For the majority of my adult life, I have lived in one city or another. Arguably, my hometown in Western New York–really, a small city–contains a walkable urban center with access to pharmacies, parks, the post office, the public library, and a handful of restaurants, bars, and modest shops. Like many towns throughout the Rust Belt, the joint terrors of Walmart, peripheral sprawl, automobile dependency, and the contemporary drug scourge have hollowed out the core, stripped it of its past vitality and vibrancy, and degraded its public spaces. When I walk through the downtown, I seldom pass another pedestrian. Many of the surrounding neighborhoods appear shabby and neglected.
This past weekend, my wife and I traveled to this corner of rural Western New York to visit my family and celebrate my younger sister’s recent engagement. Along the way and during our brief stay, I remembered what makes this corner of the Empire State great. Although it might lack the dazzle, variety, and culture of a big city, Western New York bursts with nature.
Rolling hills, green in the spring and the summer; brown and red in the autumn; and brilliantly white in the winter, hug the town. At almost every street corner, one can spot these hills with a mere turn of the head. The Allegheny River and its tributary the Olean Creek wind through town. When I was in college, a cleared and paved trail opened up along the River. On my way to and from my campus jobs, I would ride my bike along the trail. During weekends, I would often retreat to my favorite spot just off the path, a bench facing the river, and watch the slow water and gaze at the green hills. As English major (and a passionate and dedicated lover of literature to this day), I felt the tug of the Romantic poets and their sentimentalization of nature.