From Letchworth, we drove to Ithaca, New York and arrived during a stunning sunset with plans for more waterfalling the next day. I went to college in Ithaca, lived there for several years afterward, and spent most of my free time becoming acquainted with the many breathtaking gorges that inspired the bumper sticker, "Ithaca is Gorges." Ithaca is where I discovered my connection with nature and will always be my second home.
We woke up in the morning to warmish weather and a mostly overcast sky, which is ideal for outdoor photography. We just had to decide which gorge to hike through. I think of Ithaca Falls as my best friend, as far as waterfalls go. But it's only a short walk to get to the falls, and once you're there, there's no place else to go. The best time to photograph it is in the afternoon, so I thought I'd stop by before leaving town. Cascadilla Gorge is another in-town favorite, but the upper section has been closed for years for restoration and repair. We went to the legendary Taughannock Falls over the summer, and it's a bit of a drive to get there. I wasn't in a Taughannock mood. Back in my twenties, the trails at Robert H. Treman State Park were my favorite to hike for exercise and scenery. However, when my son and I went there in late August, the spectacular upper section was closed due to damage from rains earlier in the summer. I didn't want to risk driving there only to find it still closed.
And then there's Buttermilk Falls State Park.
It had been close to 25 years since I'd hiked the Gorge Trail at Buttermilk, but I remembered it being both beautiful and a good workout, so I decided to introduce Jack to it. We spent quite a bit of time at the foot of the falls right next to the park entrance. Jack spotted some rocks in the stream below the falls and got to work immediately. I did my thing while he did his.
Eventually, we decided to move on and start hiking. The entire Gorge Trail runs alongside Buttermilk Creek, with numerous waterfalls along the way, beginning with this one (below) that greets you once you have climbed the first (of many) rustic set of steps.
This is where we met up with a retired couple. Much like us, the woman was a nature and wildlife photography enthusiast, and the man had grown accustomed to waiting patiently. We listened to them recount stories of beautiful places and wildlife photography adventures and engaged in other inspiring conversations with retired folks we met along the trails both at Buttermilk and the previous day at Letchworth State Park. Those waterside conversations with elders provided a sense of perspective that's difficult to extract from the confines of daily life - and some food for thought about how we self-impose many such confines, forgetting how much choice we ultimately have.
The trail continued, going up one flight of stairs after another.
A waterside trail is what I had hoped to experience the previous day at Letchworth. It was what I craved. At Buttermilk, we were close enough to touch the water if we chose to do so. The sound, scenery, and energy of the water was at the same time soothing and rejuvenating.
As Jack commented (more than once) that Buttermilk Falls was his new favorite of all the Ithaca area gorge trails, I kept wondering why it had taken me so long to rediscover it. I guess it all comes down to time and priorities, which are different when you are raising children and when you leave a place and only return for brief visits. Priorities shift.
And they also can shift back.
I always have been drawn to waterfalls and have sought out local waterfalls everywhere I've lived. And I have yet to encounter a waterfall more satisfying than those I have experienced in Ithaca. Some (like Niagara Falls) may be more immense, but that's not what I'm talking about. The waterfalls that appeal most to me are ones that invite me to sit down next to them and write or meditate in a quiet spot.
Even though I spend a lot of time photographing waterfalls now, I still can sense the grace of an invitation. When I use the timer on my camera, I close my eyes and breathe it all in.
A kindred spirit had been here before us and left an Andrew Goldsworthy inspired footprint.
An increase in sunlight was the telltale sign that we were approaching the top of the gorge.
And that was good because Jack, who was recovering slowly from a nasty cold, wasn't feeling well. But he remained patient as I stopped repeatedly to set up my tripod. Although he wasn't balancing rocks, he was taking in the healing atmosphere of the gorge.
Eventually, we came out on top and then crossed over to the other side of the gorge to hike the Rim Trail back down to the parking lot. In all, it was a 1.7 mile hike.
We stopped frequently to admire beautiful fallen leaves and didn't run into a soul on the Rim Trail. By the time we got back to our car, more than three hours had passed, and it was time to head back home.
I didn't stop to say hi to Ithaca Falls or to any human friends, although they were in my heart the whole time. Jack wasn't feeling well, and I tend to visit friends when my teenagers are with me. However, hiking the Buttermilk trails made me realize how swiftly time passes. You have to make time for who and what you love, or before you know it, you'll find yourself wondering how it could be that you let 5, 10, 20, or more years pass between visits. Waterfalls don't change much over time, but people do. There are so many people I used to know in Ithaca who either moved away or who I gravitated away from when the parenting chapter of my life began, and all my social interactions revolved around the children. Through our children, I became friends with some people I probably never would have known otherwise, and I am grateful for those friendships. We've traveled through an important chapter of life together, and I'm sure all of us are equally astonished by how quickly the time has passed. Now that our children have grown and many of them are in college, it requires more effort to maintain those connections in person since they are no longer the default setting for visits.
Which means I simply will have to make more frequent trips to Ithaca...
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