No, your eyes aren't playing tricks on you. You read the headline at the top of this column correctly; the Small Family really DID go to Mars during our recently completed summer vacation.

Mars, Pennsylvania, that is.

It was just a brief side trip during the annual family vacation, which this year took us to Niagara Falls, Canada. It was my fourth trip to Canada but my first to the Falls; my wife Melissa had visited there once or twice with her family when she was younger, but my three previous excursions into the Land of the Maple Leaf had all taken place farther to the west.

The past few summers had seen us take what might be best described as sort of “working vacations,” planned as they were mostly around events tied to various fiction writing projects and related activities I had been involved with at the time. (The lone exception was 2009, when we planned our vacation around son William’s participation at a youth leadership forum in Washington D.C.) 

Those activities – ranging from my being a guest speaker at the 2006 San Diego Comic-Con to participating in last year’s PulpFest in Columbus, Ohio – had made for some fun and interesting experiences, but they also left me feeling that I’d to some degree cheated Melissa and the boys out of a “real” vacation during those years. (They say it isn't so, bless their hearts, but I still felt like I owed them after having planned so many recent vacations around my still-nascent sideline career as a fiction writer.) So this year, with no such “extracurricular activities” appearing on the calendar for the first time since 2006, I told Melissa she cold pick the destination for this year's expedition.

So she picked Niagara Falls, and as that was one place I'd always wanted to visit myself she didn’t have to do much arm-twisting to get me and our sons to agree. It did mean jumping through some bureaucratic and financial hoops in order to obtain the passport cards that are now required to get back and forth across the border in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks in 2001 (@#%! lousy terrorists!), but everything came together and on a sunny Friday afternoon after I got home from work we loaded up the minivan and set out for the Great White North.

With the exception of one brief moment of panic on Day Two caused by an unexpected automotive problem (which fortunately turned out to be not quite as horrible as we first feared), the first few days of the trip went fairly smooth and by Day Four we had actually managed to get a little further along than we had anticipated prior to departure. We were driving through Pennsylvania when oldest son Joshua – intrepid navigator and seeker of things weird and unexpected – noticed a town of the map named Mars.

“Oh, man, we have GOT to visit there,” he said. And so we did. 

Mars is, in fact, a quaint little community with a population roughly half of that of Tishomingo. The community wears its name proudly, as evidenced by the small flying saucer on display in the center of town and the fact that its residents (many of them, anyway) actually refer to themselves as “Martians.” You can't help loving a community willing to combine its civic pride with a sense of humor. Its Main Street looks very much like that of Mayberry, but it was kind of funny driving past a sign that read “Mars Alliance Church...”

After winding our way through more of Pennsylvania and the eastern edge of New York, we arrived at the U.S.-Canadian border later that same afternoon and settled into the Embassy Suites Niagara Falls shortly after 7 p.m. (EST). Our room was on the 36th floor – something of a shock for a bunch accustomed to rarely being much higher than the second floor of a Motel 6 – but any anxiety certain family members may have felt regarding the altitude quickly evaporated once we all got a look at the spectacular view of the Falls from our window (as shown in the photo above). Man, what a sight! 

Specific religious beliefs or denominational affiliations aside, how anybody could doubt the existence of SOME kind of a Supreme Being after getting a glimpse of this natural wonder from that vantage point is entirely beyond me...

While in Canada we not only walked along the edge of the Falls and took as many pictures as possible but also visited a nearby tourist area called Clifton Hill, which (at the risk of angering some of my fellow Oklahomans) really puts Oklahoma City's much-ballyhooed "Bricktown" region to shame. There are a lot of your typical tourist-type attractions there (a couple of different wax museums, a Dave & Buster's and a Ripley's Believe It Or Not museum among them), as well as an outdoor amusement area that includes a huge Ferris wheel and a dinosaur-themed miniature golf range - complete with a large volcano that actually shoots flames into the air at night - and Antica Pizzeria, a local eatery specializing in oven-baked pizzas like they make over in Italy. That was a good lunch!

I have to honest with you, though, my favorite sight in Clifton Hill was the huge mock-up of Frankenstein's Monster eating a Whooper that graced the roof of the local Burger King. Now THAT was cool!!!

We also visited a beach at nearby Port Delahousie, where Melissa enjoyed walking barefoot in the water on the edge of Lake Ontario. William and Melissa spent most of their time there collecting sea shells while Joshua and I took a lot of pictures of the beach, the lighthouse and the people. 

The only real stumbling block we encountered - and it was a minor one - was the fact that Melissa (the trip's accountant and financial planner) sometimes had difficulty wrapping her head around exchange rates and the like. Part of the problem was that the difference between the value of the U.S. and Canadian dollar seemed to change by the hour. The difficulty did provide some moments of humor, however. One of the first things we learned is that Canada has both a one dollar and a two dollar coin. The one dollar coins are called "loonies" - which makes perfect sense as the coin bears the image of the loon, a bird which is common in that country. But it turns out that the two dollar coins are commonly referred to as "toonies," a sort of contraction of "two loonies." And so every time one of us found ourselves using the names of the coins together in the same sentence (as in "We need to exchange these U.S. dollars for some more loonies and toonies,") Melissa would get a case of the giggles and in no time we'd be laughing along with her. I guess a shared habit of watching Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons will do that to a family...

We ultimately spent three days on the Canadian side of the Falls and one on the U.S. side in New York. The latter proved something of a disappointment by comparison, really; the tourist-related sites did not seem to be as well maintained as those north of the border, and in some cases the people were not nearly as friendly or accommodating. We still had a good time, though, and hope one day to make a return trip to both sides of the Falls.

As we were packing to leave the motel in New York that morning I happened to notice a small bat sleeping on the exterior wall just outside the door of our room. Joshua - budding photographer and avid naturalist - quickly grabbed his camera and got several close-up pictures of the thing. Me and the boys thought it was neat, but the bat gave Melissa a case of the heebie-jeebies. (To be fair, I'm sure Josh and I would have been the heebie-jeebie dance ourselves if the bat had woke up while Josh was taking his picture)

The trip home took us back to Toledo, Ohio, where at William’s request we made a return visit to Tony Packo’s Cafe, the hot dog eatery made famous by Corp. Klinger in the TV series MASH and which we first visited during the trip home from PulpFest last year. William is a HUGE fan of MASH but doesn't care for hot dogs; fortunately Packo’s also happens to make a pretty mean chicken sandwich...

By the time we returned home we had driven a total of 3,628 miles, traveling through seven states and one Canadian province. Along the way we visited three historical sites; two beaches, each located on a different Great Lake (Ontario and Erie); and six used book stores, which allowed me and the boys to pick up additions to various series collections we're all trying to complete. I picked up several Bantam "Doc Savage" editions I still needed, as well as a couple of Philip José Farmer novels I didn't have including the Ace Double Novel edition of "The Cache From Outer Space" and "The Celestial Blueprint." Joshua also picked up several "Doc Savage" editions and several sought-after Edgar Rice Burroughs titles, among others. But William was the one who really made out like a bandit, practically clearing out a couple of the stores' entire stocks of Louis L'Amour titles as well as a handful of his own ERB titles and an H.G. Wells story. That’s my boy...

People often ask why we prefer driving to flying when we travel. To me, the destination is only half the trip; it’s the sights and sounds and people and places you find along the way where the REAL adventure is to be found. The family and I love road trips precisely because of the feeling of discovery they engender. Flying to Canada or Seattle or Washington D.C. or San Diego would have gotten us to those locations faster, but it also would have robbed us of the joy of those unplanned side trips to Serpent Mound or Yellowstone or Natural Bridge or the Grand Canyon - or Mars. Road trips can be exhausting and sometimes lead to frayed tempers, it in the end it also is exhilarating and educational and can bring the family closer together. That's one of the more important life lessons my father imparted to me when I was young, and based on things they've said I'm pretty sure it's a lesson I've managed to pass on to my own sons.

You can have the friendly skies; give me the open road any day.