Last weekend it was a toss up between running in Columbus and getting my last run in before heading to West Virginia, or going down to Hocking Hills to hike the Grandma Gatewood trail.
I chose the hike.
Hocking Hills is one of my favorite regions of Ohio, alongside peaceful Amish Country and Route 2 along Lake Erie. Six years ago I went with a group to hike the Grandma Gatewood trail during the annual Winter Hike and loved it. I’ve been telling myself I need to go back and hike the trail out and back. One way is six miles, so I figured if I can run 13.1 miles for fun then I can definitely handle a 12- mile hike. I even calculated I could complete the hike in three hours, if I normally walk a mile in 15 minutes.
I didn’t take into account the “hills” part. Truth be told, since it’s been six years since I was last on that trail, I forgot how rugged the terrain was.
Nature humbled me. Hiking wasn’t really hiking – it was walking, with climbing, and sliding up and down some rocks, and railroad tracking my feet through tree roots that worked as narrow steps up and down the cliff. I got a few scratches and slipped a few times, and definitely felt the terrain in my knees and ankles over the past few days.
And yet in spite of the humbling I got, I was having a blast. I needed to get out of city and go outside, to experience nature and not be cooped up all the time. Being active and outdoors is a boon to my mental health, and after a rough week, I needed something to look forward to and accomplish. Hiking the Grandma Gatewood trail was that, even if I did have to cut down my original mileage goal.
There was also a second purpose to going down there.
Do you all remember Easter weekend, when I mentioned there was a blow up that had been a long time coming? In addition to the blow up and going into the weekend already upset, my mom and I decided we needed to go visit Grandpa’s grave.
I wasn’t ready for that visit. The grave was bare, minus the dirt that still needed grass to grow over it. The thought of Grandpa being in there, with no sign of anyone coming to visit, by himself … It bothered me deeply, and I wasn’t able to get over my emotions in the week that followed.
Grandpa loved being outdoors and hiked all over, including Hocking Hills. I needed to feel his presence, his spirit with me. I couldn’t accept all of him was left at that grave. When I started my hike, I asked Grandpa if I could feel his spirit with me. I needed to know he was there.
For the duration of my hike, the voice in my head that was deciding which foot needed to go first or whether we should climb a rock or trudge through mud was not mine. It was Grandpa’s.
I made it to Cedar Falls and then started my journey back to Old Man’s Cave. There were a few stretches of trail that were flat(ish), with a few little stone foot bridges to cross over. I came up to one of the bridges and stopped. I wasn’t feeling tired or that I needed to rest, so then I wasn’t sure why I stopped.
To my right I heard a snap. Right in front of me, a tree branch snapped off and landed across the bridge. It wasn’t a large branch, but I’ve heard that even lightweight things falling and hitting someone on the head, neck or shoulders is enough to do damage, if not kill someone. Had a been a few steps ahead, I could have been hurt pretty badly.
A couple behind me saw it fall. The guy was gracious enough to break the branches down and move it out of the way. We all crossed and it was then I understood why I stopped.
Grandpa’s spirit saw the tree branch coming and was protecting me, just like he would have in life.
It may sound corny to some of you, and that’s okay. There’s only two other people who would see it the way I did, and when I told them the story of the tree branch, they felt the same presence I did.
The last few weeks of grieving have taken a lot out of me. I wasn’t feeling like myself or really able to feel anything aside from exhaustion and sadness. I would love to tell you all the hike was the magic cure to all my problems and that I’m happy again like grief has never happened. But that’s a lie. This past Monday I woke up with a heavy heart, and I had to remind myself that grieving isn’t a linear, short-term process.
But I got to go to one of my happy places and feel Grandpa’s spirit. I can at least go forward knowing a part of him was there and that he’ll always be my guardian angel. For then and now, that’s more than enough.
I appreciate you all staying with me. A part of me feels like a broken record talking about grief. At the same time, I share parts of myself online as a means of processing the hard parts of life, and with the hope someone else can read this and feel not so alone in their own challenges. If you’re going through it – whatever it is – hang in there. Life will keep rolling on and your job is to keep rolling with it.
Yours in writing and running,