Adventures in Self Care: Hocking Hills, Ohio

As we pull into the (exceptionally crowded) parking lot for Old Man’s Cave, Andy groans. It’s a beautiful, sunny Saturday in Hocking Hills, which means there are people everywhere. I assure him it won’t be this way tomorrow when we’re able to get there earlier in the day, or on the longer trails.

We head towards the visitor center to fill our water bottles. On the way, we pass at least three people wearing some version of Ohio love on their shirts. I smile. I am home.

Hocking Hills is the type of place that, when you say you’re going there, you receive a blank stare in return. I’ve rarely met people who aren’t from Ohio who know about this area, yet for me, it was a staple family getaway. I have memories of sitting in a cabin playing board games and reading, amazed by the lack of a TV, which was normally the constant hum in the background of my childhood. Plus, when we checked in to our cabin, there’d always be fresh baked chocolate chip cookies waiting for us.

I’ve been back a few times as an adult, but never with a Serious Hiker. Every time, the nostalgia hits me in the face like a cool winter’s breeze. This is the stuff of my childhood, the journies that first sparked a love of nature in me.

When I was in college, I went back with my parents over fall break. Mom bought us fresh hiking boots for the occasion, boots that I’ve worn on every subsequent trip. And then, a few years later, I traveled there with a group of AmeriCorps friends, staying in a slightly too-small cabin for the group of us, trekking lightly around the park but mostly enjoying one another’s company. These memories layered over those from childhood, creating a complex depth of association.

Needless to say, I was incredibly excited to share this place with Andy. I knew that we’d hike most of the park in our long weekend stay, since the short hikes I’d taken as a kid and in later years are nothing for someone who once thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. More than that, I’d dreamed of coming to this place with a guy since I was a romantically minded but lonesome kid. We booked the A Frame cabin for two, bought a bottle of wine, and spent time in the hot tub, just like I’d always imagined. But it was more than I’d ever imagined, too. Isn’t it always?

On the first day, we hiked slowly from Old Man’s Cave to Cedar Falls and back, surrounded by gaggles of people with varying levels of hiking skills. The trail and falls were all bone dry, Southern Ohio’s drought taking its toll. But on Sunday, the rain came. We got an early start that morning, driving up to take the Buckeye Trail out past the rappelling area, around a 6 mile hike there and back. It was the most rugged trail I’d taken in Hocking Hills, my old boots finding new ground with every step.

I breathed in the Ohio air and reveled in the still silence, so different from the usual tourist hum of the more crowded areas. An entire day’s hike, and we didn’t encounter a single other hiker–just one man bow hunting and a gaggle of rappellers. I found myself falling into an old daydream, imagining what it would be like to through hike the Buckeye Trail, taking in so very much of my beloved home state. Andy told me stories about his days on the AT, and I asked myself honestly if I could handle such a lifestyle. The soft echo of occipital shocks at the back of my skull whispered no, but I tried to imagine past these few months of pain, into a future where I’ve learned to manage it.

After our hike, I soaked my tired legs in the hot tub and read from Do Your Om Thing, a part-memoir part yoga guide that urged me to consider ways of bringing mindfulness into my life. I considered parts of yoga’s eight limbed path and wondered, as I always do when I’m traveling, why it’s so hard to bring the sense of peace that I feel while hiking and on vacation back home with me. Here I am again, I thought, making the same promises I made the last time I went on retreat. To spend more of my mornings reading quietly, to spend more of my evenings on walks or doing the things that re-energize me.

On Monday, I woke up to that glorious free feeling of a vacation day. Back home, people were getting ready for work, but here I was in Hocking Hills with my boyfriend, getting ready to make coffee and protein pancakes at 8am. Sweet, blissful luxury.

We got a later start that day, but the forecast promised consistent rains, so we weren’t worried. Sure enough, even Old Man’s Cave housed barely a soul. Because it had rained so much, we wanted to revisit the places we’d seen dry on our first day, and it was worth the wait. Though still smaller and slower than my previous trips, the falls were back in action. Plus, the rain brought forth a few frogs and turtles, in addition to the deer we’d seen on previous days. I thought back to the days of walking through the woods with my dad, knowing my brother and me would never be quiet enough for us to see a deer.

Our big hike of the day was taking the Buckeye trail the other way, up to Ash Cave. This was a flat, easy hike in comparison to the day before, though we did it in our ponchos to avoid getting too wet from the steady rain. I thought about the morning’s yoga lesson from 30 Day Yogi Assignment, considering vulnerability and what it means.

As we passed some slicker parts of the trail, I told Andy stories of my childhood trips to Hocking Hills, how they always seemed to include me falling down in one way or another. This reminded me of a fall I’d taken not too long before we met, when I scraped myself badly on the ice walking home and spent the night at home alone, feeling sorry for myself. How different my life looked now, and yet how similar. My body and me, fumbling along not quite in sync, falling and getting back up, time and time again.

We came to a fire tower, which Andy had been looking forward to since seeing it on the map. It was tall, looming overhead, but the “No more than 6 visitors on the tower at a time” sign reassured me that climbing it was allowed, at least. Andy took off with ease while I crept up behind him, challenging myself to a flight at a time. At one point I stopped and took a photo, figuring this was the highest I’d go. But then, it seemed silly not to get over the trees, so I took another flight. Then another. And then Andy was just one flight above me, and suddenly I was at the top. His surprise made me proud–I’d done more than I thought I could, more than Andy assumed I would. Here I was, at the top.

“Do one thing every day that scares you” is one of those cliches my mind latches on to, especially when I’m traveling and outside my daily life. “One thing that scares” you seems easy when it means climbing a tower into the trees. It’s harder when it’s just a part of your daily routine–make that phone call you’ve been putting off, ask for that raise, express that unconventional idea. Some part of me hopes, I think, that if I climb more towers away from home, I’ll learn to climb the hidden ones in my day-to-day.

We stopped in Ash Cave to enjoy a lunchtime snack and watch the feeble waterfall dribble over the edge. Ohio’s geography was in full beauty, rain soaked and lovely with cool fall weather. We walked back mostly in silence, just enjoying the trickle of rain and the sound of our feet on the path.

Afterwards, we grabbed a bottle of wine for the evening, took another short hike to Rock House, and went back to our cabin for the evening. This time, the fire we built felt necessary against the chill of a true fall day.

Tuesday came too quickly, as the last day of vacation always does. We took a quick morning hike on the newest two trails in the park, the Hemlock Grove trail and the Whispering Cave trail, to a previously inaccessible cave. The morning sun streaming through the fog and trees created an eerily beautiful scene for our final moments in the park. I soaked them up, and soaked up Ohio, prepping to return to a place where I’d feel just a different type of at home. Where I’d be the only one in the Ohio love sweatshirt, the only one with a Fifth Third Bank checking card. As much as Pittsburgh feels like home, it will never quite have that same hum deep in my soul that Ohio does. It’s always so nice to go back.