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Social Distance Files: Hemlock Gorge

A guitar player practices his craft in the shadow of Echo Bridge.

By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter

I went to buy cigarettes (for my mom, not that it matters) this week, and the person behind the counter asked: “you’re 21, aren’t you?” I briefly appreciated being accused of being young, but had to ask: “21? You mean 18, right?” She handed me the cigarettes and said, “if you think it’s still 18, you’re definitely old enough to buy these.”

It hurt, but was just another sign that I’m getting old enough to struggle with the way the world is changing.  

If I saw less than ten people at Hemlock Gorge, I wouldn’t have written this article. In the last couple of years, too many nice places have been destroyed, literally and figuratively, by a sudden explosion in the popularity of social media and young people’s need to find new, unique places to photograph themselves. It’s incredibly frustrating. So, if people didn’t know about the area, Echo Bridge, and Newton Upper Falls already, I wouldn’t want to play a role in Hemlock Gorge suffering the same fate.

But, likely due to its densely populated setting, short distance from the highway, and the bridge’s designation as an “American Water Landmark," Hemlock Gorge was pretty crowded on Thursday afternoon.

After parking, I headed toward the dam and noticed a couple of people sitting on the other side of it. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to cross over the dam, which meant I couldn’t figure out what they were doing or looking at. The path leading under Echo Bridge ends up at a set of stairs with a great view of the river. On the other side, I could see a family fishing, but the water was too loud, and they were too far away for me to ask if they’d caught anything.

The view of the mill is worth the trip up the old, wooden stairs.

With this popularity does come downsides, though. The bottom of the bridge was covered in graffiti referencing the coronavirus, meaning it was done recently. Why people feel the need to scrawl barely illegible spray paint across a historical landmark, I will never know. It’s kind of sad, really - a better man than me designed this, more determined men than me built this, but I’m going to put my name on it.

When I crossed the bridge, I saw a group of teenage girls photographing themselves on top of it. They seemed a little shy about doing it, and stopped to let me pass, which was pretty shocking. I follow an Instagram page called “Influencers in the Wild,” which is nothing but videos of people filming other people filming themselves for social media. It’s pretty funny to see people forcing picnicking families to move, creating traffic jams for pedestrians having to walk around their “film set,” and using people’s private property as props just so they can have a unique setting to do “The Renegade,” “The Toosie Slide,” or any other new Tik-Tok dance my 31-year-old self knew about and definitely didn’t have to Google. Unfortunately, these girls need to be more shameless and selfish if they want to make it in the world of social media.

There was one individual sitting in the middle of the bridge on a lawn chair, sunning himself. He told me he’d been spending time on the bridge since he was a kid, and that he always sees photographers and artists painting the bridge from the trail below. Maybe because of all that time on the bridge as a kid, he didn’t seem bothered by the vertigo and fear that led everyone else to spend as little time on it as possible.

Alone on the bridge, a man catches some rays and practices social distancing.

On the other side of the bridge, the concrete bench with the best view of the river was occupied by a guitar player. He wasn’t looking for attention, just gently finger-picking an endless melody, rather than playing songs anyone would recognize. It was kind of funny that he was just playing for himself - not filming or looking for money. He said I could take his picture, but never gave his name.

I would encourage everyone to check out Hemlock Gorge. It’s a really nice place with some great views, easy-to-navigate trails, and enough space to maintain social distancing protocols. And these days, who knows how long it will stay that way?

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