The first things I notice are the dogs. They’re Cairn terriers, like Toto in The Wizard of Oz, like the terriers that Mom and Dad keep as pets, the warm and fuzzy pups that are part of my clown act. I’m a kid in this dream, a little boy on a journey whose destination is unknown. I walk through the woods. The sky is clear, the sun bright, the air clean. The dogs run ahead of me, leading the way. The woods morph into a jungle. There are chimpanzees and exotic birds perched in the trees. Wildflowers are everywhere. In the distance, I make out the trumpet cry of an elephant. I hear the growl of lions and tigers. I’m not afraid because I’ve been around all sorts of animals. I’m a circus kid with circus parents from whom I’ve inherited a circus life. Are the dogs directing me to a circus where I’ll put on my clown’s outfi t and perform? As the dogs charge ahead, I sprint to keep up. The jungle turns into a green meadow and the meadow leads to a mountain covered with blue and yellow wildflowers. The sounds change. The cry of the beasts transforms into the roar of raging water. What is the source? Where is the water? Chasing after the pups, I run up the mountainside.
The faster I run, the taller the mountain seems to grow, the louder the roar. I keep running and running, wondering if this is a trick. Is this real? Will I ever reach the top?
I finally do. I stop to catch my breath and survey the scene. Spread out before me is a natural wonder, a spectacular horseshoe-shaped waterfall commanding the width of the entire horizon. “Walk over the falls.” I turn around and see the man who has spoken these words. He is dressed in the billowy white shirt and satin trousers outfit of a circus performer. His face is friendly. His voice is not stern, not frightening, but simply clear. He speaks in a tone that is matter‑of‑fact, repeating the words for a second time—“ Walk over the falls.” Although the task seems impossible, the idea excites me. It seems like fun. I want to do it. I want to know how. I want to know where to set the poles and put up the cable. I want the man to instruct me. But just as I turn to him for more instruction, I wake up. Over the years the dream will assume different forms, but the theme never changes. Not only am I challenged to achieve the impossible, but the challenges grow in dimension. I soon realize that the man who haunts my imagination, awake and sleeping, is Karl Wallenda, the great patriarch of the Wallenda family. He is the man who fell from the high wire to his death in Puerto Rico on March 22, 1978, ten months before my birth on January 24, 1979. He is the man who entered my dreams early in my life and has remained there ever since. He is also the man who is my mother’s grandfather and my father’s teacher, the man who literally brought my parents together and hired them to work in his company of performing artists. Amazingly enough, one day the abstract dream becomes concrete reality when my parents are performing at the Shrine Circus in Buffalo. That’s when they take their two children to Niagara Falls. I’m six and my sister Lijana is eight. We spend months at a time on the road and on days off often visit places of interest like the Washington Monument or the field where the Battle of Gettysburg was fought. I like these tourist excursions. I find them fascinating.
But Niagara is something else altogether. I’m not only stunned by its tremendous size, but thrilled to be facing an awesome sight that seems to have emerged from my dream. “I’ve been here before,” I tell my dad. “You must have seen pictures, son,” he says. “We’ve never been here before.” “I have.” Dad laughs off my remarks, but I cling to the memory. As we drive from the American side to Canada for a closer look at the rushing waters cascading some twenty stories down into the Niagara River, I relive my dream. My heart beats like crazy. I don’t feel at all crazy. I feel connected. I feel centered. I don’t know what to call these feelings. I don’t know how to describe the excitement coursing through me. I don’t know words like “destiny” and “purpose.” My parents have taught us that all good things come from God, so I do know that this sensation of being connected to my dreams has to be good. I know that God has to be at the center of my imagination that is constructing a wire across the Falls. In my mind, I see myself walking from one country to another. Even as a child, I realize that the vision isn’t mine. It has come to me in a dream. It has come to me from a relative I have never known. But now I am standing before it, my face wet from the spray of water. My eyes are wet with tears of joy. I know what I have to do. I know I will do it. But in doing it— not in a dream, not in the imagination of a child, but in real time before millions of television viewers the world over— I will require two and a half decades of learning. Those lessons engage the mind but mostly they engage the spirit. The lessons involve steely determination. Yet the source of that determination is God. Without Him, there is no journey, no lesson, no dream.