Tar Hollow State Park: April-May 2021

The semester is winding to a close, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to go out for some really great hikes recently. April is prime morel time, and though between Wiggs and me we only found a handful this year, it felt like a victory for our second-ever foraging season. We have been spending a lot of time at Columbus Metro Parks, especially Battelle Darby, and we have also gotten out of the city for some longer hikes.

Last Monday I had plans to go hiking with some friends, which ended up falling through. I still had the whole Monday free, though, so I made a day of it by going to Tar Hollow State Park. I loved it so much that Wiggs and I returned there this past weekend for a two-day backpacking trip. It’s classic Ohio hiking, with woody, humid trails along ridges and through lush green valleys. Though we woke up in a literal puddle (which seems to be a regular occurrence on our backpacking overnights), it was a fantastic few days at a beautiful state park.

Trillium grandiflorum, great white trillium

My First Exploration: Monday, April 26

I made the decision to go to Tar Hollow somewhat late in the day, since my friends and I had been planning to do a local hike in Columbus. Because of this, I didn’t have a ton of time to hike on this afternoon. But still, I made the lovely hour and fifteen minute drive south towards Circleville and enjoyed a few hours in the sunshine.

I elected to first hike a short loop along a creek at the southern edge of the park. The reasoning was twofold: I wanted to walk through the massive pine trees that line the entrance road, and I wanted to see if I could find any mushrooms. There were gobs of tulip poplars and sycamores along the banks, and and as the forest transitioned into the coniferous zone, the smell of pine trees mingled with the faint scent of flowers. It was intoxicating. It’s not terribly common, at least in my experience, to find such massive pine trees in Ohio, and I was elated.

I was not successful in my morel hunt, but I did find a colony of mica caps about to emerge from the ground, as well as the most perfect cluster of devil’s urn, Urnula craterium, I’ve ever seen. There were mosses and ferns galore on the west side of the loop, and I stopped at nearly every tulip poplar to prowl the ground underneath. I officially gave up trying to find any Morchella. It didn’t really matter, since I was outside, in a beautiful forest, among the wildflowers.

Urnula craterium, devil’s urn mushroom

I decided to take a break before doing part of the north backpacking loop. I found a nice spot by the creek with a sycamore tree. I got out my little groundsheet and was about to sit down when my eye slid to the ground to the left of my foot. It was old, a little crumbly, and definitely past its prime, but there it was all the same: undeniably, a morel.

I couldn’t help laughing out loud. The only time I’ve ever found them was when I expressly told the forest that I had given up. Mushrooms feel like little tricksters the more I look for them. They are the spirits of the forest, the little Ghibli characters of the woods. They live by their own rules, and I love them for it.

After the snack, I headed up the hill to do a mile or so on the north loop. It was getting pretty late, so I didn’t have a lot of time, but I still enjoyed the satisfying climb and the lush, green woods. Before I left I came back down the hill and sat by the lake for a few moments, enjoying the peaceful evening and watching the birds dart back and forth over the water.

Iris cristata, dwarf crested iris

Overnight Trip: May 2-3

Wiggs and I both had two consecutive days off for once, and we had originally planned to go to Wildcat Hollow for an overnight. However, after my trip to Tar Hollow earlier in the week, we decided to go back and see more of this park.

As usual, we didn’t get the early start that we wanted to on the 2nd. We also didn’t plan out our route as well as we could have, so our mileage that day was not terribly impressive. That being said, it was still a beautiful day, and we enjoyed a few miles on the Buckeye Trail and the north portion of the Logan Trail. We visited the fire tower and continued down a very large hill to a rerouted section. As we were unable to find any stealth sites (the AT definitely spoiled us on this front), we decided to set up camp at the backpackers’ campground by the fire tower.

The fire tower near the backpacker’s campground

We decided to stop early for the day, and I set up the hammock I’d brought between two perfect white oaks. We listened to music, wrote, and talked. This time of year, it feels so pointless to be inside. I feel stifled and uninspired between the walls. Under the trees, swinging in a hammock, a person feels more infinite.

We ended the day with a campfire and a good ol’ cup of ramen cooked over a camp stove. It started to rain a bit, and we decided to call it a night.

On Monday the 3rd, we woke up to the steady patter of rain on silnylon and a puddle surrounding our sleeping pads. As usual, we had chosen the worst possible tent site at the camp: a miniature lake started at the head of the tent and continued right through it. Though it was early, we decided to use the break in the rain to make breakfast and get out of the sopping shelter.

Womp, womp. Wiggs and the very soaked tent.

It was supposed to rain steadily all day, but we sat there for an hour drinking coffee and it held off. We figured it would be a good chance to get at least a few miles in, so we packed up our disgusting, dripping gear and started on the north loop the way we’d come the day before.

A few miles in, the rain had still not come. We followed the Logan Trail east and north, past the campground and across a few roads. We had initially planned to turn around at point G, but by the time we got there the weather was pleasant and we were both feeling good, so we decided to keep going and finish the whole north loop.

This loop isn’t particularly scenic, as in, there are no real views apart from a brief break in the trees which provides a vista of another hill in the distance. It is very lovely, though, especially the parts that wind through vibrant green valleys with the trail following a creek. There were some decent climbs as well—not Appalachian Trail level, but certainly on par with Shawnee State Forest.

Trail marker for the Logan Trail at point G on the north loop

Apart from a few brief sprinkles, the rain held off all morning. I actually prefer hiking in cloudy weather to hiking in the sun, and between the gloom and the cool temperature, and apart from my wet socks, it was a surprisingly perfect day for a hike.

Towards the end of the loop, the trail enters another valley full of ferns, sycamores, and ivy. My mood turned quiet and peaceful in this place, in the cool early afternoon. I wasn’t expecting to have such a lovely hike today, and the forest felt like a gift.

By the time we returned to the fire tower, Wiggs and I were both weak with hunger. We had just enough food left for an enjoyable lunch: he cooked up a pot of ramen, while I enjoyed a packet of pink salmon in olive oil and Babybel cheese on an everything bagel. An overnight hike is nothing compared to a thru, but it does have its gustatory benefits.

We returned to the car and calculated our distance for the day: about 11.5 miles in total. Not bad for a day when we were planning to do a rainy 4. We traded in our soaked, muddy hiking shoes for sandals, put our nasty gear in the trunk, and started the drive back to Columbus—just in time, too, as it immediately began to rain in earnest.

Walking through one of the lush valleys on the north loop

Location and Information

Directions: I was surprised to learn how close Tar Hollow is to Columbus: a mere hour and fifteen minutes, depending on which part of the city you’re starting from. From Columbus, take US-23 south to Circleville, then take a left on OH-56 towards Adelphi, and then turn right on OH-180, which turns into OH-327 S. In about 8 miles, you’ll see the sign for Tar Hollow State Park. Turn right at the sign. The Logan Trailhead parking is the first parking lot on the left, down a big hill towards a campground.

The Trail: The Logan Trail is the main trail we hiked during our trip. It forms a figure 8 shape, with two major loops: north and south, which total at about 21 miles. The north loop is described as the harder of the two loops.

A section of the Buckeye Trail runs concurrent with sections of the Logan Trail. In my experience, the parts of the BT that are shared with the Logan Trail are fairly well maintained, but I did hike on a section of the BT in the park that was not shared with the loop, and this section was a bit overgrown. I’d stick to the Logan Trail in the park if you can, to mitigate the tick risk (I found one on my knee at camp).

In addition to the Logan Trail, there are several shorter hikes in the park. These include the 2.5-mile Homestead Trail and the 3.5-mile Ross Hollow trail. A trail map is available at this link, as well as at the general store in the park.

Camping: There are several car/RV campgrounds at the park, as well as “primitive” campgrounds for backpackers. We stayed at the campground by the fire tower, which costs $4 per person per night, though we were not aware of this until we got there, oops. The other campground is on a portion of the south loop called the Dulen Loop. There is no cost to stay at Camp Dulen.

The blue-blazed Buckeye Trail

Great Seal Sate Park Part 2: Signs of Spring

Wiggs and I were so impressed by our first visit to Great Seal on March 5 that when another Friday rolled around we decided to make a second visit. This time, on March 19, it was exactly two weeks later. In the spring, two weeks can make a big difference. The first time we went it was a frigid late-winter day and we didn’t see anything green. This time, the earth was showing clear signs of life, and I was very excited to watch the world waking up.

Mossy rocks on the Shawnee Ridge Trail

Seeing Red

Last year I became interested in (read: obsessed with) foraging mushrooms after reading Mycophilia by Eugenia Bone. It was the perfect year for it, with working from home during the beginning of the pandemic allowing me to spend more time than usual out among the trees. One of the first mushrooms I found when I started going to the woods was the scarlet cup, or Sarcoscypha mushroom. Since then, the Sarcoscypha has had a special place in my heart.

I was hoping to find some of these bright red beauties on this trip to Great Seal, since I hadn’t found any two weeks earlier. I had even made a crocheted version of the mushroom that morning, and I brought it to the woods with me just in case I found a real one to compare it to. (You know. For science.)

I started the hike as I usually do in the spring: With my eyes glued to the ground, hoping to catch a spot of bright red on the forest floor. I saw no mushrooms for the first few miles, but Wiggs spotted trout lily, with its characteristic mottled leaves and graceful, droopy white flowers. I remember finding and learning that plant last year on my first forays, and seeing them again made me smile.

White trout lily, Erythronium albidum

We climbed the steep slope to the summit of Sugarloaf once again, and again, I marveled at how hard of a climb it was, especially for Ohio. We came down the other side, took the correct turn this time, and continued on the Shawnee Ridge trail. At this point I had not seen any mushrooms, and I had given up trying to find one, working on the assumption that it was still too early.

Then, out of nowhere, as we were cresting the ridge on Bald Hill, I spotted one: a bright red scarlet cup partially hidden beneath a leaf. I gasped dramatically and dropped to my knees in front of the fungus. I was delighted. I took out my crocheted version and compared it to the real one: the outside of my handmade one is slightly too pink, but it’s pretty close.

Wiggs found another cluster nearby, and the more we saw, the more we kept finding. I love the vivid blood red of the inside of the cup and how starkly it contrasts with the earth tones of the woods, how tiny they are and how they tend to cluster together. To me the scarlet cup is a welcome sign of all the life that is to come, a harbinger of morels, pheasant back, mayapple, ramps, and flowers. I have so many fond memories of last year’s spring, and I can’t wait for another one traipsing in the woods.

Cluster of Sarcoscypha sp. mushrooms, also known as “scarlet cups” or “red elf cups.”

Rock On

Since we started slightly earlier this week than we did the last time, and since we now have an extra hour of daylight, we had more time to go farther on the trails on this second visit. Instead of turning around at the top of Bald Hill, this time we continued down the ridge, into the valley, and up another hill.

We found another couple of tiny Sarcoscypha and plenty more trout lily. There were a few rusting pieces of abandoned cars and a little pond that will probably be a mosquito paradise in a few months. The trail made a few steep switchbacks up another hill, and then meandered for a while down in a valley, before coasting upwards.

The path grew rockier, with boulders strewn here and there. Wiggs commented that he remembered a friend telling him about a “rock garden” around here somewhere, and soon enough, we were at the top of another hill and sauntering among a jumble of mossy sandstone boulders.

The Great Seal boulders

It quickly became clear that these were great boulders – bouldering boulders, the kind loved by climbers. Evidence of this fact was everywhere: chalk dust was smeared on slopers, crimps, and comfy jugs all around the area. I was thrown back to my climbing days in college and grad school, and the feeling in this place was not unlike that of Rocktown, a beautiful bouldering area in northwest Georgia.

We dropped our packs and sampled the climbing. I walked to the top of the hill, where an abandoned foundation of an old building was buried among a field of grasses and soon-to-be-blooming wildflowers. It was sunny and crisp, and the air smelled like leaves, and like memories, and like the spring life that was about to burst forth.

The light started getting that evening slant, and we realized that it was becoming late. We bid farewell to the boulders, promising to return with someone who owned a crash pad, and headed back the way we came.

Wiggs sampling the sandstone

Spring Peepers

I’ve experienced spring differently in the past two years than I ever have before. In 2019, I was on the Appalachian Trail, and I got to watch the world waking up slowly as I walked north. I didn’t know much about mushrooms or plants then (and I still have a lot to learn), but it was a joy to watch the world become green. In 2020, like most people, I was working from home, and I observed one piece of the earth gradually sliding into bloom. This was a closer, more systematic observation than on my thru-hike, as my eyes were more trained on the minute details of a place, over and over scanning the dirt for a hint of mushroom; scanning the trees and plants for recognition.

There’s no way to pinpoint the exact time when one season tips into the next, but this hike felt like the line between cold and warm, dead and alive, the not-yet and the already-here. I love Great Seal. It’s one of those places that just has something. I’m sure I’ll be back soon to look for the little details of spring.

My crocheted Sarcoscypha
The tiniest pair of scarlet cups you ever did see

Great Seal State Park: March 5

Ah, early March. Glorious, hope-filled, golden early March. The world hangs on the edge between melting winter and waiting spring. The days–crisp, but no longer frigid–grow steadily longer, stepping ever more quickly towards flowers. My eyes are pulled downwards for the first time since October, searching the forest floor for mushrooms that I know aren’t there yet, but aren’t far away now, either. Winter has its perks but spring–spring makes everything worth it.

It’s the time of year when staying inside begins to feel pointless. I was craving a hike, despite growing piles of essays to grade, and so on Friday, March 5, Wiggs and I decided to check out a new hiking location. We settled on Great Seal State Park near Chillicothe, about an hour due south of Columbus. We only had time for a short hike, but it was a perfect afternoon and a satisfying hike on surprisingly steep terrain. We both highly recommend a visit, and I think it’s likely that we will be there again soon.

Wiggs among the trees

Getting There

As usual, it took us a long time to hit the road. Wiggs had some assignments to finish and I was working on a cover letter. Eventually, we got enough of our respective work done that we felt good about going. We headed south out of Columbus, and, after a few mishaps with directions, construction, and the ever-infuriating challenge of figuring out which way to go on I-270, we were well on our way, following route 52 straight down to Chillicothe. It’s an easy, straightforward drive, and the entrance to the park is right off an easily accessible main road – no gravel or Forest Service roads to contend with this time.

There are two parking lots at Great Seal, and we realized very quickly that we had parked in the wrong one: the disc golf and picnic area lot. So we drove back towards the main entrance and parked where we wanted to be: the campground. There was no one there that afternoon, but the sheer number of pull-in spots suggests that the place could get quite crowded on a non-pandemic summer evening.

A dead elm, we think.

The Hike

Our plan was to take the Sugarloaf trail to the Shawnee Ridge trail. We found the trailhead right by the campground entrance, and upon entering the woods, I felt that familiar sense of settling and relief that comes with being among the trees. I knew it was too early for mushrooms to be popping out, but I kept finding myself with my eyes glued to the ground, searching for the bright red of Sarcoscypha sp or, even less likely this early, a morel. Nothing mycological showed itself to me on this day, but we did spot a number of auspicious trees that may prove fruitful come April.

Very excited to be outside

We took the trail to Sugarloaf Mountain, which meandered towards the north side of the slope and then steeply up to the summit. By non-Ohio standards, this was really just a hill. But compared to the flat, glaciated center of the state, it was a pretty impressive climb. It shot straight up the mountain, Appalachian Trail-style, gaining almost 500 feet in less than a quarter of a mile. I was genuinely working to get to the top, and it felt extremely invigorating.

There isn’t much of a view from the summit, but since the trees were still bare, we could see fairly clearly down towards the plains and north to Columbus. We could also see other wooded ridges to the south and west. We took it all in for a moment, and then continued down the equally steep downhill on the other side.

Not a ton of sweeping views at this summit, but it was satisfying to get to the top!

At a fork we took a right turn, which ended up putting us back at the campground. We turned around, realizing our mistake, and continued past the fork up to the Shawnee Ridge trail. The path wound its way around the sides of the ridge, then down into the valley and across creeks, before climbing Bald Hill. It still felt like winter here, and no green leaves were peeking out yet. We did, however, see a large herd of whitetail dear and, adorably, a chipmunk poking its little head out from a hole in a log.

We both felt great and could have kept going, but it was soon around 6:00 PM and the sun was starting to set. We stopped for a quick snack on a log, got cold very quickly, and meandered back towards the car. Before we left we were treated to a lovely sunset over the ridge by the parking lot. Neither of us was ready to stop hiking, but it was still so nice to have visited a new place, climbed a legitimate hill, and been in the woods again.

Sunset from the parking lot

About the Park

Even though I know that the name “Great Seal” refers to the Great Seal of the State of Ohio, I couldn’t stop picturing it as the animal. Like, the kind that lives in the ocean. This is not the meaning, unfortunately. Supposedly, the first governor and the first secretary of state once saw the sun rising over the hills at what is now Great Seal State Park after an all-night meeting in Chillicothe. This sunrise is said to have inspired the image that is now seen on the Great Seal of the State of Ohio.

Nearby Chillicothe was once the original capital of Ohio, and before that, it was the site of multiple Shawnee settlements in the shadow of the hills of what is now the state park. The Scioto river was utilized extensively by the Shawnee people for transportation from town to town. Tecumseh was born near what is now Circleville, and not far from Great Seal is the location of Chief Logan’s impassioned speech swearing revenge on the white settlers who murdered his people – now memorialized at the Logan Elm Memorial.

The park features an extensive network of trails, a campground, a disc golf course, and a pleasant picnic shelter. It is an hour south of Columbus, and makes a fine, satisfying day hike in Central Ohio. For the former Appalachian Trail hiker, it will take you right back to early spring in Georgia. In other words, you will feel right at home.

The extensive trail system at Great Seal State Park

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.

A Little Hike in Yellow Springs

The pandemic has changed a lot of things: plans, travels, work, social life. One of the hardest things for me has been the inability to plan for the summer or for hikes. When our trip to Scotland was cancelled, Wiggs and I were pretty bummed. We intended to hike the West Highland Way, a 100-mile trail through the Scottish Highlands, and to visit with a couple of our friends from the Appalachian Trail. Though we’re working on alternate hike plans, and though other people are struggling with much bigger worries right now, it’s still a bit tough.

On the bright side, one of the things that I have enjoyed about the current situation is that it is making me appreciate the natural spaces available to me closer to home. Ohio has a reputation for being flat, boring, and uninteresting, but the truth is that there are lovely trails and parks all over the state. One of my favorite places is the area around Yellow Springs, particularly Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve and John Bryan State Park. Wiggs and I made a little day trip to the Gorge last week, and it was a perfectly sunny retreat from the news cycle and working at home.

ys6
Yours truly and Wiggs on the bank of the Little Miami, in John Bryan State Park

Walking Through the Gorge

We met at the trailhead on OH-343 in the morning to begin our day. There were a lot of cars in the parking lot, and we soon realized that the main part of the trail was rather crowded. We did our best to leave enough distance between ourselves and the folks we passed on the trail as we began the walk down into the gorge.

After a flat section above the Little Miami River, the trail takes a rocky descent to walk right by the water. The path smooths out again once it is down in the gorge, where it is noticeably cooler than at the top. The river is narrow and gushing at the beginning of the hike, running between steep rock formations, before flattening out and becoming broad, slow, and peaceful at the Blue Hole.

ys1
The Blue Hole. The Little Miami gets really wide, slow, and deep here, and it’s a lovely spot.

As we walked, Wiggs and I fell into our usual easy conversation, much of which frequently falls back to hiking, the Appalachian Trail, and future travels. We have learned that being on a trail, any trail, often reminds us in small ways of our thru-hike: the repetitive rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other, the feeling of the wind through the trees, the sound of water next to the path. After the initial excitement at the beginning of a day hike wears off, the instinct of walking takes over and the trail, any trail, feels like home.

Enjoying the Day

We followed the main gorge trail on the north side of the river until we reached the South Gorge Bridge. This footbridge was closed for repairs the last time we were here, but it was open this time, and we crossed it to the middle, slowly, avoiding the groups of other hikers and looking out at the river, now slow-flowing and glittering in the late-morning sunlight.

ys4
Wiggs on the South Gorge Bridge

Deciding that we’d like to continue through the park to Glen Helen preserve, we crossed back to the north side of the river and walked on, as the Little Miami became smaller, rounding a bend. After this point there were few to no other hikers. We emerged from the woods at the Grinnell Mill, a restored grist mill and bed and breakfast. We planned to continue to the covered bridge at Glen Helen to have our lunch, but there was a team of workers putting up a barrier where the trail crossed the road and continued, so we turned around.

We found a lovely elm by the side of the Little Miami, where we sat and had our packed lunch. Wiggs also noticed a catfish in the river right near our spot, keeping us company as we munched on our turkey sandwiches. Shortly after we started walking once we finished our lunch, we found a flat, pebbly, sunny spot by the river. We stopped, I lay down and basked in the afternoon sun, and Wiggs skipped rocks across the water.

ys5
The Little Miami from the footbridge

I’m not very good at staying in the present. That’s one thing that this pandemic has really shown me. For once, I can’t plan ahead or map out what the next period of my life is going to look like. This is difficult for me, but in a way, I  see it as a gift of the pandemic. In a culture that is obsessed with growth and consumption and future planning, being forced to remain in the current moment is a healthy reminder that life occurs not in the future tense, but in the now. I thought about this as I lay on the pebbly ground next to the Little Miami, feeling the sun on my skin and appreciating being with Wiggs. We’re trail people. We know how to enjoy the little things. Sometimes we just forget, and we need to be reminded.

Ending the Day in Yellow Springs

We finished up the hike by exploring some of the caves in the cliffs on the south side of the river, finding some lovely young pheasant back mushrooms, then finally crossing back over and heading to our cars. As none of the restaurants in Yellow Springs are open for dine-in right now, obviously, we couldn’t go to Peach’s Grill, our usual post-hike Yellow Springs hangout. Instead, we opted to order carry-out gyros from Bentino’s, which we ate with relish in the park by the community center.

ys13
Wiggs and the Gyro

They were satisfying and hearty, and after we had finished we lay on a blanket, listening to the Grateful Dead and watching the evening clouds sail across the sky. Corny, I know. As if we belonged right in this crunchy, hippie hamlet right on the Buckeye Trail. Eventually we sighed, realizing that night was coming, and packed up the blankets and picked up our trash, and headed to our cars to return to our respective cities.

I looked at the windows of businesses as I drove out of Yellow Springs. There are shops, restaurants, and breweries that we love in this little town, and I hope they will survive the closures so that soon, people can come again and walk the streets and enjoy live music and buy books and drink local beer. But now, things are still, and birds dart across the sky in lazy loops, and the world is quiet. It will end soon, like all things do, and there will be noise and celebration again. But not yet. Not yet.

ys12
A young pheasant back mushroom growing at the base of a tree right near the trail. We’ve been getting into foraging this year, and these make delightful dishes when you catch them young enough!

Shawnee State Park: The Sequel

Amid all the hubbub and weirdness of quarantine-land, my brain has started to wander to trails and a desire to be on them (as it always inevitably does, but now more than ever). I’m reading Wild, finally, and I can’t stop thinking about the Pacific Crest Trail. When can I do it? When can I be walking again? And I wonder how much longer we’ll be allowed to go to state and local parks. Will they close the cemetery trails? Will Zaleski State Park stay open so Wiggs and I can do the backpacking trip we planned on? Is it irresponsible of me to go to my favorite trails and prowl the hills for morels?

In the scheme of things, I know none of that really matters. I hold so much privilege in this world, and having a house, an income, and enough food to eat during the pandemic demonstrate that. I shouldn’t be worried about hiking while people are struggling to pay rent and feed their families.

But I’m a hiker, and for all the falling-apart madness in the world, I really miss hiking. I’m also a writer, so the closest I can get to being on a long-distance trail is writing about it.

Shawnee Trip #2: March 7-9, 2020

In early March Wiggs and I returned to Shawnee State Park, where we had met up last fall and started our relationship. This time we did much more of the loop, skipping just a couple of miles in favor of making it back to our cars in time to grab a beer in Portsmouth. It was a rare window of three perfectly sunny days, and now looking back on what happened just a few days later, I am so happy we went.

Here’s a bit about it, with photos, to take you out of your head and into the woods.

shawnee1
Yours truly at the start of the backpacking loop at Shawnee State Forest. March 7, 2020

Spring Begins

Winter in southern Ohio isn’t necessarily cold, but it is depressing. Clouds hang low in the sky like soggy gray cotton. It rains—constant, thick drizzly rain—for days at a time. When we scheduled this trip we knew we were rolling the dice.

When I got out of my car at the trailhead on that Saturday morning, I was so glad to see that it was a warmish, hesitantly sunny day. In contrast to the torrential downpour that flooded our tents when we hiked this loop back in October, this weekend would turn out to be miraculously dry.

The first night was cold. We had to sleep with our water filters to keep them from freezing. The next morning our shoes were covered in a fine layer of frost. It was hard to get going, but when we eventually did, it warmed up. The sun blazed down on the still-brown trees and leaf-strewn paths, and I found myself actually warm outside for the first time since the fall.

shawnee6
A lovely lake scene on the southern half of the Shawnee Backpacking Loop. March 9, 2020

The Hike

Back in October, the rain prevented us from doing as much of the backpacking loop as we had planned. This time, though we didn’t technically get through the whole loop since we took an alternate and slightly quicker trail, we got much farther.

The northern half—from the backpacker’s trailhead, past the Copperhead Fire Tower and down to Camp Oyo—was just as hard as I remembered from the fall. The hills are steeper than one would expect from a state as notoriously flat as Ohio. I had to pace myself on the steep inclines and pause at the top to let my lungs and joints rest. In a way it felt good to be this challenged. I hadn’t done any properly difficult hiking since doing this same route in the fall, and it felt in a way like being back on the AT again.

The southern half of the loop, which we did not get to do in October, was gorgeous. There were more views and longer ridges. It was still hilly, though not as bad as the northern half. On the second night, we ended up at a campsite on a ridge that juts out from the main trail. The temperature was slightly warmer, and we set up camp next to a tree and had a little fire. We sat and chatted, cooked dinner, and drank wine as we watched the sunset from the other side of the ridge.

There are a lot of things I like about hiking: the freedom, the untetheredness of living out of a pack, the sense of distance, the people. But the feeling of being content next to a campfire at sunset is pretty high up on the list. Especially when you’re calm and happy, and with someone you love.

shawnee2
Wiggs and me, enjoying the early March sunlight. March 7, 2020

Home

Eventually, the three days passed and the hike ended, like all hikes do. We spent the last day zooming along a ridge, playing 20 Questions and fantasizing about cheeseburgers. I didn’t pack enough food for the weekend, having overpacked the last time, so I ate the last of my snacks for lunch and we sped back to the parking lot. We spent a few moments at the lake, watching the geese again and enjoying the feeling of spring about to bloom.

Then we went back to our cars, changed into sandals, and drove to Portsmouth Brewery for beers, burgers, and a massive plate of fries. It was shocking how fast the hiker hunger came back to me, and I was struck by how natural it felt to go from the trail and into a town. It felt so much like the AT, like hitching into Manchester Center and descending upon a restaurant. Soon, the meal ended too, and Wiggs and I said goodbye and headed home to our respective cities.

I thought about the woods as I was on my way home. I thought about how right it felt to be at Shawnee and how comfortable it feels to be there, and anywhere, with Wiggs. I feel confident in the woods. I feel strong and capable, despite a hill destroying me or the persistent pain in my ankle. I feel like I know what I’m about and what I can do. I feel home.

shawnee8
Wiggs, enjoying sunset from camp. March 8, 2020

And Now

So it’s April now, a month since that three-day trip. If you had told me then that soon after I’d be teaching from home while a pandemic ripped through the world, I might not have believed you. Though the coronavirus was known at that point, it wasn’t yet clear to me how serious a situation it was about to become.

I feel so bad for all of the prospective thru-hikers who quit their jobs and sold their possessions in anticipation of a 2020 thru-hike. It is not easy to give up on plans, especially when they involve hiking. I know this intimately now: yesterday our flight to Scotland was cancelled. We won’t be hiking the West Highland Way this year, as we had planned.

Other hikes are being called off too. As of last week the Appalachian Trail Conservancy requested a formal closure of the Appalachian Trail in its entirety to ensure that people stayed off it and away from each other, in hopes of containing the virus. While many hikers have made the difficult decision to stop, postpone, or cancel their hike, there are still some people out there, despite the warnings.

As a hiker I know how hard it is to stay in one place. I miss the trail all the time, but I miss it more than usual now. Though giving up plans for a hike is nowhere near as difficult as the situation many people in oppressed communities are going through, it is still very difficult. At the same time, the last month has been an exercise—like the Appalachian Trail was an exercise—in accepting the present and learning to be adaptable. Hikers, let’s stay home now so that we can hike later.

To anyone reading, I hope you are well. Dream of trails, wash your hands, and hang in there.

shawnee10
Part of the southern half of the Shawnee backpacking loop shares a route with the Buckeye Trail and the North Country Trail. We might not be going abroad to hike this year, but it’s good to remember that there are trails everywhere, even close to home.

 

 

Shawnee State Forest, October 2019

In late October I went backpacking at Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio. It had only been a few weeks since completing the Appalachian Trail, but in those odd days following my summit of Katahdin, every day of not hiking felt like a confused century. The opportunity to walk again—through a forest heavy with the scent of changing leaves—was irresistible.

I had made the plan to go with a friend I met on the trail, Red Wiggler, aka Wiggs. I realized, through the power of social media, that he lived a mere two hours north of me, in Columbus, and sent him a message casually offering to serve as a semi-local hiking partner if he ever found himself missing folks from the AT. To my delight he responded almost immediately, and plans were set in motion for our three-day mini-adventure.

DSC02310
Classic Ohio in the Fall.

I was gleeful. I went to Walmart to buy food for the trip, and got oddly nostalgic. It felt like I was in town along the Appalachian Trail. I imagined being with my trail family, carefully evaluating weight versus calories versus flavor and tallying up my purchases. By the end of my thru-hike I was sick to the point of nausea of rice sides, peanut butter, and oatmeal, so I didn’t buy any of those for Shawnee. But I did splurge: dehydrated bacon, bagels and cream cheese, and a non-perishable noodle concoction so extravagant that it came with its own massive plastic pho bowl. I sent a picture of my shopping basket to Wiggs as I sauntered around the store: I feel like I’m resupplying!

On Friday, October 25, I drove the hour and a half over winding rural Ohio roads to the parking lot at the Shawnee trailhead. I saw my hiking partner as I pulled up. For a moment, I wondered how it would go. We knew each other on the AT, but not well—our tramilies tended to travel at slightly different speeds, so we sometimes ended up at the same place, but he and I hadn’t talked as much as I would have liked to on the trail. He always seemed cool. I kind of had a low-grade crush on him. I didn’t know, though. Would I remember how to talk to people like I did on the AT? Would it be awkward?

All worries dissipated immediately as I parked my car and got out. “Wiggs!” I proclaimed. “Passport!” he proclaimed back with a miles-wide grin. We hugged, took a selfie, and sent it to all of our trail friends, and I knew the weekend would be something good.

image0 (1)
Yours truly and Wiggs, October 25, 2019

No Sun, No Problem

We hoped for sunshine, but this was Ohio in October. Rain was in the forecast for all three days, and it delivered. Oddly, it didn’t seem to make a difference. If anything, the rain made it feel even more realistic, like the thru-hike had never ended.

It was also a prime time to go backpacking, as the leaves were just about in their peak. They weren’t the same shades of vibrant red and yellow that defined Maine in September, but they were still lovely: lively yellow and a calm Ohio ochre. As we walked up and over hills and across ridges, I started to realize how beautiful this state could be. Like the AT, the beauty isn’t overt or dramatic. There was no above-treeline sweeping view, but there was a kaleidoscope of leaves and a certain peace in the soft dampness of the Midwestern autumn world.

DSC02265 (1)
It was a little bit wet, but there was a certain kind of comfy beauty in the rainy autumn world.

 

The Trail

Shawnee’s trails aren’t the AT, but they are impressive, especially for Ohio. There is a main backpacking loop that measures just under 40 miles, as well as many options for side trails, cutoffs, and alternate routes.

We didn’t make it through the whole loop as we planned. The second day we were there it poured rain in the morning, so we sat in our tents at camp and talked, enjoying a luxurious breakfast and multiple cups of coffee before beginning to hike around noon. We made it about part of the way through, and planned to do the whole loop in the spring.

Image result for shawnee state forest trail map ohio
Shawnee has a rather impressive network of trails, including a large backpacking loop. We did about half of the loop on this particular weekend, and will soon be going back to do the whole route.

What we did see was highly enjoyable. Shawnee is sometimes called the “Little Smokies of Ohio,” as its scenery looks somewhat like that of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina. Having hiked through the Smokies just a few months before, I could see the comparison. Not only are there vistas of gently rolling forested hills, but there are also fire towers and picturesque campsites, pretty little gurgling creeks and benches by a lake full of geese. We saw only a few other people the whole weekend, and the trail was blanketed with a sense of quiet autumnal peace.

Campsites with privies and water spigots are available throughout the loop, spaced at regular-ish intervals of between 6 and 10 miles. The first camp we stayed at had a lovely fire ring with a makeshift stone bench, and it was on this bench that we sat the first night while we ate our dinner, watched the fire, listened to music, and talked. The second night was a little soggier, but given better weather it would have been a superb place for sitting around and cooking. There is also a lake with a picnic area, and on the last morning we wound up there for about an hour, watching the geese fly over the water.

Having just finished a thru-hike, the trails did not feel overly difficult to me, though they were challenging for Ohio: there were frequent steep hills (though no long hills like on the AT) and the trail was sometimes overgrown or obstructed with blown-down trees. There were a few times when we had to navigate over or through massive brambles, but for the most part the trail was wide enough to walk two abreast and fairly well maintained.

DSC02231 (1)
Side trails to campsites are marked with white blazes at Shawnee, while the main loop is marked with an orange blaze. It was comforting to see this white mark, as if we had never left the AT.

Slightly Struggling

Despite being less than a month from my AT finish, and despite the relative ease of the trail at Shawnee, I struggled a bit over the three days. I sprained my ankle on the AT in Virginia and it probably never got a chance to heal properly, so that was still bothering me on this trip. Besides that, I discovered that trail legs disappear shockingly quickly. My calves were not the rock-hard boulders they were in Maine, and I was not able to tolerate the hills as easily as I might have, had I still been on my thru-hike. But I suppose this is the way of things.

The weather also presented its own set of struggles. On the AT, despite multiple days of heavy rain overnight, I never experienced a flooded tent. That changed at Shawnee. On the second night Wiggs and I inadvertently set up our tents in what would soon become a swamp in the relentless rain, and I woke up in the middle of the night to water all over everything I had with me. Oddly, I wasn’t really bothered by it, because I knew I didn’t have to hike all the way to Maine with that gear. I could just toss it in my car and go home the next day. But it was still a bit of a struggle to get out of my tent, relocate to a drier spot, and wring out my soaking clothes before hunkering down for a few more hours on my sad, worn-out three quarters of a Z-Lite.

I realized after this trip that I’m going to need some time to regroup on the gear front and heal properly before my next thru-hike. It was miraculous to be in the woods again for three days, and I can’t wait for the next time I wake up and hike day after day for six months. But for now, it’s good to have a rest, and to enjoy other parts of my life.

DSC02279
Wiggs resting on the second evening, before the torrential downpour that flooded both of our tents.

A New Adventure

Although Wiggs and I didn’t know each other very well on the Appalachian Trail, we still knew each other. And it was that knowing—that intuition from the AT, that immediate understanding of another thru-hiker—that made us comfortable with each other, opening up easily, connecting. When I arrived to the trailhead that morning I knew we’d get along, and I knew we would have a good time. I definitely didn’t expect, however, that Shawnee would lead to a relationship. And yet, that is just where it lead.

So we stumbled unintentionally into love. Isn’t that how it always happens, though? One minute you’re sending a message on Instagram to someone you met on the trail—If you ever want an Ohio hiking buddy hit me up!—and the next you’re driving home over windy rural roads with the pungent smell of hiker wafting from the backseat and a goofy smile on your face, wondering what would happen now.

Here’s what: An adventure of an entirely different kind. Comfort and challenge and distance and closeness all wrapped up into one. That weekend at Shawnee was both a return to the world in which I feel most myself, and the start of a great big something.

So go there, if you want. Tread the wide paths with their leaves and frogs and Branta canadensis honking on the water. Sit at the campfire and breathe in the soft Ohio woodland air. Drink the water from the spigot and feel wild. Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll fall in love.

DSC02305
Wiggs. pack, and 2019 AT thru-hiker tag. From one trail to another, and onto a new adventure…