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Water You Waiting For?

by on April 27, 2016 6:00 AM

The first time I went to Ricketts Glen State Park, I wondered what took me so long. Why hadn’t I heard of it sooner? Why wasn’t it world famous?

The park is a waterfall freak’s paradise. It has 22 of them and you can see them all on one 7.2-mile trail loop. (Warning: The way is steep and slippery at times.)

The highest, Ganoga Falls, plunges 94 feet. To give you an idea of how high that is, Niagara drops 165 feet.

To give you an idea of how gorgeous Ricketts Glen is, let me drop a few names:

Yosemite. Yellowstone. Grand Canyon. Zion. Ricketts Glen has some of the grandeur of those western places.

This is not to belittle the East, whose green, rolling, forested landscapes I missed when I lived in drought-prone California. But the West has places where you round a bend in the trail and stop in your tracks, transfixed by the monumental magnificence of the view.

The only place I know like that on this side of the country, other than Ricketts Glen, is Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine. I haven’t been everywhere east of the Mississippi, of course. If there are places that do for you what Ricketts Glen does for me, please enlighten me.

What’s great about Ricketts Glen, though, is that it’s two hours from State College (between Williamsport and Wilkes-Barre). You can leave in the morning, hit the Falls Trail by noon, stop often to gaze, take photos and picnic, and be home for supper.

Now here’s another warning: Waterfalls can mess with your sense of motion and time. Swiftly as the water flows, the torrent also appears to be disintegrating in slow motion, like you’re watching a replay of a close play at the plate.

Or try this, if you go: Stare at one point along the falls for a while, then quickly shift your gaze to an adjacent rock outcropping. The land will appear to rise the way, in a railroad station, you sometimes can’t tell if the train you’re on is pulling out or the train next to yours is pulling in. A very cool, if dizzying, effect.

This is going to sound wifty, but gazing at a waterfall can make you feel better about mortality. To watch a stream of water break up into its constituent droplets at the top, and then see the droplets reassemble themselves at the bottom, is to witness, accelerated, the arc of a human life: Our time as sentient beings – the droplet stage – stands revealed as a brief interval of individuation after and before we merge with the energy and matter that flows all around us.

True, once you leave the conscious phase of being, you’re no longer able to appreciate waterfalls. Who knows, though? Maybe eventually, you become part of the waterfall. For that matter, maybe you already were part of the waterfall.

Trust me, these thoughts were way more profound when I was thinking them at Ricketts Glen than they sound now that I am trying to reconstruct them – kind of like the brilliant insights my friends and I came up with when we were stoned in high school. But that’s waterfalls for you – a natural high if ever there was one.

Now let us return to more down-to-earth considerations. Ricketts Glen on a recent Saturday was a-swarm with falls gazers. As the weather warms, it’s going to get busier.

When I was young my goal when I communed with nature was to get away from everybody. I’d measure the success of a backpacking trip by how few humans I saw.

I’m fine with sharing the trail with other members of my species now. It’s like seeing birds. They all have their plumage and their chatter.

On the Falls Trail, one guy stood out from the flock of human billboards for sports teams and places and name brands. He carried a rolled-up poster that he unfurled for his hiking partner at a particularly photogenic spot.

“Water you waiting for?” it read. “Say you’ll go to the prom with me.”

That boy got himself a date.

If you don’t fancy being part of so much foot traffic, try to get to Ricketts Glen on a weekday.

Then you can do the six-hour, 267-mile, Pennsylvania waterfall loop driving tour that extends from Ricketts Glen in the west to the Delaware Water Gap in the east, with stops along I-84 to the north and I-80 in the south.

I just learned of it. Since I’d rather look at a waterfall than just about anything else I can think of, I hope to find time for the drive between now and when the leaves turn in far-off October.

And after that, the world waterfall tour. Think of all the wifty thoughts I have to look forward to!


A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," was published this fall by the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place in the Commentary-Non Daily category of the Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter 2017 Spotlight contest. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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