This past weekend, I felt like Flanders.
The Flanders of Simpson's fame.
I was a 'nervous pervous' most of the weekend.
We went to Hocking Hills in Southern Ohio, the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains for a little getaway. It was supposed to be relaxing. And it was, for the most part...except for those times when we were hiking. Then, I was nervous.
My mind playing out worst case scenarios with each trepidatious landing of my foot.
If you've not been to the area, you should do yourself a favor and go. There are extensive hiking trails through some rugged territory that lead to amazing caves, cliffs and waterfalls. No need to travel to the ends of the earth. They are all here, right in O-H-I-O. And despite of the size of this relatively small park area, no matter how many times you visit the landscape changes and there is always something new to admire.
Hocking Hills National Park is made up of 6 named famous rock formations. The towering cliffs, deep gorges, waterfalls and caves all provide stunning beauty. The Blackhand sandstone bedrock was deposited here over 350 million years ago. There are markings of ancient Adena which resided in the area 7,000 years ago. It's a plethora of outdoor opportunities that beckons you to visit again and again.
We found a wonderful rustic, yet well appointed cabin just north of the State Park. What drew me to this particular beauty was their advertisement of the need for a 4WD vehicle if visiting when snow is on the ground. To me? That sounds wonderfully remote and heaven like.
Only 3 1/2 hours from home, driving into this rural area diverse with such incredible raw beauty makes it the perfect place to really getaway without the investment of too much travel time. As we approached our backroad destination in the dark, I invisibly clapped myself on the back for adding the Navigation System when I purchased my Commander. Without it we might still be driving around looking for a lone cabin in the Hills of Ohio.
Our hillside was silent.
Nothing but us and the stars.
And the much appreciated hot tub and fireplace. I love a roaring wood burning fire. It's mesmerising. Especially in a rustic log cabin in the middle of the woods with no one within sight.
Always a planner, I'd read up and charted a route for the next mornings hike. Our destination: the 8 mile circle between Old Man's Cave, Cedar Falls and on to Ash Cave. It's a nice hike. A good distance, but not too overwhelming for Boo and the dogs. If you go too far, they lose interest. And energy. We'd done this same trail before in the spring and were looking forward to seeing the frozen waterfalls and their massive icicles in the winter off-season.
We couldn't have asked for better conditions. Sunny and cool, but warm enough for just a fleece. Decked in the proper trekking gear, we left the car and headed to start the lower gorge trail and return on the upper rim.
However my plan was immediately thwarted. The stairs heading down into Old Man's Cave were frozen. Solid.
A gal was huffing up with her dog and twanged, "There ain't no way yo'all make it down there. That dog's gonna pull ya."
At that moment I didn't know she had intended herself to go down that stairway, but was unsuccessful. Her statement wasn't a taunting 'your dog ain't gonna make it'; rather it was a 'there ain't no one going down there today...'
We didn't heed the warning.
We were fresh. We were ready. We wanted to go.
In actuality, I didn't take it as a warning. It sounded more like a 'that dog won't hunt', I thought she was returning from her own visit to the Devil's Bathtub and was dissing my anxious pups...so we did as my Grandpa would say, "don't pay her no never mind". So I didn't.
D led the way. I liked the idea of him forging the trail for us to warn of danger ahead. 1 step-2-3-4-5 steps and then Whoop! D took the rest all at once with Stuey sliding down with him. He looked up, brushed himself off and said, "You comin', or what?"
I'll choose the 'what'.
Wisely, I decided it might be best to start our hike minus a full slide down some mighty long, rough, frozen stairs that'll end up with a bruised backside. Plus I'd like to keep all my teeth exactly where they are, thank you very much. I knew there were other ways down into the cave. Let's just go find the one slightly less hazardous.
This national park is well visited with hundreds of thousands of people coming to see it's wonder each year. Surprisingly enough it is still rather wild and unmarred by humans. It's not a commercial park. They take the 'natural' seriously. So yes, there are a few stairways and rock bridges, but they are not salted or cleared. There are no railings. There are just warning signs.
WARNING: Ice danger
WARNING: Rock ledges
WARNING: Hazardous cliff
All above signs and maps noted with a picture of a little stick guy falling on his arse. Fitting.
With the caveat of 'Stay on the Trail' they really do mean 'STAY ON THE TRAIL'!
100 foot drops are common throughout the park land without so much of a 'Be Careful' sign or fence. All the trails at Hocking Hills are pet friendly except for one; which is a nature preserve.
I'm sure Boo was getting tired of me following her and repeatedly telling her, "Be careful. Stay on the fresh snow. Stay to the left. Watch that ledge. Be careful."
As I was walking (and pushing the images from my mind of a bruised and bloodied Boo, or myself, at the bottom of the gorge) I thought about a past golf lesson. My instructor had told me, "Don't look at the water. (or whatever hazard there was that was giving me immediate anxiety) If you look at the water, you'll go in the water. Pretend it's not there."
So I would. I'd pretend that enormous lake wasn't there. Low and behold, I got over my fear of hitting over water. And managed at the same time to stay out of it.
Now I desperately was trying to channel some of Paul's insight of hazards and not think about the death cliff edged in slippery ice. If i succeed, I might just make it out of Hocking Hills alive.
Our hike, which was quite enjoyable although somewhat hazardous at times, was rewarding and exhilarating. Physically and mentally. Towards the end we all had one thing in mind. "The sun is setting. It's getting colder. The snow will again start to freeze up after a days worth of rays. We need to get out of this gorge. Please God, let us make it up the stairs with all our teeth and limbs intact."
As I witnessed several times over during my hikes, seemingly God does protect the ignorant.
With our trek over, the parking lot in sight, a girl and her friends were heading down into the park at dusk. They were wearing Uggs. Classic Uggs. Not even the winter ones. No traction. No tread. I just spent the last 4 hours dealing with getting my family home safely. I thought, "I may be reading about them tomorrow. I hope I don't, but I just might..."
There are several deaths attributed to this park each year. It's usually blamed on people wandering off the marked path, getting into trouble on unstable ledges and plummeting to their doom. Many times, as in the case of young Jacob Walls, he lost his footing after a quick rain when he was trying to get a photo of the Old Man's cave. A shot for the photo album. One worth framing. The family at the base of the cave where young Walls fell could do nothing to save him. He was only 15.
Or Amy Adams, 22, who was 100 yards off trail and tried, unsuccessfully to jump a stream. She slipped and was swept off the precipice. Or even Peter Westoff, 23, who was an amateur adventurer who got separated from his group and fell 60ft into the deep gorge. It took 18 hours for park officials to remove his body.
Peter that was on my mind during my hike this morning. Because he had been hiking in February when the conditions were the same as they were today.
Any printed park material that you pick up states several times over" Because of it's wilderness character, the park can be hazardous if you stray from the designated trails. Be sure not to lean over rock ledges and keep young children restrained." Yet, people hang over rock ledges, stray from the trail and let their kids run amok.
We were at the top of Ash Cave and passed a family walking towards us. "Be careful. It's very icy up ahead.", I told them. Trust me, it was. Even with my caution, I slipped several times. Yet here was this family with a 6 year old and toddler running ahead of them. Cliff ledge 150 feet. No rail. Icy trail. Toddler. They nodded, smiled and did nothing to rear in their children running 30 yards in front of them.
Ummmm. Hello? Anybody home?
The Rim trail runs exactly that. Right. Along. The. Rim. One mistake and BAM! You are now one with the cave. Forever.
There was another guy that almost gave me heart failure as well. The small stream that feeds the waterfall you see from below has a rock bridge you can cross. For the untrained, or ignorant eye, it doesn't appear fatal. But it could be. Easily. The bridge is exactly 20 feet from the edge. And yet this guy and his excitable puppy walk right out to the lip! IN THE STREAM, no less!
- Slick rock bottom stream. Check.
- 40-50 degree weather with spring meltoff and hidden ice. Check.
- Slick ice forming everywhere. Check.
- Right above the Cave! Check.
- Potential Darwinian award recipient. Check.
"Either this guy, his dog, or both are going to fall. It's not going to be pretty."
I do not want to witness that.
It about ruined my day.
I spent the remainder of our day riding her extra hard about her making sure of her footing. But this trail led us away from the cliff and into the lowlands. If you slipped, you just got your jeans wet and lost a little ego. But (hopefully) you weren't about to crack your skull or snap your spinal cord. I did get a hiking boot blow-out which made my feet slosh, but I can handle that. I wanted to buy some new treads anyway, so this was a perfect excuse to do so.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not encouraging the resurrection of handrails and fences in the park. I'm not even asking them to put up more signs. It is the hikers responsibility to educate themselves and have respect for their surroundings. Even if there were railings, you know you'd see the same mindless people standing on them.
If you are prepared and respect the potential danger of nature, then it's gorgeous. Everyone should experience it's beauty.
But be smart. KNOW your surroundings. Exercise caution. Err on the side of reserve with every step...no matter what season you are visiting. In spring, it becomes wet. And moss and leaves can be a slippery as ice. Or buy some Get-A-Grips crampons to wear on your shoes. They help.
Just be smart.
I was. And it was wonderful.
I've got the frameable photos to prove it.
Darwin didn't get me. At least this time around...