After disassembling my tent, stuffing gear into my pack, and wolfing down a dozen store-brand Oreos, I continued my march west across Wheatfield.
As I walked over lumps of earth in farm fields that were hard and sparkling in frost, I kept close to the edge of the woods to reduce my chances of being spotted. After skirting around a pond, where an alarmed long-legged Great Blue Heron launched from an icy pond, I found train tracks that I stumbled along en route to Walmore Road. Once I hit the road, I’d change direction to the south, back toward my parents’ home, the old Summit Mall, and my recently discovered Wheatfield Lakes.
On Walmore, I strolled by quaint, ranch-style homes, St Peter’s Cemetery, the old Military Road School, and Guy’s Lumber—old sights on a road I’d driven over in buses and parents’ vehicles hundreds of times to attend school or football practice. Then a blue collar bar, Talarico’s pizza, and the giant, sprawling Air Force base, which had “no photography” signs posted on a cage link fence. Tiring of the road, I climbed a small, manmade ridgeline to walk along more railroad tracks so I could see things from both a novel pace and perspective.
To my left were more giant rectangles of fallow fields with cut cornstalks, hewn by tractors to a rough and jagged stubble, the abrasive texture of a woman’s prickly leg hairs. To my right was the military base connected to almost two miles of runway (9,130 feet)—the longest in New York State and the only strip in the area where large cargo planes had enough room to land.
In between Williams and the railroad were a series of parking lots overgrown with weeds and full of derelict cars, along with some sort of “war games” enclosure where I’m guessing the military practices strategic maneuvers. A “No Trespassing” sign warned that “Deadly Force is Authorized.” After walking over a railroad bridge that hangs over the Niagara Falls Boulevard, I made my way down to Jagow Road, near a small neighborhood mall called Summit Park.
When I was a boy, going to the Summit was a big deal. All the cool kids went there after school, alone, without their parents, which made going with your parents about as embarrassing as crapping your pants in class. Getting caught with your mom was an embarrassment of apocalyptic proportions that made you wish, if just for that fleeting moment, that the gods grant you a swift and merciful death. But parent or no parent, I delighted in surveying the Sega titles in Toys “R” Us, the feeling the rush of juvenile glee in Spencer's, or spending hours in the “trading card” shop, scanning over coveted hockey cards, wondering what gems I might discover in a sealed pack of “Upper Deck,” and fantasizing about owning Mario Lemieux’s rookie card encased in its own special glass display.
I knew the adjacent Summit Park Six Theater had been shut down and destroyed long ago, and that the 800,000 square foot mall had become mostly abandoned, but I'd hoped to at least walk inside and view the deserted shops in a hazy daze of nostalgia. Instead, I was disappointed to learn that the whole mall—except for a Bon Ton on one end and a Sears on the other—had been boarded up.
Railroad between Ward and Walmore.
Mountain of concrete and rebar near rail road tracks on Williams Road.
Military land, I believe.
Cornfields by Cayuga Drive Extension.
Forest recently cleared for home on Jagow.
Summit Park subdivision.
This is Love Canal. It's now just a big plot of grass enclosed by a tall fence.
Wheatfield Lakes again, circled by ATV trail.
Wheatfield Lakes. You can see lakeside homes on left side.
The Summit Mall is less than a mile from historic Love Canal—a community where, in the 1950’s, a corporation buried 21,000 tons of toxic chemicals. People young and old near the site were stricken with epilepsy, cancers, nervous disorders, and miscarriages. Between 1974 and 1978, 56% of children in the neighborhood exhibited at least one birth defect, often in the form of enlarged heads, hands, and feet, among more serious illnesses. One child had a second row of teeth. This is how one EPA administrator described it:
“Corroding waste-disposal drums could be seen breaking up through the grounds of backyards. Trees and gardens were turning black and dying. One entire swimming pool had been popped up from its foundation, afloat now on a small sea of chemicals. Puddles of noxious substances were pointed out to me by the residents. Some of these puddles were in their yards, some were in their basements, others yet were on the school grounds. Everywhere the air had a faint, choking smell. Children returned from play with burns on their hands and faces.”
It was one of the worst manmade environmental catastrophes the country had ever seen. This occurred less than four miles from my home.
You’d think that—because of Love Canal—the townspeople and politicians of Wheatfield and Niagara Falls would have decided to usher in a new period of environmental awareness. Not only would we clean up Love Canal, but perhaps we’d also preserve some of the undeveloped land—not for future development or industrial exploitation—but as a nature sanctuary: a small square of land set aside to remind people that, oh yeah, places can exist without pipes and roads and cancerous chemicals.
Instead, we got this: dead malls, suburban sprawl, industrial squalor; our natural wonder surrounded by power lines and towering casinos.
Then again, is this place all that bad?
I was walking past a line of apartments on Plaza Drive, near a subdivision where my first girlfriend used to live. Here’s a neighborhood much like my own, where kids can ride their bikes, enjoy their own aboveground pools, and play videogames all night long at their best friend’s house. Parents can leave their doors unlocked. Dogs can catch an occasional rabbit in the backyard.
These parents aren’t bad people. They didn’t chop down the trees or drain the wetlands. They just wanted the best possible life for their kids.
Wasn’t I happy as a child? Didn’t I have a good childhood?
Have I just become cynical over the years? Am I bound to become some old, cranky curmudgeon who complains about everything that isn’t the way it was or should be? The creation of all towns and homes and cities entails some environmental destruction, doesn’t it? Is suburbia that bad?
Why do I even care? Why do I hate it so much? Why do I hate anything at all? Do I really even hate it, or am I forcing myself to hate it to legitimate an identity I've adopted?
Not sure what to think, I decided to head back into the woods south of the subdivision to explore new territory. Better yet, I’d head back to the lakes—where I had "a moment" two days before.
After walking over a log that had fallen over Black Creek, wading my way, ankle-deep, through a farm field (that had become wet and muddy upon thawing in the afternoon sun), crashing through a dense stand of bushy tailed reeds, and accumulating a shirt full of fuzzy burrs, I made it to the secret lakes of Wheatfield.
Except this time they didn’t seem so secret or majestic. Hiding in the reeds, I watched three expensive looking and slightly muddy jeeps depart on a gravel road. On all sides of the lakes was swampy diarrhea-colored water, where ATVs had grinded their tires into the ground over and over again. A box of Labatt Blue Light sat next to a tree overlooking the lakes. The sky wasn’t so clear and celestial as it was two days ago; rather, it was a bland, slightly hazy blue-gray that made you think something was stuck in your eyes.
I quickly left and made my way back to Ferchen Road, slightly unsettled, knowing these lakes weren’t as pristine as I’d originally perceived them to be. Not only that, but I began to wonder how I could possibly have gone twenty years without ever noticing them, just a mile from my house. How is that even possible? Have I really been that out of touch with my surroundings? Am I really that oblivious? Or is it suburbia’s fault? Has the landscape and lifestyle done irreparable damage to my finer senses, the same way working in a factory can impair our hearing?
On my way to my subdivision, I came across an old man wearing a navy blue veteran’s cap who was on the other side of the road having just gathered his mail, waiting for the traffic to go by so he could cross again. When he did, I asked, “Excuse me sir, do you know if those lakes back there are… real?”
“Well, I think they’re manmade, if that’s what you mean. Are you from around here?”
“Yeah, I live in Country Meadows.”
“I can’t tell you much more. I’ve only been living here seven years.”
He was new to the neighborhood. But wasn’t I, as well? Aren’t we all? As far as I know, no one has lived in a suburb like Wheatfield for more than a generation or two. We’re all strangers—strangers who don’t really understand the land, its cycles, its history. And because we’ve all just moved here, our roots haven’t had a chance to sink into the soil, so our understanding of this place is partial at best. We are here for a decade or two, and then we're off to some slightly more prosperous locale or some southern state for the warm winters, leaving the decay and decrepitude in our catastrophic wakes.
We have no clue what this place is. Hardly anyone cares that we’re building more and more subdivisions because our relationship with the place is incipient at best. The rocks, the trees, the ponds—they mean nothing to us symbolically. They are segregated from our values, our religions, our society, our lives; the only relationship we have with them has been exploitative.
Later on, not only did I verify that the lakes were in fact constructed a few years ago (presumably built to give homeowners a “lakeside” view), but I learned that the beavers that live there—that I was so pleased to discover—are commonly harassed because their dams, allegedly, cause floods.
Thinking about the mall, the lakes, and the suburbs that I'd traveled through the past three days, I couldn’t say I felt hatred. This lake discovery was too predictable a conclusion to my journey. Hatred requires some element of surprise. Hatred occurs when something is seized from your grip. Thing is, I didn’t have much that could be stolen in the first place.
Plus, I can't feel hatred for such a simple way of living, for people so kind and caring. So, I guess it isn’t so much the individual suburb or the individual homeowner or the individual house that upsets me, but the broad, overarching trend of what’s happening to the land across America. If a family member is dying of cancer, we do not get angry with a mere cell of the cancer, or even the cancer as a whole, for these aren't things that can absorb anger or change as a result of our anger. Rather, we lament the loss of what was and grieve what could have been.
So I guess now—as I think about what's happened to this place—I don’t feel anger or sadness; just frustration and a sense of powerlessness. I think about my time in the woods as a boy: building forts with friends, catching frogs in the pond, befriending my old duck, Howard (who was run over by a garbage truck), and I think about how I can never reenter the scenes of these memories, just as I can no longer enter a decaying, boarded-up mall.
Yes, I have the memories themselves, but so long as I have them all to myself, not to be enjoyed or shared by others, these memories will forever be tainted, as they’re no longer the sweet memories of a “loved one,” but that of a loved one having been taken away.
1. Summit Park Bird Preserve. Once Bon-Ton and Sears go out of business, we’ll have almost—by my calculations—one hundred acres between the abandoned mall, the bulldozed theatre, and ghost town parking lots. Additionally, there are another 500 acres nearby that can be bought (which I know because the Wizard of Oz people had considered buying it years ago). This could make almost one square mile of nearly contiguous protected land for birds and small animals. Where will we get the money to buy the land (most of which costs $7,500/acre)? I have no idea. But its location directly across from Love Canal might attract national attention, possibly enabling a nationwide fundraising campaign.
2. Ban ATVs and Jeeps around Wheatfield Lakes. If we’re going to create natural spaces, we should treat them as such. Let’s set aside a place that can be peaceful and quiet; where our mode of travel doesn’t scar the land. We Western New Yorkers spend most of our time sitting at desks, on couches, and in cars; it wouldn’t hurt if we used our feet a little bit, too.
3. No new subdivisions.
4. Twelve-mile Wheatfield Farm-and-Forest Trail. It’s absolutely insane that there’s no wilderness trail anywhere near Wheatfield. If we’re going to get people to care about nature and make them want to preserve it, we first need to give them some place to experience and enjoy it. It’s about six miles from Oppenheim Park north to Bond’s Lake—a route that, except for a few road crossings, goes through almost all forest and field. Create a loop, and we double its size to twelve. (People can park their cars either at Oppenheim or Bond’s Lake.) The trail, like the AT, will be maintained by volunteers.
5. Bring the buffalo back to Buffalo. Yes, I said it. Let’s bring the buffalo—the animal—back to Western New York. Relocate a small population from a national park, assign a few rangers on horseback to protect them, and preserve a network of grasslands all across Western New York to which they may migrate and graze. It’ll be a source of local—hell—national pride, and a message that we’re turning a page and will no longer erect mindless sprawl.