Flying with the Falcon

For Love of the Earth

*Photo taken in Devil’s Postpile National Park in California.

I grew up a child of nature. As young as two I would be left to my own devices outdoors, back in the 1970s when it was still considered acceptable for children to play alone outside. Maybe it was unwise of my parents to send me outside for hours on my own, but I never felt any fear about it. To me, the grassy yards of my childhood were a wonderland of activity, and kept me very busy. One of my early memories occurred in the back yard of an apartment building in Hamburg, NY, a suburb of Buffalo, and I distinctly remember one day opening the heavy steel door, through which I had passed so many times, to discover a miraculous transformation. The cement pad outside the door, a sort of square well which often filled with rain, was alive. Caterpillars crawled over literally every inch of the surface of the cement, their brown bodies wriggling like a living carpet. I was utterly fascinated by this sudden appearance of the creatures on my doorstep (because even though the building housed several apartments, few others ever used the back door, so I claimed it as my own). Where did they come from? Why were they there? The mystery remains, well over 40 years later. I don’t know how long they stayed. Only the filter of that miraculous moment remains: opening the door like a curtain to reveal that astonishing revelry of life burgeoning, beckoning me to come out to witness their departure. The oddness of their transit as they scrunched and stretched upon eraser-like stubby feet caused me to watch a long time. Later I learned they were wooly bears, and I recall stroking their backs in wonder at the softness as they undulated toward the grass.

For as long as I have been alive, I can remember being in love with the earth, even when I moved to cities for a time. Countless hours of my life have been spent lollygagging in the grass, digging in dirt, scrambling over immense rocks, climbing trees, splashing in streams, wandering through forests, watching clouds, enjoying storms, and eating the green things that grew in my yard. As children, my playmates and I would adventure the yards in a grand discovery of what was good to eat or do. We tasted the sweet ends of tall fronds of grass, plucked carefully from the crook of the stem, and the gentle sourness of clover when it’s young and bright. We found the touch-me-nots in summer to be an endless joy, the jewel weed bushes which grew on the property line of our Fillmore, NY home would produce fat seed pouches which would spring open when squeezed. It was like a game to pinch them and laugh as the seed pods would roll backward into curls after releasing the seed as a projectile. Even as a teen I loved the outdoors still—at a time when many youth my age were far more excited by MTV and experimenting with drugs and alcohol, I was terminally geeky and read books and played D&D—my brother and I often went to the park around the corner from our house, spent hours outside riding bikes or playing badminton, and we still sought out animal life to observe like self-appointed scientists.

Those were the early days of my teen years, and they didn’t last. I was riddled with misery as I aged, very self-absorbed, and quite depressed. I hated the town where I lived, school gave me stomach aches, and I became obsessed with fantasy as an escape. I thought I wanted to live in cities to experience all the fun of things to do in those hives devoid of wild magic, thinking perhaps that I would find some other kind of magic in its place. So I spent my college years testing out the life of a city girl. Eventually I came to realize the city didn’t nurture my true self, the child who grew up wandering barefoot outside, camping in several states and many places in Canada, and visiting state parks often for fun in all seasons. Still, even while I lived in the city, nature didn’t leave me completely. I remember living in Savannah, Georgia and being distressed by the lack of ability to see the stars. Even though Olean was a city, you could still see a few stars bright enough to compete with the street light pollution. And I will never forget living in a townhouse where I rented a room with a lovely balcony screened by a gigantic live oak tree. I used to relish sitting on that porch from my perch above the street, a sort of tree house away from the world. One day I came home to the scene of what felt like a murder: my beautiful old friend, that elderly, wizened oak was being cut down. I still can’t help but think of cutting trees with that same sense of utter loss for its life. To me they are sentient organisms, and I have felt so since I was young. Everywhere I go, I find at least one tree I grow particularly fond of, like a unique tree in Olean by the river where a trail meets the dikes. The tree there is an old, gnarled oak so massive that it would probably be difficult for two long-armed adults to touch hands around the trunk. I know I’m not the only person who feels this way about trees or animals, but few people will admit it out loud.

Wherever I lived as a child, my family always did two things: planted gardens in the yard, and frequented the nearby parks. I remember many of the homes where we lived through the lens of vegetation that grew on the property, and then by extension I grew to know the nearby state parks as friendly neighbors we would visit regularly. What comes to mind are the open, sunny grasses surrounding the apartment buildings in Hamburg, and the rough scratchy sensation of the crab grass on my skin. It usually left red marks on my arms and legs when I went out to play. Our home on Highview Parkway in Hamburg reminds me of the pale lavender and yellow bearded irises. They smelled faintly sweet, and fuzzy bumblebees would lazily enter the inner sanctum of the massive blooms, their heads weaving in the breeze. The bees would silence themselves during the reverent gathering of pollen, their legs rubbing the yellow fronds of the stamens, and then maneuvered out to the opening of the blossom as if standing on an extended tongue touching a chin, then once again taking to the air in a slow, meandering pattern. Our Fillmore home was my favorite yard, and it still saddens me that after we moved the entire yard was bulldozed in order to put in a new sewer system. For years I learned to love that yard, with the delicate dogwood at the edge of the flagstone courtyard, the forked birch at the center of a triangular field of ivy, the jack-in-the-pulpits beneath the birch, the orange spotted tiger lilies as tall as my child’s height where they grew next to the stacked stone wall, the pine tree taller than my house which became my first teacher in overcoming fear of heights, the patch of rhubarb under the log fence, the patch of raspberries behind the barn where the dark pink berries would grow as big as my thumbs, the vegetable garden where my brother and I often snacked on green beans or tomatoes or peas, and then finally the apple tree where I was first stung by a yellow jacket as I picked up a fallen apple in the grass. Other things, splendid and scary, happened in that apple tree, too.

My father attempted to build me a tree house in that tree, but it was a terrible disappointment to me. He labored to place several boards across a pair of branches, boards he retrieved from the barn, possibly as old as the barn itself, and then placed several smaller slats up the trunk so I could climb up to the crooked platform. Because the “fort” was so disappointing, I didn’t spend much time up there, which probably disappointed my father in turn, but I don’t remember him saying anything about it. What I had wanted was more of a house with a roof and windows, a protected place which could offer privacy, much like the balcony I so enjoyed in Savannah. Instead I got a platform which only served to sit me up in the low branches of the old tree, quite visible from all sides. Later my cousin came to visit and we ventured up to the treehouse, where I had left a few items long forgotten. She upended a container and out skittered a large-eyed field mouse that scared me more than it should have, but I believe now that I learned a fear of mice from my mother, who often got upset about them getting into the house. Still, that apple tree produced more apples than we ever used, many of which hung from the upper branches unpicked, and then would later fall, rotten, to the ground. It seems a waste to think of it now, and I thought it even as a child. With a bit of resourcefulness, we could have learned how to nurture the tree to help the fruit to grow healthier, and then we could have either sold or shared the apples with our neighbors. It would have been a bounty for anyone who wanted them, and I’m sorry I didn’t think of it back then, for the tree is long gone and its days of bearing usefulness of any kind are far in the past.

After Fillmore, our first Olean house had a comparatively small yard dominated by forsythia bushes in back, and ugly evergreens in front. My mother planted tulips under the evergreens. Two old cedar trees grew right behind the house and were easy to climb up to the roof which allowed us entrance through the window of the bathroom. Whenever we were locked out (which wasn’t often—we usually didn’t bother to lock the doors back then), my brother or I would climb one of the trees and open the window to gain entry to the house. In each of these homes comes also a wash of memories of all the parks we frequented. In Hamburg, we visited Chestnut Ridge, where I remember one particular day of sledding, hot cocoa, and a warm fire at a lodge with a large group of families. Deep in my memories I can recall picnics there in warmer weather, but I was young then, and the memories are dim. In Fillmore, we drove to Letchworth, by far my favorite of any state park I ever visited, a utopia of natural beauty and history. I loved Letchworth, and came to know it almost as well as my own back yard. It was filled with the sweetness of playing in cool creeks with our pants rolled up, our shoes and socks tossed on the bank; of wandering the paths next to the rushing river which fed the misty set of falls; enjoying picnics at Wolf Creek, which was my favorite place of all because of the cascading falls and the footpath nearby; on special occasions eating at the fancy Glen Iris Inn and watching the fountain at the pond; being thrilled and terrified by the dizzying depths of the massive gorges; and dreaming about the history behind the old cabins of the Seneca Tribal Council and Mary Jemison (a hero to me), or the museum which still houses the bones of a mastodon which was originally dug from the ground of a nearby farm in Pike, NY. When we lived in Olean, we went to Allegany State Park, and typically picnicked near either Red House or Quaker Lake, where we could either swim or canoe. Lots of spots at the park became sites of family events like birthdays or weddings. The stone tower, Thunder Rocks, and the various trails all became frequent places to explore.

So much of the natural world informed my spirit about how to be a good human. Without ever meaning to, I fell in love with the trees, who became my staunch and reliable protectors. I fell in love with the food I could pluck from the gardens, nourishing me when I was peckish. I fell in love with the blossoms which rose up mysteriously, but without fail, every season, often scenting the air with perfume both heavy and light. I fell in love with thunder storms crackling across the hills, pouring sheets of hammering water on everything it touched, and left the clean fragrance of ozone and hot earth in their wake. I fell in love with waterways where they swirled both rapid and lazy, clear and cool over stony beds full of secretive gray crayfish, darting silver minnows, awkwardly graceful frogs, and darkly elegant snakes. I learned how to skip stones on the streams of Western New York. My body remembers all the seasons, embedded in my cells which are still informed by the redolence of coming weather on the breeze, the color of the sky, the rise and fall of the sun’s hours of the day. When the wind barrels through the woods, I still feel excited, as if in expectation of something spectacular about to happen. The damp, mineral-heavy aroma of lichen-spotted boulders still fills me with a sense of adventure. A path leading into the woods always tugs me forward with a desire to discover where it will lead.

My heart is magnetized by love for this earth. Mary Oliver has just reminded me of it more desperately, more deeply, along with several Ted Talks about climate change and oceanic health. Once I became a mother, I did my best to gingerly open my palms to gift to my children the same serene pleasure of exploring outdoors. We walked daily and often visited nearby playgrounds, sometimes walking along the river or having meals outside. We went camping nearly every summer, many times returning to Fish Creek Pond in the Adirondacks, usually a whole week in which we parents insisted they put down the electronics and enjoy the woods and rivers and ponds. Those days were glorious love affairs of pine-scented walks, hushed canoe rides in the unspoiled wilderness, and reading in a hammock tied between two trees. We played cards in a screenhouse erected over the picnic table or later in the camper my parents bought, and toasted marshmallows over a roaring fire my brother often enjoyed building. As my son got older, he developed a love for building a good fire, too. Stars glittered in a vast light show overhead, a reminder of our remoteness in the rapidly spinning galaxy. I did my best to water the germinated seeds of love for the earth in the hearts of my children, but only time will reveal whether or not I succeeded. My son, at least, seems to appreciate the wilderness. He has always been a willing camper, even joining his step father and I for a backpacking trip once. I hope to do it many more times while my body allows it. My daughter, sadly, seems less enamored with outdoor interests, and is far more content to live her life indoors. But when I was her age, I was somewhat like that, too. At that age I was convinced I was more interested in what excitement cities had to offer, until I finally came back to the center of my compass of the natural, wild world again. Maybe she will, too.

Within the starry nights, the sun-studded afternoons, the fog-shrouded mornings, or the purple-hued evenings, our bodies have a way of remembering our legacy. If we give ourselves time to sit, walk, or paddle within the wild places, the green spaces, that dormant love can be rekindled, even after generations of life in tall buildings which battle the wildness tooth and nail. The fire of old memories from our ancestors can light up pathways in our biology like a trail of gasoline touched by a match. Is it the mitochondria at work? I don’t know, but some ancient knowledge still chants deep in our physical forms, hidden in the ladders of our DNA and waiting to be unlatched from its moors. Release the river of your love if you can. Look at the quality of the sunlight while you walk from your car to the door: is it the wan light of late autumn or the hopeful energy of lime-green spring? Is summer filtering leafy patterns on the path ahead, or is winter creating a cross-hatch of branches over the road? Be present. Cultivate your awareness of the aroma swiftly carried from far places, the scent of rain or snow, the encroachment of grass at the edge of the driveway, or the unexpected and sudden flourish of the yard popping with colors overnight. Notice the wildness of nature rushing against you, nudging like a cat against your leg as you open the door. The earth suffers us unconditionally; our symbiosis, however, is temporary. At any moment, earth can deliver herself of us entirely if she wishes, and we would have little to say or do about it.

Volcanoes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, tidal waves, forest fires, draughts—any of these choices are hers to employ, and despite our tyranny on her oceans, forests, rivers, lakes, ice floes, and alpine spaces, she endures us with patience. For how long is uncertain now. She has been warning us for a while that the balance is upset. The animals rush up to heaven and down into the depths of the soil with rapid and frightening numbers of merciless extinction. Garbage even fills the space surrounding the planet, floating in the finite gravity of earth’s orbit and becoming a hazard to the eventual hope of expansion to new worlds, if we ever get the chance. We who still love the earth can still use our voices, our pens, and our hands to communicate this love to the rest of humanity. Do not wait to balloon with boldness; it isn’t boldness that will reach out with a golden finger of perspective or trust. Rather, nurture the wildness of your heart, the crisp apple of your youth, the rich amber sap on your hands, the dirt and grass on your knees, even the burrs on your jacket when you returned from your adventures in the yard, the park, the forest, the desert, the field. Let it enter through your throat and thunder in your chest. Climb the lofty branches of your childhood and sway in the height of your mastery, from the security of the branch, that tree which lovingly supported your weight and made you fearless. Give that to the people you know. Carry them in your boat in the silent slip of waterways. Walk with them under the open skies of birds. Bring them to see the curious rock cairns carefully stacked by willing hands which love the paths into the wild as much as you. Let the wildness spring from your eyes when your heart melts for what you see and know is disappearing. You are the messenger of love now. Be a good missionary of nature’s temple, go forth with flowers as gifts, and watch the joy blossom on the faces you love.

Flying with the Falcon

Letchworth State Park and a Smidgen of History

*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.