This is the second in a monthly series of columns on the timeless treasures of Western New York, institutions that have spanned generations and continue strong today.
You need a certain kind of day and a certain kind of weather to enjoy certain aspects of Chestnut Ridge.
Unless you're a runner. Then every day is a perfect day to be at The Ridge.
Take Saturday, for example. At 7:30 a.m., the temperature was in the mid-20s but felt like it was closer to zero, thanks to a persistent wind that was gusting over 40 mph. It wasn't snowing a lot, but what was coming down sideways was like mini-hailstones. The paved trails that dissect the park and that draw runners there either were snow-covered, or icy, or both.
Those don't sound like ideal conditions for a run, but for nearly 40 years, the runners have been coming there every Saturday, no matter the weather.
Some are young and strong and fast. Others are not as young, or as strong, or as fast, as they once were. But they all come there for the challenge of legendary hills that are brutal enough to have earned nicknames, including the both hilarious and accurate Big Mother.
"Steep and evil," Katie Tryjankowski wrote on her blog "Breathlessrunner" last year of Mother. "I was screaming at my training partner that I was going to kill her when I caught her as I struggled up this beast."
Ellen Grant, a regular at The Ridge, also runs in her hometown of Grand Island, which features some of the flattest topography in the region. That's one of the reasons she makes the long drive to Orchard Park on Saturdays.
"There are no hills like the hills at Chestnut," she said. "And they will challenge you to the nth degree, and after you finish, you will feel good and you feel refreshed and you feel like you can take on the day."
The undulating trails at Chestnut Ridge are not the most visible part of the park. That title probably would come down to a tie between the casino, the stone structure with a massive wood-burning fireplace at the park's main entrance, or the sledding and toboggan hill right next to it, where generations of thrill-seekers have been testing their nerve for decades.
Truth be told, this column originally was going to be about the toboggan run, another treasure at Chestnut Ridge, but snow has been so scarce this winter that its operation has been a rare and unexpected event.
No such worries with the trails. The weather hasn't been invented yet that would keep runners away, especially those who start every Saturday there and have come to be known as the Ridge Runners.
"The first thing is the people I run with. That's No. 1," Marty Schwab, of Orchard Park, said, explaining why you will find him there every weekend just like the last 35 years or so. "Secondly, it's such a challenge physically to come here as opposed to running on flat surfaces. And it's a beautiful, beautiful piece of property that most people don't realize It's a pristine environment -- just a terrific place to get exercise and an even better place to have good friends."
The trails are paved, which is a small part of what makes them popular. It's not clear exactly when that happened, but the Saturday runs at The Ridge, which helped make them such a destination for runners, date from the fall of 1976, just as jogging was enjoying its first burst of popularity.
"We used to just show up there," said Paul Wangler, one of the first, whose route maps are still in circulation today.
As word spread, more runners started driving greater distances to see if they could handle what Chestnut Ridge had to offer.
Chestnut Ridge measures more than 1,200 acres and is believed to be one of the oldest county parks in the nation. For such a huge place, it's strange to hear the common refrain that it is underutilized and underappreciated. Part of the reason is its location, tucked away in a lightly populated area of Orchard Park, a 20- to 30-minute drive from some of the more densely populated parts of the region. But spend even a little time there and you wonder why you're not making more of an effort to take advantage of it.
Park maintenance was one of the many victims of Erie County's budget mess of the mid-2000s, and it still has not fully recovered. But that fiasco had a bright side: the creation of the Chestnut Ridge Park Conservancy, a nonprofit entity that is working with the county to make sure that everything that can be done is done to ensure the park's viability. The conservancy's mission is to work with the county to: define projects; raise money; sponsor events to get people into the park.
Eventually it hopes to undertake a mapping and signs project on the park's trail system.
Erie County Deputy Parks Commissioner Dan Glowacki, who served as superintendent of the park from 1995 to 2005, said Chestnut Ridge holds a special place in his heart.
"When I think of Erie County parks, I think of Chestnut Ridge," he said. "It's the crown jewel, the flagship, the granddaddy."
Part of what makes it special are the trails. Guarded by the chestnut trees that give the park its name, the trails offer a serene escape for runners, bikers, walkers and hikers.
The trails in the park are divided into two main sections, both starting and ending at the casino: The Upper, a 2.4-mile loop, and The Lower, a 5.3-mile loop, which includes the aforementioned Big Mother. Runners also love the hilly roads around the park, but the ones who are in serious training for an upcoming race or a high school cross country season often measure themselves against what they can do on Big Mother, which is part of The Lower.
"If you can do Big Mother, you're doing pretty good," Glowacki said.
Diane Kozlowski, who has been running at and around The Ridge for about 20 years, said the park's regular users feel a special kinship with it.
"I think we also take proud ownership in this the park because we've been coming here for so long," she said. "We care for it. We want to see it thrive. We want to see it maintained."
Gordie Walker, of North Buffalo, said that coming to The Ridge is such a part of him now that he doesn't even think about why he does it.
"It's like breathing" he said. "It's automatic. On Saturday mornings, we go to The Ridge."