Peace In A Tin Can

Peace In A Tin Can

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Path of Least Resistance

If you look to nature, you can find many lessons.  Nature has existed since the beginning of time, and many of its teachings are unchanged.  Without the benefit of intellect, nature just keeps going, by following instincts of survival.  It works together with its components; air, water, sun, wind, rocks, trees, plants, animals, insects, birds, everything benefits something else.

On a recent journey through Algonquin Provincial Park, I was emphatically taught one of nature's lessons.  Take the path of least resistance.

Algonquin Provincial Park, located in Ontario, Canada, is Canada's oldest park, and still one of its biggest.  The 60 corridor runs 57 km across the south end of the park; a well-maintained road that gives visitors access to trails, rivers, lakes, campgrounds, camp stores, and even lodging and restaurants.  Visitors can experience much of Algonquin right along this corridor.  But to really experience the park, you must venture into its interior, either on foot or by canoe.  Heading north will take you into a wilderness that is truly wild and remote.

I had neither the time nor the equipment to paddle to these wild places, but what I experienced on the many trails accessible by road was wild enough.

Snowmelt under the trail
Summer, Autumn, and Winter are busy times in the park, but Spring sees far fewer visitors. I was about to learn why.  Spring brings snowmelt and rapidly changing weather.  In the five days I was there, I hiked in a snowstorm, a thunderstorm, fog, sunshine, warm temperatures, cold temperatures, wind, and calm breezes. The changing weather all contributed to snowmelt, and all that melting snow had to go somewhere.  Like most things in nature, the water chose the path of least resistance and flowed freely down the mountains on the designated hiking trails.  At least, it flowed down the trail until it hit the icy ridges left behind by the snowshoers.  Then the water flowed under the trail, making it very unstable.

Snowmelt coming down the trail
Hiking was a challenge. Sections of the trail were a high narrow ridge of hard packed snow turned to ice.  Step off that ridge to the side and get a boot full of water.  Or place your foot in front of you thinking you are still on ice only to have your leg sink into a snowbank up to your thighs.  Exposed rocks appeared to provide a stronger surface, but the thin, invisible sheen of ice covering them had you sitting on your bum desperately trying to find your dignity while the rocks mocked your ineptness.  Some of those rocks were at the top of the mountain.  One slip, and you would become one with nature in a very bad way.
Two Rivers Trail, a narrow rocky ledge

Slippery ice covered rocks
 Fortunately, I had a hiking partner.  Fellow adventurer Mike knows Algonquin well, and my friend and guide was sure footed on the trail, helping me cross flooded sections and pulling me out of snow banks.

Pine Marten looking for people food
I began my journey by pulling into the Mew Lake campground in the evening, and the very first thing I saw was a Pine Marten.  This cute little creature was trying to teach me something about following the path of least resistance while he foraged for his food near the garbage cans.  As I searched for a site, I ignored the Pine Marten's advice and found that all the campsites were snowy and wet.  As the week wore on, my site opened up more and more as the snow melted away.  Then my site became an extension of the lake. When setting up camp, always look for a site with as few obstacles as possible.  Or at the very least, don't plan to go camping during the snowmelt in Canada.  When will I learn? I spent the first night drying my boots over the fire, looking at maps of the park, selecting trails, and planning my hikes to get the most kilometers under my feet in a short amount of time.  Mike would prove to be helpful in this area.  I had one goal, in addition to hiking and exploring and experiencing all that Algonquin is; I wanted to see a moose, a real, live moose.

As I hiked all week, either alone or with Mike, I encountered examples of nature's lesson to seek the path of least resistance.  The trees that grew at an angle, seeking a sliver of sunlight in a crowded forest.

The tree roots that grew on top of the rocks, rather than try to push through them.

The fog, which swirled and slinked over, under, and around everything.

But my favorite example of nature's path of least resistance was the moose markings.  I found tracks and scat and rubs and feeding signs all along the trail.  Apparently moose don't like to bushwhack any more than people do.  They followed the designated trails.  I am pretty sure moose are colorblind and weren't looking for the blue blazes marking the trail.  They simple followed the easiest path.  And when they had to relieve themselves, they did so right in the middle of the trail.
Moose scat on the trail
All week, I hiked, looking for a moose.  I hiked lowlands, marshes, river banks, forests, and mountaintops.  Treacherous trail conditions made it feel like I was not on the path of least resistance.  I slipped, slid, climbed, got wet, sunk, fell on my knees, my face, my shoulder.  I had to be carried across a river on Mike's back, since he chose the path of least resistance by wearing the proper boots and I did not.  I stopped, I waited, I listened.  I look at tracks and scat and followed.  I enjoyed myself immensely, but I did not see a moose.

The morning I was set to leave, I decided to hike one more trail alone, ever hopeful that I would see a moose in the early light, maybe going to the river for a drink.  As I approached the trail, a new sign had been tacked up at the trailhead.

This wasn't news to me.  I had been hiking under these conditions all week.  But what was new was the 10 trails that had actually been closed, due to flooding. I had already hiked through water, so I started hiking the Whiskey Rapids trail, even though it was posted as closed.  How bad could it be?

Most certainly, it was not the path of least resistance.  By the time I reached the lowlands, about 3 km in, the trail had disappeared under water.  I couldn't even find the trail.  I tried another trail.  The small bridge I hiked across earlier in the week on the Track and Tower trail was now half submerged.  

Much to my disappointment, I realized that my search for the moose was over.  The conditions had become too rough for me to hike safely alone.  It was time to head home.

There are about 3000 moose in Algonquin Provincial Park, and I hadn't seen one.  I put my bruised and battered body in my truck and took stock of my injuries.  I had multiple bruises, a twisted knee, a sore shoulder, and a thorn in the back of my head that is still there.  Putting the truck in gear, I left the trailhead for the long drive home.

But nature wasn't finished teaching me yet.

Driving down the smooth road of the park, with the seat heater on to ease my aches and pains, drinking a hot cup of coffee and listening to my favorite playlist, nature handed me a gift.  If you want to see a moose in Algonquin, take the path of least resistance.

My Beautiful Beast

Many thanks to my friend and fellow explorer Mike for encouraging me to explore your world, and for a great week of hiking and campfires and laughter.  Most of all, thanks for this beautiful beast!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Blue Blazes and Trail Angels: Hiking the Grandma Gatewood Trail

I love hiking.  Nothing makes me happier than time spent walking in the woods.  In an effort to expand my horizons and explore new areas, I recently added a new state to my travel journal. The Grandma Gatewood Trail, located in southern Ohio, turned out to be much more than I anticipated.  More challenging, more crowded, more cold, more remote, and more frightening.  It was awesome.

After reading "Grandma Gatewood's Walk" and learning the story of this unlikely hero of the Appalachian Trail, I stumbled upon an article about a 6 mile trail in Ohio's Hocking Hills State Park named "Grandma Gatewood's Trail", which she blazed in the area where she grew up along with about 100 miles of the Buckeye Trail.  I had to go, had to follow in her footsteps.  She called this 6 mile section "the most beautiful section of trail in America".  In Ohio?  Really?

Yes, really.

Millions of years ago, shifting tectonic plates under the earth's surface pushed each other upwards to form the iconic Appalachian Range, a series of mountains stretching across much of the United States Eastern landscape.  Many visitors to Hocking Hills State Park assume that this area is the far edge of the Appalachian Range, and indeed, Hocking Hills massive rock formations would lend credence to this thought.  However, the catastrophic shifting of the earth that formed the Appalachian range actually stopped just 7 miles away from Hocking Hills.  But then, a series of ice age glacial movements took place, the last being about 40,000 years ago.  Massive glaciers, some as much as 2 miles thick, slid down from Canada, pushing everything in its way and carving unique landscapes into Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and then abruptly stopped, in south eastern Ohio, where what remained of the glaciers ran into the Appalachian range.  Hocking Hills is the end of the line for this glaciation.

Eastern Hemlock Stand
The glaciers brought with them debris from Canada, which is evident in the massive stands of Eastern Canadian Hemlock, with a thick canopy that shields the ground below, where the magic tree, Witch Hazel, grows along the streams in the cool shade of the Hemlocks.  In other areas, naturally growing Rhododendron grows out of the sandstone in open areas.  Of the thousands of species of plants and trees that grow in the Hocking Hills, represented are native flora from Northern Canada all the way to Georgia, concentrated in 2000 acres of State land.

There are six featured areas in the state park, surrounded by another 9,238 acres of state forest.  Each of the features is a result of carving and erosion of Blackhand Sandstone, which is 150 feet thick in the park, and composed of three distinct layers.  The upper and lower zones are firmly cemented and resistant to erosion and weathering, while the middle layer is loosely cemented, holds water, and is easily eroded, forming the caves, recesses, and grottos abundant in the park.

My faithful hiking companion, Rooney, and I spent the first day exploring Cantwell Cliffs, Rock House, and Conkle's Hollow, the three areas north of the campground.

Fat Woman's Squeeze
The erosion in Cantwell Cliffs accounts for the deep valley, steep cliffs, and rock shelter under the cliff.  The trail down to the valley floor is a series of narrow passageways, the narrowest of which is sarcastically named Fat Woman's Squeeze, all caused by large slump blocks falling away from the main cliff.  Cantwell Cliffs is unique due to the limited amount of cross bedding in the middle zone of the Blackhand, meaning all of the grooves and ridges run in the same direction.

Rock House is the only true cave in the park.  Had it not been for the echo of voices from inside the cave, I might have missed it completely, mistaking the entrance for just another crevice.  Yet once inside, I found myself in a Rock House larger than most homes, with a 25' high vaulted ceiling, and a room 200' long and 30' wide.  That is equal to a 6000 square foot home!  There is a main, horizontal joint running parallel in the cliff from which water seeped through and eroded the middle layer of the Blackhand, carving out the cave.  A few smaller, vertical joints in the cliff give the cave several gothic looking openings.  It is very dark in there, and one can imagine the subjects of local folklore, where legend has it that robbers, horse thieves, murderers and bootleggers occupied the cave over various periods.  I'm not sure how they hid a horse in there, but I could certainly imagine a few bodies buried in the walls.

Hiking to both of these areas is moderately difficult, though I saw all kinds of people with an adventurous spirit along the way.  Some may have taken longer on the upward hike, but I didn't run into anyone who wouldn't eventually make it back to their car. Of the six featured areas in the park, these two are the only areas not easily accessible, yet both are worth the hike.

I'm pretty sure that Rooney was relieved when we arrived at Conkles Hollow to find a sign banning pets from the area, a State Nature Preserve.  My dog stayed peacefully passed out in the truck, exhausted from our strenuous hiking, while I took the paved, flat path into one of the deepest gorges in Ohio.  Surrounded on either side by 200' vertical cliffs, the gorge is narrow and deeply shaded by Hemlocks resulting in a profusion of moss and ferns growing lush and green.  A very small creek meanders along the trail as the cliffs continue to close in, until I reached the end of the paved path and was confronted with a blowdown of trees, which made it rather convenient to cross the stream and enter the recess where the cliffs finally merge into one.

Along the path is a grotto, which is a small cave with interesting features.  Everything in the gorge is moist, green, slimy, and beautiful.  It only took me 20 minutes to walk the entire trail and return to my truck, but it was 20 very peaceful minutes.  The real fun, the purpose for this trip, was still ahead of me, but I had managed to have a stellar opening day.

The next morning dawned clear and unusually cold.  I enjoy hiking in colder weather, and was prepared with warm layers of clothing and my trusty, leather hiking boots.  Rooney and I set out at 9:00am, and drove just a short distance to Old Man's Cave, where I would begin the first half of the Grandma Gatewood Trail, retrace my steps, and return to the truck.  There was only a handful of other people at the cave, and I easily spotted the first Blue Blaze at the Grandma Gatewood Trailhead.

Blazes are 2" wide x 4" long rectangles painted on trees and rocks to mark a trail.  On the Appalachian Trail, the blazes are white.  My blazes for the day were blue, and they were frequently placed to keep hikers on the right path, which turned out to be a very important feature of the trail.

Beginning at Old Man's Cave, it is very simple to walk on a wide, paved path to the cave, where the path quickly narrows and follows rock ledges, rock steps, and rock slabs.  There are signs everywhere, and roped off areas, warning visitors to stay on the designated trail to avoid danger.  Every year, there are more than 100 rescue (and the occasional recovery) operations for seriously injured visitors, and every single incident is a result of someone foolishly ignoring these signs. I found, during the course of the day, that the trail to Cedar Falls is dangerous enough without exploring beyond it.

There was a reason I wanted to hike this particular hike.  Like most avid hikers, I dream of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail some day.  Emma Gatewood was the first woman to solo hike the entire trail in one season.  She was 67 years old the first time she completed the AT, and 71 the third time she completed it, in a time when the trail wasn't properly marked nor were there the shelters and friendly trail towns of today.  She hiked wearing knickers, a blouse, and Keds tennis shoes, carrying only a little food and a raincoat.  In her many interviews when asked why she did it, she gave different elusive answers, but the one answer she gave that pretty much sums it up was "Because I wanted to." A woman in her time, who was married to a cruel and abusive man and raised 11 children on a farm in southern Ohio, hadn't had many options.  What she wanted was never considered, only what she needed to survive.  In the end, what she wanted was to carry only what she needed to survive and go for a 2,180 mile walk.

So I followed the blue blazes while thinking of Grandma Gatewood, trying to capture her spirit and feel the same peace she felt when walking in the woods.  With Rooney in the lead, we left Old Man's Cave and headed to Cedar Falls.  The three miles between the two areas can be categorized in four ways:

There are the low, flat sections where the path is muddy and slippery.

There are the sections covered with exposed tree roots, easy to stumble over, and when wet, also slippery.  They are usually wet.

Then there are the narrow rock ledges, with a towering cliff running straight up on one side, and another cliff going straight down to the shallow stream on the other side.  Because these ledges have crumbling rock on the edges, they are also a bit slippery.

My favorite sections, though, are the boulder-strewn gaps in the cliff walls.  You'd be surprised how slippery boulders can be.

About 1.5 miles into the hike, Rooney and I were making good time, going up and down and over and through the trail, looking for blue blazes, stopping often to gape in awe at the scenery. We came to a narrow ledge, much more narrow than previous ledges, where Rooney hesitated then began carefully placing his feet to traverse the ledge.  In the blink of an eye, he was gone!  My 110 lb dog slid off the ledge dropping 20' to the shallow stream below.  I could hear him whining, but could not see him. Dropping his leash over the cliff, I raced back on the trail to a point where I could climb down, waded through the stream around a bend, and with heart pounding, fear building, images of a pile of crushed bones that used to be my dog lying in the stream ahead, I caught a glimpse of Rooney, trying to claw his way back up the vertical cliff to the trail.

It's a bit of a miracle that he was ok.  I checked him over thoroughly, found no injuries, so we climbed back up the slope to pick up the trail where he had left it in the most shocking way.  My first concern was for my dog.  I was considering giving up and going back to Old Man's Cave, knowing I could not take Rooney over the same ledge again.  But much like Grandma Gatewood often did herself, I had missed a blue blaze, gotten off trail, and never was supposed to walk that ledge.  The trail actually took us up, up, up over the cliff, then back down avoiding the ledge.

I was a little shaken.  I have hiked for 7 years with Rooney in some pretty remote and challenging landscapes.  He has always been sure-footed, a good climber, and we have never had a problem.  But on this day, I had put my dog at risk.  Unacceptable.  I paused again, re-checked him for injuries, calmed him down a bit more, and said,

"Well, Rooney, what do you want to do?"

He turned and continued along the trail, toward Cedar Falls.  I followed, keeping his leash a little shorter and determined to turn back if the trail got too rough for him.

We made it to Cedar Falls where there were a few more people, but still plenty of room to explore the area, rest with water and a snack, and give my dog a little love before heading back.  He seemed a bit nervous, but generally ok.  I felt terrible, imagining all of the things that could (and should) have happened when he fell off that ledge.  But now I knew the trail, I was aware of what the hiking conditions would be on the return trip, and ready to complete the first half of hiking the Grandma Gatewood Trail.  We began to retrace our steps and hike back to Old Man's Cave.

Within minutes, it occurred to me that there were a lot more people coming toward us.  The day had warmed up bringing more and more people to the narrow trail.  Often we would reach an impasse where there wasn't enough room for Rooney and me to pass the oncoming crowds.  We would have to leave the trail (which is ill-advised) and wait for a group of hikers to pass by.  The trek back would take twice as long.  We forged ahead.

Coming up a steep slope, we reached one of the curving narrow passageways through an overhanging cliff.  Large rocks littered the path, causing us to pick our way between them or climb over them, with limited sight ahead. Out of nowhere a large dog barreled around the corner with teeth bared and jaws snapping, and viciously attacked Rooney.

In a panic, I tried pulling Rooney back on the leash, but both dogs were in a full-out fight.  My footing was insecure, there were people behind me, wild dogs trying to kill each other in front of me. I scrambled backwards, pushing people behind me who were also scrambling backwards, screaming at Rooney and yanking on his leash.  It only lasted about 15 seconds, but it was 15 very dangerous seconds.  A man ran through the opening in front of me, whipped his dog with a leather leash, and secured the attacking animal on a harness.  Dragging Rooney backwards, I climbed down the trail and ran with my dog into the stream.

The man with the aggressive dog apologized profusely, but I didn't want to hear it.  He had not followed the rules and let his dog off-leash, placing Rooney and me in a very perilous situation.  There is no excuse for that.

Other hikers gathered around me while I once again checked Rooney for injuries.  He is twice the size of his attacker, and seemed no worse for the fight, other than shaking and obviously stressed.  The crowd gave us some space while I calmed my dog.  At this point, all I wanted was to get my dog out of there, off the trail, safe and secure in my truck.  And then things got worse.

For the next two miles, our frequent encounters with other hikers and their dogs caused Rooney such stress that he growled and tensed, telling me we were not in a good place for him.  He was so revved up from the dog fight, he was ready to attack all foes in his path.  Every minute or so, I had to pull him off trail, turn his back to approaching dogs, and let people know Rooney needed some space.

The next two hours consisted of a constant alertness, scrambling off to the side of the trail, apologizing to other hikers, and the fervent desire to get off that trail. Finally, we came around the last bend into Old Man's Cave, where I knew all we had to do was climb 63 narrow rock steps to the top of the cave, walk 50' across an even narrower dirt trail on the edge of the cave, and we were home free!

Imagine my dismay when we rounded the corner in the gorge to see about 200 people slowly working their way down the steps, half of them with dogs.
Photo Credit: Brian Stevens (Google) Imagine this passage filled with 100 people and their dogs!
The stairway from the gorge to Old Man's Cave

Over 2 million visitors come to Old Man's Cave each year, not just because of the fascinating landscape and the breathtaking beauty, but because of the legend, a legend that has since been proved true.

In the early 1800's a young man named Richard Rowe and his beloved dog discovered the cave while searching for a good hunting and fishing spot.  He took up residence, building a wooden wall at the face of the cave to provide shelter, living inside the recess of the cave.  Richard was popular in the area with local trappers, anglers, and the Shawnee Natives.  Considered a recluse, still he was known for being kind, helpful, and hospitable.  He lived to be an old man, in his cave with his dog.

In the 1950's, two teenaged boys had been fishing all day and were walking in the gorge beneath Old Man's Cave at dusk, heading home.  They heard something that sounded like a dog howling, looked up, and saw an old man standing on a very large boulder.  He smiled and waved at them, then right before their eyes, melted into the boulder.  The boys were astounded, ran all the home, told their story, and the authorities were alerted.  Because the boys' story was so consistent and they would not be deterred from their belief in what they saw, local officials went to Old Man's Cave with them, and began drilling into the boulder where the boys saw the man.  After drilling several feet down, they discovered a wooden box, not really a casket, but long and narrow.  Inside the box were the skeletal remains of a human and a dog, a musket, and a note, written by Shawnee Indians.  It told the story of Richard Rowe's demise.

On a cold winter morning, the Shawnees found Richard dead on the side of the river, his dog next to him, also dead.  From what they could surmise, Richard had tried to break a hole in the ice to fish, using his musket.  He had a bullet hole in his lower jaw, among other unpleasant results from an accidental musket blast.  The Shawnees built him a wooden box, in the tradition of their tribe, and buried him with his dog, rolling the large boulder over the top of his grave.  It is said that to this day, late at night, when the moon shines full and bright, a dog can be heard howling in the gorge.

I consider myself a pretty strong person, calm under pressure, a steady presence when faced with a challenge.  But when I saw all those people and dogs blocking my way out of Old Man's Cave, I wanted to sink to the gorge floor and cry.  I had done this to my dog.  I took him out for a hike without knowing the trail, the people, the circumstances.  I had placed him in peril and caused him too much stress.  I hated myself right then.

It must have shown on my face, because I heard someone say to me,

"Are you ok?"  Behind me was a large man, wearing canvas pants and a flannel shirt, with a full head of hair and a long beard.  I told him my dog was very stressed and I needed to get him out of there, but couldn't take him past all those people with their dogs.  The man nodded, smiled, and said "Follow me".

I didn't have much choice, so I followed him to the bottom of the rock steps.  He stayed right in front of me, and every few seconds, he would turn sideways and shield Rooney from the other dogs coming down the steps.  This went on and on, for 30 minutes, until Rooney and I finally broke free of the narrow trail into the wide open space that led to my truck.  I was so relieved I almost cried again, and I turned around to thank the man, but he was nowhere to be found.  Wait, where did he go?  I scanned the heads of the people going down, I looked all around the open area in front of me, but I couldn't find him. I really wanted to thank him, buy him a steak dinner, anything to let him know I would not have made it out of there without him.  But I never saw him again.

Long distance hikers often speak of Trail Magic, and Trail Angels.  The theory is, when hiking a trail, when you reach your lowest point, when frustrations and fears are at their most intense, something will happen.  Someone will appear and turn your day around and restore your faith in humanity and nature and yourself.  They're called Trail Angels, and I had just met one.  Was it Richard Rowe, risen from the rocks to guide me because he loved dogs too?  Was it some random guy who needed no thanks?  I honestly don't know.  I sure do wish I could have thanked him though.

You might think (and possibly hope) this is the end of the story.  Perhaps you are picturing Rooney and me sitting by a campfire, relaxing, and indeed, we did do that.  It was lovely to read a book while Rooney slept at my feet.  But around 6:00pm, I needed to take Rooney for a walk one more time before he passed out for the night.  He wasn't very excited when I brought his leash out.  As a matter of fact, he looked at me like I was the Devil's spawn.  Being the good dog he is, Rooney walked at my side through the campground, until we reached a dirt service road as far away from our campsite as we could go.  Suddenly, Rooney jumped, tucked his tail between his legs, raised his nose in the air, and tensed his whole body.  He began whining.

Warning bells were sounding in my head, red flags rising everywhere, as I spun around and around, seeking the source of Rooney's anxiety.  Was there a dog behind us?  A wild animal?  A drifter in the woods who meant to cause me bodily harm?  What? What? What?

Like someone turning on a light switch, the wind was suddenly blowing at 60mph, the temperature dropped 20ยบ, and dime-sized hail fell in horizontal sheets, pelting my face and Rooney's back, stinging, hurting.  Rooney took off for the camper at a panicked run, I struggled to keep up.  By the time we were safely in the tin can, we were both covered in ice, soaking wet, and shivering.  Looking out the window, I thought, dear God, what more must we endure today?

Hocking Hills State Park is unique.  In addition to a beautiful campground and the six attractions with ample parking and restrooms, there is a Visitor Center, modern rental cabins, and a Lodge with a restaurant.  After our mad dash through a sleet storm, I was ready for a meal more substantial than the soup I had brought for dinner.  Rooney feasted on a big, juicy cheeseburger while I enjoyed Baked Cod.  I figured my dog had earned it.

It was a long night.  Storms blew through the area all night, bending the trees surrounding my trailer.  I laid awake, waiting for a massive trunk to fall on my Airstream and crush Rooney and I to certain, slow, and painful death.  Rooney whined and whimpered all night, at my side, begging for comfort I was unable to genuinely provide.

The next morning dawned clear and cold, very cold.  I was determined to finish walking in Grandma Gatewood's steps, but had decided to leave Rooney in the camper.  As I locked the camper door and turned to my truck, Rooney's face appeared in the window and he began to howl like a lost child looking for his mother.  I couldn't leave him, he wanted to go with me. I made the decision to start the trail, but if there were too many people and dogs, or the terrain got too rough, we would turn around and come back.  I was not willing to risk my dog's health just to hike a trail.

We drove to Cedar Falls, with me praying all the way to God and the Great Spirit and Mother Nature and every spirit I could imagine that we would have a good day, parked, and went to the exact spot where we had stopped yesterday to turn back.  I didn't want to miss an inch of the trail, much like Emma Gatewood did when she walked the Appalachian Trail in 1957.  We crossed the parking lot and headed to the blue blaze which marked the beginning of this section of trail.  As we left the pavement and walked around a small stand of trees, we saw this:

I thought we couldn't possibly be on the right trail, but the blue blazes continued.  We walked three miles, occasionally following the blue blazes for a short section through the woods, but mostly on flat, wide, grassy trail.  The trail was easy, and oh, so quiet.  Rooney matched my stride, and in tandem our breaths formed little clouds in air that smelled fresh and earthy.  With my senses I felt

connected to the earth, with each step I became an extension of the trail itself.  Reaching Ash Cave, we only saw two other people, older women who had no dog and fawned over Rooney, showering him with affection.  With no one there, we were able to explore the area and really take in the astounding beauty of the largest cave in Hocking Hills.  2.5 hours after we had begun, Rooney and I were back at the truck, with six miles under our belt, and other than the two women, we never saw another person on the trail. It was perfect.

As we walked off the trail, I saw our final blue blaze.  The blazes had guided us for 2 days, telling us where to turn and encouraging us to keep going.  We had done it, we had hiked Grandma Gatewood's Trail - twice - and overcome obstacles and met a Trail Angel.  We had missed a blue blaze or two, gotten into some rough spots, and gotten out.  We experienced the kindness of strangers, and a bit of their selfishness too.  Nature is grand, the breathtaking sights of Hocking Hills are inspiring and awesome enough to overshadow the little challenges of the trail.  Rooney and I walked at great heights, and scrambled through the depths, to see waterfalls, caves, cliffs, trees, wildflowers, and hear the stories of the hills. We paused as we came off the trail, taking a moment to think of Grandma Gatewood and Richard Rowe, feeling their hardships and their love of this land.  I knew what the blue blaze was telling me now.  I was exactly where I should be.