I conquered Hocking Hills!

Before I get into today’s post, I want to share a couple observations and things that have happened since my last post.

1.) During my Friday night grocery run, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the coincidence of the song playing over the loudspeakers – Alanis Morissette’s “You Learn,” which includes the lyric about a jagged little pill. What are the odds of that?

2.) On Saturday I went back to my parents’ house to puppy-sit their older boy Buddy while my folks took their puppy Sammy to the vet in my car. So far Buddy has been happy to see me and Sammy hasn’t really known what to think of me. However, this time around Sammy was fine and Buddy spent the afternoon pouting. Mom says the dogs are inseparable and it appears I’m not a good enough substitute for Sammy.

3.) Bean soup and corn bread make a wonderful fall dinner option. However, if you have dogs and decide to eat it on the couch (we were watching a movie), at least one is going to try to steal your beans. Maybe that’s why Sammy decided I’m not too bad.

Now this brings me to yesterday morning. Since the marathon wasn’t happening, I decided I was going to reclaim the day for another bucket list item.

Six years ago I went down to Hocking Hills for the first time to participate in the annual Winter Hike, where the group would hike approximately 5.3 miles along the Grandma Gatewood trail from Old Man’s Cave to Ash Cave. It was tough but worth it, and back then I thought to myself how cool it would be to one day hike from Old Man’s Cave to Ash Cave and then back. I’ve tried the hike before – actually, this year in April and again in July – and could only make it to Cedar Falls before realizing I could take other trails to my halfway point of Cedar Falls. I also realized that for the first half of the Winter Hike we were actually taking the Gorge Overlook Trail to Cedar Falls, which is why we passed a lake and crossed over a suspension bridge that I couldn’t find on my first attempts.

So yesterday morning I got up bright and early, leaving my place a little after 8 a.m. with a pit stop to get some gas. Then I headed southeast to Hocking County. The drive out of Columbus was beautiful. The trees were turning gold, bright orange and ruby red all along Route 33, and those colors continued onto Route 664 south, heading to Old Man’s Cave/Hocking Hills State Park. It turns out leaving early and arriving around 9:30 a.m. was one of my smartest ideas to date – I actually got a close parking spot, and that rarely happens down there.

The hike started with me not really paying attention to which trailhead I was using to enter Old Man’s Cave. I wound up going down the stairs to the cave itself, missing Upper Falls entirely, but this was okay. It just meant I got to walk through the gorge of Old Man’s Cave – which is gigantic and almost intimidating – and wander around Lower Falls before any of the crowds got there, which was a treat. The stairs to exit the gorge, on the other hand, always seem a little steeper than what I last remember.

So after my warm-up hike around the gorge, I walked back to the entrance I was looking for. Upper Falls was turning colors, and as I admired the beauty, it didn’t take me long to find my signpost telling me that to my right down the stairs was the Grandma Gatewood trail, and to my left up a slight hill was the Gorge Overlook Trail. I turned left.

The overlook trail was exactly as I remembered from when I was last in Hocking Hills in July, as well as those years before in the winter. The canopy of yellow leaves made me feel as though I was walking along the sun, finding warmth on a still-chilly morning.

I didn’t remember the hill leading up to Rose Lake, but I did remember all the trees that line the lake and was hoping those would have turned colors for the photo opportunity. Nature did not disappoint.

All the while I felt strong, and couldn’t wait to reach Cedar Falls, where I finally felt a little hungry. I had a small backpack with me, as well as my fuel belt that I normally carry on runs and a walking stick Grandpa had made for me. I never carried the stick before, but decided it would be smarter to have it and not need it than find myself on rough terrain and need it but not have it. This did come in handy later.

I didn’t realize that the Grandma Gatewood trail is also the Buckeye Trail, so when I was trying to compare the map on my phone to the map at the trail heads, I couldn’t figure out where Grandma Gatewood was. Then I figured out the blue marks painted on the trees leading the way – blue being the color on the legend for G.G.’s trail – were the same as the Buckeye Trail leading toward Ash Cave.

Here’s a neat piece of history – The Buckeye Trail is the largest trail within the state of Ohio with more than 1,400 miles, and is also the host to two long-distance national trails, the North Country National Scenic Trail and the American Discovery Trail. I didn’t know this until I read the sign and in that moment, I felt pretty humbled. I was also breathing a sigh of relief. While there are plenty of hills, the Buckeye/G.G. trail from Cedar Falls to Ash Cave is not treacherous at all like it was in the gorge between Old Man’s Cave and Cedar Falls. I kinda wondered if Grandma Gatewood carved that particular path as a means of weeding out the weenies, of making us city-billies suffer first and earn our right to an pleasant hike.

Grandma Gatewood, you sly she-devil.

The two miles between Cedar Falls and Ash Cave were pleasant, and I even had some cell service to text Mom status updates and receive messages from her. Those warm fall colors lead the way to Ash Cave and filled my heart with the satisfaction of knowing I was actually doing this.

Then reader-friends, there I was. My stick lifted, I was walking down the stairs and climbing down the natural foot path forged into the grooves of the cave.

I made it.

It took me a little under three hours for the first leg of my trip, and I couldn’t believe I actually did it. I spent some time walking all over Ash Cave, taking in the gorge and the beauty and just how big it all really is. Old Man’s Cave is big, covering a lot of land space, while Ash Cave is just plain gigantic. In a word, it’s majestic.

I felt great, and at the same time I definitely felt the impact of the return trip as I traveled back north from Ash Cave to Cedar Falls. I had to laugh at myself when I passed the restrooms at Cedar Falls. I made a pit stop there and in my haste left my walking stick. I was only five minutes up the Buckeye Trail when I realized I didn’t have it, so the trip to turn around and get it took no time. But I still had to argue with myself if we (the practical half of my brain and the emotional half) really wanted to turn around for anything.

The practical half figured we’d be fine without it and figured there’s a second stick at home, so we don’t really need this one particular stick. Emotional Half said we weren’t leaving anything made by Grandpa, because that would be too much like leaving Grandpa. If Grandpa was here, would you leave him in the Cedar Falls ladies’ room? Emotional Half asked.

No, no I would not. So I went back, found my stick where I left it, and everything I came into the forest with came out with me.

So now I was back at Cedar Falls with a decision to make. The slightly easier option would be to take the overlook trail the way I came. However, it was early afternoon. I was already hot and heat rises, while the gorge would be cooler.

But the gorge was also the treacherous Grandma Gatewood trail that left me cursing the old lady’s name.

But, I also had my stick with me.

And I’d already come this far.

And Mama didn’t raise no pansy-ass.

So down the stairs into the gorge I went.

The trail was still just as strenuous as it’s always been. And it turns out having a walking stick to balance myself helped tremendously when I had to climb over rocks and side-step between exposed tree roots to safely climb up and down. I was able to pull myself up and balance myself over uneven terrain, and compared to the last two adventures on that particular section of trail, this time went better than I expected.

It was a little after 3:00 when I finally reached Lower Falls, which was now crowded but still as beautiful as when I first hiked down there earlier that morning. I still had the stairs waiting on me, and at this point I both never wanted to see any stairs again, and at the same time figured out could a few hundred more possibly hurt.

Reader-friends, it took me a little over five hours, but I finally hiked from Old Man’s Cave to Ash Cave and back. The trip that I’d been thinking about for almost seven years finally became a reality. After looking over my map and calculating the distances, I hiked either nine or 10 miles yesterday up and down those hills, through caverns and forests. My body hurt exactly the same way it does after running a marathon, and it feels wonderful.

There is a lesson to my hiking adventure. Do you all remember the walking stick? It turns out if you carry a walking stick, other hikers will take that to mean you are a Serious Hiker. They will ask you about distance and for recommendations on which direction is the prettier path, and listen to your recommendation. Because you’re hiking with a stick and must know something. You can offer unsolicited advice to the group of women who are mildly turned around and aren’t really dressed to go climb rocks (not a judgment statement, by the way) about which paths are easier and might be more fun for them, and they will thank you for what is in fact unsolicited advice. Because you have a stick. Other hikers will nod in approval and nicely move out of your way. I felt like Rafiki giving Simba advice about the universe.

The Theodore Roosevelt rule – of speaking softly and carrying a big stick – is very real.

And with all of that being said, it is time for me to get to bed. I’m already excited to go back to Hocking Hills for another long hike. I’ll have my walking stick with me. And at some point I’m probably going to leave it in one of the ladies’ rooms down there.

Yours in reading and life,


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