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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.
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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.
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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.
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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 for a 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!
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My last significant trip to Hamburg, in 1987, had been bittersweet — my brother, sister-in-law, and I visited for about a week to help my dad pack and get ready for his move to Altoona, Pennsylvania. Worried about becoming less independent, he wanted to be closer to his sisters and other family members, which I thought was wise. My connection to the familiar, already weakened by distance, time, and events, was about to be severed, which weighed on me even during a gloriously sunny, colorful week in early October. I didn’t want to let go, but had no choice. I had returned once that I remember, in 1999 for a high school reunion, but didn’t see much beyond the banquet room.
In the years since then, sometimes I’ve dreamed about my hometown. Most of these dreams have been the garden-variety “I’m in high school again and can’t find my locker/locker combination/class/schedule” expressions of stress.
A couple, however, stood out. In them, I had returned to Hamburg to discover that the familiar had become the strange, or at least dominated by it. In one, a roadside had been transformed into the unrecognizable in some undefinable but palpable way. In another, narrow, high houses dominated the sky where the woods behind our trailer used to be, with the magic valley in those woods that I used to dream of obliterated by a reality that I saw in a dream.
I digress. When we’d driven along Route 20 the night before on the way to Sharon’s Lakehouse, I’d been struck by how familiar the way seemed, even in the dark, even with whatever changes there had been. It’s not that Route 20 south of Amsdell Road looks radically different from any other place. It is, however, different from most of the parts of Illinois I’ve seen. It’s more wooded along the roadside, with a house, cluster of houses, or small business breaking up the darkness of the trees. The front yards are deep, some filled with older trees. The lights inside peer into the darkness, but mostly don’t overwhelm it. In Illinois, the area that comes closest were parts of the way between Harrisburg and Golconda in the Shawnee National Forest. The southern part of western New York isn’t as open or flat as the central part of Illinois, nor nearly as densely populated as northern Illinois around Chicago. I relaxed into the familiar comfortable place that I’d been missing and reshaping in my dreams.
Our first day, to be devoted to exploring the Hamburg area (I was deciding this as I went) dawned as sunny, comfortable, and perfect as I could want, with just a bit of extra wind to keep Lake Erie choppy.
After checking out the lake view and the Steel Winds wind turbines, and eating a gourmet breakfast in the company of our hosts and a fellow guest, we picked up my school friend BL. Her mother, my former 6th grade English teacher, looked great, and I told her so. “You’re still lying!” she said, feigning (I hope) a tone of disgust. “Still?” I said in disbelief. We were told BL was hopped up on Tim Horton’s coffee and to keep her out as long as possible.
I didn’t know where to begin, but I had J. take us to Pleasant Avenue and to the dead end where it’s cut off by I90, aka the New York State Thruway. I used to ride my bike here to sit among the trees and weeds. Somewhere I have a photo of my old Huffy Superstar parked in the road, among the light and shadows.
I’m not sure I remember the order of where we went or stoppped, but here’s the list:
The Centennial Art Center of Hamburg in an former little red schoolhouse on Pleasant Avenue (which really is pleasant)
South Creek Road overlooking Eighteen Mile Creek
First Baptist Church of Hamburg, where the outside looks the same
Comfort Zone Café, where BL informed me that one can’t drink coffee without some kind of treat
Braymiller’s Lanes (1942)
The Palace (showing Tomorrowland, which is what all the old-style town theaters seemed to have on tap that week)
Hamburg Optical, which has more staying power than I’d have expected
Amsdell Middle School (formerly junior high), Frontier Central High School, and Cloverbank Elementary School
Red Top Charcoal-Broiled Hot Dogs (take that, Chicago)
Ford Stamping Plant, my dad’s workplace for about 27 years
Tony’s Bayview Drive-In for Perry’s Ice Cream (formerly known as Jim’s and an occasional stop for us when my dad went to the UAW union hall that was next door)
The Lake Shore Branch of the Hamburg Public Library just before closing, which, incredibly, smells just like it did in 1979
The train siding in Hamburg near where the feed store used to be (I didn’t have a chance to see if it’s still there)
Hamburg Trailer Park, formerly Frank’s, which has changed dramatically. Neither BL nor I could tell where my old trailer used to be, partly because the road has been shifted over, and the trailers are further out from the woods
Lakeside Memorial Park, which I remember as a peaceful spot punctuated at night by lonely-sounding train whistles demonstrating the Doppler effect. A sign by the tracks notes that trains don’t blow their whistles anymore. BL spotted an unusual name near the road. It proved to be the family grave of a classmate who was killed in car accident in 1983. She is there, with an old-style nurse’s cap to mark the profession she was so new to.
The other part of Pleasant Avenue, away from town, which was new to BL. We saw an election sign for our former music teacher, who’s running for the school board. We knew him in his late 20s, maybe early 30s, when his passion was John Denver music. I don’t like to think of his age now.
We took BL home perhaps a little less hopped up on coffee and visited a little more with her and her mother, sister, and brother-in-law. Oddly, even with as much time as I’d spent there during my teen years, I might not have recognized the house or the yard.
They gave us some dining options, so after checking out the sunset over Lake Erie we ended up at Uncle Joe’s Diner on Route 29 near Seoules Road. J. was able to get a version of a local favorite, beef on weck. I can’t be sure I’ve ever tried it myself. After that I was ready to relax and reflect on my rediscovered love of creeks, which I’d known about all along.