There’s nothing worse than a night in a bad motel. A creaky bed, the stale scent of cigarettes and scratchy sheets will make anyone cringe. The only thing worse? Being stuck in a motel room in a plastic storage container, like the 40 pythons that were found by Canadian authorities last week in a motel in Brantford, a city about 60 miles outsides of Toronto.
The snakes, ranging from 1 foot to 4 1/2 feet in length, after having been improperly stored in plastic bins were in distress when found. Who wouldn’t be?
Of course it’s not the first time that animals and travel have intersected in weird ways. Customs agents are known for coming across situations like snakes and geckos strapped to a passenger, and it’s not unheard of that people smuggle animals on planes, sometimes even odd animal combinations like parrots and squirrels.
According to the motel, the snakes belonged to a couple that had checked into a room for the night but had left when the police arrived. You aren’t allowed to own pythons in the city of Brantford, much less take them to a motel for the evening. They probably would have preferred five stars.
Click here to read part one of this story. In recent weeks, U.S. and Canadian officials have been fighting over a development issue at the Peace Bridge, but when I drove over the bridge, built to commemorate 100 years of peaceful relations between U.S. and Canada, one warm day late last summer, I had much older hostilities in mind. Two months before, I had taken a bike ride from Niagara Falls to Niagara-on-the-Lake. This time, I returned to cycle the Fort Erie to Niagara Falls section of the trail, with the goal of learning a bit more about the War of 1812, and to approach Niagara Falls from a direction I’d never seen before.
I ditched my car in Fort Erie, a town on the Canadian side of the border where the U.S. army withstood a six month long siege during that forgotten war. On the New York side of the border, Fort Erie is known more for its proliferation of gentleman’s clubs, know as the “Canadian ballet” in these parts. Ontario’s drinking age is 19 and Americans have long flocked to Fort Erie’s strip joints, which offer full bars and nude women, a combination that isn’t legal in New York.
I followed the road that paralleled the river until the dedicated bike path started just outside of town, next to a seedy looking campground across from the Frenchman’s Creek War of 1812 Memorial.
Right beside the trail there’s a plaque describing the Battle of Frenchman’s Creek, which was a failed American invasion described as a “fiasco” that took place on November 28, 1812, and some “War of 1812” wreaths adorned with British and American flags. I rode on for miles with modest homes on my left and Buffalo’s oddly beautiful tableau of disused industrial plants and oil refineries just across the river on my right, until pulling over to check out the Willoughby Historical Museum, about 12 miles north of Fort Erie.
The one-room museum (see below) features displays and artifacts from the War of 1812, and since I was their only visitor, Jonathan Milner, a young man who serves as one of the museum’s historians, was thrilled to stop for a chat. I asked him if Canadians were as ignorant about the War of 1812 as Americans and he toed the line between honesty and diplomacy.
“For us, the War of 1812 is prominent in the school curriculum, and because it’s the bicentennial, the Canadian government has put out advertisements touting four Canadian heroes- General Isaac Brock, Laura Secord, Tecumseh, and Charles de Salaberry,” he said.
Given the fact that the war ended in an effective stalemate, I found it a bit surprising that Canadians are expending much effort to remember this conflict. But many consider the war to be a key moment in forging their national identity. Milner asserted that recollections of the conflict, whose conclusion marked the beginning of peaceful relations between the neighbors, are selective in Canada.
“People here often refer to it as a war of American aggression,” he said. “We talk about the American invasion of York but we don’t talk about the British invasion into Baltimore, the attack on the White House, things like that.”
The Canadian government has committed at least $28 million towards celebrating the bicentennial with more than 100 events, including several later this year, but there hasn’t been as much interest in marking the anniversary on this side of the border despite the fact that historians believe that the war helped consolidate the freedom we won in the revolution and helped unify the country.
I had a feeling that Milner would have been content to talk history all day but I had a mission to complete, so I continued north up to the site of the Battle of Chippawa, where on July 5, 1814, American forces routed an equal number of British troops for the first time.
The victory proved that American troops could hold their own against British and Canadian units, and just five months later, a peace treaty was signed in modern day Belgium. Word traveled slowly in those days, however, and the war’s most famous battle, a victory for the U.S. at the Battle of New Orleans, actually occurred two weeks after the treaty was signed. A fittingly bizarre conclusion to a war that is still difficult to understand.
Just minutes after leaving the battle site, I got my first glimpse of the mist rising from Niagara Falls off in the distance. Right after you catch a glimpse of the Skylon Tower in the distance, the path splits from the Niagara Parkway, and you begin to traverse a series of rickety wooden bridges. At this point, the roar of the Cascade rapids, where the water rushes through at up to 25 MPH, is louder than the nearby traffic and you get that giddy sense of excitement that comes from knowing that you’re approaching mighty Niagara, where some 6 million cubic feet of water go over the Falls every minute.
After crossing over a series of bridges and re-emerging on the path, protective fencing gives way to a lovely untrammeled view of the rapids and the midst rising above the Horseshoe Falls. The path is so close to the rapids that a suicidal or highly inexperienced rider could easily veer into the river, never to be heard from again.
Only four people have gone over Niagara Falls without any protective equipment and survived: the first was a 7 year old boy who fell in the river in 1960; the other incidents were apparent suicide attempts, most recently in May 2012 when an unidentified man suffered a collapsed lung and broken legs but survived. Numerous others have fallen into the river and died, including a 19-year-old Japanese student who was posing for a photo while straddling a railing with an umbrella in her hand in August 2011. She apparently lost her balance, fell into the river and went over the Horseshoe Falls. And just a few days ago, a 17-year-old boy died after saving his little sister, who fell into the Niagara River.
The trail runs right into the best view of the Horseshoe Falls and, though I’d seen them dozens of times before, approaching on a bike, riding along the rapids made the experience seem somehow novel. The beauty of the trail is that just an 1/8th of a mile away from the spot where a mass of humanity gathers right next to the Horseshoe Falls, there is complete tranquility and almost no tourists in sight. On the Niagara River Recreation Trail, you can almost have Niagara Falls all to yourself.
I must have been absent from school the day we learned about the War of 1812. Growing up, history was my favorite subject, but as I sat in an office interviewing Paul Dyster, the mayor of Niagara Falls, New York, who mentioned upcoming events to commemorate the bicentennial of the conflict, I couldn’t for the life of me recall who won the war (it was a stalemate) or even why it was fought. (Unresolved trade issues, the impressment of U.S. sailors into the British Navy and British efforts to halt America’s westward expansion.)
I grew up about 20 minutes away from Niagara Falls, and my father and grandfather lived and worked in the city for many years. Growing up, we visited the Falls often, usually when friends or relatives from out of town came to visit, but occasionally just to get out of the house.
But despite the fact that I’ve been to the Falls probably more than 100 times, I’ve never thought to ride a bike near this iconic natural wonder until I saw some cyclists on an organized bike tour in Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) Ontario, a distinctive, historic town 18 miles north of the Falls, last summer.They were on a wine tasting tour that brought them to several area vineyards mostly via the Niagara River Recreation Trail (NRRT) a 35-mile trail that hugs the river, starting in Fort Erie, just across the border from Buffalo, to Fort George, a key battleground in the War of 1812 located on the edge of NOTL’s historic district. I read up on the NRRT and decided that I could learn a thing or two about the war, have a bit of wine and get some exercise, all on one bike ride.
My wife and I set out from the Canadian side of Niagara Falls on our ad-hoc NRRT tour on a warm, almost perfect Tuesday morning in July. We ditched our car at the parking lot in front of the visitor’s information office, where you can leave your car all day for just $5, and went inside to ask for a NRRT trail map.
A young man manning the information desk had no map and was surprisingly unfamiliar with the trail.
“Where does it start?” he asked, handing us a free map of Niagara Falls.
“We were hoping you would know,” I said.
He conferred with some similarly uninformed colleagues and they concluded that we should probably just ride down to the Falls and turn left to head towards NOTL. But as we flew down Clifton Hill, the Canadian side’s tacky street of video game parlors, tourist traps and motels, and saw the mist rising from the Falls, we decided to head right towards the Horseshoe Falls.
It was about 10.30 a.m. and there were plenty of tourists ambling about, snapping photos and queuing up for the Maid of the Mist boat trip, but it wasn’t crowded yet, so we were able to ride right past the tourists gaping at the American and Bridal Veil Falls, all the way down the Horseshoe Falls, where we got a delightful little cool down from the mist.
I’ve always loved Niagara Falls, but being able to glide by all the tourists and see the Falls at about 10 mph was a new thrill. Why had I never done this before?
As we headed north, away from the Falls, we passed the impressive seven-story Cham Sam Buddhist Temple, which sits incongruously amidst a string of cheap motels and shops catering to tourists, before the trail became a distinct bike path just beyond a Super 8 motel. On a gradual uphill section of the trail just outside the Falls, my wife tried to shift gears too abruptly and jolted her chain right off the bike.
I feared that our outing would be a bust, but she had it back on in ten minutes. With a lane of our own to work with, we picked up speed, cruising by the Whirlpool Aero cable cars, a pretty golf course, and the strangely appealing Sir Adam Beck II Hydroelectric Generating Station, which offers 40-minute tours for $9.95.
The U.S. and Canada share the longest peaceful border in the world, but two hundred years ago, many of the major battles of the War of 1812 played out in the Niagara Region. Shortly after cruising by the generating station, we stopped for a climb up Brock’s Monument, in lovely Queenston Heights Park, which offers a terrific view of the surrounding region, including the Falls.
Sir Isaac Brock was a British army officer who became a Canadian hero after being shot in the chest while leading British and Canadian forces into battle at the Battle of Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812. Only three decades removed from the Revolutionary War, Ontario had a large population of Loyalists who left the U.S. after siding with the British during the war, and Brock came to symbolize Canadian independence.
The first monument was bombed by an anti-British activist in 1840 but was quickly rebuilt. On October 12, last year, hundreds of reenactors marched on Fort George and recreated the momentous battle where Brock was killed.
Rejoining the trail, we hit its most exhilarating downhill slide right after the Brock Monument, and as I went flying down the shady path, I had a strange sense of déjà vu. I realized I’d cycled down this section of the path before, as a child, but I couldn’t conjure the exact circumstance.
After leaving the park area, the trail jogs past the Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum in Queenston, a well-preserved village that was founded in the 1780s and retains the loyalist leanings of its early inhabitants. Queenston Street is filled with historic homes, and many were flying flags to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Pretentious to be sure, but perhaps not surprising since the town was badly damaged by American troops in the War of 1812.
We made a brief stop to check out the home of Laura Secord, who is Canada’s Paul Revere. In June 1813, Secord became aware of American plans to stage a sneak attack on British/Canadian forces, and walked 20 miles to inform the British, leading to their victory in the Battle of Beaver Dams.
Just outside Queenston, we started to pass enticing fruit stands, selling fresh cherries, peaches, apricots, blueberries and plums. And further up the path, a string of wineries dotted the Niagara Parkway – we passed Ice House, Riverview, and Inniskillin before stopping at the Reif Estate Winery, one of my favorite family owned wineries in NOTL.
When I was growing up on the other side of the border in the ’70s and ’80s, there were just a smattering of wineries on the Niagara Frontier but our regular visits to the Canadian side of the border always felt like excursions to another world. The wineries, the tidy, green parks, the Victorian mansions along the Niagara Parkway and the cutesy town of NOTL presented a classy juxtaposition from the dull suburb of Buffalo I grew up in.
Today, there are more than 70 wineries in the region, many of them specializing in decadently sweet ice wine, and NOTL is a major tourist attraction. Major corporations, like Vincor International, own some of the most popular wineries but I’ve always preferred the family run places like Reif, Pillitteri Estates and Konzelmann.
We tried three ice wines at Reif for $5, one more sinfully sugary than the next. Our bartender told me that my favorite – the Vidal ice wine was a 22 on the sugar scale.
“It’s got hints of pineapple, honey, pear and apricot,” he said.
My palate is never sophisticated enough to catch all the flavors it’s supposed to and I half think the barkeep was just making things up as he went along, but I had to admit – it was damn good.
Our appetites whetted, we made a detour from the trail, heading west on a road lined with vineyards simply called Line 1 to have lunch at the Pie Plate, a bakery and restaurant on Niagara Stone Road. Downtown NOTL is filled with cute little restaurants, but many of them are tourist traps. The Pie Plate is where the locals go for good local beer, wine, baked goods, pizza and sandwiches.
On this afternoon, two cute blondes, Josceyln and Alicia, were waiting tables and my wife got them confused.
“Everyone gets us confused,” Alicia said. “We used to live together and we even dated the same guy.”
I wondered who the lucky guy was but contented myself with a Steam Whistle Pale Ale and a wood fire pizza that I made short work of before heading east on Niagara Stone Road towards NOTL with a stop at Pillitteri Estates for more ice wine.
I’ve never been a fan of Queen Street, NOTL’s main drag. It’s filled with overpriced shops and restaurants hawking useless trinkets and mediocre food, and there are usually way too many tourists clogging the sidewalks, especially on weekends. But riding up and down NOTL’s quiet side streets is a joy.
We parked our bikes at Queens Royal Park, a beautiful little green space with views of Toronto in the distance, located where the Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario, and spent a few minutes digesting a plaque that lists all the people who have swum across the lake.
Sixteen-year-old Marilyn Bell became a Canadian national hero in 1954 when she became the first person to make the crossing, completing the 51-kilometer swim in just under 21 hours. Two years later, a 36 year-old-man accomplished the feat but took 18 minutes longer than Bell. Over the years, strong swimmers from all over the world have shaved time off of Bell’s mark and the plaque still has space for those who are fit and crazy enough to attempt the crossing.
The trail ends at Fort George, a key fort controlled by the British during the War of 1812, and rather than retrace our route back to Niagara Falls, we paid $10 to take a shuttle back to our car. In taking a cab back to Niagara Falls, I felt like we cheated a bit and resolved to return to the area to cycle the first half of the trail, from Fort Erie to Niagara Falls.
Nick, our driver, had no interest in ice wines or the War of 1812 but was plenty annoyed that our bikes were taking up space in his minivan.
“You really should pay double price,” he said, as we pretended not to hear him.
I’m way too old to be a Belieber but there I was on a snowy Saturday afternoon driving slowly up towards Justin Bieber’s boyhood home in Stratford, Ontario. I’ve never bothered to investigate the legacy of musicians that I actually like, so why was I paying homage to a kid whose fan base wasn’t even born when I graduated from college? Call me crazy, or worse, but how can you not be curious about an 18-year-old who has earned well over $50 million and has 7 million more Twitter followers than the President of the United States?
%Gallery-171875% Stratford is a prim, artsy town in Western Ontario that, until Bieber burst into the popular culture, was known as the home of the Stratford Festival, one of North America’s premier venues to see live Shakespeare productions at five area theaters. But these days, legions of tween and teen girls from all over the world descend on the place to walk in the footsteps of their hero. Two years ago, tourism officials in the town teamed up with Bieber’s grandparents to create a “Bieber-iffic” map with 24 of the lad’s local haunts.
But the home that Bieber grew up in with his mom, who became pregnant with him at 17, and his grandparents, wasn’t on the map, so I Googled it and made plans to hit the Bieber Trail on the way home from a Thanksgiving visit to Buffalo. Stratford is a lovely town with an impeccably preserved historic core, full of appealing shops and restaurants and nice old Victorian homes.
But the Bieber home people flock to is a couple miles outside the tourist friendly zone on a nondescript, working class street behind a strip with chain restaurants and some big box stores. As soon as I stepped out of the car and snapped a photo of the home, I felt like a stalker and furtively ducked back into the car.
If I was a 12-year-old girl, my mission would have been perfectly understandable, but as a middle-aged guy, I felt ridiculous. Still, as we drove away, I wanted to know if Bieber’s family still lived in the house, so I pulled over and asked a pair of teens who were walking on the slushy street.
“Oh no, they moved,” said the girl, who was probably about 14.
“Well are they still in Stratford or did they leave town?” I asked, as my wife swatted me in the stomach.
The girl had no idea and as we drove off, my wife, who was blissfully unaware of what a large detour I had taken us on to follow in Bieber’s footsteps, lost what little interest she had in the crusade.
“This is so embarrassing,” she complained. “You’re a grown man asking teenagers on the street about where Justin Bieber’s grandparents live? People are going to wonder what’s wrong with you. “
If only my sons, who are 3 and 5, were a bit older we could have plausibly claimed we were visiting the Bieber Trail on their behalf, but alas they were too young to serve the purpose. Around the corner from the Bieber house on a typically suburban stretch of strip malls and fast foot outlets, we pulled into the parking lot of King’s Buffet, a “Chinese & Canadian” buffet, where young Justin apparently spilled spaghetti and meatballs all over himself on his first ever date.
My wife refused to come in with me and as I approached the maître d’s podium, I couldn’t decide if I should simply ask about Bieber’s first date or explain that I was writing a story about the Bieber Trail.
“I read that Justin Bieber had his first date here,” I blurted out, sheepishly, thankful that the place was almost completely empty. “Do you know anything about that?”
“Sure, we get groups of young girls coming in here all the time for that,” said a young man with spiky hair who was dressed in black.
“Really? What do they say?” I asked.
“They just come in and start giggling and squealing,” he said. “Most of them want to know where he sat, who was the girl, what did they order. But unfortunately we don’t know any of the details.”
Hoping to find someone with a bit more information on Bieber’s connection to the town, I went to Stratford’s Visitor’s Information office and struck up a conversation with Aaron Wybrow. He told me that the two most popular stops on the trail were City Hall, where Justin performed his first ever recorded song and the Avon Theatre, where Justin supposedly used to make upwards of $200 per night as a busker. (A bronze star honoring Him is now emblazoned on the sidewalk in honor of this legacy.)
Wybrow is often the first person that Beliebers meet in Stratford, so I was curious to know what it was like to encounter these ferociously loyal, some would say psychotic, young women.
“They’re hard to control and hard to talk to,” he said, standing next to a display case with an autographed Justin Bieber guitar. “They want to see everything about Justin so they’re asking every question under the sun and before you can answer, it’s another question.”
As we were talking one of his colleagues, who was manning a visitor’s information desk the city had set up at a regional girls pee-wee hockey tournament, stopped in to restock his supply of Justin Bieber maps. The demand was so great that it was his third reload of the day. (The visitor’s center has distributed more than 20,000 Justin maps since they were produced in 2010.)
Wybrow explained that the Beiber Trail had been created in consultation with Justin’s grandparents, who had just one condition for their cooperation: that their home address wouldn’t be listed as one of the stops. They have since moved to a neighboring town, but the visitor’s information office still won’t tell people where Justin lived because they don’t want stalkers, like me, to trample the place.
Wybrow mentioned that when Beiber returned to Stratford last summer with girlfriend Selena Gomez there was a media feeding frenzy.
“And there’s a rumor going around now that Justin’s in town right now,” he said. “But I don’t know if it’s true.”
That nugget added another delicious little element to my quest. Perhaps we’d meet Justin. Who knows, maybe we’d run into Him at one of His old haunts or perhaps He’d play an impromptu gig somewhere in town or busk at the Avon Theatre for old time’s sake?
“Tell me, am I the only guy who has ever come in to ask about Justin Bieber sites?” I asked.
“We have had guys come in,” Wybow said. “But they always say they’re just asking for their girlfriends. I’d say that about 98 or 99% of the people who came in to ask about Justin are girls.”
Feeling very much like a member of the 1%, we repaired to the Café 10, where Ana Staffen, a 16-year-old girl, waitress and cashier served us some great food and even better Bieber gossip. The restaurant isn’t listed on that Bieber Trail but she still fields plenty of inquiries from Beliebers.
“When I tell them that I live right near Ryan, who’s like Justin’s best friend, they just start screaming and freaking out,” she said. “One time, I was telling one of them that I had once been to a party that Justin was at and she just started shaking and, like convulsing like she was going to collapse. Then she wanted to take my picture.”
Ana was keen to tell us everything she knew or had heard about Bieber. She claimed that he’d transferred schools after just one semester in high school because he was being bullied. A few of his best friends still live in the town and some of them thought that being a member of the Bieber entourage made them like royalty.
During Bieber’s visit to Stratford last summer, Ana and a group of about 30 other teens gathered in front of his grandparent’s residence and sang and chanted for hours, hoping to coax Bieber out of the house.
“He came to the window and looked at us, but he never came outside,” said Ana, who said she saw Bieber’s movie three times even though she doesn’t really care for his music. “But eventually Kenny Hamilton, his bodyguard, who is also pretty famous, just because he’s Justin’s bodyguard, came out and everyone wanted his autograph and their photo with him.”
After a few hours, the vigil was broken up when a neighbor called the police, who came and dispersed the crowd.
One of Ana’s male colleagues said that “not many” people in Stratford were fond of Bieber, though few could deny that his popularity was a boon to the city’s tourism industry.
“He went to meet the Prime Minister and he wore overalls,” he said, explaining his disdain for Bieber. “Who does that?”
Over at Long & McQuade, the music shop where Bieber used to rent guitars, Aimee Jesso didn’t seem surprised when I asked her about the store’s Bieber connection.
“We’re stop number six on the map,” she said. “We get all kinds of Beliebers in here.”
“Tell me about them,” I asked.
“They scream,” she said. “They scream. They cry. They ask questions.”
“They cry?” I asked.
“They cry!” she insisted. “I mean full out tears.”
Jesso said that the Beliebers want to know if HE touched anything in the store, if she had ever met Him, when was the last time He came to the store, and just about anything else you could imagine. The store has an autographed guitar that Justin once rented but it’s kept on a ledge about 15 feet off the ground for very good reason.
I asked Jesso if the rumors that Bieber was in town were true and she had no idea but gave us a clue of what to look for.
“You’ll definitely know his car when it’s parked out along the street,” she said. “It’s like a Batmobile.”
We spent a few hours wandering around Stratford’s atmospheric streets, taking in some of Justin’s old haunts, but saw no sign of Him or his Batmobile. But His smiling visage was in all the shops. A bookstore had an entire shelf full of books about him. A gift shop had a whole corner of the store devoted to Bieber-related products, and even the town hardware store had a whole section of Bieber items, including cups, plates, bags and pillows bearing His likeness.
We left town without ever having seen Him, but walking in His footsteps somehow didn’t seem that creepy or shameful by the time we reached the border crossing just outside Sarnia, Ontario.
“Where are you going?” asked the U.S. border patrol agent, who barely looked away from his computer screen to see who we were despite the fact that it was late in the evening and no one else was in line to cross into the U.S.
“We’re heading back home to Chicago after a visit to my parents in Buffalo,” I said.
“So you just transited through Canada then, you didn’t stop?” he asked.
“Well, we went to Stratford just to see Justin Bieber’s hometown,” I said, betraying no shame whatsoever.
“No you didn’t,” he countered, jerking his head away from his computer screen to get a better look at me.
“We were passing through anyways,” my wife interjected defensively, perhaps fearful that we were about to be denied entry back into the U.S. “We didn’t go to Canada just to see Justin Bieber’s hometown.”
I didn’t mention that the Bieber trail had actually been a major detour. No one in their right mind drives from Buffalo to Chicago via Stratford, Ontario.
“Are you sure you’re Americans?” the agent asked shaking his head, half kidding and half serious, before waving us back in.
Back home in Chicago, it occurred to me that I’d never actually heard a Justin Bieber song, or if I had, I didn’t know it was Him. I felt about 99.9% certain that I wouldn’t like the young man’s music, but I hadn’t even given Him a chance. After traveling in His footsteps, I owed him that.
And so, on Sunday afternoon as we put up our Christmas tree, I dialed up his latest album and some tracks from his Christmas album on Spotify, which spares one the indignity of having to actually pay to hear the kind of music you’d be ashamed to be caught with in a shop.
The verdict? Spending time in Bieber’s hometown hadn’t turned me into a Belieber despite my wife’s claims to the contrary. Listening to his work confirmed that it wasn’t my cup of tea. But when I listened to his rendition of “Silent Night,” I had to admit it was good. Not good enough that I’d be sent into a convulsive fit if in the presence of someone who once stood near Him, but pretty, pretty good.
“The streaks in the water are the fall leaves and bubbles quickly rushing by in this fast moving creek. There was no shortage of leaves falling in the creek as you can see with the piles on the shore top left.”