Cuyahoga Valley National Park

I visited: Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It was originally inhabited from about 1000-1600 by a people group known named (awkwardly enough, in the resources I’m checking, after the archeologist who studied them) the Whittlesey. This was my 10th National Park.

The Ledges Trail

Steve and I traveled to Ohio for the wedding of two good friends. I hoped to take a few short trips to CVNP over a few days, but heavy rainfall persisted until our final day in Ohio, when we finally managed to carve out a few hours at the park in warm sunlight.

I am learning that some National Parks lavishly unfurl themselves before you with enormous and dramatic landscapes, like, no duh this place is majestic. Glacier and Badlands both had that effect on me, and driving long hours through flat terrain to reach them served to heighten the impressive effect. Other National Parks are more modest, requiring closer attention before they disclose what makes them so remarkable. It took me a few visits to Indiana Dunes and a lot of listening to friends and park materials to begin to understand its incredible biodiversity and the effort it has taken to restore its fragile ecology. It’s the closest National Park to Chicago, or else I might not have given it a second look.

CVNP is similar, and Steve (who has been once before) chipped away at my skepticism by explaining its merits throughout the day. The park’s history is a strange confluence of history, legislation, commerce, and environmental activism, and what is now a healthy river system was once so polluted that it (i.e., the river) would often catch fire. Every park requires rigorous conservation effort to survive, but I’m more conscious of the nuts and bolts of those conservation efforts in a park like CVNP. We were never far from a noisy highway, and at the same time we were closer to great blue herons than I’ve ever been.

After stopping by the Everett Covered Bridge and the Beaver Marsh, we explored the Ledges Trail. It’s one of the park’s most popular trails and quickly became one of my all-time favorites, a moderate forest stroll weaving through and around large rock faces. The effect of moss and gnarled tree roots twisting their way around the exposed rock was otherworldly, the juxtaposition of the young trees and ancient rocks playing with my sense of time and scale.

Also playing with my sense of time and scale was the Ohio Turnpike Bridge. Usually I like my parks to be as free of apparent infrastructure as possible, but the way these arches drew my gaze up inspired a feeling of awe, not unlike the effect of a cathedral. The highway is high enough above that no cars are visible, and hiking underneath it felt a little like exploring an abandoned civilization. (I’d be lying if I said the color and shape didn’t remind me of the way the landscapes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens are littered with discarded AT-ATs and Star Destroyers.)

The highlight of the day was an unmarked social trail. Steve heard there was a path that would lead us to twin waterfalls, and as best we could tell, park officials don’t keep people off the trail but also avoid advertising it widely, an open secret for CVNP visitors. We hiked up a stream for about 45 minutes, working our way through the shallow water and soft, rocky banks.

The twin waterfalls. Scale is difficult to perceive here, but they were 30-40 feet tall.

I am just beginning a sabbatical from my job, and I’ve been thinking a lot about rest and play. Four consecutive weeks off, the longest stretch of free time I’ve had since college: What ought I to do with all that time? How do I make the most of this rare opportunity? Do I even know how to rest? When we started the hike to the twin waterfalls, it was Sunday afternoon, and the pall of the approaching workweek was slowly descending. It was our last stop before we hit the road back to Chicago, and I knew I had a full week of work as well as a full sermon to write. I could feel myself becoming less fun to be around, more anxious and impatient.

Almost miraculously, the hike relieved my stress, even if only temporarily. It was challenging but not defeating, requiring just enough problem-solving and creativity to feel like a real adventure, ending at a gorgeous waterfall basin oasis. I pulled off my shirt and let the mist wash over me, feeling present to my skin and to the water. My consciousness wasn’t leaping ahead to the future or trying to solve problems that didn’t exist yet. It was having fun, solving problems in front of me, like how to get around a huge tree trunk.

And then back to work the next day, fatigued but a little more conscious of the adventures that might be hiding under an overpass—adventures that only ask that we stop and look, adventures that exist, in large part, thanks to the efforts of conservationists.

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