*photo taken near the Castile entrance to Letchworth State Park, view of trestle and the High and Middle Falls on the Genesee River
Greetings and salutations, ducklings. I hope you were able to make time to enjoy a tree or a lovely outdoor green space, or a botanical garden, or even whisper sweet nothings to your house plants as a celebration of Earth Day. Though I often feel as though we go way, way too far with so many days and months of the year being claimed by this or that latest trend in political correctness or yet another day to buy a greeting card (seriously, Sweetest Day? Ugh.)…in the case of Earth Day I do have a soft spot. I wish every day could be earth day. Our glorious blue-green marble sailing through the cosmos deserves as much love as we can give so it will last as long as it possibly can, or at least as long as we humans need it. If we get smarter than the average guinea pig as a species, maybe we can clean up our act and make this place flourish for our betterment. Imagine a future of glorious green pastures and deep sapphire lakes, deserts with just enough rain, mountains with all their alpine growth untouched, savannahs bursting with elephants and lions and giraffes…oh, the places we can go. For now, I celebrate the places we still manage to protect and save. Sunday I went to Letchworth State Park with my dogs, to enjoy my favorite state park of all time.
Before I share an indulgent plethora of places to see in this incredible park, let me divulge first that I used to live much closer to Letchworth when I was a child, and we went there quite often for picnics and hikes. When I was eight we moved to Fillmore, NY, a small town close to Houghton, which is home to Houghton College, a somewhat well-known institution in our region. I think I often believed I hated living there at the time, but in my adulthood as I look back on those years of living in that small town those were some of the happiest times of my childhood. When we lived in Fillmore, I spent most of my day outdoors running around the yard barefoot, riding my bike up and down the street for hours, playing in the creek, building cities in the dirt, climbing trees, eating out of the garden, watching insects in the grass, and in general exploring to my heart’s content. When we moved to Olean in my freshman year of high school, I thought it would be great living in a city because Olean had a movie theater, a mall, a slew of restaurants, and seemingly endless things to do. Little did I know that I actually had a much wider sense of freedom in smaller town life.
As I drove to Letchworth, I passed right through the towns of Fillmore and Houghton, and though I have taken that trip many times since moving to Olean, somehow it became a different kind of memorial to my past. On my way to the park, I drove right by the house where I lived as a child, a large six-bedroom house that at the time was already 125 years old. Back then it was a single-family home still, but the person who bought it from us just in time to save my parents from bankruptcy made it into apartments. It looks nothing like my home now. Decades ago, the colonial home had a porch where we would sit to watch thunderstorms in summertime, and a lovely huge yard out back which had lots of trees, gardens, and even a raspberry patch. After we moved and sold the house, the yard was bulldozed in the making of a new sewer system, and the porch was walled in to make a new room downstairs. Only the barn bears some resemblance to the home I remember, but that, too, is ramshackle and looking ready to cave in on itself. Remembering that house as it was, it makes me sad to see it rotting and ratty. It once had gorgeous hardwood floors throughout the downstairs, and a large farmhouse kitchen with more cupboards than you could ever put to use (though my mother managed to use them all). The expansive living and dining rooms were one space, which made entertaining easy, and it had more rooms than my parents could really use for our family of four. Now it appears to be on its last legs, is all I could think to myself as I quickly craned my neck to take in the view as I crept by in my beat-up Buick, also on its last legs.
Soon enough I arrived at the park, but to my surprise the Portageville entrance I usually take was closed for repairs. I followed the detour to the next entrance in Castile, immediately greeted by an open, expansive view of the famous gorge carved out of the layers of shale for which this region is so well known. It’s been such a long time since I visited the park, I stopped and got out to peek at the view, thrilled to be able to enjoy a beautiful day outdoors after so much cold, snowy weather this spring. When I got back into the car, I checked my map again to be sure of my route, as my plan was to go around to the eastern side of the park this time, a portion of the park where I haven’t really spent much time. On Saturday I discovered a trail system called the Genesee Valley Greenway, a relatively new trail which utilizes the old railway running north to south from Rochester, and is still under construction. Part of this trail crosses through Letchworth, and in looking up trails to hike away from the busier sections of the park I discovered this trail features a nice view of Inspiration Falls, the highest waterfall in New York State (when it has actual water falling, like this time of year). This excited me, as I love to discover new trails with rewards like waterfalls and mountaintop views during the hike.
Just as I began to pull out with my directions in mind, I see flashing emergency vehicle lights in my rear-view mirror. I wait for the vehicle to pass, but two more followed right away. My heart sank a little, knowing what that meant: someone probably fell into the gorge. It happens every year. People foolishly hike where they shouldn’t or climb over walls to get better photos or to see around the vegetation, loose their footing, and plummet down. Nearby Zoar Valley is the same way. I let myself dwell on it long enough to wish everyone well and hope they get home safely, and then off we went again. Seeing all the familiar sights of places I remember going throughout my childhood actually made me really happy. The iconic Glen Iris restaurant next to the Middle Falls, its fountain still shooting straight upward after decades, still stands as a reminder of the original home of William Letchworth, the man who purchased the land and later gifted it to the state for public use. One of my favorite places was the museum, which had the remains of a wooly mammoth on display, along with a good deal of history about the Seneca Nation of Indians. I also loved the Mary Jemison house, and all the historic nods to the Seneca Nation Council grounds, where you can see a makeshift village of historic cabins and the grave of Mary Jemison herself. If you’re a history buff, those are both interesting spots to see. Having grown up going there so often, these areas of the park almost seem as familiar as my old backyard.
Briefly, I want to admit I had a great deal of admiration for Mary Jemison as a child. She was captured at the age of 12 in the French and Indian War in Pennsylvania, and then eventually was adopted by the Seneca. By the time she was older and had the opportunity to return to her former European-American life, she had no desire to go back, preferring to stay with the Seneca. She married and had seven children with two different husbands, and many of her descendants still bear her name today, as well as those who altered it to the more common “Jimerson.” I remember reading plaques at the park, seeing artifacts in the museum, and trying to imagine what her life was like. As a child, I suffered at the hands of men who were not kind to me, and I imagined I might have made the same choice to abdicate my place in European society if I could, particularly since the Seneca friends I knew from the Cattaraugus reservation made me feel so welcome and happy. I always enjoyed all their joking and laughing. In my mind, I imagined how powerful it must have felt for Mary to be part of a matrilineal society, where her voice mattered and her intelligence was honored. That left a powerful mark on my spirit, and still resonates with me to this day.
Thoughts like this drifted with me as I drove past these familiar places, and then just as I passed the Glen Iris parking lot I saw a man in the road. He had on a safety vest, so I stopped and asked what was happening. “I’m afraid there’s an accident scene up ahead,” he said. “I can’t let any traffic through right now.” Right, the emergency vehicles I saw earlier. I told the man I hoped everyone was okay and turned around, sorry both for the person who fell and for the people who would have to rescue him. As an aside, I did see a news report saying that the man was taken to a hospital after falling 30 feet (which is lucky, considering much of the gorge is hundreds of feet deep), so he’s alive at least. My plans dashed, I decided to try to find a different trail to hike, one not as busy as the gorge trail, even though that was the trail I really preferred in place of my original plan. You see, I have a dog who believes she needs to visit and worry about every other dog in the entire universe, and every other dog she sees becomes an instant anxiety attack. It begins with my dog fixating on the other dog as soon as she notices it, then making whiny monkey noises, and if left to her own devices she would charge the other dog and jump all over it. While we have deduced that this is mostly because she is very social and wants to greet all dogs, she is not very good at socializing with good dog manners. Other dogs tend not to like her, um, passionate display. I have a hard time controlling her intensity, so I generally try to avoid places where we will see lots of other dogs.
I drove around for a while, searching for places without so many people, but I had to give up and settle for small crowds, as opposed to the larger ones in the most popular spots. So we went and hiked around the Lower Falls, which was actually quite nice. I can’t remember the last time I went down there, and I had forgotten about the footbridge built below the falls, the only foot bridge crossing the river through the park. The only other way to cross the river is to go to the Portageville entrance and go around, or illegally cross the railroad trestle above the High Falls (which I could never do—that freaking thing is hundreds of feet above the water, and all that space between the railroad ties—eek!). Unfortunately, I got to the footbridge trail only to discover it was closed. Drat. Shut down again. I was excited to be able to get across the river and hike the other side, where I was sure to encounter fewer people with dogs. Instead, I wandered along next to the river on the gorge path (so I actually got what I wanted, sort of), listening to the sound of the water as it shouldered through the flume of rock. Its jade-green depths whirled beneath the Lower Falls, and it made me think of how I used to play in the waters of the Genesee River in Fillmore, sometimes without my mother knowing. Oops. Sorry, Mom. If you follow the entire trail along the gorge, it’s seven miles from end to end, and you get to see three magnificent waterfalls. In spring they are more likely to be brimming with water from the snow melt and seasonal rain. This trail is the most popular in the park for good reason, and if you can’t see anything else, do that. You get to see a lot of incredible scenery for one trail, but be prepared for stairs. Thousands of them. 😊
I didn’t get very far with Luna making monkey noises, so we shortly got back in the car after a sloppy doggy dish of water. On our way to seek other places to hike, I stopped to check out the Birch Trail, which claimed to be an easy ¾ mile hike in the woods. Well, sort of. I mean, the woods were nice, but we ended up in the middle of some sort of campground I never even knew existed (funny how you go places your whole life, and then find out how much you missed). Without any clear markers for where the trail might have continued, we went back to the car with a re-amped Luna getting way too excited about a few deer scampering across the path. By this time, a lot of the day was gone, but I had gotten to see the gorge in several places where I chose to just pull over when the mood hit me, happy to watch the hawks and falcons circling above the water, and also happy to not have jelly legs while I stared down the terrifying drop. Hooray for exposure therapy! While we drove along the main park road, I made sure to get out at various places I always loved, one of which was Wolf Creek.
As a kid, Wolf Creek was one of my favorite places to picnic. The creek running through the picnic area leads to a cascading waterfall (so please don’t go in the water—I still remember when a man slid down the waterfall and had to be rescued). The view from the picnic area looks over the river gorge, into which Wolf Creek falls. A lovely trail crosses the creek via an arched stone foot bridge, and one can cross over to see the beautiful view. If you decide to picnic at the park, I suggest you check out this special and unique spot. While I stopped for a few minutes, I enjoyed the aroma of meat cooking over a fire and hearing the cheerful banter of families around the tables. My only regret was not being able to romp along the path, but I shall have to return with Michael in tow so he can help with the dog situation. After enough dawdling, I had hopes of getting past the road block area, so I went once more in the direction of the southern end of the park. No road block, but whatever repairs were being done to the park entrance included the road near the entrance, too, and cut off access to the other side of the park. This meant no hiking the fun trail this time. Ah, well. It just means I need to go back for sure. I am determined to see Inspiration Falls from across that gorge!
Stymied at every turn, I somehow didn’t mind. The sun and warm weather, the jade-green water rushing alongside the paths, and the incredible scenery all did the trick for resetting my spirit. Nothing could stop the grin on my face. Finally, after hours of enjoying the outdoors, I took the dogs to my next favorite thing after visiting Letchworth: the Charcoal Corral. If you decide to take a trip to the stunning Grand Canyon of the East (as Letchworth is fondly known), do make time to go to this mecca of fun, especially if you have kids, or if you are still a kid at heart. The Charcoal Corral is family-owned, and is a feast for eating and playing. You can play mini golf, hit the arcade, have a pizza, enjoy the ice cream parlor, and go see a double feature at the drive-in. But what you really need is to have broasted chicken. I have no idea what broasted really means, nor do I care. Trust me, it’s good, and you should get some. Of course, if you’ve never had a fried bologna sandwich, you might need to have one of those instead. Or just get the chicken. It’s juicy and crispy. What more do you need to know? The dogs got my leftovers, and they agree.
On the way home I decided to detour a little in Fillmore, just for kicks. I noticed that the library had moved to a new location almost across the street from my old house, but that the rest of the houses on the street still looked pretty much the same. As a kid, I loved the old library, where I spent countless hours every summer reading all the books in the children’s section upstairs. The cozy nook set up in the alcove was one of my favorite places in town. To this day, the smell of a library is like returning to an old beloved home. Up near the four corners where the only signal light in town hangs blinking, the three old gas stations still stand sentry, with only one still serving as a gas station. On the last corner, my eyes strayed toward where the old Stardust saloon used to be, the scene where my father once wrecked his bike on the porch in a mad dash to the electric company to pay the bill before they closed for the day. That building looks almost the same, too, even though it’s not the Stardust anymore. I followed the main drag up the hill, noting the location of the deli where my brother and I used to spend the change from our lunch money on our way home from school. Swedish fish were one of my childhood delights, and you could buy two for a penny. Farther up the hill, I noticed the driveway in front of a business where the toughest kid in our class got run over by a semi. Dale Green. I’ll never forget hearing him call out for his mom while he laid on the gravel afterward, the semi still idling near the startling scene. Even though he had to sit on a donut for weeks after that accident because he’d broken his pelvis, his toughness became legendary. I mean, if you can survive being run over by an 18-wheeler, that’s about as tough as it gets. Those are some serious bragging rights.
A little farther up the hill I could see the Fillmore Hotel still stood on the corner, looking much nicer than it did when I was a kid. My mother always told me to stay away from it, and I had strict instructions to stay away from the Stardust, too. This meant I had to stay on one side of the street to avoid the Stardust, and then cross up near the deli to avoid passing the hotel. She never told me why, or I just don’t remember anymore, but I know now that it had something to do with all the excessive drinking in both places. I ended my tour at the top of the hill in front of the school. It surprised me how far of a walk it would have been for me as a kid, especially in dangerously cold weather. Back then they didn’t close school just because it was cold, so we walked to school even when it was below zero with blasting wind. Of course, we had warm clothes. I mean, this is farm country. If you couldn’t handle a little cold weather, you were a serious wuss. Somehow the school building faded in my memory, but I was pleasantly surprised by how nice it looked on the outside. I had one of the worst teachers in my life in fourth grade at that school, my first year there. But then I had a few of my best teachers after that. I also had some devastating childhood experiences with other kids in that building, like my friends from Houghton telling me on a fairly regular basis that I was going to hell because I wasn’t Christian. Or having to go back to school after a really bad case of chicken pox in eighth grade, and still being covered in red, ugly pockmarks. So embarrassing. Probably the worst, though, was the feud between my parents and the neighbors next door.
What a nightmare that was. When we first moved to Fillmore, I got to know the neighbor girl, who was my age. We became friends, and I used to like going to her house because they had Twinkies and good toys, even though the girl was kind of mean to me. I also used to like playing in the sand pile which was placed under the pine trees between our driveways. The neighbor’s son had a bunch of Tonka trucks I loved, and I thought those were the coolest things ever. But then something went awry with the adults. My parents and the neighbors didn’t get along anymore. A few fights broke out with screaming and doors slamming. Unsavory things were said, and suddenly a fence was being erected and lawyers became involved and the kids weren’t allowed to be friends anymore. This became ugly at school. The girl my age began to get her friends to hate me, and it became difficult to avoid being stared at with malice in the halls at school. I can’t remember much about her now, as I made other friends (who regularly reminded me I was going to hell) and moved on to other things. When we finally moved to Olean after years of battles with the neighbors, it felt like a vast relief to not have to worry about avoiding them anymore. Still, despite all that crappy stuff, I really loved the outdoors in that place. The backyard alone was like an oasis of endless fun. I stayed busy in that yard for hours every day, and I never wanted summer to end. Maybe that’s why I like summer so much still. All those memories of running barefoot through the grass, picking apples from the tree, popping the seed pods of the touch-me-not bushes, eating raspberries to the point of illness, even once catching a baby rabbit my father made me release. What a wonder it was to spend my days outdoors. If you have kids, I hope you let them play outside as much as possible. It’s a gift to have that kind of joy and freedom to explore.
Once I got back on the road to Olean, the sun dipped closer to the horizon and lit the landscape with a golden glow. I took my time on the winding back roads through farm country, enjoying the many shingles people hang by the side of the road. It often makes me smile to see the signs for “Nightcrawlers for sale” or “Fresh Eggs” or “Homegrown Vegetables” tacked to the sides of sheds, hanging from trees, or stuck to a road sign illegally. All such signs are inevitably written in a scrawling print made poorly out of paint, resembling a child’s unpracticed writing attempt. As I drove alongside the Genesee River, I appreciated the ramshackle homes next to the neat and tidy farmhouses, the cows and donkeys and horses behind wire fences, and the familiar smell of cow dung in the air. Western New York State may be one of the most impoverished parts of the nation, but the people here will not hesitate to help you push your car out of the ditch, welcome you into their home if you are stranded and come knocking, or give you a lift to the nearest gas station if you need fuel. Even in the poorest of homes, you will often be offered a bite to eat or a soda to drink. I grew up in the quiet of the corn rustling in the field behind my house, hearing cows lowing in the distance, and catching lightning bugs in the yard. There is magic to be found in the fields, especially when you throw your blanket down in the grass to enjoy the glittering stars. Nothing is quite so breathtaking as a night sky you can actually see.
If you find yourself in Western New York, far, far away from the Big Apple, take the time to indulge in the trails, the many parks, the rivers, the lakes, and the forests. And if you can’t decide which place to stop, take yourself to Letchworth. Of all the parks on this side of the state, this one gets my vote for most impressive. You get history, hiking, white water rafting, swimming, fishing, fine dining, manicured gardens, forests, ponds, hot-air balloons, bridges, waterfalls, wildlife…need I say more? In Letchworth you get it all. It’s a truly special place to experience, and if you stay in the campground you can enjoy it for a whole weekend. If you’re looking for a romantic getaway, you can even stay at the Glen Iris Inn. Thousands of couples have been married to the tune of the Middle Falls roaring in the background. But don’t take my word for it—go see it for yourself. And if you live somewhere far, far away from this treasure, find a treasured beauty near you. The outdoors will reset your spirit and restore your heart. Go see something beautiful today.