Leafy-green mountain majesty

I remember my sixth-grade teacher telling a story about a college roommate from one of the plains states. When they got to our rolling hills of southwestern Ohio, they were incredulous.

“Are those mountains?” they wondered. Obviously, I have no way of verifying this. But my teacher swore they thought our hills and ridges were mountains because the geography they were used to was flat as a pancake. I wonder what they would have thought the first time they saw actual mountains – like the Great Smoky Mountains. I grew up bouncing up and down hills – carsick half the time – and I was incredulous the first time I saw a real, live mountain.

My first trip to the Smokies was in 1998. My family – aunts, uncles, cousins and grandfather – rented a chalet in the mountains for Labor Day weekend. It was the first time we experienced the stop-and-go traffic of the Parkway and the fervor of Tennessee Volunteer fans. I was 13, and when the adults went to bed, my cousins and I had the run of the place. It was fan-freaking-tastic.

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But the mountains – they were the show stopper. The first night there, we got in after dark and had to feel our way through the switchbacks to get to our chalet. We got turned around a couple of times, but we managed to get there without going over the side of the mountain. By the time we arrived, if our ears weren’t popping, we wished they would.  We couldn’t really see anything until dawn broke the next morning. Once everyone started getting up and looking out the windows, they were amazed.

My family visited the Smokies several times before we decided to go West to see the Rocky Mountains. Let me tell you, once we saw those towering, rugged, behemoths, well, the Smokies just didn’t seem all that grand anymore. Poor Smokies. I suppose older mountains are like older people: All the things that make them seem super cool gets worn away until we forget just how spectacular they really are.

It wasn’t until we went down in March, after the fires ravaged the Gatlinburg area, that I got a reminder of just how majestic those smaller, rounder mountains really are. You see, when the fires coursed over the mountains, much of the underbrush burned away exposing the bare rock underneath.

Here on the eastern side of the country, where water is much more plentiful and the elevation is lower, we have dense foliage that grows up between trees. It creates a lush, green curtain shrouding the true majesty of the Smokies. But in the Rockies, the higher elevations and drier climate makes it more difficult for that kind of growth to gain a foothold.

So, while the Rockies display a sort of “in your face!” kind of strength – daring you to try to tame them – the Smokies kept their strength and ruggedness hidden, inviting you in for an adventure. That is, until a fire burned away its shroud and reminded me that just because these mountains do not tower over 14,000 feet, they are no less majestic.

 

Check out my YouTube channel for additional video content of driving through the mountains!

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Zion National Park

Featured image: I wish I could claim credit for the photo, but that goes to Wolfgang Staudt. Thanks be to him for making this photo available via Flickr Creative Commons. 

One of the best things about a road trip is stumbling onto things you didn’t even know existed – and loving them. Of course, on the other hand, you spend the following five years of your life kicking yourself for not seeing what was right in front of your face.

I’ve mentioned our serendipitous journey to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon when we intended to go South, but that wasn’t the only twist of fate for the day. When we left the wrong rim, the route we had planned to take to Las Vegas obviously wasn’t going to work. So we fired up the GPS – dubbed Sheila – and followed her lead.

Now, you have to know this was the most ridiculous GPS unit I’ve ever used. She was something built into the rental car that they threw in for free. It was nearly impossible to tell it where we were going unless we were headed to something preloaded, and of course nowhere we went was loaded in the thing. We didn’t call on Sheila and her split personality much. When we did, she got us lost more often than not. But on this day, Sheila came through in a big way: She introduced me to Zion National Park.

Our path from the Grand Canyon took us along State Route 9, which cuts across the southeastern corner of the park and takes you to the main entrance. Honestly, I had no idea we were passing through another park. For once, I wasn’t looking at the map; I was just letting the GPS do its thing. I can’t remember if I picked up the camera before or after I realized we were in Zion, but I know I couldn’t put it down the entire drive through.

As we passed through canyons in just a small corner of the park, our breath was constantly taken away by the view. This section of highway will take you through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, a 1.1 mile tunnel that was completed in 1930, according to the Park Service. This tunnel was created to connect Zion with Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon. Its long. It feels long when you’re going through it and if you’re like me you have to push that panicked feeling to the back of your mind when you start thinking about how much is on top of you. This tunnel kind of skirts the edges of the rock and you get gargantuan windows that let in blinding natural light, providing a glimpse of the vista outside.

As with everything else in the Gypsy Trip, we only got a tease of what the park had to offer. Since then, I’ve been dying to get back and explore more. Zion offers backpacking, hiking, bicycling, camping, canyoneering, boating and more. When you go – because you know you want to – you may as well hit up Bryce Canyon and Monument Valley.

Going to the Sun Road

Featured image: St. Mary’s Lake, Glacier National Park 

I do a lot of raving about Montana and Glacier National Park on here, but I promise it’s for a good reason. The place really is spectacular. We only got to spend about two days there on our trip, and the only reason we could tear ourselves away from the state was because we knew we were headed to Yellowstone National Park next.

One of the views you get from Going to the Sun Road.

One of the views you get from Going to the Sun Road.

At Glacier, more than 93 percent of the park is wilderness, so it is totally unspoiled. Hundreds of miles of trails cross the backcountry, and the most beautiful parts of the park can’t be seen from a car. I absolutely will to get back to this park to do some hiking once I’m in a little better pulmonary health. I need to see Avalanche Lake and Grinnell Glacier, just to name two, before I die. If you are interested in more about hiking in Glacier National Park I’ve read Hiking in Glacier backwards and forwards.

But the way most of the park’s visitors see it is from their car. Going to the Sun Road, so named either because of an Indian legend or a story some guy made up about an Indian legend, depending on who you ask, is a marvel of modern engineering. The road is about 50 miles long and east-to-west across the park. It curls around and cuts through mountains and it hugs cliffs and traverses valleys.

It’s a great way to get a slice of what the park has to offer, especially for people who aren’t otherwise able to get out onto some of the trails and experience the park. But, for the love of all that is holy, if you have working legs and lungs, GET OUT AND HIKE THIS PARK. Do it. Do it for me. Do it for yourself.

If you have a fear of heights or falling, I'd suggest you lay down in the passenger's seat while someone else drives.

If you have a fear of heights or falling, I’d suggest you lay down in the passenger’s seat while someone else drives.

When we – Lacey and I – visited this park we did not hike. It was a travesty. But we didn’t hike because we got robbed of a day’s worth of visiting in the park because of a blown-out tire and incompetent rental car company. We had just enough time for an awesome horseback ride – that I can still feel in my back – and a trip across Going to the Sun Road.

It was enough to whet our appetites. We’ve been dying to go back since then.

Parts of the road are open year-round, so there is always something to see or do at the park, even if it’s snowing at the upper levels. Just but sure to check the vehicle requirements if you are driving an oversized vehicle on the road because there are some restrictions. If you don’t want to drive, there is a shuttle service that operates in the park and it is included in the price of admission.

But enough of the boring details. You can find all of these things out for yourself from the park’s website. For now, I’ll leave you with some meh video of the Crown of the Continent.

Clifty Falls State Park

Clifty Falls State Park near Madison, Ind., is awesome. The park has 10 different trails of various difficulty, plus a campground, amphitheater, pool, playgrounds, playfields, and an Inn with views of the park and the Ohio River.

To get there, you will pass through nearby Madison, Ind. This charming little town is full of shopping, dining and history – including several places that were part of the Underground Railroad.

But for the part we really care about – the hiking. I’ve been to this park twice this year and every time I go I like it better. The first time was earlier in spring; there were still no leaves on the trees. The second time I went everything was in full bloom, and I had a lot more time to explore the park.

One of the things I like about this park is the trail heads are marked clearly; we never had any trouble finding where we were trying to get. I also love that the trail table on the lower left side of the park map actually gives fairly accurate trail descriptions.

Big and Little Clifty Falls

Trail 7 – 1.25 miles

This is your view of Big Clifty Falls from beneath the overlook.

This is your view of Big Clifty Falls from beneath the overlook.

I had to add the

I had to add the “or hound dogs” part; Emme didn’t seem to think these signs applied to her.

We’ve established in previous posts that I love waterfalls. Clifty doesn’t disappoint in this department: there are four that are all relatively easy to access. If you need ADA accessible, there is an overlook at Trail 7 where you can get a good view of Big Clifty Falls. But beyond that, if you can’t do steps, you’re out of luck for all of the trails. The only drawback with this park is that you can’t really get a good view of any of the waterfalls from the trails and there are umpteen billion signs warning you not to veer off the trail under any circumstances.

The trick with most of the trails at this park is getting in and out of the gorges. Everything is situated around the creeks, gorges, caves and waterfalls.

Trail 7 was the first one I hit, and at the beginning it seems like it will be too much. It isn’t.

In a rare moment when Emme's little hound dog nose isn't pressed to the ground, she looks ahead under the rock ledge.

In a rare moment when Emme’s little hound dog nose isn’t pressed to the ground, she looks ahead under the rock ledge.

It starts out ADA accessible, then goes down steps. You do have to come back out, but it’s not as bad as it seems going in. Take a right halfway down the first batch of steps and the trail will take you under a rock ledge to another view of Big Clifty. When you get back to the steps you can either keep going straight or take another right and complete a short loop through the woods.

Cake Rock

Cake Rock

The highlight of this itty bitty trail is seeing Cake Rock, a huge boulder that looks like a piece of cake balancing on its side.

These are the steps getting to Little Clifty Falls. Don't worry - you only have to go down them.

These are the steps getting to Little Clifty Falls. Don’t worry – you only have to go down them.

The loop will bring you to the other side of the steps – so you’ll be left of where you started at the top of the steps. Take a long, narrow set of steps down and you’ll be standing on top of Little Clifty Falls. I love standing there and watching the water go over the falls. But once you’re across, you can go right and walk along the top of the gorge and get more views of the falls. Once you make that right turn, you’re on Trail 6, a half-mile trek which leads out to the Hickory Grove Shelter.

This is a piece of the steps leading back out of the gorge. It actually isn't as bad going out as it seems like it would be when you're staring down all those steps.

This is a piece of the steps leading back out of the gorge. It actually isn’t as bad going out as it seems like it would be when you’re staring up all those steps.

If you opt to keep to Trail 7, you’ll make your ascent. The first time I did this trail, I looked at those five sets of 17 steps, lost all heart, turned around and went back the way I came. It was a mistake.

Once you get up those steps, it’s a mostly level trail along one side of the gorge, across the creek and back up the other side. The trail comes out at the ball fields across from the parking lot at the trailhead.

Tunnel Falls

Trail 5 – .9 mile

The trees and weird angle of this shot of Tunnel Falls isn't helped by my foggy GoPro lens. I'm getting tired of lugging a DSLR around, but I haven't mastered GoPro photography yet.

The trees and weird angle of this shot of Tunnel Falls isn’t helped by my foggy GoPro lens. I’m getting tired of lugging a DSLR around, but I haven’t mastered GoPro photography yet. But this is another example of the difficulty of seeing the waterfalls from the trails on top of the ridge.

I cheated a bit on this trail. It’s a bit more rugged than Trail 7, but I really wanted to see the falls and the tunnel. There’s no ADA portion to get you started, once you park at the trailhead it’s all downhill. Literally. Back down into the gorge you go, down a long set of steps. Once you get to the bottom, an overlook gives you your first view of Tunnel Falls, a long, lean flow over the rocks.

DCIM114GOPRO

Someday I will remember to count the number of steps on a trail. All I can remember about this one was there was a lot of steps, but they were still over before I knew it.

I was a little worried about the difficulty of the trail, but we kept going back to the tunnel and it was pretty easy going to the mouth of the cave. Once you get to the cave, you’ll have to pick your way over rocks to get inside, and if you’re more than five feet tall you’ll be ducking about fifteen feet into the cave. I didn’t get much farther than that because brilliant me left my headlamp in the car and it was a bit dark in there. I didn’t want the only joint I rolled that day to be my ankle.

For a fun bit of history for you, this tunnel is part of what’s known as “Brough’s Folly” because it was part of a failed attempt to build a railroad. The tunnel was started in 1852. When you visit, keep in mind that Trail five and the tunnel are only open in the summer to protect the bats who live in the cave.

Hoffman Falls

Trail 3 – 1 mile

DCIM114GOPRO

On the trail around Hoffman Falls you’ll cross a couple of bridges over pretty little creeks, like this one.

If you feel froggy, you can continue on Trail 5 until it dead ends to trail four, and take that to Hoffman Falls. Or you can wimp out (like I did) and hike back out on Trail 5 and drive to the trailhead for #3 and hike down to Hoffman. Trail four is rated very rugged and I wasn’t sure of my ability to complete it. Spending more time catching my breath than hiking isn’t how I like to spend my outdoors time.

Getting down to Hoffman falls was another trek down steps, but I loved this trail. You’ll cross a couple of creeks and you can use this tail to get down to Trail 2 – my nemesis. But more on that later.

Once you get past the falls, Trail 3 joins with 1 and 2. Following trail 3 will loop you back to the trail head, but I was starting to run low on oxygen so we turned back before completing the loop. Or you can take Trail 2 when they split and hike up the creek bed all the way up to the base of Big Clifty Falls.

Hiking is always better with friends! This is Karli and me (looking all sexy in my Buff, a.k.a. sweat catcher. Because if there is one thing I do well, its sweat.)

Hiking is always better with friends! This is Karli (thebeatkeeper.wordpress.com) and me (looking all sexy in my Buff, a.k.a. sweat catcher. Because if there is one thing I do well, it’s sweat.)

Speaking of Trail 2, this one is a bit of my nemesis. I haven’t been brave enough to try it because to hike it you are climbing along a creek bed. Of course, because you are hiking under the falls this is probably the best way to get a good shot of the falls. This trail is a goal for me – I know I don’t have the strength right now – or the footwear – to climb over rocks and play in the water. But next time. Next time, Trail 2, I’m coming for you.

Things to remember

  • There is more to the trails and more trails than what I discussed here.
  • I haven’t had the chance yet to spend much time in Madison, but it’s a place I plan to go back to. I just don’t think the pretty people enjoying their Sunday want to smell me after I’ve been rolling around in the woods for hours.
  • Wear proper footwear because the trails go up and down steps, over roots and rocks and through the woods.
  • The volume of the waterfalls depend greatly on the rain. If there has been a lot – like so far this summer – they’re going to be more voluminous. But that also means that Trail 2 may not be passable because there will be too much water flowing. So check the weather before you go or else you may be disappointed.
  • There is a charge to get into the park: $7 for state residents, $9 for out-of-state visitors.

“Four Boots, One Journey”

Layout 1Title: Four Boots, One Journey

Author: Jeff Alt

Short Description: After his wife’s brother commits suicide, the author and his wife embark on a healing thru-hike on the John Muir Trail, a 211-mile swatch of land in the Sierra Nevada that mostly follows the Pacific Crest Trail.

My favorite part: This book has a lot of great information about depression and the JMT.

“Four Boots, One Journey” has been on my reading list for a while, and I finally got around to it a couple of weeks ago. What initially got my attention about this book wasn’t the depression awareness campaign that was attached to their hike; it was the fact that they hiked at all. I’m on my annual summer hiking kick right now, and my current obsession is thru-hiking.

Long-distance hiking is something I thought about before I got sick, but now that I know my body is in armed rebellion against itself, I figure if I give my immune system and the rest of my body a common enemy (i.e. huge physical challenge) they can finally unite. (I know, I know. It doesn’t really work that way.)  So I’ve been reading as many hiking memoirs as I can find to get some perspective – and fun stories – about long hikes.

The first one I read was this one, by “Hiker Jeff,” an author and speaker. I get the feeling from his writing that he’s a very practical guy. His writing and descriptions were no-nonsense – by that I mean no fluffy, flowery language and no embellishing of the truth. I appreciate his writing style, even though I’m prone to pontificate and use overly colorful verbs and adjectives for the sake of telling stories. Even without over-dramatization, the funny parts of his story stick out – like when his wife got caught with her pants down – literally – by a park ranger.

Hiker Jeff’s wife wasn’t a hiker, but she promised him when they got married that she’d give it a chance. After losing her brother, she agreed to hike the John Muir Trail with him in an effort to raise awareness about depression and how hiking can help people who suffer from it. Even before their hike began, they started sharing their message about depression awareness to others. Jeff shows us how they raised funds to donate to a charity, gathered sponsors to help them with their hike, and set up a website that chronicled their journey. Sadly, I can’t find this website now; HikeforMike.com redirects to Jeff’s own homepage.

Their journey over the JMT was a healing one for Jeff, his wife and their family. Throughout the hike, he referenced various aspects of grief and depression, tying it in to things they witnessed on the trail. For example, when they crossed the “Golden Gate of the Sierra,” a suspension bridge along the trail, Jeff references the high rate of suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and how this bridge in their path only solidified the reason for their journey.

I have close family members who struggle with depression and anxiety, and two of my friends have committed suicide. It’s a terrifying, unfathomable thing to try to understand. Ten years later, you will still wonder what you could have done to help them.

Even though the premise of the entire hike is rooted in a devastating tragedy, it doesn’t overshadow the story. There is still plenty of helpful information about the JMT, how to hike it, places to stay, and the kinds of people you will meet. One of my favorite characters appeared at the end of the story, on the last day of their hike.

When Jeff and Beth ascended Mt. Whitney they passed a woman with whom I could identify. They said she would “take five, small, shuffling steps and stop for a period longer than it took to take the steps.” The couple tried to help her, but she refused, saying she was “just fine.”

I like this woman.

Sometimes when I’m hiking something not nearly as strenuous as Mt. Whitney, I do this exact thing. I’ll move 10 feet and then have to stop to breathe. And I never want help, either. I appreciate the offers, but no thanks, even though I look like I’m dying, I’m doing just fine.

Jeff and Beth met the hiker again later in the day and we learned more about her. This time she was in some obvious discomfort as she rested on a rock, but she explained that her father had many health problems when he died, and she expected she had some of the same.

“But I will get over this mountain,” she told them. “I’ve got all day.” She still kept her sense of humor when she called out after them, “After this trip, I think I’ll stick to car camping.”

I would tell her NO! Don’t car camp — climb another mountain. It will only get easier. Still, I like her spirit. It’s something anyone can relate to – whether you have a chronic illness or depression or just a really bad case of the Mondays.

You can get over that mountain. You’ve got all day.

Underground Railroad: Fee Villa

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Fee Villa, pictured above, was a stop on the Underground Railroad in Moscow, Ohio. When it was safe for escaping slaves to enter, the residents would signal by placing a candle in the window.

Along the river are a lot of those little blink-and-you-miss-them towns. You know the kind that have a sign saying, “Welcome,” then 10 feet later one saying “Thank you for visiting.” They’re charming, usually hiding some kind of gem – either a great locally-owned shop or restaurant, or someone with a great life story. One thing you can count on is they always have a story to tell.

Moscow, Ohio is a little town like that. If you’re following US-52 – yep, that road again! – you don’t even have to blink to miss it. You’ll see signs for it once you get out of Point Pleasant, Ohio, but you have to turn off the main road to find it.

This teensy town registered 185 citizens in the 2010 census, down from the 244 who registered during the 2000 census. It was in the news about three years ago when tornadoes ripped through the area, taking out about 80 percent of the town and killing three people.

Go back about 150 years and the town was home to a distillery that made fruit brandies, and a glass factory. Today, there are some houses and a church or two. At the end of Water Street is a stately white house standing vigil over a long dock on the Ohio River.

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Check out that eerie fog. That’s the Ohio River blending in with the sky there. Usually, its easy to see the opposite bank.

The house wasn’t hard to find, exactly, I just had a bit of trouble figuring out which street I was on. You would think with just a handful of streets it would be easy, which is what I think the village planner thought too because I didn’t think the streets were marked well.

I finally found the house – but only because I decided to drive down a street that ended in a boat ramp because I wanted to get some photos of the river covered in fog. I chickened out before getting to the ramp – I always feel like I’m going to drive straight into the river, even though I’m at least 200 feet from the shore – and when I turned my head to check my mirrors, I saw the small green sign to designate this house as part of the Clermont County Freedom Trail.

This large white house was once a beacon of freedom for people crossing the river. I stood on the bank of the river below the house and tried to imagine what it would be like to get across that river. Its wide and with the heavy fog the morning I was there, I couldn’t even see the other bank. The river and its swift current dwarfed the dock beneath the home.

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More eerie photos. I can’t help but love the fog!

The place is Fee Villa, formerly inhabited by Thomas Fee, Jr., a noted abolitionist. When it was safe for escaping slaves to enter, Fee would place a candle in the window of the house. That candle in the window is still used in Moscow’s village logo today.

The Fees would feed, clothe the people they helped, and then transported them along the railroad to Felicity, Ohio.

A few blocks away is an open site where the home of Robert E. Fee once stood.  Fee fought to get back the freedom of a woman and her children who were kidnapped and then sold into slavery. He was unsuccessful, but dedicated his life to helping slaves escape. He was indicted by Pendleton County for slave stealing, but Ohio refused to extradite him to Kentucky to stand trial.

If you want to keep following the Freedom Trail in Clermont County, Ohio, there a many more places to visit. Check out their brochure of Underground Railroad locations, and keep checking back here. I’ll keep visiting them throughout the summer!

TBT: Land of Enchantment?

My beautiful picture

Just one example of the beaut of New Mexico – and this is just the side of the road. These are the kinds of things I missed the first two times through the state.

“The land of enchantment” is New Mexico’s state slogan. It sounds like something from a fairy tale, right? Well, my first experience with New Mexico was more like a nightmare. I was 16 and we were on our way to the Grand Canyon.

We were logging major miles to get from Cincinnati to Arizona in a couple of days, and we rolled into Tucumcari, New Mexico late one night, ready to get a few hours of sleep and then carry on our way. We’d been on the road about 12 hours that day and we were all sick of being in each other’s faces.

My beautiful picture

One of the places we visited was the Cathedral Basilica St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe. There are beautiful sculptures in the prayer garden outside.

We checked into the hotel and immediately began questioning staying there. It looked sketchy, it was dirty outside and had some obvious damage to the building. But we were tired and needed to sleep before driving any more. So we went inside.

The room was dank, it was old and hadn’t been updated since, well, ever. Still, nothing seemed bad enough to warrant trying to find somewhere else in our half-comatose state. The bathroom seemed clean enough – despite the water stain on the ceiling – so I thought taking a shower was a good idea, until I realized I had an audience of the six-legged variety coming out of that water spot in the ceiling.

There was no hair-rinsing, there was only putting on enough clothes to get out of the bathroom and screaming about the bugs. Of course, by the time Mom went into the bathroom, they had all retreated and no one believed me. Just more ravings of a self-confessed bugophobe.

Oh, but I had the last laugh after an abrupt departure at 1 a.m. when Dad woke up and found bugs crawling around the room. I don’t know what kind of bugs they were, and I didn’t care. My stuff was already ready to go. If Dad was good to drive on two hours of sleep, I was fine with sleeping in the backseat. At least then I knew there wouldn’t be things crawling on me in my sleep.

So the only thing I experienced in my first trip to New Mexico was a crappy hotel room and sleep in the back seat of the car. We drove through it again about a year later and the only thing I remember about that drive is a heckuva dust storm scaring the life out of me. I didn’t have high hopes for it during the Gypsy Trip, but that was Amanda’s Mecca of our pilgrimage. She was an anthropology student, and New Mexico is full of history and culture.

She planned all our explorations for the state, I had no scruples – except avoiding Tucumcari at all costs. The second time around, I wasn’t disappointed. I got to find out why New Mexico is called the Land of Enchantment. We hit several things that day, it was probably one of the most packed days of the trip as far as sightseeing. Here’s the list of places we saw, and I’d recommend visiting them when you go:

  1. Capulin Volcano National Monument: A road circling the volcano takes to you to the vent of an extinct volcano. At the top, you can hike into it’s mouth and take in views of the surrounding volcanic field. Even though they say this is extinct, I still had prickles on my neck while we were up there. “Extinct” volcanoes have erupted before.
  2. Taos Pueblo: These pueblos have been continuously inhabited for more than 1000 years. There are still about 150 Taos Indians living in the pueblo, according to their website. The historical significance of this location earned it the distinction of becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site.
  3. Taos, New Mexico: We only spent a few hours in this city, but you could easily spend days getting lost in the art and culture scene here. It has a great history – and super cool architecture.
  4. Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi: Not to be confused with San Francisco de Assisi in Taos, which I just did when trying to remember the name of the place we went. They are both super cool, but I didn’t visit the Mission in Taos. St. Francis however, was full of sculptures and art in the beautiful prayer garden in front of the church.

Exploring on Sunday

Ulysses S. Grant's birthplace in Point Pleasant, Ohio, just a few hundred feet from the Ohio River, is a reminder that no matter where you begin in life, you never know where you may end up.

Ulysses S. Grant’s birthplace in Point Pleasant, Ohio, just a few hundred feet from the Ohio River, is a reminder that no matter where you begin in life, you never know where you may end up.

I had the itch go to for a drive last weekend, and decided to take another bite out of my ever-growing list of Underground Railroad locations. (I promise, the posts will start rolling out over the next week.)

I love Sunday mornings. I love to sleep in, but even more I love getting up while most people are still tucked in their beds, or having pancake breakfasts, or sleeping off the night before. Traffic is nonexistent, hiking trails are clear, and you can explore small towns without anyone else around. (Which, to me, means I don’t have to small talk when I’m not in the mood to be social, which is most days that end in “Y.”)

Last Sunday, I opted for the small town explorations with Emme the Mutt in tow. She loves a good ride in car, just not for six hours, I eventually learned. But she also likes sniffing things, chasing geese into the river, and barking at bicyclists, so she had a great time.

The morning was very foggy, and while visibility on the roads was fine, the fog was so dense over the river that I couldn’t see the other side. I have to admit, I kind of love fog. It can be annoying, and it wreaks havoc on the focus in my pictures, but I love the surreal feeling it creates.

I took my favorite route along US-52, a scenic byway that runs along the southern border of Ohio on the river. My first destination of the day was to be Moscow, a map dot barely out of the river. I stopped off in New Richmond first to check out some points of interest (to be blogged about later).

About five miles east of New Richmond, I stumbled through a historic district with ties to the Civil War. It wasn’t on my list for the day, and despite driving past it eleventy million times, I forgot it was even there.

A simple white house behind a flagstone sidewalk anchors the district. Of course, district is a generous term because the white house, a well next to it and signage in the yard are about all there is to the space. A stern looking man will be peering at you through one of the front windows, and you’ll know you have the place. Ulysses S. Grant’s birthplace is in Point Pleasant, Ohio – not to be confused with the home of the Mothman in West Virginia.

President Grant, in case you aren’t familiar, commanded the Union Army during the Civil War and accepted General Lee’s surrender. While being known for his military strategy and personal integrity, his presidency was marred by scandals.

Good ol’ Unconditional Surrender had his humble beginning along the banks of the Ohio. He lived in that house for less than a year before his family moved about 23 miles away to Georgetown, Ohio.

The thing I like most about places like this is that it reminds me that no matter where you start in life, you never know where you can end up. Grant started life as a tanner’s son along the Ohio River, and went to West Point against his will, according to the information boards outside the house. Even though his grades at West Point were mediocre – one would assume from not applying himself since he didn’t want to be there in the first place – he rose to command the armed forces of the United States, became President and traveled the world.

When you visit, you can tour both his birthplace in Point Pleasant and boyhood home in Georgetown and see the schoolhouse he attended. Fun fact: I lived a few blocks away from Grant’s boyhood home when I was a kid. I walked past it almost every day on my way to school.

For more information about visiting these sites, you can check out the Ohio History website.

Gus Scale: Greeter Falls

Greeter

Greeter Falls is beautiful, but be mindful of the fork in the road. Choosing wrong way could land you on a trail ranked seven out of seven on the Gus Scale.

GusScaleLvl7When we were visiting Foster Falls, we saw a sign for Greeter Falls and decided to check it out. But first, we checked a map. That’s right folks, we learned our lesson not to get into a trail we knew nothing about. Now, if we could just learn to follow the map.

I found Greeter Falls on All Trails, and it was described as a “moderate 1.8 mile hike.” I said that’s doable for the cripple in the group (me – I’m the cripple) so we decided to hit the trail.

It starts out as a fairly level, wide trail. When you come to a fork, you have the option of taking an upper falls trail, or a lower falls trail. Choose carefully, for you may choose your doom.

The upper falls trail is what All Trails calls “moderate.” I can’t dispute this because this isn’t the trail we took. Instead, we took the lower falls trail and proceeded down the precipice toward our second swimming hole of the day. This trail is rugged – very rugged. I ranked this one a seven out of seven on the Gus Scale. Overall, it is comparable to the Foster Falls level of difficulty, but there are some differences to take into consideration.

After taking the fork for Lower Falls, the trail is similar to Foster Falls. You still climb around rocks and pick your way to the bottom of the ravine. When you’re hiking down, I can’t stress enough making sure you have on proper footwear. Even with it on you could roll an ankle – like Karli.

I was several yards back, held up by taking photos and being slow, when Brandon came rushing up asking if I had water. I thought someone had a heat stroke or something. Actually, Karli sprained her ankle, falling and flaying one of her shins on the rocks in the process.

So wearing long pants may not be a bad idea, either.

Did that ankle stop her? No, ma’am, The Beatkeeper also plays roller derby, so she just added the cuts and bruises to her collection and kept on trucking down that hill.

We kept going, all the while knowing that every inch we went down we would have to come back up again. Every so often someone would yell back to me to make sure I wanted to keep going. It’s beautiful and there’s a waterfall at the end of the trail, so I said keep going.

Then we reached the edge of a cliff.

Even though the area is a well-known rock-climbing area, we didn’t have to scale a cliff face to get to the falls. No, we just had to take an aluminum spiral staircase. It’s kind of cool, if you’re not afraid of heights, falling, or open-backed steps.

Well, the waterfall was in sight, so I said, “We’ve come this far. Might as well keep going!”

Then someone shouted back, “Uh, Cassie … there’s more steps?”

Why not? I’m already farther in than I should be. What’s two more flights of steps and a ramp of doom?

We made it down, but the last flight of steps stops at a ramp that is about a 45 degree angle. I didn’t even fool with that, I just clomped down on the rocks and took my chances climbing/crawling over them. And when I say rocks, I mean large rocks, not those little ones you skip stones with.

We got about 10 feet from the ramp of doom, plopped down, and watched some guy jump from about halfway up the falls. I’m definitely not recommending this to anyone – so don’t try so sue me if you break your neck and die trying.

The climb back out was hard on all of us, and my friends are all in reasonable shape. But for me, I felt like I was stopping to catch my breath every 10 feet. Still, it was a great trail and I’d recommend it. Just be prepared, or take the Upper Falls Loop.

Gus Scale: Foster Falls

The ruggedness of Foster Falls gets it a six out of seven on the Gus Scale. It’s a great hike to the falls and swimming hole, but make sure you wear proper footwear and have good knees and ankles.

“Super easy hike to the falls which are pretty awesome!” – Sharon Lester, All Trails Reviewer of Foster Falls/Climbers Loop

The ruggedness of Foster Falls gets it a six out of seven on the Gus Scale. It’s a great hike to the falls and swimming hole, but make sure you wear proper footwear and have good knees and ankles.

The ruggedness of Foster Falls gets it a six out of seven on the Gus Scale. It’s a great hike to the falls and swimming hole, but make sure you wear proper footwear and have good knees and ankles.

Well, Sharon and I agree on one thing: The waterfall is awesome. This trail is not easy.

Foster Falls is in South Cumberland State Park. To get there, you can either drive to the Fiery Gizzard trailhead or hike the 12.5 mild Fiery Gizzard Trail from Grundy Forest. You can take the two-mile loop or just hike to the falls and back out, the way we did.

I hit up this trail Memorial Day weekend on the Annual Camping Trip of Horrors. At the time, this was the most strenuous trail I had done post lung-damage. Even at full lung capacity, this trail would have been difficult. Still, I’d totally do it again.

To get to the falls, we hiked down a steep gorge. The trail snakes its way over large rocks and around trees. It’s not difficult to find or follow, but it can be difficult to navigate. You need to be coordinated. Clutzes like me need not apply.

Once you get to the bottom, there’s a swinging bridge that spans a creek. Just getting down the trail created some muscle burn for me, so I knew getting back up would be difficult.

We stopped at the falls and played around the water for a while, enjoying watching a black lab play the best fetch game of his life.

And then we began the ascent.

Picking my way down piles of rocks wasn’t too bad. Climbing back up over them was rather difficult. Along the way another hiker was complaining about handicapped parking at the trailhead. I guess she didn’t think people with handicapped placards liked to hike? She looked at me and stopped talking. But hey, I get it. You don’t see someone on oxygen on a hiking trail everyday.