When I moved back to Western New York from New England, I was hoping to reclaim something from my past. I had been away for nearly three decades, and there were things that I remembered and wanted to find again.
Both of my parents had been raised in Jamestown, and although I was brought up in Amherst, we owned a cottage on the north side of Chautauqua Lake for most of my childhood. The days I spent with my brothers bouncing around in our little boat, traipsing through meadow and wood, or fishing on our creaky dock were the best days of my life. We thought then that there was no place in the world like Chautauqua Lake.
For many years, we set out in October with 30 family friends to walk the Portage Trail. It was a rite of passage to welcome fall by following that old Indian trail, disturbing the stillness of those yellowed woods with our crunching feet and barking dogs and little kids. We weren't far from civilization, but to us it seemed primeval. Our group-friends of varying ages and sizes-lumbered down that trail like make believe vagabonds, united in our quest to seize the day.
Images taken along the Portage Trail.
Photos by Margot Russell Hanrahan
A map of any life will change directions, its old paths forgotten and overgrown. My brothers and I remembered our hikes on the Portage Trail and, thinking that there would always be a someday, we planned to take our families there. But life got in the way, as it is apt to do. Before turning 50, I moved to Lakewood and thought to set out and find that old path, now tangled in memory.
Surely, it must still be there, the way that I remembered it. In years past, we had always hiked a small part of the trail, and all we had to do now was remember where the path began and ended. My father had been the arbiter of those childhood hikes, but he died seven years ago, taking our landmarks and some of our memories with him. In some way, hiking the Portage Trail seemed a way to walk with him again.
A series of scouting drives to find the path were fruitful. My mother remembered our hikes had started on Quilliam Road and ended on Gale Street in the town of Westfield. But exactly where was hard to say. My mother remembered we'd look for a specific telephone pole on Quilliam, park our cars and begin our hike there. Presently, we were confused by the new Rails to Trails path that ended on Quilliam, because although it is lovely it is not our hike - not the one we hoped to reclaim.
It seemed to us that someone else had since bought the land where we had started our hikes, as there was now a sign posted with a dire warning about trespassing. "Survivors will be prosecuted," it read. Perhaps we could find another way into the woods. We drove across farmland and road, a keen eye out for a trailhead, and I became of singular mind that I would hike that trail in its entirety, just the way we had before. I remembered the trail had started in the woods along an old trolley bed, descended down a steep embankment to Little Chautauqua Creek below, and then on to Buttermilk Falls where we'd have lunch and skip rocks in the cool, tumbling water. Later, we'd follow the creek to Gale Street, climb up another embankment, emerging from the wilderness onto the threshold of a beautiful vineyard that always smelled like heaven.
One day, frustrated with our progress, we stopped at the Westfield library where a lovely young woman located an old Portage Trail Boy Scout pamphlet written in 1971. It was stuck in an old manila file in a back room, and she dusted it off and handed it to me as if it were an authentic map from antiquity. This was it! The trail we had hiked! But we had been right: The beginning of our trail was now on land that discouraged hikers, and under the threat of arrest, we'd have to find an alternate route. Perhaps, I thought, if we hiked the trail backwards - beginning on Gale - it would all become clear as we walked along. I was certain we could find a neighbor on Quilliam Road who wouldn't mind if we ended our hike on his land.
On a recent fall day, filled with the promise of warmth and color, and with Boy Scout map in hand, I set off with my husband to pursue the trail in a backward fashion. He was not feeling well, having just had a minor tune up on his heart, and so this would be a kinder, gentler walk. After giving up on the impassable creek bed, we spied a spot from the road where we could hike into the woods, and after a bit of climbing and sliding through the undergrowth, we came across a view of Buttermilk Falls below us. I had worried it would be less than I remembered, but there it was, as beautiful and present as it had been 30 years before.
The woods smelled the same - deep and dank and mossy. Old trees had fallen and rotted as they had before. There was the sound of the rushing creek; the slippery, golden leaves beneath our feet; the whole place dappled with afternoon sunshine and sodden with depth and loneliness, just as it had before.
Stretches of the path were mostly overgrown or not remembered. We could see where it had once been, but time had given way to fancier trails. We stood there in silence, just our beating hearts and the sound of the falls and the bustling creek. I was an older version of the little girl I used to be in the same woods, in a fall without end, in a life with a finite measure.
The Portage Trail, with its roots and leaves and meandering paths, had been the backdrop to our lives on days that were filled with extravagance-memories that were saved and worth retrieving. I only saw a part of that path when I went back. It was still there, in its own uncertain way.
Margot Russell Hanrahan is a freelance writer, who has also worked as a reporter and a news broadcaster. She is currently an international tour director, and owner of Blue World Journeys - a tour company specializing in small group tours to Peru and Machu Picchu.
Margot grew up in Amherst, but spent her summers by Chautauqua Lake. Before moving to Lakewood in 2012, she lived on Cape Cod, Mass. for more than 20 years, where she was a staff writer for Inside Cape Cod Magazine and a news broadcaster for WQRC radio and raised three daughters. She is happy to finally be back by Chautauqua Lake.