Near Windigo Ranger Station, Isle Royale National Park

Near Windigo Ranger Station, Isle Royale National Park

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Fort Meigs in Perrysburg, Ohio, then home

June 1, 2015

Final leg through Ohio — Fort Meigs

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It was still overcast with on-and-off rain in Maumee, Ohio, where, still reluctant to return, we visited Georgette’s Coffee and Gift Shop (which carries, of all things, Solmates socks). We couldn’t leave without a walk around Fort Meigs in Perrysburg, which is closed on Mondays. Curses.

When Fort Meigs was built in 1813, it was the largest wooden walled fortification on the continent. As with Fort Massac in Metropolis, Illinois, Fort Meigs is a replica — for different reasons, wooden structures seem to be doomed to an early demise. Fort Meigs looked interesting, but its location and layout was no match for my favorite, Fort Niagara on the Niagara River at its mouth on Lake Ontario.

Back in town, J. spotted a purveyor of vintage candy that carries variations on the traditional Mallo Cup, so he picked up a lot — the Mallo Cup is a rare sight in the urban Midwest, or at least in the Chicago area.

At last we left the Maumee/Perrysburg area and drove through more on-and-off rain, with breaks at rest stop or two. At one we were able to get Hershey’s ice cream one last time (reminder: not affiliated with the candy company). Finally, we collected Petunia at the Hyde Park Animal Hospital. During her lengthy stay, she’d developed symptoms of feline herpes, a chronic respiratory illness, so we picked up L-lysine for her. We should have gotten a poncho for me, given how many times she was going to sneeze wetly on me in the next ten days. Home, sweet home. Chicago.

Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania

May 31, 2015

Erie, Pennsylvania

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After a comfortably warm and mostly sunny week, the weather had taken a turn for the chilly. With a little more time available in Erie, we fueled up at Tim Horton’s, then visited the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, where we got lighthouse and park stamps plus goodies from the gift shop.

Next we drove farther out onto the Presque Isle State Park Peninsula, far enough to get to the beach with the Presque Isle light. J. made it to the light, but after crossing the in what felt like gale-force winds and having sand driven into my mouth and pebbles into my bare calves, I decided I could live with a slightly more distant view of the light.

By the time we tore ourselves from Presque Isle, it was time to make tracks if we wanted to get to Maumee, Ohio, at a reasonable hour. There wasn’t enough time for a detour to Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I wasn’t too disappointed given the gloomy, wet, windy weather, which softened the pain of returning from a wonderful trip just a teeny bit.

Last call for the Pennsylvania Wilds

May 30, 2015

Kinzua Bridge State Park and Kinzua Dam (and Rte. 6)

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At breakfast, J met Joe Hurley, who wrote Ten Million Steps: A fresh look at America and Americans from Cape Cod to California on Route 6, and walked away with autographed copies. He knows how to travel. Afterward, we said a long goodbye to the hens, who didn’t care that we were sad to leave and that vacation was almost over.

We stopped in Coudersport at Sheetz for fuel (gas and coffee and Mallo Cups) and discovered Old Hickory, a building in a state of decay that would put Miss Havisham to shame. Eliot Ness is said to have visited the inn — I wonder why?

After passing through Port Allegheny and Smethport (“Home of Wooly Willy”), we came to Mount Jewett and the road to Kinzua Bridge State Park. On the way the eagle-eyed driver spotted a sign for “Maple Syrup 500 Ft.” Determined to get maple syrup somewhere on this trip, we stopped, parked, and rang the bell. The back door was unlocked, and several windows were open, despite a threatening sky. We rang again — no answer. A half mile back, a pedestrian had tried to flag us down, so I could only speculate that he was a stranger who’d killed the family and was trying to get away (although in the direction of the park, where the road ends), but when the police came the neighbors would remember only us and how the car had been parked for a while as we knocked and peered in the back shop. It was a mystery. I’ve read too many true crime stories.

At last we arrived at the park, where a visitor center with park offices is under construction. For being a little out of the way, the park seems popular. Out on the skywalk, one man told us he’d brought his wife in preparation for an upcoming trip to the Grand Canyon. She couldn’t quite handle 300 feet down, however, let alone thousands. I asked a man familiar with the area about the F1 tornado that had taken out half the bridge. Tornado watches and warnings are a weekly, even daily occurrence in the Midwest, but not in western New York or Pennsylvania. He said a tornado will arise now and then, but its path usually zigzags and its duration is usually short. The mountains and irregularity of the surface probably inhibits a tornado’s ability to build a full head of steam. The 2003 tornado, however, was strong enough to take down half the (compromised) bridge. It’s a lovely area, and there are trails down the slope for those with more time.

On the return, we stopped again at the place with maple syrup. To my relief, the people were home (unless, of course, they were murderers covering for their crime — how would strangers like us know?). The mundane explanation was they’d gone to a ball game and forgotten to turn off the “Open” light and shut up the place properly. That was their story, which must be true as I haven’t seen any gruesome stories from Mount Jewett in the news.

Rain came, and when we arrived at the Kinzua Dam area, a mist hovered over the water in places even as the skies repeatedly tried to clear up. I’d been to Kinzua Dam at least once with my parents — long before it became part of the “Pennsylvania Wilds” — but I don’t know how many times. The dam was relatively new then, controversial because it flooded treaty land. On this day it seemed familiar-but-not-quite. I’d been here before, but not often or long enough for it to seep into my being’s core memory. I was left with an impression, not a picture.

While the dam and the water are impressive, I was more fascinated by the numerous ribbon waterfalls running down the bluff through which the road had been cut, the water seeming to disappear at the base. If my dad had been there, he might have tried to collect water from them in a plastic jug for the rest of the trip, although in the 1970s signs had popped up near many of Pennsylvania’s roadside springs warning of contamination from coal mining activities. Back then this disappointed me, and I wondered why post warning signs instead of cleaning up the pollution. Young and naive then, I still question that approach. I wonder if any of the springs we used to pass are viable today.

Next we found, almost by accident, the easy-to-miss parking lot for Bent Run Falls. The trail, steep and uneven, was muddy and slippery after the rainfall. The early part is overgrown, so I was able to get only glimpses of the water flowing along. I couldn’t get very far, and J. didn’t want to leave me behind so he didn’t get much farther. I’ve seen photos of the falls from a few different vantage points that looked lovely, but I’ve no idea where you have to go to see them from that perspective.

Our next stop was Jakes Rocks (no possessive apostrophe), where at a few places along the road you can get great views overlooking the lake. As is typical. when I spotted a colorful millipede sauntering around the parking area, I spent half my time stalking it, trying to take a closeup. Undaunted, it never slowed down enough for me to get a crisp photo within the frame. I resisted picking it up.

Reluctantly we left and headed toward Warren, where we hoped to find a restaurant. When we got there, nearly all of the local places were closed or closing, except for one bar that didn’t look popular, so we settled for Perkins.

Given the time of day and where we were, we decided to stay in Erie. By now it was getting dark and threatening, then it rained hard enough to make seeing much difficult. Just as it seemed the conditions couldn’t be any worse, J. swerved slightly, just enough to miss hitting a deer that had leapt at us from out of the streaming darkness, perhaps trying to join his five or six deer brothers we’d seen earlier on the road, dead.

After we had dodged the deer — barely — I made the mistake of saying that I didn’t think conditions could be any worse. Almost on cue, the hail started. To me it now seems that any trip home must be attended by bad, even dangerous weather. After the rain, the deer, and the hail, and the accompanying adrenaline rushes, finally we made it to Springhill Suites in Erie in one exhausted, shaking piece.

Day 2 in the Pennsylvania Wilds, or elk country

May 29, 2015

Pennsylvania wapiti, or elusive elk in Benezette

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Because we’d been to Cherry Springs, we had to get our state parks books stamped. At the park, though, the ranger told J. we’d have to go to Lyman’s Run State Park a few miles away for the Cherry Springs stamp. Getting there involved a narrow, winding road around mountains, constrained on one side by a guard rail unprotected by more than a couple of inches of shoulder — J’s favorite kind of driving conditions. Just as we found Lyman’s Run, a deer crossed the road well ahead of us, then, to our surprise, a fawn on spindly legs appeared and stood in the road, confused for a few moments before wandering off in Mom’s direction.

At the Lyman’s Run office, we told the ranger about the deer. A few moments later, she asked where exactly we’d seen them — a couple desperate to see deer had just come in.

At a beach below the nearby dam, a family or two was splashing about in the water. I always hope that when these children grow up they will want their own children to enjoy the same kinds of outdoor experiences they had.

At breakfast someone had told of seeing elk in Benezette and of a motorcyclist who’d feared for his bike’s life when a big bull elk eyed it. Benezette had been a possible destination, but now it became a must-see. I’d never gone there from the north, and we found ourselves on the narrow, twisting road to Galeton, then on more narrow, twisting roads post what seemed to be a lot of state parks and recreation areas. We had to hustle to get to the Elk Country Visitor Center before it closed at 5 — we just made it, at about 4:40 or so. I was surprised I found it as easily as I did.

We hadn’t seen any elk in town or near the visitor center, so I steered him toward the overlook where the bull elk had looked upon the motorcycle. Nothing. Seating had been added, and a man sitting there told us he’d seen some animals earlier, so we sat down to wait patiently.

Within about 10 minutes a female showed up at the edge of the woods and tucked into the field vegetation. Soon she was joined by a second and then a third, who also seemed to materialize from nothing. None of them strayed far from the wood’s edge.

We’d seen elk, if only a small number, if only at a distance. J proclaimed himself content.

We returrned to Benezette, driving around for a bit and spotting the top of a deer’s head among the high grasses along the river. Even the picnic area, jammed with elk during my December visits, was populated only by a few people and vehicles.

After eating at the Benezette Hotel (where J got an elk burger to go), we called it a day, knowing we had a long way to go. On the road out of town, however, elk began popping up in front yards, including three bulls in velvet. By now the residents of Benezette and beyond must have given up on any kind of garden or landscaping and let the elk have at their yards.

We stopped at length in front of several houses, sometimes in awkward spots ahead of road curves. I worried about being rear-ended, but the few times we saw cars, they slowed down and stopped too. The elk are hard to resist.

On the way back we noticed several popular fishing spots and some vintage bridges. Oh, to have a creek nearby to visit every day . . . preferably an uncontaminated one. In Pennsylvania, you never know.

For the last leg of this day trip, Google Maps helpfully steered me toward a long gravel road overrun by creatures that, in the growing darkness, could have been toads or chipmunks or something else — they scooted across so fast it was hard to tell. After two to three miles we came to the main road to Frosty Hollow, where a sign invites you to detour four miles up the gravel road (the way we’d come) to Jackson’s Bargain Barn & Gift Shop (open Thurs., Fri., and Sat.). When we’d passed the sign earlier, J had pointed it out and wondered if anyone (like us) would ever choose to go up that road. Ooops. Thank you, Google Maps (and for trying to take us down a footpath at Chestnut Ridge Park). We got back as rain began — no need to debate a return to Cherry Springs. Sitting on the barn porch, watching the rain come down, ended the day in the country perfectly.

Pine Creek Gorge, or the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania (and some not-so-dark skies)

May 28, 2015

Pine Creek Gorge, Cherry Springs State Park

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After breakfast in the barn, we turned toward Pine Creek Gorge at Leonard Harrison State Park (the eastern overlook). Before we could get there, however, J. had to stop at an unexpected Harley-Davidson dealership in Galeton (Larry’s) for t-shirt gifts. After looking around for a bit, I returned to the car and watched two older men lust after a bike parked a few spots down. The owner appeared and shared the specs and some of his adventures on it (I heard “Tennessee” among others). The one man never stopped moving around the bike, drinking in its details like he couldn’t stop. To me it seemed unremarkable, but he looked like an art collector sizing up a reputed da Vinci.

The drive along country roads always seems longer than expected, especially when their condition isn’t great and there’s the ever-present threat of deer and/or trucks. We made it, however, and found a long, deep, curving gorge, the “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania,” the green of the forest nearly unbroken except for the creek.

Deforested Pine Creek Gorge (from Wikipedia)

Deforested Pine Creek Gorge (from Wikipedia)

Pine Creek Gorge wasn’t always so verdant. After we took many photos and J. wandered a short way on a trail down (I wasn’t up to it), we watched a video at the visitor center that showed the voracious cutting of the gorge’s old-growth white pine and eastern hemlock. Where men of the time saw money and profits, I saw only destruction and devastation. First the white pine was cut, then the eastern hemlock, then the hardwoods. Clear cutting replaced selective harvesting, leaving denuded hills behind. My heart broke to see the “Grand Canyon” reduced to the “Pennsylvania Desert.” Did no one foresee the result of clear cutting, or care?

Today, thanks partly to the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps, second-growth forest covers the gorge, and wildlife has returned. This north central part of the state, including Allegheny National Forest, has been branded the “Pennsylvania Wilds,” which attracts outdoorsy tourists such as hikers, cyclists, fishers, skiers and snowboarders. The men who profited from destroying the forest are long dead, their best legacy a reminder of the foolishness of benefiting in the short term at the expense of the future. I hope the Wilds can be sustainable as a tourist attraction because there are so few places like it left.

We picked up a couple of Pennsylvania State Parks and State Forests Passports, the state’s answer to the National Park Service’s stamp book program. You don’t have to be a kid to get a kick out of filling your book with stamps!

On the way back we stopped at an unusual church (United Methodist Congregation) and took photos. Later we realized it was featured on postcards we’d bought.

We visited Wellsboro, which is an impressive old town with impressive old houses lining the streets, and stopped at Peggy’s Candies and Gifts for Hershey’s ice cream. If you’re thinking of the Hershey Company (1894), you’d be as wrong as I was. Hershey’s ice cream (also 1894) is a different company with a different history. I thought there have to be trademark attorneys itching to tackle that, and I wasn’t wrong.

The weather looked better than I expected for the visit to Cherry Springs State Park — the long-term prediction had been for clouds and rain. We left around 8:45 p.m. so we’d have some light to see on the unfamiliar roads with their ubiquitous deer. When we arrived at the parking lot, a man ensconced in his car pointed us toward a nearby field with some picnic tables for regular folks.

For a long time we weren’t sure we were in the right place, probably because no one else appeared. We wandered over to the astronomers’ field, but there was no one there, either, and J. agreed we probably weren’t supposed to be there (it’s set up for professionals and amateurs with telescopes and has better restrooms).

The reason there were only a few people, mostly near the parking lot and usually for a short time, wasn’t the weather — it was surprisingly good. It was the moon. The bright, bright quarter moon.

The first few years of my life were spent near a pretty dark field (by Chicago standards), but I had forgotten how painfully bright even a quarter moon is. We could see a lot more stars than anywhere else, but the moon’s reflected glare obliterated most of the less brilliant stars, leaving some familiar planets and constellations in view. It was quiet, peaceful, and comforting to see the night sky in a way I haven’t been able to for decades. Many Americans have never experienced the magic of the night sky the way our ancestors did, and that is awful and sad.

J. took some photos, and we stayed until about 1 a.m. (If only we could have held out until 3:30 or so, the moon was due to set, although then the light from the dawning sun would have followed soon after.)

Before we left, J. said, “What’s that?” and in the cold moonlight I saw what looked like a weasel shuffling among the uncut grasses. I shone the red flashlight on it and discovered I wasn’t far off — it was a skunk, a member of the mustelid family. It seemed unconcerned, so I got closer than I should have, given a skunk can spray up to 10 feet accurately. I didn’t see any warning signs, and when it wandered off I didn’t follow. It’s not often I get to see a skunk that’s not flat and covered in gore.

Again I was relieved to get back to base without hitting Bambi, his mother, or any of his millions of relatives.

Letchworth State Park, or farewell, day 3

May 27, 2015

Temple Hill, Letchworth State Park, Frosty Hollow

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I started the morning out with a bang by falling hard in the Jacuzzi bath that I’d enjoyed so much — I knew I’d brought those spa shoes with treads along for a reason.

As this was the last day at Temple Hill, our host gave us a peek at the pool and garden area, complete with a Japanese tea house under renovation.

After saying goodbye, we took ourselves to a nearby laundromat to freshen the wardrobe and killed the waiting time by going to Wegman’s, a favorite of some of my friends (who wouldn’t love a place that carries Uncle Ralph’s Magic Sauce?) and Yoberry Yogurt. After the laundromat we made what I was sure was our final stop at a Tim Horton’s.

Temple Hill is across the road from an old cemetery that is still in use, so we walked through for a bit, long enough for me to spot the grave of a former New York governor. I also found a child’s grave marked by a flat, broken, worn tombstone at the base of a tree, half covered by dirt. Others had fallen over and broken. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust indeed.

This time we didn’t go through Letchworth but along its western edge. We spied a place where it looked like maple syrup might be available, but when we went in, we found a very musty old barn that seemed to be a half-abandoned disordered mess. I imagine it’s haunted at night by wheezing asthmatic ghosts. No one at the nearby house came out, but a neighbor pulled into the driveway across the road and tried not to give us stink eye.

This time I went into the Glen Iris Inn gift shop, relieving them of more postcards than was necessary, then we explored the museum, which I remember vaguely.

Although it was a little out of the way, I had J. return to the Wolf Creek picnic area so I could regret leaving it a second time, this one for good.

We settled in at the Glen Iris Inn for a leisurely dinner followed by farewell visits to the Middle Falls and the old railroad trestle, around which ground has been cleared of trees for construction of the new bridge.

Reluctantly, as always, we turned southward toward Coudersport, Pennsylvania, and Frosty Hollow Bed and Breakfast. Along the way we stopped at a grocery store where I asked one of the shoppers the way to the facilities. She pointed toward the back to my right, but a few moments later ran after me and said she was wrong; it’s near the deli. I couldn’t find it there, so I asked a woman working there. Next thing I knew, she was leading me into the “back of the house” to the room the employees use. I thanked her, adding that I could never have found it on my own. She smiled brightly, saying, “Always ask an employee!” I began to feel like I was in a disjointed dream.

When we passed through Belmont, J. asked me to make a note — he liked it. Small-town New York retains a certain quaint vintage look that, if it ever existed in Chicago, was likely destroyed by the Great Fire and suburbanization. We crossed back into Pennsylvania, passed through Coudersport, and arrived at Frosty Hollow Bed and Breakfast at around 10 p.m. for the final leg of this eastern adventure. We were in the Pennsylvania Wilds.

Letchworth State Park, or my favorite childhood state park, day 2

May 26, 2015

Letchworth State Park, New York, May 26, 2015

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Because we were the only guests at Temple Hill Bed and Breakfast, we were treated to breakfast al fresco on the deck overlooking the back lawn. It was so perfect that I hated to leave. We had to get an eyeglass repair kit (can’t have a driver who can’t see), then stopped at Byrne Dairy for me to look around and then Cricket’s Coffee Company because neither of us can resist a good coffee shop. We scored some condiments, including mustard and nut butters.

Eventually we tore ourselves away to return to the park, where we stopped at several of the overlooks. At one I read a sign pointing out a barely visible waterfall below and noting that another of four waterfalls could be seen at the Wolf Creek Picnic Area, so we had to go there too. From a pedestrian bridge over Wolf Creek, you can see a series of teeny drops along the creek bed, like miniature Niagaras, with the road bridge in the background. In an instant Wolf Creek evoked memories of sunbeams interrupted by shadows playing over rocks and drops as I walked along the creek bed without a care at Chestnut Ridge Park during a church picnic. Wolf Creek became a surrogate for one of the richest of my childhood experiences.

The real waterfall, the most visible of the series mentioned on the sign, drops on the other side of the pedestrian bridge. I don’t remember seeing Wolf Creek with my parents, but then there is so much that I don’t recall.

J. satisfied some of his shopping urges at the Glen Iris Inn, where we spent a long time taking photographs of the Middle Falls, which many believe are the most scenic of the park’s three major waterfalls. It’s funny that I recall the falls, but not the inn. I am sure that one day Virgil and I and possibly my aunt walked along the rail line if not part of the trestle.

Instead of driving back through the park as we had the day before, we passed along its eastern edge, where the roadside sported horse-and-buggy signs indicating that it’s Amish country. It’s a lovely rural drive and on this day the robin’s egg blue sky was punctuated by amazing clouds that I couldn’t quite capture.

Our destination was the North Shore Grill on Lake Conesus in Lakeville, giving us an opportunity to see one of the Finger Lakes (if only the smallest). There’s nothing like enjoying a great meal and drinks outdoors on a lake shore around sunset. I walked to the end of the dock to take all of it in — if only I could take all of it with me.

Letchworth State Park, or my favorite childhood state park

May 25, 2015

Letchworth State Park, New York, May 25, 2015

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After another sumptuous breakfast, we left for Letchworth State Park, which has a fascinating history that includes the abducted Mary Jemison and business mogul William Pryor Letchworth. It’s amazing to me to imagine places like Matthiessen State Park (Illinois), Morton Arboretum (Illinois), and Letchworth State Park (New York) in private hands. Can you picture waking up every morning and strolling to your private waterfalls and/or along your stretch of a river?

First we stopped at Mount Morris Dam and one of the gifts shops, where I spent an alarming amount on books and postcards. They even have the vintage-looking wooden postcards, which can be mailed for extra postage. We sat in the picnic area to try a treat and just to soak in the day. When New York weather is good, it’s wonderful.

I remember Mount Morris Dam vaguely. It looked dry around it. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes dumped a massive volume of rain on Pennsylvania and western New York — that’s when I learned hurricanes from the south could affect us so far inland. Mount Morris Dam, completed in 1954, was pushed beyond its limits (some water was released to avoid the river pouring over the top), but without it much of Rochester may have ended up flooded (or in Lake Ontario?).

We continued driving south through the park, stopping at the Gardeau Overlook and at the Lower Falls Restaurant for a leisurely, relaxing lunch.

Next we tackled the Lower Falls Trail, which is supposed to have 127 steps, although some people who were returning told us they’d counted at least 128. I can’t say an extra step makes a difference unless it’s exceptionally steep (a couple were). I can manage, albeit slowly and sometimes with a helping wrist.

Of the three major waterfalls on the Genesee at Letchworth, the Lower Falls are said to be the least scenic. You can cross a bridge over the river to get a better look at the falls and Tea Table Rock, which some people walked onto. On the other side, water drips down from the rocks with slippery mud underneath, making it a great place to stand on a warm day. J. went a little past the bridge, but I was trying to save my energy for the walk back and my knees for the 127/128/1XX steps up. I haven’t looked up how far the trail goes, but with more time and energy I imagine we could have seen much more. I can’t say for sure that I’d ever seen the Lower Falls or been to the restaurant before — perhaps, perhaps not.

At Inspiration Point, the views of the gorge are especially spectacular. Fortunately for us, William Pryor Letchworth was a generous man with foresight who wanted to preserve the gorge from a particularly grisly future subject to the whims of industry, economics, and greed. I’ll have to read more about the history of Letchworth in the books I spent my vacation money on.

J. also got his first look at the Upper Falls with the railroad trestle passing above them. This bridge, in place since 1875, is being replaced by an updated design that won’t have piers in the gorge. I’m glad I could see the old bridge one more time and now wish I’d walked it. I am sure my brother and I walked along part of it once, long ago on a beautiful day, surrounded by trees, sun, and shadows.

As it was Memorial Day, little was still open by the time we were ready to eat, so we went to Mama Mia in downtown Geneseo for doughy, cheesy food right before the rain that had been threatening finally let loose.

Old Fort Niagara and Chestnut Ridge Park, or old favorites

May 24, 2015

Old Fort Niagara

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After a leisurely breakfast and some moments in the sunroom overlooking the lake and the wind turbines, we packed and, after the now-traditional stop at Tim Horton’s, headed north on Route 5 to Old Fort Niagara. On Grand Island, we debated a detour to Beaver Island State Park, but there wasn’t enough time.

I’d been to Old Fort Niagara perhaps twice. Once a couple of my friends had come with us — I remember this because somewhere I have a closeup of our faces as we sat in the back seat of my dad’s van. Also among my photos there’s one of my dad and mom walking across a bridge or embankment in the middle distance. The enormous weight gain that had snuck up on him jutted out prominently, while a couple of yards behind him my mother struggled to keep her hair from blowing in the wind. It’s not a flattering photo, but I like it because it’s one of the few unposed photos I have of them together.

My dad may have taken me one more time, after my mother died and I had graduated from college. I can’t remember if we went to both Niagara Falls and Old Fort Niagara, or just Niagara Falls, but I recall eating lunch in a parking lot and feeling how odd and wrong it was to be on a little adventure without my mother.

When I’d been to Old Fort Niagara before, I’d been struck by the number of college-age boys dressed in redcoats, firing muskets and cannons — funny to think that, like me, those kids have aged into their fifties. On this day, the fort wasn’t overrun by college-age redcoats, but by characters of various ages from several wars and conflicts, from pre-Revolutionary War to the Korean War and beyond — in tribute to Memorial Day. It was a little disconcerting to see GIs at the old fort.

We listened to part of a long presentation about uniforms and the story of Betsy Doyle, who during the War of 1812 ran hot shot up the stairs of the fort’s French Castle. I struggled to get up the stairs even once without toting deadly hot shot.

I’m sure I saw a lot more of the fort on this day than I had before, but I’ve never seen as much as I could. It was a beautiful day, too, with a slightly hazy look that I associate with this area, located across from Canada at the mouth of the Niagara River. It truly feels like a place out of time.

On the return trip, i took a photo of what I’d always thought was a wrecked barge jutting up from the Niagara River north of the Peace Bridge, with trees thrusting through the deck. Since then I’ve read it’s an old water intake station. There go all my assumptions and memories, as I remember my dad pointing it out to me.

On our last pass down Route 5, we made a final stop at Red Top Hots, although it wasn’t quite the same without BL freezing in the lake breeze. After stopping at the house to say goodbye to BL and family, we picked up a perfect souvenir of western New York — Weber’s horseradish mustard, which I don’t remember from my childhood at all.

Next we hurried to Chestnut Ridge Park to find the eternal (not really — it gets blown out frequently but can be relit) flame waterfall. Google Maps seemed determined to send J’s car down a footpath through dense woods, but I wasn’t convinced. As we meandered around a bit, seeing lots of high schoolers in the backs of pickup trucks (which surprised me), finally we asked a man walking his dog where to go. It turns out there’s a parking area for the trail off 277 that was easy to find, but in the meantime we’d lost an hour or an hour and a half of daylight by the time we arrived at the trailhead. I wish I’d remembered my way around Chestnut Ridge! We did get a brief glimpse of the toboggan run . . .

The trail to the falls isn’t too rough, although it’s steep in places, with rocks and logs in the way along the creek. By this time, fatigue had set in from several days of walking and standing, and I couldn’t make it past an uneven part of the trail near the water, even as young people leapt past me and others walked by without a care. As J. continued on, several people offered to help me, but I was physically and psychologically stuck, deterred by what may seem to most to be a tiny obstacle, but it was too much for me at that point in time. J. did see the falls, which he said were farther off than he thought based on what people were telling him. Although there wasn’t a lot of water, the flame was lit. I wish I’d seen it.

We left for Geneseo at about 8:15 p.m., traveling through East Aurora, Warsaw, and Perry on Route 20A, all of which J. liked. One deer crossed the road, and J. spotted a second. Along the way we passed dozens of wind turbines, just like in parts of Illinois on our way back from the Illinois River Road. Route 20A is more twisty than most roads in Illinois, and J. found himself hard pressed to keep out of the way of impatient locals, pulling over when possible to let them pass. At last, shortly before 10 p.m., we arrived at Temple Hill Bed & Breakfast, to be greeted by our friendly host, her friendly dog, and welcome rest after an exhausting but exhilarating few days.

Hamburg and Niagara Falls, New York, or where I spent my formative years

May 23, 2015

Hamburg and Niagara Falls

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Intrigued by South Creek Road, J. and I set out before breakfast to drive down as much of it as we could. (I wasn’t looking at maps — no need to.) It ends in Eighteen-Mile Creek County Park, which as serves as a state-designated fishing hole. There’s not much of a conventional park here — just a gravel parking lot without even a portable john. A paved trail cuts into the woods, turning into a dirt trail with a side trail that looks like it goes down to the creek. We were going to be late for breakfast even if we hurried back (on the walk to the parking area, I got a friendly reminder call!), so we didn’t make it down. Later I read that Eighteen Mile Creek County Park is (take your pick) (1) abandoned (2) undeveloped. One website said there had been a proposal or plan to turn it into a golf course. No, no, no, a thousand times no . . . the same site also noted that the path we’d found doesn’t go to the creek, but one a tenth of a mile further on does. Reason to return . . . for now, it’s a relatively untamed spot that had drawn several cars to it by the time we left. Although the area is reverting to nature, J. found what to us appeared to be stone gateposts, with upper and lower hooks still attached. If I had known about this spot, I might have made an effort to go there. It would have been a strenuous ride up and down the mild inclines, though. Knowing me, I’d have flown over the rails into the creek. Four miles and twenty minutes to a bit of paradise — I could have managed it then and might even have appreciated it.

What’s a trip to western New York without a visit to Niagara Falls? I hadn’t been there since 1987, when I went late in the afternoon on a dreary day of threatening weather. Today was sunny and getting warmer by the minute, as we’d found on our morning walk. After a luxurious breakfast we left, making a stop at one of the Tim Horton’s along the way. With the help of Google Maps, I steered J. wrong briefly while in Buffalo, but soon we were back en route, and I was seeing familiar sights like the Pillsbury building, the Tifft Nature Preserve (which I’ve never visited), and the Peace Bridge.

Then we came to Grand Island, where the imposing bridges have been painted a blue that almost blends into the sky. The geography, which I’m sure I never understood, was coming back to me. I remember once or twice taking a more scenic route to Niagara Falls, but my guess is that it may have involved crossing the Peace Bridge and driving along the Canadian bank of the Niagara River.

I’d failed to take into account one important detail — with Memorial Day on Monday, the area was crowded with traffic and people, probably more so than usual. Someone in a hurry even managed to take a paint chip off the back on the driver’s side (as often happens, it didn’t register until later, but he heard and felt it). We found ourselves in a distant parking lot, waiting for a shuttle to take us closer to Goat Island. I don’t remember that at all from years ago, but while the populations of Buffalo and Niagara Falls have declined, the number of tourists who want to see this attraction seems to have expanded exponentially.

In my 18 years in New York, I’d never gone aboard any of the Maid of the Mist boats. From what I can recall from my brain’s faulty data banks dating to the 1960s and 1970s, the Maid of the Mist was a popular, modestly scaled service, but today it’s a big operation that moves people with the precision of a factory conveyor belt. I told J. that the people ahead of us disappearing into the bowels of the next Maid in line were destined for some hideous end (Soylent Green?), never to be seen again (the people visible on deck could simply be a regular cast planted there to make you feel complacent). As it turns out, the scale wasn’t my imagination or a distorted childhood memory — the boats I would have seen when I was, say, five years old carried about 100 people, while today’s Maid has a capacity of 600. I wish I’d had a chance to take the trip as a child, even without an iPhone or Nikon to record it.

As an aside, operations on the Canadian side are run by a different company, so when you look down you’ll see a boat loaded with blue ponchos (American side) and a boat loaded with (maple leaf) red ponchos (Canadian side). Rival rain gear!

After passing through the pre-boarding points of the Maid of the Mist experience with assembly-line efficiency, we picked up our own blue ponchos from a giant shed and were shepherded on board, where we found a good spot with a view, not too many heads in front of us, and a bar to cling to. The ponchos are effective at keeping out the spray from the falls — my arm got wet mostly because water ran down the sleeve as I held onto the vertical bar.

The Maid of the Mist stops at the more attractive Horseshoe Falls first, lingering long enough for us to appreciate the beauty and power of the water and its deafening roar. I’m still amazed a boat can approach so closely, to be swallowed by the mist. My dad, more knowledgeable than I, used to find my fear that it would capsize amusing. Today the boat stayed in place seemingly effortlessly as I struggled to take photos while trying to keep the iPhone and camera dry.

Next the Maid swings back toward the American Falls, where the remnants of several rock slides prevent too close an approach and there’s less mist further out to obscure photos. I’d rarely been to Niagara Falls on such a sunny day, when even the lines of the water looked crisp in the bright light.

After leaving the Maid, we spent a long time in the observation area, which has magnificent views. Although I tried, it was hard for me to imagine the real “Niagara Frontier” the way the first people in the area had seen it. (I can’t picture the abomination of the Niagara Mill District, either, even after seeing vintage photos of it.)

By now I was getting tired, it was late in the afternoon, and we needed to get back to pick up my cousin and his wife for dinner, so we skipped Old Fort Niagara when I realized how far away it was and turned south toward Grand Island and the B&B for a brief cleanup and rest stop.

Next we headed into Hamburg and through Water Valley toward Eden. I can’t explain it, but I love the drive through Water Valley, which is little more than a bridge over a dip in the landscape where the creek runs. I always felt like I’d been transported instantly and magically from town to country, from present to a recent past. Past Water Valley, Braymiller’s Market, where we used to stop for ice cream or custard, is still there, looking unchanged.

For a short time there was a European cheese store on Route 62, where my dad willingly stopped so I could buy cheeses and a powdered Swiss drink that came in a jar with a red label and lid and had a robust flavor like a grain. I can’t remember the name anymore, even after I found it once or twice at the old Chalet in Hyde Park.

The shop looked quaintly European to my young mind, and I loved the cool atmosphere inside, dim after the brightness of the outdoors. I was heartbroken when one day we stopped to find it closed — no yelp.com then to warn us of these things. The building is still there, housing a Subway sandwich shop complete with the original Swiss-themed exterior artwork. As of June 2015, the franchise is up for sale for the reduced price of $55,000. How interested am I in franchising?

After dinner at Pegasus in Hamburg, we took my cousin and his wife home, where we visited fora couple of hours. I learned some new stories about both my dad and cousin. He told me the union had leased their hall next to Tony’s (formerly Jim’s) because they didn’t need that big of a space. I said Ford seems to be doing well and keeps its buildings well maintained, unlike some of the rusty plants in south Buffalo (and survived, unlike its neighbor, Bethlehem Steel). He noted, however, that in its heyday the Ford Stamping Plant had up to 5,000 employees, while now it has perhaps 700. It’s no wonder they don’t need that big union hall. He also mentioned what a fabulous place Old Fort Niagara is with all its history, which cemented the idea of going there. After taking a couple of photos and bidding them a very reluctant farewell after 11, we returned to the B&B, which we still couldn’t find in the dark!