Essay V. A Day Trip to Watkins Glen
This fifth essay in the series, entitled "A Day Trip to Watkins Glen," describes the experience that finally enabled me to put the falls of the Hammondsport Glen into perspective. Not until visiting a place that was simultaneously a natural phenomenon and an active state park did I realize why I was drawn so powerfully to the Hammondsport Glen.
Because my fiance had never been to Watkins Glen—and because I recalled so little from family visits years ago—we decided to take a day trip, while Terry was in Rochester during the summer of 1991.
Not far from the entrance off Franklin Street was a booth where we purchased a "Vehicle Use Permit" and picked up a map of the gorge trail. This being August, I inquired about a shaded parking spot, and the attendant directed us straight ahead. Slung between the stream channel and one of the ravine walls, the pavement extended a couple hundred yards—stopping just short of the tunnel at the foot of the trail. "Up there," the man told us, "the parking spaces will soon be in the shade."
Before starting our hike, Terry and I changed shoes—giving us time to survey our immediate surroundings. Stretching the length of the parking lot was a sidewalk, and on the railing between it and the stream channel was fastened a geologic time line. But even with a scale of a million years a foot, the label for the Pleistocene Epoch came only in the last few paces.
Beginning about two million years ago and lasting until about 10,000 years ago, the Pleistocene had been the geologic period when successive waves of continental glaciers had covered this part of New York State to depths of several thousand feet. In addition, we read on the blue and yellow marker: "The time it took to carve the Glen Gorge, from the end of the Ice Age to the present, would fit into the last 1/10th of an inch."
To the right and above us were Sentry Bridge and the Entrance Cascade—"Glen Alpha" in the parlance of an earlier era—and from a loudspeaker nearby we heard a continuously repeating message about the number of steps to the top and about the regular shuttle service (in case visitors preferred to walk only one way).
As promised, the trail climbed steadily-and each bend brought a new vista: another falls or more pools, a narrow passage or an open area. All the while, we observed a wide range of rock textures; in one spot, jagged sawteeth; in another, shear vertical faces; still elsewhere, sinuous water-shaped curves.
With so many different formations coming in such rapid succession, I began to understand why Watkins Glen had earned a place for itself on the map of the nation's tourist attractions. For that reason, however, we were not alone. The moment we began hiking, we joined a steady stream of people—including kids and adults of every age, except newborns and the very elderly.
If we waited long enough, we could usually take photographs without other people in them. Even so it was often difficult to find shots with no indications of human presence. At the very least, the solidly built trail established a strong counterpoint to the natural rhythms of the gorge.
Thus we found that Watkins Glen has a dual meaning. By the time we finished hiking, there was no denying its character as a natural scenic wonder. But neither could we escape its identity as a thriving human institution.
© 1993, Thomas D. Cornell