A Sad Case Of Bengals Envy

Today the Cincinnati Bengals will play the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. I’m trying to decide whether to watch.

If the Bengals win, they will go to the Super Bowl for second year in a row and for the fourth time overall. That’s four more times, incidentally, than my team, the Cleveland Browns. The poor Browns are one of the tiny fraction of NFL teams that have never made it to the big game in the 50-year history of the Super Bowl.

The Bengals have a great team, led by an admirable, franchise quarterback who happens to be an Ohio boy: Joe Burrow. They have a complete offense and a good defense, and are well coached. And yet, only a few years ago, the Bengals stunk. Somehow, they managed to completely turn things around, accumulate talented players, hire a good coach, and become a dominant team. I can’t look at them without thinking: why, oh why, can’t that happen to the Browns? What weird issue seems to leave the Cleveland Browns seemingly permanently mired in mediocrity–or worse?

So, will I watch the game? Probably, since I’m an American guy and it is what American guys do on Sundays during football season. I’ll probably even find myself casually rooting for the Bengals, knowing that a Cincinnati victory would make friends who are Bengals fans happy. The Bengals are supposed to be the Browns’ AFC North rivals, but the sad reality is that the Browns aren’t really anyone’s rivals these days: we’re just too pathetic and pitiful to be a hated foe. And don’t tell me that I should switch my allegiance, either. I’m not and will never be a fair-weather fan; being a Browns fan is as much part of me as my left arm.

So I guess I’ll watch–knowing it will be a painful reminder of my own team’s record of absolute, mind-boggling, seemingly impossible futility. I’m bracing myself.

3.2 Days

The Columbus Dispatch published an article earlier this week reporting that the Bier Stube, a bar at the south end of the Ohio State campus area, may be torn down to make way for another development project. The story had some personal resonance for me, and probably for many other people of a certain age who grew up in Columbus, because the Bier Stube–one of the oldest taverns in the University area–is where I had my first legal adult beverage. That beverage was a glass of watery 3.2 beer.

In those days, Ohio allowed 18-year-olds to drink beer that was 3.2 percent alcohol. “3.2 beer” began in the 1930s, after the end of Prohibition, and continued to be produced in many states, including Ohio, for decades. If you were 18 and wanted to have a legal drink–as opposed to going the fake ID route–3.2 beer was your only option. (3.2 beer hung on in Ohio until 1982, when the drinking age was raised to 19 for 6 percent “high” beer, and stayed around even longer in other states.)

So it was that, after we had all passed our 18th birthdays, a group of high school friends and I decided to head to the Bier Stube to celebrate. We had heard through the grapevine that it was a good, no-hassle place to quaff some brew. We went to the bar, presented our licenses to a bored bartender, ordered a pitcher of 3.2 Stroh’s, carried our glasses and the pitcher to a booth, and sat down. The Stube was a pretty rustic place, as bars go, but we didn’t care. The 3.2 beer was watery, but we didn’t mind that either. We saw our visit as a kind of rite of passage and first step on the road to adulthood. Weak beer in a bar that had sticky tables and floors wasn’t going to affect our ebullient mood at finally being legal, as we drank our beer, chattered away, and decided to get a second pitcher, just for the heck of it.

I haven’t thought of that trip to the Bier Stube and my first exposure to 3.2 beer for years. I’ll be sorry to see “the Stube” go.

A Very Big Place

Yesterday we went for a ramble around Austin and ended up at a favorite place–a stone map of Texas inlaid into a plaza atop a small hill just across the river from the downtown area. The map gives distances between different Texas cities and Austin, which is indicated on the map by the star in the east-central part of the state. The distances show just how enormous Texas actually is.

For example, the map indicates that El Paso, at the far western edge of the Lone Star State, is 580 miles from Austin. The journey from Austin to Texarkana, at the northeastern corner of the state, is another 375 miles. Add them together and you’ve got a trip of close to 1,000 miles. That’s a lot of Texas! A further sense of the scale of this place is that the distance from Cincinnati to Cleveland, south to north, is about 250 miles. You therefore could flip all of Ohio sideways and wedge it into the 250 miles between Austin and Beaumont, just in the eastern half of Texas. Ohio ranks 35th among the states with 40,953 square miles; Texas, coming in at number 2, is six times larger, encompassing 261,914 square miles.

That’s a huge amount of territory for one state–but of course Alaska dwarfs everyone else, covering a total of 570,641 square miles. That’s bigger than Texas, California, and Montana, which rank 2, 3, and 4, combined, and 14 times the size of Ohio.

They grow states big west of the Mississippi!

Cleveland Christmas

I came up to Cleveland yesterday and had a chance to walk around Public Square before dinner. It was brightly decorated for the holidays, and with the Terminal Tower in the background I got the full sense of a Cleveland Christmas.

My visit reminded me of Christmases long ago, when my grandparents would take us to Cleveland to visit the department stores—Higbee’s, Halle’s, and Polsky’s—look in the display windows, enjoy the bright lights, go to the toy department, have lunch, and of course visit Santa. Our annual trips to Cleveland made the holidays even more special.

When The Season Turns

Every autumn, it seems, a day comes when the weather changes abruptly. One day you’re standing outside a restaurant after a delightful dinner at about 10:30 p.m., perfectly comfortable wearing a sport coat and slacks with the temperature around 60 degrees, and the next morning you wake up to weather information on your phone that looks like this.

Don’t be fooled by the optimistic “possible light rain” statement on the weather app, either. When the weather change comes, and the season seems to shift in an eyeblink, the veteran Midwesterner ignores the rain forecast and scans the weather app for the dreaded snow icon. Let’s see . . . yes–there it is, lurking on and after 9 a.m. And because the snow is forecast to fall when the temperature is just under 40 degrees, it will be that kind of wet, sloppy, immediately melting snow that soaks everything–the kind of snow that slaps the innocents with brutal, cold reality and sends an unmistakable message that the delightful fall weather is officially over, When such a snow falls, you can only shake your head sadly and move the cold weather gear to the front of your closet.

It’s hard to complain, really, because this year we’ve had one of the nicest autumns you could possibly want, with warm temperatures and, especially, dry conditions. Now it’s time to recall those brilliant days with wistful pleasure as we slosh and slop and slip and slide into the pre-winter period.

Selling The Bug Diet

With Thanksgiving coming up in two weeks, many Americans have started to think with pleasure about gorging on delicious roast turkey, stuffing, lots of gravy, mashed potatoes, maybe some cranberry relish, and a slice of pie or two. As this traditional and highly food-oriented holiday approaches, however, other people are trying to figure out how to convince Americans to eat insects.

Last week PNAS–the website for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America–carried an article entitled How To Convince People To Eat Insects. The article begins with an anecdote about Pennsylvanians watching mealworms sizzle in a pan as they learned about an insect diet from a naturalist, when a little girl ate a mealworm that popped up from the pan and said it tasted like kettle corn. After this promising, taste-oriented start (which makes you wonder, incidentally, what kind of kettle corn that little tyke has been getting) the article restates arguments for a bug diet that we’ve been hearing for years. It notes that eating insects is a lot more environmentally friendly, because farmed insects are much more efficient than cows in turning feed into “edible weight,” and–as anyone who watched Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom knows–people in other countries have been eating insects as a source of nutrients and protein and a regular part of their diet for centuries.

Then the article gets to the nub of the issue: how do you get Americans to move past their instinctive revulsion at the thought of munching on crickets and actually try some bug-based food–like a pizza covered with mealworms? (Incidentally, if you didn’t shudder inwardly at the idea of a pizza crawling with tiny worms, you’re probably ready to try a cricket energy bar already.) One key part of the process, according to the article, is to make sure that people don’t actually see any identifiable insect parts, like a wing or a grasshopper leg, or know that the cookie they are eating used ground black soldier fly larvae as a flour ingredient. (These are real food examples from the article, folks.) That means not prominently featuring pictures of grasshoppers, locusts, or flies on the packaging for the product.

Marketing the insect diet properly will be a key part of process, too. The article recognizes that Americans haven’t really responded to arguments that eating bugs is better for our planet, healthier, and or a good source of protein, because altruistic behavior doesn’t really motivate food choices for most people–so how do you convince Americans to give insect-based products a try? Celebrity endorsements apparently have made people somewhat more willing to try a bug bite, and making sure that the products taste good and are aesthetically pleasing is important, too. And if you can convince some people to eat bugs and enthusiastically endorse the practice in conversations with their friends, cultural mores may convince more people to give that mealworm pizza a try.

More insect-based food is probably in our future. With food prices going up, it will allow manufacturers to produce cheaper products, and in Ohio some people are predicting that local farms will start to incorporate growing and harvesting insects. But if you really want to get people to eat bugs as a matter of course, I think you need to adopt the kind of high-impact marketing that you find in clickbait articles. For example, bugs like beetles and crickets are low in carbs. Why not advertise “Cricket Crunchers” as a key element of a low-carb diet and a sure-fire way to melt away that stubborn belly fat? Putting them in a brightly colored cellophane bag and featuring an endorsement from an ageless celebrity like Jennifer Aniston would help, too.

Hike Ohio: Quarry Trails Metro Park

The Columbus metropolitan area population continues to increase. Websites peg the current population at 1,687,000, and every year the area consistently adds another percentage or two of growth to that total. Because people like parks, it’s nice to know that the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department is working to meet the hiking, biking, and walking path demand of all of those new residents. Yesterday, on a beautiful and surprisingly warm morning, we decided to check out Quarry Trails Metro Park, the newest member of the 20-park Metro Park family. The park is being built on the site of an old limestone quarry, and adjacent to the site of a currently working quarry that you can see in the photo above, just west of the Scioto River on the border of Upper Arlington.

Quarry Trail is aptly named, because its quarry past (and quarry present) is evident pretty much everywhere you look. You can see the cliff-like walls of the old quarry operations in the far distance, and large rocks were a constant feature as we walked along. The park’s designers are putting the gradations created by the excavations at the old quarry to good use in other ways, too; there are several mountain bike areas that intrepid cyclists were enjoying as we walked past.

Although Quarry Trails formally opened in 2021, it remains very much a work in progress. The trail signs are temporary, and the grounds are littered with construction equipment. Our visit allowed us to get a sense of what the park’s designers were trying to do, and the plans obviously are ambitious. The configuration of the 220-acre park property is unusual, as the park is surrounded not only by the current quarry operations but also by residential neighborhoods. The park property consists of three larger areas connected at narrow points by a trail, and the park designers have worked to make use of every square inch of space.

We followed the connection trail down to a small lake created by the old quarry operations, where there are swinging benches and large rocks that were irresistible leaping-off points for the kids who were there. You can see one of the residential neighborhoods on the east side of the lake in the photo below, and a nice boardwalk area running along the lake’s edge. There were lots of people out and around, and I would guess that many of them came from the surrounding neighborhoods. I expect they are happy to have a scene like this in their backyards.

Parks are important to communities, and are worth the investment and effort. Quarry Trails was made possible because Columbus voters have historically supported funding for parks and recreation. This year, Issue 15–one of a series of bond issues on the ballot–would provide $200 million in funding for parks and recreation activities, including renovation, replacement, and new park and greenway development. I’ll be voting yes on that issue so that new parks like Quarry Trails can continue to come on line and make Columbus an even better place to live.

Hike Ohio: Blendon Woods Metro Park

Yesterday was a cool, overcast morning in Columbus–another prime day for a romp in the Ohio woods. For our weekend hike, we decided to stay a bit closer to home, and took a short drive over to Blendon Woods Metro Park. The park is a popular one and very conveniently located in the northeast corner of Franklin County, just outside of I-270, the highway than encircles Columbus.

Blendon Woods is a big park–653 acres in all–with a number of trails, family and picnic areas, and the Walden Waterfowl Refuge, a 118-acre preserve in one corner of the park. We began our day with the trail to Thoreau Lake, which is part of the Walden Refuge. When you reach the lake, the trail ends in two viewing stations where you can watch the birds and waterfowl unobtrusively. We didn’t see any ducks or other waterfowl, but we did catch a good look at a colorful cardinal, shown above, who was munching on some seeds just over the squirrel guard in a bird house next to the viewing station.

The trail to the Walden Refuge is a paved trail, and there were a number of families and birders out for a walk in the cool air. The birders are easy to recognize, because they’ve all got their binoculars in hand, with cords looped around their necks, ready to focus in whenever they hear a bird call. It must have been good viewing conditions, with some trees largely stripped of leaves while others are still displaying their colors. The non-birders among us could just enjoy the remaining fall foliage.

The lake trail is a short one, so after our return from the Walden Waterfowl Refuge we crossed the parking lot and headed onto the Sugarbush Trail, a natural trail that winds through the woods and some marshy areas for two miles. The trail was matted with fallen leaves, and you had to watch your step to make sure that you didn’t get snagged by a stray tree root, but the woods were lovely, with lots of brilliant gold and yellow in the background to frame the trees in the foreground.

The Sugarbush Trail wasn’t quite as crowded as the lake trail, but we did see a few other walkers along the way. The trail is mostly level, with only a few easy hills. The woods were quiet and cool as we strolled along, and I once again thought I should learn more about how to distinguish between the different kinds of trees you typically find in the Ohio woods. I can identify a pine tree, a buckeye nut, and a maple leaf–thanks largely to seeing the maple leaf on the national flag of our neighbors to the north–but that’s about it. Otherwise, I can’t tell a walnut from a sycamore from an elm, and I suppose it’s about time I learned.

At one point on the Sugarbush Trail, the woods take a break, and there is a meadow area with a sprawling field of wildflowers. The plants had grown to about shoulder height, and if you stood on tiptoe you could just look over the plants to get the full effect of the field and a better sense of the size of the park. As we finished our hike, a few patches of blue showed up on the far horizon. With our appetites stimulated by the cool weather and the walking, it was time to leave Blendon Woods behind and head home to make some scrambled eggs, sausage, and strawberries for our Sunday brunch.

Football Season Is Political Ad Season

Yesterday, when we watched the Buckeyes game with Penn State at JT’s Pizza and Pub, the vast majority of the TV commercials during the game were for political candidates. The campaign strategists know that, in Ohio, virtually everyone drops everything to watch the Buckeyes on the gridiron, so it is prime time to deliver a message to a captive, very focused, every sense on heightened alert audience. It undoubtedly costs the campaigns a boatload to buy the ad slots, but they figure it is worth it–which is why Buckeye fans were seeing so many political ads rather than the standard in-game car, tire, or “remember to ask your doctor about Altavlid” commercials.

Fortunately, they had the sound off at JT’s, and we couldn’t have heard the voice over of the commercials in any event, over the din of football analysis and “OH-IO” chants. But you don’t really need to have the sound on to follow the political ads. Basically, they fall into two categories: the scary ads and the “humanize the candidate” ads. And it’s immediately clear which category a political commercial falls into, because every ad in either category shares obvious common characteristics. In fact, the touchstones are so commonplace that both Democrats and Republicans use them, and if you run a Google search you’ll find that the British and Canadian political wizards use the same techniques, as the Canadian ad above demonstrates.

Scary ads: Dark, grainy, blurry footage, with quick cuts from one troubling scene to another. Opposing candidate depicted in unflattering poses in slow motion or with some kind of color filter to give him or her a more devilish, unsettling appearance. Children in peril or worried people sitting around their kitchen tables. Messages in large type that appear on the screen like shotgun blasts that usually include the words “we can’t afford.”

Humanize the candidate ads: Candidate is shown in a bulky, woolen, Mr. Rogers-type sweater, carrying a cup of coffee and sitting on the family sofa with their spouse. Candidate makes breakfast or kicks a soccer ball or throws a football with kids. Lots of warm hues and sunshine. Candidate is shown gesturing forcefully to smiling, nodding blue-collar workers, who are deeply absorbed in everything the candidate is saying.

I’ll be glad when November 8 finally arrives and we can go back to watching the Buckeyes, the tire ads, and those helpful spots about the latest miracle drug.

Hike Ohio: Blackhand Gorge State Nature Preserve

Yesterday was another perfect day for hiking in central Ohio. It was sunny and clear, with temperatures starting in the 50s and ending up in the 70s. We decided to drive east, to Heath, Ohio, to the Blackhand Gorge State Nature Preserve. Our car’s GPS took us on a circuitous route to get there, even directing us down some gravel-topped one-lane country roads, but it was such a beautiful day, and the rolling countryside was so pretty, we really didn’t mind. By the time we reached the preserve, however, we were ready to get out and stretch our legs as we followed a couple with a youngster down the main trail.

Blackhand Gorge features miles of different trails, some of which are paved and some of which are natural. We turned off the main, paved trail to take the first natural trail we saw, which was the Buttonbush Swamp trail. The trail meanders for more than a mile and gives you glimpses of swamps, like the one shown above, natural wetlands, and small streams, like the one seen below. The sun was so bright that the countryside seemed to be stippled with gold in the sunshine as we hiked through the woods among the towering trees.

The Buttonbush Swamp trail isn’t a difficult trail and is well marked. It offers the opportunity for a pleasant, and quiet, walk through the woods on a meandering journey. In some spots, there are elevation changes where two stout walking sticks or grabbing a handhold is a good idea. Eventually the trail joins with the Quarry Rim trail, leads upward, and presents you with a view of an old quarry and pools of water through the trees. Yesterday, the bright sun through the trees left the ground, water, and cliffside striped with black shadows.

After you wind around the rim of the quarry and back down to ground level, you can go off the main trail and follow an ancillary trial down to the shore of the pool of water that has collected in the quarry bottom. It’s a bit of a scramble down and back up again, but the view at the bottom is well worth it. Yesterday morning there wasn’t a breath of wind, and the water below the quarry cliff, framed by the surrounding trees, reflected the colorful scene like a mirror. This view, alone, made the trip worthwhile–but there was more to come.

Shortly after the spectacular quarry view, the Buttonbush Swamp trail rejoined the main trail. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources website indicated that parts of the paved trail ahead were closed, so we decided to turn back and try to get a good look at the Licking River. The trail almost immediately took us straight through the Black Hand sandstone formation, which towered above each side of the trail. It was dark and cool in the shadows as we walked through the crack between the two sandstone cliffs.

The sandstone walls are dark and textured with chips and indentions, and the almost black color made for a striking contrast with the colorful tree leaves far overhead. Fortunately for us, the Ohio countryside is still at close to peak fall colors, and many of the leaves hadn’t yet been knocked off the trees by wind or rain. The yellows, reds, and oranges stood our sharply in the bright sunshine above as we strolled through the shadows below.

The main trail at Blackhand Gorge follows the Licking River for a while, with the river to one side and stone and wetlands to the other. There are sandstone formations throughout the area and wetlands in between, like a silent and still black pool, shown below, that is wedged in a crevice between smaller sandstone mounds, just off the main trail.

The main trail gives you many opportunities to appreciate the immensity of the sandstone formations, which were cut by the Licking River long ago. The photo below provides a sense of the scale of the sandstone ledges along the trail, with the Licking River, screened by trees, just off the left side of the frame.

There are several opportunities to follow ancillary trails off the main trail and get down to the banks of the Licking River. Some portions of the river cut right through the sandstone, while others present a more pastoral scene. According to the ODNR website, this portion of the Licking River was part of the Ohio-Erie Canal (and, unfortunately, during construction of the canal in 1828 a black hand petroglyph that gave this area its name was destroyed). Yesterday the river, too, was like glass, without a riffle to be seen.

The area around the river also presented some interesting bonatical signts. Ohio’s State Nature Preserves are intended to simply maintain the natural beauty of the areas, without interference. One section of the river was bordered by a marshy field of bright green reeds, seen below.

As we headed back along the main trail, the sun’s rays made the woodlands to each side glimmer and glow, and the thermometer moved upward toward 70. It was a brilliant fall day at one of the more spectacular settings you will find in the Buckeye State. We’ve taken a number of really wonderful hikes in Ohio, but the Blackhand Gorge State Nature Preserve might just have been our favorite.

Hike Ohio: Infirmary Mound Park

Yesterday the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Columbus Marathon took over the downtown Columbus area. The road closures, crowds whooping and shouting encouragement, police sirens, and general commotion spurred us to hop in the car, find a way out of downtown, and head due east. Our goal was the Infirmary Mound Park in Licking County, near Granville.

The Infirmary Mound Park is part of the Licking County park system. It has lots of trail choices, as well as other amenities, including a number of shelter houses, open fields, and kid spaces. Some of the trails even permit riders on horseback. We chose a trail winding around a wildflower meadow for our initial hike. We didn’t see any equine friends, but we did see some happy dogs romping around with their human pals. The meadow trail was wide and made for an easygoing morning hike and an enjoyable ramble through the countryside on a cool, cloudy morning, with lots of interesting and colorful plants to examine.

And speaking of color, the trees were doing their part to remind us it is indeed fall. The classic autumnal palette of rust, tan, orange, and yellow had been liberally applied to the trees at the Infirmary Mound Park, as well as to the trees lining both sides of Route 161 as we drove east from Columbus and then headed west to return after our hikes were over. Yesterday was probably close to the peak fall foliage point in central Ohio, and there was beautiful color to enjoy everywhere you looked.

After we finished our stroll through the wildflower meadow loop, breathing in hearty gulps of fresh country air, we explored other parts of the park. The cloud cover started to break up, some blue skies contributed to the day’s color, and the temperature got warmer. We got a glimpse of Ohio’s agricultural heritage when we came across an old woodshed with a classic split-rail fence in the background.

We wandered along another trail that wound through some woodland and a small ravine. It was quiet and peaceful as we walked along, enjoyably shuffling through the leaves and smelling that high, somewhat spicy scent of leaves that have fallen to the ground and are just starting to crumble to dust. Our feet got another workout when we came across an area where the trail was covered with Osage oranges (technically, maclura pomifera, and also known as horse apples), which look like round green brains and weigh a few pounds. We booted them off to the side of the trail to clear the way for the walkers to follow, variously choosing the soccer-style and straight-on Lou Groza approaches to our kicking. It’s fun to kick Osage oranges–and toss them, too, if they’ve just fallen and you can do so without getting your hands sticky.

By the end of our hike the blue skies had appeared in earnest. As we walked back to our car, we passed an area where the grasses were permitted to grow to prairie length and were adding their subtle hues to the autumnal color fest. It was time to head back, but we enjoyed our visit to this pretty park and a chance to experience some more of the best season central Ohio has to offer.

Hike Ohio: Christmas Rocks State Nature Preserve

Yesterday, on a cool and lovely fall morning, we drove to the Christmas Rocks State Nature Preserve near Lancaster. It’s about a 45-minute drive from downtown Columbus that takes you on country roads that wind through the heart of some of the beautiful, rolling farmland found throughout the rural areas of central Ohio. The GPS finally deposits you at a small parking lot near the entrance to Oil Mill Road, which you follow back to the entrance to the preserve.

We were in the mood for a peaceful trek through the woods–and at Christmas Rocks that is exactly what we got. It was just over 50 degrees and dry when we started our ramble, which made for ideal hiking weather. We took the orange trail to the blue trail, which will give you several good miles of moderate hiking through very pretty woodland–although there were several uphill and downhill sections where we wished we hadn’t forgotten our walking sticks. (In our experience, at least, walking sticks are seemingly designed to be left behind and forgotten until you see another hiker using them and kick yourself for the oversight.)

There are a few interesting rock formations on the blue trail, like the one above, but for the most part Christmas Rocks is all about trees, glimpses of shimmering sunlight, blue sky, whispering green leaves, and the kind of refreshing, highly oxygenated air that you only get in a forested area. It’s a good place to amble slowly, quietly take in the scenery, cross a mossy wooden bridge over a small stream, and remember what it was like to go into the woods when you were a kid and wonder what you might find there.

We saw the first signs of the fall colors to come, with some leaves already down on the trail and a few sugar maples displaying their trademark scarlet autumnal finery. For the most part, though, the leaves were green on the towering trees. We heard some birdsong as we moved along, following switchbacks up and down and a winding trail that takes you through several gorges.

The blue trail at Christmas Rocks is a loop, and at one point you come to a juncture with Armey Run, a small brook that cuts through the bottom of one of the ravines. You can walk out onto the rocks in the middle of the stream and enjoy that gurgling sound of slowly moving water, which makes for a change from the silence that swallows you up on the rest of the trail. From that point, the trail moves upward, with Armey Run falling away to your left, as you complete the loop.

As we emerged from the tree cover and left the Christmas Rocks property, we were dazzled by the cloudless azure skies, the sparkling sunshine, and the bright green lawn surrounding an old barn positioned close to the entrance to the nature preserve. We agreed that, once again, a Saturday morning hike was a great way to kick off the weekend.

Combine Season

Autumn is a beautiful time of year in Ohio. If you drive out into the rural areas you’re likely to see a scene like this: brilliant blue sky, farm buildings in the far distance, and a field of cornstalks waiting to be chopped down. The owner of this field decided to stop in the middle of cutting—probably knocking off to watch the Buckeyes game.

Hike Ohio: Conkle’s Hollow

The autumnal equinox has come and gone, the weather has cooled off, and the feel of fall is all around us. That means it’s time to don the thick socks, lace up the Oboz hiking shoes, and head out to one of the cool hiking trails you can find in and around central Ohio. Our destination yesterday was Conkle’s Hollow, a state nature preserve located in the Hocking Hills near Logan, Ohio.

The Hocking Hills region is a sprawling and beautiful area of woodlands and interesting rock formations that is home to many camps and hiking areas. Located about an hour and a half south of Columbus off Route 33, Conkle’s Hollow is one of the many potential destinations in the area for someone looking to get outdoors, enjoy some scenery, and breathe in some big gulps of fresh autumnal air. Not surprisingly, we weren’t the only ones who decided to visit Conkle’s Hollow yesterday.

When you arrive at Conkle’s Hollow, you’ve got a choice–you can take the gorge trail, which runs along the bottom of the hollow, beneath the canopy of the towering trees, or you can take the longer rim trail, which takes you up to the top of the rock walls that make up the gorge. The rim trail is apparently more rugged and also requires more care, as it winds past some spots where there are sheer falls in the event of a misstep. We decided to take the gorge trail to kick off our hiking season, and leave the rim trail for a later trip.

The gorge trail is an easy hike, and some of our fellow visitors were families with young kids. There is lots to see on the gorge trail, too. Almost immediately, you notice the sheer rock cliffs to each side, towering hundreds of feet overhead. The photo directly above, with the trail and the trail sign, gives you a sense of the immense scale of the rocky walls. Many of the trees growing from the bottom of the gorge were dwarfed by the cliff faces.

After a half a mile or so, the paved trail ends, and a dirt path takes you farther back into the gorge, where you see many of the most interesting rock formations. The air is decidedly cooler in the gorge, and you don’t get much direct sunlight in view of the towering rock outcroppings and tree cover. The filtered sunlight almost makes you feel like you are underwater as you follow the trail, and makes the green shades of the tree leaves, moss, and plant life seem a lot greener.

At many points along the trail there are small caves and grottos, as well as areas where water from above is falling to join the small stream running along the floor of the hollow. In the past, you apparently could explore more of these formations, but the damage done by hikers (and, sadly, some people who can’t resist carving their initials into rocks, as shown in the photo above) has caused the preserve to limit hikers to the trails. That’s okay with me: I’m willing to forgo an up close and personal look if it means that the pristine state of this beautiful area will be preserved for future generations to enjoy.

As you approach the end of the trail, the walls to each side close in, bringing you to the end point of the gorge. The middle of the floor features a small winding stream, with lots of rocks to hop on and felled trees. The kids in the family groups that were with us in this area had a riot leaping from rock to rock and balancing on the logs.

On this part of the trail, the contrast presented by dark shadows of the caverns make the green tree leaves and plants seem even brighter and greener. Whether you look forward, as in the picture above, or backward, as in the picture below, this part of Conkle’s Hollow was a study in black and different shades of green. Chartreuse, emerald, lime, fern, olive, seafoam, juniper–an artist would need a pretty loaded palette to do it justice.

The end of the trail takes you to the last cleft in the gorge, shown below. Water drips down from above into the pool that has accumulated below the cleft, and the dripping sound echoes against the rocky walls. A small ray of refracted sunlight illuminated the point at which the falling water hits the pool. It’s a beautiful scene, and it made us glad to choose the gorge trail for our first visit to Conkle’s Hollow. We wouldn’t have wanted to miss this serene little scene on a crisp early autumn day.

Hike Ohio: Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve

Hike Ohio: Kokosing Gap Trail

Hike Ohio: Dripping Rock Trail

Whither The Family Driving Trip?

We’re just about at the time of year when American families normally would pile into their Family Truckster, hit the open road, and head west, or east, or south, or north for their magical summer family driving vacation. But in Ohio, and elsewhere, gas prices are continuing to climb–raising the question of whether, this year, the Griswold clans throughout the country will be forced to conclude that they just cannot afford those hours in the car.

According to the AAA, the average price for a regular gallon of gas in Ohio is $4.464 (and $5.125 for a gallon of premium). That compares to $3.764 for a gallon of regular a month ago, and $2.887 a year ago. And dire predictions about what lies ahead suggest that in a few months $4.46 for a gallon of unleaded regular may seem like a bargain. CBS News is reporting that commodities analyst Natasha Kaneva, with JPMorgan, predicts we may see a “cruel summer” in which gas prices top $6 a gallon for regular by August. Her research note published earlier this week explains: “With expectations of strong driving demand — traditionally, the U.S. summer driving season starts on Memorial Day, which lands this year on May 30, and lasts until Labor Day in early September — U.S. retail price could surge another 37% by August to a $6.20/gallon national average.”

That’s the kind of news that makes me glad I walk to work. But the fuel price increases also make you wonder whether many families will be able to afford the classic American driving trip this year. The CBS News article reports that the average American family now pays about $4,800 a year for gas, which is a 70 percent increase from a year ago. How many household budgets can accommodate another 37 percent jump in gas prices, at the same time that costs for food and other staples also are climbing?

At some point that driving trip just becomes unaffordable, and a stay-at-home summer is the only realistic option. That means some American families will miss out on the kids poking and prodding each other in the back seat as the long freeway hours roll by, paying visits to roadside hotels, and seeing cheesy “attractions” like the Corn Palace or Wall Drug. That’s too bad, because it means they will be missing out on a classic American experience and a chance to savor the freedom to roam and see different parts of the country at ground level. As the Griswold clan can attest, those traditional family driving trips can be the stuff of which lasting memories are made.