Picture Perfect: Niagara Dry

Niagara Falls, New York
June 1969

The walk is called the Cave of the Winds, but there is no cave anymore, and on this day no winds. No water either. Had my sisters and I been here a few weeks ago, the spray from the falls would have lashed our yellow rain slickers with gale force. Today, we face dry cliffs and tumbled rock. Niagara’s American Falls have been turned off.

The much larger Canadian Falls that have carved a horseshoe-shaped curve across the Niagara River between the Canadian shore and New York’s Goat Island still plunge into a curtain of mist, as grand as always. But on the U.S. side, massive rockfalls over the past few decades have reduced the vertical drop of the American Falls.

To determine if the rockfalls could be cleared out and perhaps the relentless erosion of the falls forestalled, a plan was created to dewater the American Falls for five months. The Army Corps of Engineers built a 600-foot-long cofferdam across the branch of the Niagara River that flows along the New York shore. On June 12, 1969, the final boulders were dumped into place, and the American Falls diminished to a trickle. We are among the throngs of visitors who have come to see Niagara stilled and silenced.

Earlier today, we walked out onto the dry rocks of the river above the falls, where raging rapids would have swept us downriver and over the brink, like the two people whose bodies were discovered among the rocks. In the final analysis, engineering and public opinion will hold that nature should be left to carve its own course. The rockfalls will remain in place and the dam dismantled. But for now, we can experience Niagara Falls as never before.

Picture Perfect is a series of occasional short posts, each focused on a single image that captures a memory from travels past.

David Romanowski, 2021

Picture Perfect: Grace

East Lansing, Michigan
December 31, 1979

I bike down to the campus early this morning in thick fog. It is New Year’s Eve. No one else is around. I walk along the Red Cedar River and into the woods. I have never seen anything like this, or anything like this since.

It is called hoarfrost, what happens when water vapor in relatively warm air contacts a frozen surface. Everything around me is furred with ice. Delicate crystals a half-inch long spike from branches and twigs. The fog lingers; the crystals grow longer. “A softness floats above the river,” I write later that day, “a fine mist, like the breath of God, lingering in the trees.”

To recount the 18 months I lived in Michigan, I risk sounding melodramatic. How I moved here to further my career, and left having lost it. How I arrived engaged and left estranged, never to see her again. How I made some of the best friends here I ever had, and then lost them too after I left. How I spiraled down into a maelstrom of depression, and spent years struggling out.

I shot only one role of film during those 18 months. Not of the cross-country trips I would take by train and car. Nor of the canoe camping trips in Michigan and Ontario I would take with those friends. Only of that morning, that astonishing sight, that moment of grace, before it melted away.

Picture Perfect is a series of occasional short posts, each focused on a single image (or in this case, three) that captures a memory from travels past.

David Romanowski, 2021

Traveling Lightly

Back in the late 1970s when I lived in Boston, I took a continuing education course on backpacking. It culminated with a two-day, two-night camping trip and hike up Mount Chocorua in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. It was my first experience with backcountry camping and my first hike to the top of a mountain. I was hooked.

Based on what I learned in that course, I bought my first backpack, tent, sleeping bag and ground pad, cooking gear, hiking boots, and more. I collected trail guides and topographical maps so I could plan my own adventures. I embarked upon several short backpacking trips, either alone or with a friend.

I returned to Chocorua and backpacked up other peaks. Along the way I discovered that the sections of trail I enjoyed most ran alongside or near rushing waters. So I began searching for trails that followed rivers and streams. I backpacked into the White Mountains’ Pemigewasset Wilderness, on a trail that paralleled the river of the same name, and camped there alone in probably the most remote place I’d ever been.

After I moved to the Midatlantic, I hiked to a primitive campsite on Assateague Island, where I camped on the beach with wild horses grazing nearby. On a driving trip through Shenandoah National Park, I backpacked down a trail at nightfall to a backwoods campsite, amid the deafening screech of multitudes of bats. I backpacked with a friend up Ramsey’s Draft in George Washington National Forest, where a destructive flash flood overwhelmed our trail during the night, forcing us to find another way out. (Meanwhile, the Forest Service was considering sending in search parties; another story.)

Shenandoah was only an hour’s drive or so from where I lived, so I mostly went on day hikes there and in nearby West Virginia. But I never grew to love the Blue Ridge and the central Appalachians as I did the mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont. The terrain and trails here seemed monotonous, with none of the lakes and ponds and few of the rushing streams that made hiking in New England so beautiful. Even the mountain vistas seemed less grand.

*   *   *

I recently digitized some of my old photographic slides, including those few I took on that first backpacking trip. Looking at them again got me wondering what it was about backpacking that so appealed to me—and still does.

Aside from the joys of being in the woods and scaling summits, I think much of why I liked backpacking had to do the satisfaction I derived from traveling self-contained, living simply, and carrying only what I really needed.

But the “simplicity” of self-contained travel requires careful planning and preparation, and no small amount of cash to acquire the clothing and gear you need. Weight is paramount. You think twice about every item you choose to bring. Each must address some basic need, serve to fix a potential problem, or make life on the trail or in camp a little more bearable. You may allow yourself some luxuries—a book or a journal, say, or a plastic flask of Grand Marnier—unless you’re like the fanatic our backpacking instructor told us about, who cut his toothbrush handle short to save a fraction of an ounce.

Hiking up a mountain while carrying a tent, sleeping bag, cooking gear, food, water, and clothing to keep you comfortable in all foreseeable conditions isn’t most people’s idea of fun. You can’t be fastidious about cleanliness and comfort. You have to be willing to get dirty, sweaty, wet, hot, and cold. It’s physically demanding and involves some amount of risk. But the rewards are great: a stronger and healthier body, a powerful sense of achievement, and getting to go places and experience things most other people never do.

All of this applies to bikepacking as well, which I began doing about two decades after my backpacking days. Things I learned from backpacking directly carried over to traveling self-contained on a bike. I think my bicycle travels were a natural outgrowth of my backpacking experience.

Whether traveling with a pack strapped to my back, panniers clipped to my bicycle, or even luggage packed in the back of my car, I have strived to travel lightly, with only what I need. It’s not the easiest way to go. It complicates packing, and sometimes it just isn’t worth the effort. But it’s how I learned to travel a long time ago, when I first strapped on a backpack and headed up a trail.

I haven’t gone backpacking in over 30 years, but I still have that blue Lowe Alpine Systems backpack I bought in Boston in the late 1970s. Its bendable internal frame still conforms to the curve of my back. Its scent takes me back to the woods. Despite my compulsion to lighten my load of possessions from time to time, I can’t quite bring myself to give it away.

David Romanowski, 2021

More Postcards from the Road

Last February, I posted Postcards from the Road, which featured a selection of postcards I’d collected on my travels around the country. I recently discovered a couple more batches, bringing my collection of postcards to nearly 300. And that’s not counting the dozens of vintage World War II era postcards in my mother’s photo and memorabilia albums.

While scanning those newly discovered postcards, I decided to revisit my collection and create another blog post on them, this one organized a little differently. So here are a few more postcards from the road.

On the Road

Sightseeing

Unique Lodgings

The Northwest

The Southwest

Other Scenic Views

That’s all folks!

David Romanowski, 2021

Picture Perfect: Traveler

Somewhere in the Midwest
November 1980

Tom took this picture of me and my car at a rest stop while driving from Michigan State to Pasadena. We were traveling to an educators conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where we would witness Voyager I’s historic encounter with Saturn. We could have flown to California, but I talked Tom into taking annual leave and driving.

I bought the car—my first—only two months before, a 1980 Toyota Corolla Sport Coupe Deluxe, the least expensive trim. To economize further, I opted for no air conditioning or even a radio. I was still learning to work the manual shift when I drove off the lot.

As I headed home to Buffalo that Christmas in a snowstorm, a speeding semi blew past me on the slippery Thruway, sending the Corolla into a snow-blinded spin. It slid to a stop in the median after threading the needle between a drop-off and a mile post—backwards. It would not be the last time the car would get me through a treacherous drive safely and unscathed.

I moved back to Boston from Michigan two months later, the recession having cost me my job. In the difficult years that followed, the car became my lifeline, my haven, my means of escape. It took me to the mountains and shore, and back and forth to Buffalo, my plastic, dash-mounted “I ❤ NY” coffee mug steaming the windshield, sunrise illuminating the rearview mirror.

In 1983 I drove it one way to Virginia, where I would reboot my life and career. By the time the car turned 14, we had traveled together 131,000 miles. In 1994 I took it, rusting and ailing, on one last drive to Shenandoah before signing it over to the American Cancer Society. I snapped some final photos just before the tow truck arrived. After it disappeared from view down the street, I opened the Pentax to extract the film and discovered the camera was empty. Tom’s picture of me and Traveler remains the best I have.

Picture Perfect is a series of occasional short posts, each focused on a single image that captures a memory from travels past.

David Romanowski, 2020