ve written about in these spaces. We really do travel rather a lot.  Over 35,000 miles a year, on average…. a lot of it with the trailer in tow. It’s simply to remind ourselves of that fact, that we DO have it pretty good, and to celebrate and to touch the special times, one more time.

Today was a special day, a memory worth keeping; a reminder worth heeding. If there’s a New Year’s resolution that I’m to make, this year, it’d be to remember how good, how VERY good, things really are, after all.

And to cherish them.

It’s nearly 3am as I finish this, and I likely won’t post it until morning… I’m too tired to transfer this out of my Palm Pilot and correct the errors. But I find that I’m looking forward to the new year.

Happy New Year to all of you.
May you find those special moments, and keep them, this year, and always.