Mishaps Make an Adventure: Paint Creek State Park, January 5, 2021

I always think about hiking, but I think about hiking the most when it is winter. Ohio has been covered in over a foot of snow for the past few weeks. Just about when I was recovered from COVID-19, the world turned frigid and the sidewalks froze over. Every run becomes a perilous oscillation between running on the street and jumping out of the way of cars and back into the snowbank. When I get home, inevitably cranky and annoyed at the current frozen state of the outdoors, I stare at photos of trails in the summer with longing.

It’s been a while since I went on a proper day hike, but there is one that stands out from recent months. On January 5, Wiggs and I met up in the middle of nowhere in Ohio, deep in Amish country, meaning to go for a hike at Fort Hill Earthworks and Nature Preserve. That did not pan out, but we did find another place to hike, which had surprisingly nice trails. Here’s how it went.

Nothing like a good puffball cloud

The Drive to Fort Hill

I was still at home in Kentucky in early January, while Wiggs was working in Columbus. He had a day off on January 5, so we agreed to meet about halfway for a visit at Fort Hill Earthworks and Nature Preserve. This revered hiking area has 1300 acres of old-growth forest and a Hopewell hilltop enclosure, built about 2,000 years ago. This is an Ohio History Passport site, so in addition to experiencing a new hiking area, I was also excited to get another stamp.

I made the hour and 45 minute drive from Cincinnati in the dreary weather, which hovered somewhere between light snow and a drizzle. I took a wrong turn, and was rerouted down a smaller county road. Soon, I was passing white farm houses with black buggies parked out front, clotheslines running from windows to trees, and signs that read “Handmade Baskets for sale – No Sun. Sale.” I only ever seem to wind up in Amish country when I don’t mean to. I take a turn, find myself deep in the smooth country hills of Ohio, and end up in another era.

When I finally arrived at Fort Hill, the first thing I saw was Wiggs waiting in his car. The next thing I saw was a locked gate where the entrance should be. I pulled up next to Wiggs, who looked dejected. As it turns out, there was a deer management hunt on this day, and so the grounds and hiking trails were closed. We had driven too far to just turn around and go home, so we decided to drive up the road until we found service, and navigate to another hiking location in the area. We soon found service, pulled into the tiny gravel parking lot of a tiny country church, and searched on Google Maps. The nearest place was Paint Creek State Park, so we navigated there.

Trail closure sign at Fort Hill

Paint Creek State Park

When we pulled into the park, it was totally deserted. We drove down to the lake, which was low enough to have created a sandbar. We walked on the sand, noting freshwater clam shells and great blue heron tracks. There was driftwood, and something oddly peaceful about this dreary day by the side of a lake.

We drove back up the hill and parked by a sign for a mountain bike trail. The map on the sign showed a large network of trails that looped down towards the water, then back on themselves, then outward again. Taken together, they would make a decent day hike – maybe 15 miles. We headed into the woods, opting for the trail closest to the lake.

Clams and rocks along the lake

It was easy walking, alternating between flat grassy paths through underbrush and thinner, forested trails. At first, the views and the trees were unimpressive, but the trail gave way to clear views down to the lake and became populated with all kinds of trees, including ideal mushroom trees: tulip poplar, elm, oak, sycamore. We found a tree covered in oyster mushrooms, just past their prime – otherwise they would have made a great harvest. Given the density of the elms and tulip poplars, we decided to come back during morel season.

Oyster mushrooms growing on a tree next to the trail

We took a lunch break on a large log overlooking the water. It was cold, though, so we didn’t stop for long. After lunch we continued up and over hills, around small ridges, and across creek beds, until it began to get dark and we decided to call it a day. Before heading home we drove north to the town of Greenfield, where we found a little coffee shop called The Grindhouse Café. We got pastries and coffees, and drove to a park to eat them. Considering that it was gray and drizzling, we sat in my car rather than getting out. And considering that this was not a particularly nice park, and was mostly just a parking lot, this was probably preferable anyway. My cappuccino was warm and the pastry was sweet, and even though the day didn’t go quite as planned, we were still glad for the time outside and together.

The map at the trailhead of Paint Creek State Park

Make it Work

I was disappointed not to be able to see Fort Hill that day, but we made an adventure out of it anyway. Paint Creek may not be a world-class hiking destination, but it was fun, it was a new experience, and it might just be our next great mushroom hunting destination. Yet again, hiking provided a life lesson: Frequently, things will not go the way you want them to, or the way you expect. You can be upset, you can drive home in a huff, you can be mad that it didn’t go the way you envisioned it. Or, you can make it work. You can drive to a new destination and see what happens. I’m glad we made it work.

Winter Hike in Hocking Hills

A week and a half ago I started feeling the beginnings of a sore throat, and then the next day I woke up with a fever. I decided to get a Covid-19 test, and it was positive. I have been in self-isolation for the past nine days with persistent fatigue, lack of taste and smell, and now, a powerful cough. On the bright side, it’s cold out, so it doesn’t feel like too much of an inconvenience to be cozy in my apartment. But I am beginning to get a bit antsy, and my mind inevitably wanders to the thought of being outside and with other people.

I was fortunate to be able to go on a number of smaller hikes before Christmas. One of them, on December 18, was a lovely little trip to Hocking Hills State Park with Wiggs and his brother, Collin. Although I grew up in Northern Kentucky and currently live in Columbus, I had never been to this beautiful place before, so we decided to make the trip as a last hurrah to the fall semester. Here are a few highlights from this day.

In the gorge at Hocking Hills State Park

Getting Started

December 18 was one of my last days in town before heading home for Christmas. As a college writing teacher, I was also in the thick of grading final papers and managing a flurry of panicked emails before grades were due. I was stressed out. We debated the merits of going when Wiggs and I both had so much to do, but we ultimately decided that one never regrets spending time outside. So, although we got a late start, we still made the trip, and I am so happy we did. Wiggs drove, I stress-crocheted, and Collin sat in the back peacefully consuming a tray of cinnamon bites from Taco Bell on the hour and a half drive to Hocking Hills.

It wasn’t a particularly sunny day, but it had just snowed, and a graceful dusting of white covered the trees and grass. The highway ended and we made our way down a winding road, stopping at the Hocking Hills Coffee Emporium for a cozy cappuccino and snacks. When we got to the state park it was nearly empty, considering that it was winter and a weekday. It felt like we had the place almost to ourselves.

Wiggs at Upper Falls

Hocking Hills: A Brief History

Hocking Hills has a fascinating natural and cultural history. Its now-famous natural rock formations were created by millions of years of erosion into the soft Black Hand Sandstone that characterizes the area. Because this erosion formed an uncharacteristically cool and moist environment, certain species of trees, such as hemlocks and yews, are able to grow here, although they are not typically found anywhere else in Ohio.

The Adena people – the same people who built many of the mounds in Ohio – are thought to have lived in the area, followed by the Shawnee, Delaware, and Wyandot peoples. Hocking Hills derives its name from the Shawnee word “Hockhocking,” meaning, roughly, “bottleneck river,” due to the shape of the gorge and the narrow channels of rock that the river flows through.

One of the most famous areas of Hocking Hills, and one that we visited, is Old Man’s Cave. This formation is so named because of the hermit Richard Rowe, who was said to have lived in the cave after moving to Ohio from Tennessee in the late 1700s. Supposedly, Rowe is buried in the cave.

Stepping into the gorge at Hocking Hills is like entering another universe. On this day, it was a peaceful, cool, fragrant, snow-covered universe, one that I was enormously happy to visit.

Inside Old Man’s Cave

Hiking in the Gorge

We started the hike by descending the staircase on the Grandma Gatewood Trail towards the Upper Falls. We admired the deep, clear pool and the cascading stream of water, mercifully free of any other visitors. We continued down the gorge, passing the Devil’s Bathtub, and enjoying the rock formations, caves, and meandering trail crossing over and back over the creek. We walked up towards Old Man’s Cave, admiring its vastness, then down further into the valley to the Lower Falls.

The Lower Falls, in particular, struck me as extraordinarily beautiful. The hemlocks on the cliffs above and the boulders below were dusted with a fine layer of snow. The chilly air brushed against my face. It smelled fresh and clear, and I was so glad to be outside in this beautiful place instead of staring at a computer screen.

Lower Falls

We continued down the trail towards Cedar Falls. The path followed a flat, pleasant walk through the valley. We meandered first towards the creek, then along the side of the pocketed sandstone cliffs, and then back down again. I couldn’t get over the smell. It was so clean and fresh, with the water and the snow and the hemlocks. It didn’t feel like Ohio, or anywhere else I’d been. It was just beautiful, quiet, and serene.

We stopped for lunch at Cedar Falls. Here there were more tourists, including one who decided to sit on a rock right in front of the waterfall for a considerable length of time, thereby subjecting everyone’s lovely nature photographs to the addition of a strange man vaping on a rock. Everyone should be able to enjoy the beauty of a natural area, but friends, please be self-aware, and don’t be that guy. Inconsiderate visitors aside, it was a lovely location for a sandwich and a cup of hot tea, brewed by Collin, who is just beginning to get into backpacking and who brought along his stove. I was grateful for the warmth of the drink in the chilly winter day.

Cedar Falls (strategically photographed to avoid the vaper on the rock)

Hiking Along the Rim

I didn’t want to leave the waterfall. It was so beautiful and serene. But it was getting late, so we climbed the stairs to the top of the falls and made a loop back around on the Ash Rim Trail overlooking the gorge.

This trail is smooth, flat, and wide, and since it is in the woods above the creek rather than down among the rocks, we covered the distance more quickly. Though it is arguably not as scenic as the trail down in the gorge, it is still beautiful, and it was especially beautiful in the snow. There was an overlook out towards the hills on the other side of the valley, and the pines and hemlocks were dusted with a light, frothy layer of snow.

The trail makes its way past the south shore of Rose Lake. We stood looking at the snowy trees on the other side of the water. Wiggs found a large stick that made a fun whooshing noise, so he and Collin had a fun time playing with it on the edge of the lake. Classic antics.

We continued through the forest, eventually arriving at the A-frame suspension bridge over the gorge that leads back to the Old Man’s Cave visitor center. It was by now almost dark, considering that it was winter and that we’d gotten quite a late start, so we loaded back up in the car, calmer and happier, and made our way back to Columbus.

Fun time at Rose Lake with a stick

You Never Regret a Hike

Although going for a hike didn’t make any of my work disappear or magically make me more motivated to grade thirty argument essays, it restored me and refreshed me and put me back into a positive mindset. I am the kind of person who lives and breathes by to-do lists, measuring the value of my day against how much I got done. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how, in the long run, tasks and minute daily accomplishments don’t really matter. There’s a balance to be had between getting one’s work done and doing what has meaning. I have a feeling that managing this balance is a lifelong lesson, and one I look forward to learning.

What I’m really trying to say is, just go for a hike. If you have a lot to do but you want to go outside, just go outside. If you have papers to grade but your soul is begging you for a day in the woods, go to the woods. Smell the waterfalls and the hemlocks and play with a stick in the snow. Be with your friends and love the world. You never, ever, regret a hike.

The suspension bridge over the gorge, leading back to the Visitor Center

Wildcat Hollow: December 9, 2020

Keeping my writing up-to-date is one of my numerous New Year’s resolutions. I struggle to write as often as I’d like, despite the fact that, if I’m honest with myself, I really do have the time. But instead of updating my blog I sometimes decide to do things like binging all of The Queen’s Gambit in one night. I justify this by telling myself that I can crochet while watching TV, so it’s not a waste of time. But in reality, I only get half of a cactus done because my eyes end up glued to the screen. Ah, well. It’s something to work on.

Anyway, let’s talk about hiking! Back in December Wiggs and I took a day to explore a new (to us) hiking area in Ohio called Wildcat Hollow. It was a beautiful day, a fun ride, and a great place to hike.

Puffballs and their spores

To The Trail

We got a somewhat decently early start on the morning of December 9, packing lunch and snacks and heading east out of Columbus. The drive was easy at first, following I-70 before an exit onto OH-33 and then a series of smaller county routes. The road grew smaller and narrower, until it was a gravel path passing small towns and abandoned houses and leading into Wayne National Forest. Finally we located the trailhead, parked, and began our day.

I don’t know why we didn’t think to bring overnight gear. There are several great-looking campsites right by the parking lot, and there is a Forest Service privy right at the trailhead. Dispersed camping is also allowed, and we passed numerous sites throughout the day, though the water quality might be doubtful considering the heavy agricultural activity in the area. We kicked ourselves for this oversight all day. We passed up a chance to sleep in the woods! But now we know, and we will be back.

Wiggs and the carnivorous sign-eating tree

The Hike

It was a glorious day. Everything was bathed in a warm, golden light as we began the hike in the muddy valley. The trail forked right, and climbed a small hill to a ridge line. Though it was winter and the woods were lacking in color, the sunlight and blue sky made up for the absence of foliage. As I breathed in I was thrown back to Georgia in March on the Appalachian Trail: no green, no shade, but crisp chilly sunlight, fresh air, and the excitement of everything that lay ahead.

The trail at Wildcat Hollow is well maintained for the most part, and the hiking was fairly easy. We followed the ridge for a while, then dipped down into a valley. This pattern repeated for a while: ridgeline cruising, valley creek crossing. Ridge, valley, creek. We also stumbled upon a beaver bog, punctuated by gnawed-down trees. I crouched quietly behind a stump for a few moments, hoping to see the creators of the wetland. None appeared, but I always love seeing the evidence of their engineering.

We also found a large fallen tree riddled with moss and puffballs. Wiggs poked them, coaxing a cloud of spores out into the forest. There was also, less beautifully but no less interesting, a slowly deteriorating TV with its magic board of switches and sensors strewn about the forest floor. How did this TV get here? And how many mushroom spores have brushed against its forever-lasting plastic and metal?

Natural intricacies

I felt good on this hike, almost as good as I did on the AT. I’ve been running a lot over the past few months, as I want to run a half-marathon in 2021. I felt better than I remembered on any recent day hike, like the climbs barely affected me and like I could go on and on. Wiggs and I meandered in and out of conversation, sometimes about what was around us, other times about what was not. We always orbit back to the Appalachian Trail, reminiscing, then fly away again to other worlds. Until I hike another long trail, this will be the gravity around which I stake my life.

We had a quick lunch after about five miles, and then we headed back the way we came. I cut my hand on a branch and nearly fell into a creek, but such are the usual casualties of a good day of hiking. We finished the loop we had started, passing first an RV and then a small house before heading back into the woods, around another ridge, and downhill to the valley where we started. We bade the mushrooms and trees and sunlight adieu, and got into the car.

I wished we’d thought to look up camping before we left, but it was still nice to spend a day outside. It was a bit of a trek from Columbus, but I’d still be more than happy to go back for a campfire and a clear spring morning among the trees.

Go beavers!

Location and Information

Go see it for yourself! Wildcat Hollow is located in Wayne National Forest, about 40 minutes north of Athens and 1 hour and 45 minutes southeast of Columbus. There is a five-mile day hike loop and a 17.1-mile backpacking loop. The hiking is mild and it is possible to complete a long day hike fairly quickly. A USFS vault toilet and several excellent campsites await at the parking lot, and dispersed camping is also allowed on the trails. I might suggest bringing enough water for the whole trip, however, as the area sees a lot of agricultural activity and the water in the creeks may be iffy.

More information about the area can be found at the Forest Service website.

A printable trail map is also available.

Enjoy!

A wild Wiggs at the Wildcat Hollow sign

Zaleski Epilogue: A Small Quest

After completing our little Zaleski State Forest backpacking loop on October 30, we loaded up in Wiggs’s car and hit the road. We did not go straight back to Columbus, however. Instead, my very nice boyfriend agreed to reroute half an hour west so that I could visit three Ohio History Passport locations: Leo Petroglyphs, Story Mound, and Logan Elm.

If my trail name is any indication, I love a good passport. I love collecting stamps and badges. I love tangible evidence of having been somewhere. While on the Appalachian Trail I looked forward to getting a stamp in my AT Passport at a store or restaurant, and I missed this quest when the hike was over. So when Wiggs’s dad gave me an Ohio History Connection Passport, I was very excited. This booklet contains a page for each of the organization’s 56 sites across the state. At the bottom of each page is a trivia question about the site, followed by a space for either a stamp or a pencil rubbing of the site sign. I have a handful of stamps, answers, and pencil markings so far, but I am always looking for a chance to collect more. Leo Petroglyphs wasn’t terribly far from Zaleski, or so it seemed on Google Maps, and so we headed in that direction first.

Bye, Zaleski! Thanks for a fun (if rainy) few days!

Site 1: Leo Petroglyphs and Nature Preserve

We didn’t have cell service at the parking lot, so we headed vaguely in the direction of the town of Zaleski. We reasoned that we would have service once we got there, but this did not exactly pan out. We managed to scrape 3G out of one corner of the town, which put us on track to get to the site. Half an hour later, we were rumbling down a gravel road.

“Uh… I don’t think this is the right way,” Wiggs said nervously. We were approaching a house, and the road was becoming narrower.

“Well, let’s just see where this goes.”

Sure enough, it went right up to someone’s house. Not a cul-de-sac, not another road – genuinely, this was someone’s long gravel driveway, and there was someone’s dog running out of the house barking maniacally. Tension rose palpably between us as the dog kept trying to run out in front of the car, while Wiggs tried to inch away from it, until finally we got far enough away that the dog left us alone. We found another normal-sized paved road, turned right, and were back on track.

Ten minutes later we reached the small site of Leo Petroglyphs. We took a walk around beautiful nature preserve, which featured a lovely creek cutting through mossy sandstone overhangs. And of course we admired the centuries-old petroglyphs carved into the rock. Though we aren’t sure of the exact dates, it can be surmised that these symbols were carved by the Fort Ancient culture, who also constructed several complexes of mounds further south in Ohio.

I had seen petroglyphs in Arizona before this – they’re all over the place – but never in the midwest, or anywhere in the eastern United States. It was jarring to see them here, inside a wooden structure by the side of the road in Ohio farmland. It’s easier to forget that we are on stolen land when we are somewhere like this, a thoroughly settled agricultural area, deeply entrenched in the white American psyche. But there are still reminders that we were not the first.

One of the petroglyphs carved into the Sharon sandstone at Leo Petroglyphs by the Fort Ancient culture between ~900-1500 A.D.

Site 2: Story Mound

After Leo Petroglyphs we traveled north towards Chillicothe, which was ostensibly on the way home, but ended up being a bit of a hilarious side trip. We were getting slightly hungry by this point, so we navigated towards McDonald’s once we got to the town and took our fries and ice cream to our next destination: Story Mound.

Ohio is positively covered in mounds built by the Adena, Hopewell, and Fort Ancient peoples. Story Mound, according to my passport, was built by the Adena people between 800 B.C. and A. D. 100. I knew it was smaller than other mounds I had visited, but when we rolled up to the pocket park smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood, I realized the scope and couldn’t help but laugh. Then I really laughed when I saw the gate in the fence surrounding the mound: it was padlocked.

Undeterred, I snapped a photo and answered the question in my passport. I couldn’t get a stamp because said stamp is located in the Adena Mansions and Gardens site, which was by then closed for the season. But I don’t mind. I will get it one day.

We finished our snack and I got out of the car to shake all of the fry dust off of my disheveled post-hike outfit. Then we got back on the highway for one more stop.

We couldn’t actually get into the park to visit Story Mound, but we saw it from the street!

Site 3: Logan Elm

“It’s literally just off the highway. Look.” I held out the map so Wiggs could see its proximity to our location. I felt like I was pushing my luck, but I wanted to get just one last stop in. He ultimately agreed, and we headed towards Logan Elm.

I’m still not exactly sure of the full extent of the story of Logan Elm. From what I can gather, there was a revered chief of the Cayuga Native American tribe named Logan, who married a Shawnee woman and moved to Ohio. Originally friendly with white settlers, he rightfully changed his stance when they lied and killed many of his people, including his mother and sister. Logan sought revenge, killing many white settlers in the area, and then delivered a powerful message under a massive elm tree. He spent the rest of his life fighting white invaders and trying to prevent them from settling in what was then called Ohio Country.

Today the site of Logan’s speech is marked at Logan Elm Memorial. The elm tree under which Chief Logan spoke has long since died, but the site of the speech is marked and a new elm has been planted. It is a field of monuments to Logan, his speech, his family, and his people. It was cold when we were there, and the wind cut across the open field and through our layers.

It struck me as we left that many of the Ohio History Passport sites – and all three of the sites that we visited on this day – are locations that were sacred to Native American people. I don’t know that I ever thought about Ohio in terms of its indigenous origins, but almost every site I have visited so far is significant to the Hopewell, Adena, Fort Ancient, or Shawnee people. In addition to collecting stamps and getting to see more of Ohio, these visits are reminding me over and over that this country was stolen. The hills and mounds and fields bear that truth more than I had ever realized.

What am I doing with that information? Are we learning? I am trying to be more intentional about researching the indigenous people who first took care of the land I walk on, and who take care of it still. I am trying to learn more, give more, and be more aware. I have a long way to go.

The memorial at Logan Elm, which bears Logan’s speech that took place at this location.

The Mini Adventure Ends

Having visited Logan Elm, we turned back onto OH-23 and headed north to Columbus. On the way back, Wiggs and I talked about adventures, family trips, and little destinations. We compared our experiences of childhood road trips and reflected on the potential for joy even close to home.

It has been hard on me not to be able to travel this year. Wiggs and I had planned to hike in Scotland, and then I was going to do part of the Camino with my mom. Instead we did a sweltering eight-day hike in Kentucky, and now I am running around Ohio collecting stamps and rubbings at historical sites. And I love it. The day will come when I am traveling farther again, when the virus is over, and that will be a good day. But I know will miss these weird little journeys, these wet Ohio backpacking trips, and these small moments of simple joy learning about the places that are already around me. Whether it is a mound in a locked park in an Ohio neighborhood, or summit at the end of a very long hike, there are destinations and places worthy of reroutes everywhere.

Zaleski State Forest, October 2020: Day 3

Friday, October 30

The first thing I notice when I wake up is the silence. No rain drops pattering on the roof. No splashing of puddles. The next thing I notice is that it is cold. Inside the tent, my sleeping bag and camp clothes are dry, but all of my other gear, including the clothes I have to hike in, are still soaked. It’s going to be miserable when I have to put those on. But that’s not a right-now problem. There is silence, and the slight suggestion of the sun appearing through the trees, and I am grateful.

We still eat an in-tent breakfast, though, because it is genuinely chilly. But because it is not raining finally, we can open our doors and poke our heads out into the world. I savor my coffee and peanut butter tortillas and burrow down one last time into my sleeping bag, cuddling around my damp hiking clothes in a feeble attempt to warm them up before I have to put them on. It doesn’t do much, and I shudder and wail my way through putting the wet clothing back on my body. From the sound of it, Wiggs is experiencing the same unique misery.

Ridge walking in the morning

We warm up quickly, though, once we get going. It doesn’t take as long today since the weather is better. We backtrack the way we came last night, down to a ridge with tall old trees, their leaves mostly fallen. We can see out into the valleys below and hills beyond. I stop for a second and breathe it in.

It’s so good. It smells like fresh rain and crisp shoulder season mornings. Like March in Georgia, after the first rainstorm, when the world is calm again and the trail stretches so far on. I love this. I love this forest, I love Ohio, I love whatever this is that a trail, any trail, makes me feel.

We follow the ridge and descend the steep hill we came up last night. Instead of going back across the same creek we consult the map and decide to take a different part of the loop, adding a bit of distance to the hike. We’re ahead of schedule and we have hit our stride. We ascend the short hills easily and coast across the ridges.

We wind up in a wet valley where the trail repeatedly crosses a creek with no discernible pattern. The rain has made it difficult to tell what is normal waterway and what is seasonal puddle, and we hop across sandbars, rocks, and fallen trees. There are more caves and exposed rock walls here. It feels like a tamer iteration of the Red River Gorge. I feel regret at the prospect that this hike is coming to an end. I’d take another three rainy days in the woods if it meant that I didn’t have to leave.

Wiggs, a cave, and a touch of blue sky

We reach the road, which has been flooded in parts due to yesterday’s downpour, and walk along the pavement back to the car. I change into the dry clothes I left in the trunk, trade my trail runners for my camp shoes, and stretch.

Three days in the woods and I feel calmer. Three wet days in the woods and I am more myself. Hiking never magically solves problems. It doesn’t pay my rent or resolve my dilemmas or do my work for me. But it does make me ready, remind me what I’m made of, and show me why it’s worth it.

Zaleski State Forest, October 2020: Day 2

Thursday, October 29

I awake to rain on the roof of the tent. It’s a steady patter, decidedly not a drizzle, and it looks like the weather prediction came true. Though it was forecasted to be a downpour today, last night in my optimistic mind there was a chance that maybe it wouldn’t actually happen. But it did––it rained all day, in a thick, steady curtain of plopping drops. It wasn’t too bad when we were moving, but the moment we stopped for lunch or a snack, the cold smacked us hard and we didn’t want to stay still for long.

We got a pretty late start. I don’t think I even got up until after 9:00. We had coffee and breakfast in the tent and procrastinated getting moving as long as we possibly could, until about 10:30. Once we got going, it was actually a lovely day. What is it about hiking that makes even the dreariest of days an adventure? How can I be happier in the gray Ohio woods than inside, under blankets and with a hot cup of tea? (Don’t get me wrong, though. I wanted those all day too.)

Chicken of the woods, Laetiporus sulphureus

Zaleski looks similar to Shawnee. That’s probably not surprising, considering that both are in southern Ohio, which in late fall is characterized by rolling hills, wet rocks, and deciduous trees in the last throes of autumn colors. But there are fewer ups and downs, and it didn’t really feel all that difficult for the most part. There were numerous caves, waterfalls, rock formations, pretty creeks, and cliffs with views across valleys. We also found a large flush of chicken of the woods growing on a dead tree. It turned out to be past its prime, but I was glad to have finally found some after looking for it all fall.

We stopped for lunch on a log under a couple of young beech trees. It was still drizzling, so we made a little canopy for ourselves by tying the corners of my polycryo ground sheet to the branches. Within moments of stopping, the chilly air bit through our wet clothes and my feet stared to go numb. But we brewed some hot lunchtime coffee and it tasted like the warmest, most comforting thing in the world. Immediately after we started walking again after lunch, we found a cave with a massive overhanging rock over a dry fire ring. It would have made a perfect lunch or camping spot. We considered stopping there for the day, but it was only 3:00 and we had so many miles left in us. Ah, well. Such is backpacking.

Our lunch setup. We felt so clever!… And then it stopped raining five minutes later.

Considering that there are fewer ups and downs here than we’re used to, we made it to camp in pretty good time even with the rain. In total, we did about 11.5 miles today to camp 3. When we got to camp it had just stopped raining, but it soon started up again just as I headed down to the spigot to get water. We had a cramped in-tent dinner and finished off our wine boxes. The setup was not ideal, and I really missed having a fire, but such is life. This was followed by assorted camp chores, and finally, we lay down and settled in for the night.

Wiggs remarked to me today that I seem more comfortable out here, more like the person he met and fell in love with a year ago. I can agree. On the trail I know what I’m about. It may be raining, I may smell like garbage, and all of my gear may be soaked to the core, but I am comfortable here. I know how to handle things and carry myself. I know how to use my gear and how to get through. How do I harness that version of myself the moment I step out of the woods? I’ve been wondering over that question for a while now.

Zaleski State Forest, October 2020: Day 1

It has been beautiful lately, both in Ohio and in Kentucky. For the last ten days the sun has been shining, and while the temperatures took a dip towards winter today, it is still bright and crisp. Naturally, considering this, Wiggs and I chose the only three rainy days in the past few weeks to go for a backpacking trip.

In our defense, it’s hard to arrange for a three-day jaunt in the woods when we have to navigate between our bizarre work and school schedules. He reserved the day off weeks in advance, and I finagled my at-home grading schedule to get (somewhat) caught up. We chose Zaleski State Forest for our trip because we had been to Shawnee numerous times. We wanted to experience the cozy chill of late fall Ohio backpacking while being somewhere new. It’s not a far drive from Columbus, and it felt like a good choice for a three-day trip.

Yr two favorite stinky hikers at the backpacking loop trailhead on State Route 278

We checked the weather beforehand. We knew what we were getting into: 90% chance of rain all day, beginning late in the evening our first night out. We went anyway. Maybe it was the idea that we are thru-hikers and therefore made of tougher stuff, or maybe it was a semi-manic desire to get away from the infuriating COVID-19 at-home routine. Maybe–and I think this is the most likely reason–we needed to be reminded of who and what we are. Whatever the reason, we went. We got rained on, but I would take a rainy fall day in the woods over almost anything else.

Here are some thoughts I wrote on my phone while we were out on the trail.

Day 1: Wednesday, October 28

We got a late start today, of course. My friend Monica was in town for a few days and she left this morning, and I had some work to finish up, so Wiggs and I didn’t hit the road until close to 4. By the time we got to the Zaleski trailhead we only had an hour of daylight left to hike. I hate that about this time of year. Nevertheless, we laced up our shoes, buckled our packs, and headed through the woods for a quick two miles.

Zaleski already feels easier than Shawnee. There are hills, but they are short and manageable. The trail first winds around the side of a hill overlooking some wetlands, then meanders towards a cave. We considered the idea of sleeping in the cave tonight, but I though the rain could make that experience hit or miss. So we kept walking through the quickly-descending darkness.

Zaleski is more visually interesting than other hikes I’ve done in southern and central Ohio. For one, there are really cool caves!

We made it to the camp near point C on the backpacking loop. It’s sort of a gravelly ridge, with a long area for tents. The problem is that gravel means that we had a few issues getting our tent stakes in the ground. Wiggs’s headlamp is running out of battery, so we shared mine as we set up. We tried desperately to get the stakes hammered into the rock-hard ground, and eventually, after much frustration, we were successful. We had an enjoyable camp dinner, complete with small boxes of wine (also known as adult juice boxes, or AJB’s).

About a year ago, Wiggs and I went on our first backpacking trip together at Shawnee. It was rainy and dreary then, too, another classic Ohio October. But that weekend is, in my memory, nothing but comfortable rightness. A month removed from my finish of the Appalachian Trail, I settled back into the routine of wake up, eat breakfast, walk, camp, sleep. I felt so at home with Wiggs immediately. So perhaps it is unsurprising that a year later we are back in the woods.

Though we haven’t technically seen much of Zaleski yet, I am impressed so far. The trail meanders over easy hills, next to wetlands, and up to elevated campsites with fresh water sources. There are mushrooms and dramatic caves below trees shedding the last of their autumn yellows. Despite the gravel issues the campsite is nearly-ideal, with a fire ring and perfect sitting logs. It’s supposed to rain steadily all day tomorrow, but somehow I think it will still be good.

Rainy, dreary, and cozy

I have been struggling. This week has been hard, between the massive amounts of work-related stress, uncertainty about the near and far future, and endless worrying about money. I feel pulled in so many directions at once, and I don’t know where to start first. It’s so hard to be present. It’s so hard to realize that the way I feel now is not the way I will feel forever. Sometimes I feel like I have it together, but other times I feel bumbling and lost, with no real direction. I can’t see around the corners, and I don’t know how I’ll handle the winter and spring. But if the AT taught me anything, it’s that one way or another, things work out. Every morning, rain or shine, I will stand up, tighten my pack straps, and address the day one task and one step at a time.

Note to self: I am alive. Smell the leaves and feel the fire. Listen to the music and be grateful for the love that holds you. Here. Here. Here.

Sheltowee Trace Day 8: July 12, 2020

Today’s total: ~10.5 mi from camp on mile ~73 to Natural Bridge Road and Miguel’s Pizza

It’s the last day on the Trace: bittersweet. I’m sticky and hungry and covered in bug bites that have become angry welts. I want pizza and a hot tub, both of which are waiting at the end. But I also don’t want to leave the trail now that it is beautiful. I will miss the creeks and the chanterelles and the conifers unraveling into mossy rhododendron forest.

I wake up grudgingly; I didn’t sleep well again last night. It’s been a rough trail on the sleep front. But I feel a lot better than I did late in the day yesterday, and after another slow breakfast we start walking. It’s a beautiful morning and there are no other hikers out yet. We take a side trail up to a rock formation called Cloud Splitter, which entails scrambling of a similar caliber to Indian Staircase, although this time there is a rope installed for assistance. The view from the top is sweeping, green and glowing in the morning light.

The Trace continues an easy meander through leafy valleys and up around caves and rock faces. Soon, we come to a road crossing and a massive suspension bridge spanning the Red River. On the hill on the opposite side we start finding more chanterelles, which we pick to take to the cabin we will be staying in for the next few days with my family. The trail turns downhill again, walks through a tall patch of grass, crosses a few creeks, and goes straight up. By now I am uncomfortably sweaty.

We find a lunch spot on a large slabby rock surrounded by short pine trees. I inhale deeply, yet again taken back to the Ponderosas of northern Arizona. I’ve been thinking about Flagstaff a lot on this trip, which is odd, because in general the climate couldn’t be more different. But up here on the rocky coniferous hilltops I could just as easily be on Mt. Elden as in the Red River Gorge. I can close my eyes and remember the wide western sunsets and the cawing of crows. I hadn’t realized until now how much I missed that place.

After lunch we have about five miles left. We climb a few more hills, cross a road, and start going down a leafy set of switchbacks into a valley following Whittleton Creek. We find ourselves in that state of delirium induced by a combination of heat and being near to the end of a long walk, and though by this point we have maybe a mile left, it seems like an eternity. A few rounds of 20 Questions and several moments of complaining later, the trail empties out onto a paved road at Whittleton Campground, and onto Natural Bridge Road.

“We made it!” Wiggs says, delighted. “We did it.”

Suspension bridge over the Red River

We cross to the Hemlock Lodge road, take a right, cross back over the creek, and find ourselves approaching the Katahdin of our section hike: Miguel’s Pizza. Legendary among rock climbers, the distinctive yellow building sits like a beacon right at the side of Natural Bridge Road. We walk magnetically towards it, ready for a feast.

The last time I was here it was also July, but in 2016. I came for a quick weekend climbing trip with my then-partner. There were hardly any people here, and it rained nearly the whole time, and there was still only one small room in the restaurant itself. Now, we can see the jam-packed parking lot and hordes of people as we round the bend in the road and come closer, the expanded section now added to the back. There are picnic tables scattered around the property under a stand of hemlocks, new indoor seating, and a long line of customers out front, spaced apart and masked.

We order a large pizza with chicken and green peppers and devour it in one sitting. We drink cold Ale-8s and pints of Rhinegeist Truth, because why not. My parents and our dog Emma come to meet us, and later we retreat to a cabin deep in the woods and down an wild gravel road (I use the word “road” generously). Showers, hot tub, more beer, and air conditioning. Hours before I had been sweaty and melting in the woods, dreaming of only this, and now I find myself miraculously comfortable.

It’s weird to stop hiking after only eight days. Though this is a fairly long time for any reasonable person, after a six-month thru-hike anything but weeks on end of hiking feels insufficient. I know that it’s the only thing that’s really possible or responsible for us right now, given the pandemic and work schedules, but it still seems short.

Though the Trace was hot, at times scarily scant on water, and full of biting insects, it felt good to get back into that rhythm. It felt natural to sleep in a tent and wake up with the sun. If anything, this little hike refreshed my desire to hike other long trails and put me back in a place where I feel completely myself. It gave us chanterelles and destroying angels and boletes; it gave us darters and crayfish and a sense that, despite discomfort, walking is a gift. The woods are always home, sweaty though they may be.

Sheltowee Trace Day 7: July 11, 2020

Today’s total: ~12 mi from camp on mi ~61 to camp near mi 73

The night passed quietly, without a drop of rain or so much as a scuttle from an animal in the forest. The tree didn’t fall, and I wake up semi-rested and ready to go. We pack up, eat breakfast, and then clamber over opposite steep hills for the morning cathole call. Despite trampling accidentally through a patch of stinging nettles, it is beautiful up on my side of the hill, and I take a moment to appreciate all the spongy yellow boletes dotting the forest floor everywhere around me.

The morning passes quickly as we continue up and over the muddy jeep track. The funky, dripping rock formations are more frequent now and we are just miles from the northern part of the Red River Gorge. There is a long road walk, in which I consume an inordinate amount of Sour Patch watermelons. Soon after this we arrive at the Corner Ridge Trailhead. There are large boulders lining a grassy area just before the trail reenters the woods, and behind a fence in the adjoining yard there is a young horse, who is staring at us and stomping his feet. We take a snack break at the boulders by the trailhead, appreciating the opportunity to sit on something other than the ground, and continue down the trail.

Horse friend at Corner Ridge

For the next few miles the Trace is absolutely gorgeous, alternating between completely flat or slightly downhill, and working its way through tracks of conifers before it meets a junction with another trail just before a creek. We take another break at a rock here, and are surprised by yet another patch of chanterelles. We pick some, but just a few today–yesterday’s haul might have been a little overkill.

We walk down the hill towards the creek–a large, deep, proper creek, a tributary of the Red River–and cross it. We debate stopping for lunch, but it’s still fairly early in the day and we’re feeling good. So we keep going. The Trace takes a sudden and unexpected turn straight up a hill, and back into the mixed coniferous and deciduous forest. Here and there, boulders lay strewn among the trees.

We come upon two other hikers–the only two hikers on the Trace we’ve seen this whole time–and we chat with them for a bit. Wiggs gives one of them a chanterelle, and they wish us good hiking. We continue a bit further, find another mushroom patch and harvest a few more, then come to a smaller but still gushing creek, where we decide to have lunch.

A few yards downstream there is a log lying lengthwise across the water, positioned perfectly for sitting and dipping our feet into the current. We drop our packs on a rocky patch on the edge of the water, remove our shoes, and begin to eat lunch while tiny fish nibble at our feet.

Lunch time!

We decide to cook our chanterelles at lunch today so that they are fresher. I slice off the bottom, rinse them, and cut them into little strips. I cook them in my pot with a bit of water and salt, add tuna and cheese, and wrap up this mixture in tortillas. It’s not as good as the beef ramen with seaweed and chanterelles, but it is pretty good.

Because the water feels so good, and because it is so hot, we don’t really want to keep going. We take a long time at the creek, enjoying the coolness and the peace. We splash around downstream, I lay on a log in the sun, and Wiggs appreciates the fish. Before we know it, two hours have gone by, and we pack up and start hiking again.

The trail is beautiful now. We walk up and over slopes that follow the course of rock formations and over tiny, trickling brooks. Down in the valleys, rhododendron and mountain laurel flank the path and the air is cooler. Eventually we come to a turn-off. We think this might be the trail up to the rock formation Indian Staircase, but we aren’t sure until a couple descending the hill confirms this. We drop our packs and head up.

At first, the trail goes through a gully full of tumbled rocks and roots. It feels like Maine. Then, the trees clear and there is a wide, smooth, steep sandstone rock formation that ascends beyond sight up the hill. We try several configurations of scrambling up. Wiggs finds a tree, while I struggle and flail over the smooth, hard-to-grip rock. Eventually we find an easier way up, and we follow the worn-in footholds to the top.

“Whoa!” Wiggs exclaims. “A view! This is amazing!” On hikes he is fueled by summits and sweeping panoramas, and he’s been view-starved for most of the Trace. I’m appreciating it too, although this appreciation is somewhat tampered by the swarm of biting deer flies that has managed to find me again. I crankily open a new DEET wipe packet and slather myself in an effort to get them away from me. It doesn’t work. Nevertheless, it is a rather breathtaking sight. Above the valleys of trees we can see gray rock peeping out here and there, and we can follow the path of the trail down into the gorge and all the way to the Red River in the distance.

We eventually realize how late it’s become, and that we still need to make a few more miles before we call it a night. Gingerly we descend down the smooth, steep mountain and emerge back on the Trace. All of a sudden, I feel bone-tired, dehydrated, and overheated. I take a long drink of water from my bottle and eat a few energy chews, but I just feel wiped.

I crawl through the next couple of miles, stopping too often and feeling like I can’t make my body work. We had planned to camp near or just after the Red River, but it has become clear that I can’t make it that far. As we trudge along, I spot another chanterelle patch just to my left–a big one, with fresh orange frilly mushrooms dotting the ground at the base of a tree. We collect a few, and take it as a sign to stop soon. We come upon a nearly-perfect campsite next to a creek a half-mile later, and decide to set up camp.

After some technical difficulties (“Why won’t this burn?!”), Wiggs gets a good campfire going. We enjoy one last chanterelle-based dinner on the Sheltowee Trace. As I lay in my tent before bed, exhausted and probably dehydrated, I marvel at the paradoxes at the heart of backpacking. Here I am, body sweaty, bite-covered, deprived of nutrients, and exhausted, so over the heat, and ready for pizza–and I still don’t want to leave the woods. I don’t want to work or toil or make choices. I want to hear the whippoorwills and wood thrushes sing me to sleep and the mourning doves and chickadees wake me up, sun streaming through gray silnylon.

No matter how hot, how sweaty, how dirty or momentarily miserable a hike gets, it is always satisfying and fulfilling. It is always worth going to the woods.

Sheltowee Trace Day 6: July 10, 2020

Today’s total: ~11 mi from campsite on FS 909 to campsite near mile 61

Since we got to camp at a decent time last night, waking up at 6:00 am isn’t hard for once. It’s already hot, but not as bad as it could be, and as we cross back over the creek and head up the road we start to feel like the trail is taking a beautiful turn. We’re rested and our conversation is much more animated than it was this time yesterday. We leave the forest road and turn back into the woods, and soon we are hiking upwards through rhododendrons and around dripping sandstone rock formations. It strikes me that we are not far now from the Red River Gorge.

A couple of miles into our walk we come to the top of the hill and see a pine-dotted clearing to our right. We follow the short trail and then we see our first real view of the entire Trace so far: a sweeping sunny panorama out onto the leafy valley below, with a clear look at a sandstone arch spanning two hills in the distance. It smells fresh and coniferous, like Northern Arizona in the morning.

We take an unintended break at this spot, appreciating that the trail has finally opened up. But we’re trying to make it to town by lunchtime, so eventually we keep walking. The trail is hillier today than it has been, and we follow muddy ruts up to the crest of hills and back down again. I’m feeling okay until a gnat cloud swarms me out of nowhere, followed by a group of biting deer flies. I’m swatting at them madly, cursing becoming increasingly louder, as we walk down a gentle slope.

Something orange catches my eye, and then something else orange, and I realize we have stumbled upon the mother-load of fresh, perfect, juicy chanterelles.

I let out a cry of joy. “Look at them! There are so many!”

We start picking, Wiggs sliding the stems into the mesh on my pack. We want more, but there isn’t enough space. So I begrudgingly take off my head net, my last line of defense against the evil biting flies, and use it as a mushroom collecting bag. Not much later, we come across another patch and can’t resist picking even more. The bag is getting heavy and it looks like we’ll be having nothing but chanterelles for dinner. Somehow, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea.

We come to the road crossing that will take us to Frenchburg, and we walk the mile down the asphalt into the not-quite-town. There is one restaurant and one grocery store, and we opt for the restaurant first.

The minute we walk in we become aware of two things: one, that we look and smell terrible, and two, that we are the only people in the entire establishment wearing masks. A group of unmasked older folks at a table openly stare at us as we walk in the door. We’re deep in Kentucky, a vividly red state, where the people are kind at face value but obviously distrusting of outsiders, particularly smelly hippy-looking outsiders wearing masks, one of whom has a a pack with Sharpie notes all over it that say things like “Black Lives Matter” and “singular ‘they’ is at least 600 years old.” I’m a little nervous. I walk to a booth as quickly as I can.

I think about how we often pretend like the outdoors is apolitical, like we can leave ourselves and our beliefs when we go into the woods. Thinking this is problematic. Who can “leave politics behind”? White people. Who can “forget about differences”? White people. White, cisgendered, straight, able-bodied people. White people like us can walk into a town in rural red Kentucky confidently and, despite feeling a bit self-conscious, not fear real harm. This has always been true. And yet, I forgot about it when I went into the woods and came back out. That’s privilege. How am I using it?

At lunch in Frenchburg with our chanterelle children

The server doesn’t seem overly happy to see us there, and I can’t say I blame her. We stink. Badly. She brings us sodas and sandwiches anyway. The Philly cheesesteak and curly fries are divine. We sit in the booth in the fantastically cold restaurant, remembering the familiar feeling of relief of walking into a building after being outside for days on end. I go to the bathroom and wash my hands for much longer than is strictly necessary, watching the dirt run down the drain and feeling a thousand times cleaner.

After lunch we do our resupply at the little neighborhood IGA. What it lacks in variety it makes up for in character. We buy a package of watermelon and, after rearranging the contents of our food bags, sit under the awning of the city building next door and eat it while an unexpected thunderstorm rolls in, pelting rain on the roof and leaving the world smelling of petrichor.

There’s a long road walk after the town, first on a busy two-lane major road and later on smaller streets in a residential area, before becoming a jeep track and properly re-entering the woods. The rain didn’t last long and now somehow it’s even hotter than it was before. My feet are screaming in retaliation against the pavement and I have to stop more times than I would like. When we get to the jeep track the trail is suddenly shaded again, walking next to a wide, flowing creek. All of a sudden, there is water everywhere: in puddles, in creeks. It smells like oxygen. Finally, there was rain, and now there is water.

We see a good campsite not long after this track begins, but it isn’t far enough yet, so we keep walking. We end up regretting this move a bit, as the campsite we do eventually find is soggy, next to a dry part of the creek, and right under a severe slope that was clearly the site of a few landslides. I set up my tent in a tired fog and then sit by the fire ring Wiggs has constructed.

Finally, a wide creek with lots of water!

He looks at my tent, and then across the creek to a tree that is leaning severely and darker than ideal. “Uh…” he starts. “Is that tree a widow-maker?”

I look at it. It is certainly bent at a precarious angle. I imagine a storm scenario. It looks like it wouldn’t take much to knock it down. But I’m not sure if it’s even dead. And I really, really don’t feel like moving my tent.

“Ugh,” I wine plaintively. “Is it even dead? Do you think I’ll die? Is it even supposed to rain?”

Wiggs looks at the tree from some different angles, and discovers that it’s still alive and full of leaves, they’re just hard to see. He assures me that it’s probably okay, that it’s not even supposed to rain. But the whole evening I eye it, unconsciously begging it not to fall on me. It would have taken five minutes to move my tent somewhere else, but the only other spot is full of mud and wet leaves and is right under the worst of the landslide zone. I decide to trust the tree.

Our ramen is about 75% chanterelles tonight. They’re delicious, but we decide to only pick a few from now on. If we were just foraging and not hiking, we could have picked pounds to bring home, fry up, or sell. But in backpacking, you don’t carry more than you can manage. You have to be frugal and principled. You take honest stock of what you can do and how much you want to carry and you align all of your behavior with this reality. It’s something that would benefit me in non-hiking life as well, but somehow, the minute I exit the woods, it’s harder to hold onto.

I sleep fairly well, once I stop fretting about the tree. It doesn’t rain, and nothing falls.