The Impulsive Traveler: A winter hike through Ohio’s Cantwell Cliffs
By Robin Soslow,
Just beyond the massive walls of Blackhand sandstone, a tight passage named Fat Woman’s Squeeze descends between a huge boulder and the cliff from which it slipped. The path leads to a deep gorge of enchanting color, birdsong and recess caves. It’s hard to believe that such magnificence exists outside epic fantasy films, let alone in Ohio. So who’d blame me for wanting to see it all?
“Could we alternate hiking with trail-running to cover more ground?” I venture on the way to the trailhead.
Mimi stops and gapes at me. I guess that’s a “no.”
We were kindred spirits — until one of us suggested speed-touring a sacred place where the other comes to meditate.
Modern culture celebrates speed and superlatives. Even on vacation, we’re compelled to zip along, pursuing what’s biggest, tallest, deepest, hottest, coolest. Nature’s wonders become props: things to hike, bike, ski, climb, summit; places to picnic in, bond in or escape to. When did rushing horn in on relaxing?
Slowing people down has become Mimi Morrison’s mission. She named her guide service Touch the Earth Adventures because she wants folks to not only see, but also hear, smell, taste and feel the vast ancient world thriving beyond our frenetic manmade realm.
I’m here for a sense-surround hike in my friend’s back yard, southeastern Ohio’s Hocking Hills. We’re at Cantwell Cliffs, a remote cluster of geological formations that have awed all comers since the Adena people’s arrival here 7,000 years ago.
Slowly is the way to explore terrain that began as bedrock 350 million years ago, when an ocean covered the region. Ages of uplift, retreating glaciers and erosion have sculpted these spectacular layered ledges and recess caves. The rustic trails offer an ideal balance of challenge without pain, solitude without plunging into no man’s land.
Once-underwater mountains appear cloaked in emerald-green moss and topped with saplings. On wintry days, thin skins of ice sparkle on graceful tree limbs stripped of leaves, and waterfalls freeze mid-spill. Time has cleaved huge boulders from the main cliffs. The gorge’s microclimate, protected from weather extremes, shelters an underworld of ferns, flowers and birds.
The setting’s so pristine, so prehistoric, it seems that velociraptors could swoop down at any moment.
After I downshift to a mindful pace, Mimi strides to Fat Woman’s Squeeze. Descending into the gorge, she eyes an immense rock face. “I’m glad nobody’s climbing that,” she says. What some regard merely as a setting to flex their muscles and their bravado, Mimi reveres as a haven for experiencing Earth’s healing touch, a place for absorbing the history and tranquility embedded in this rock of ages.
Honeycomb weathering pockmarks the dramatic rock walls, a result of water washing out loose grains of sandstone. We pass boulders as big as shuttle buses. Called “slump blocks,” they cracked off the cliffs and slid down the slopes. Ramrod-straight Eastern hemlocks reach up from ravines in search of sunlight. Quiet study is rewarded by glimpses of flying squirrels, foxes and golden-crowned kinglets, human-friendly birds native to British Columbia’s forests.
A veil of water spills softly off a massive overhang into an enormous nature-made amphitheater. No wonder spas, hotels, hospitals and office buildings install meditative areas with water flowing over rocks. The sound and sight dissolve stress.
We descend more curving staircases, each designed and built by the 1930s-era Civilian Conservation Corps to blend into the terrain. We stop at a recess cave that long ago surely functioned as both a shelter and a stage.
From her backpack, Mimi extracts a neatly folded sheet of paper. Unfolded, it reveals typewriter-typed lines that begin with the words, “Give me a woods to walk in.” Midwestern author Jean Bell Mosley’s paean to nature appeared in a women’s magazine from the 1960s. Mimi’s mother clipped it out and gave it to her; Mimi has made sharing copies a tradition.
“I want the branches overhead to be so entwined they form a green canopy, making it cool underneath, yet with a blue here and there where one may peek through to see the galaxies,” Mosley wrote. It’s the speech of the hiker’s soul.
A rumble from above punctuates the final line. I interpret this as a thumbs-up from Mother Nature, but Mimi says it’s thunder. She refolds the paper and hands it to me. Time to move on.
The cliffs are named for Josiah Cantwell, an early settler of the Hocking Hills, a region of cliffs, gorges and waterfalls in southeastern Ohio’s portion of the Allegheny Plateau. I can see the attraction: quiet, vast landscapes stippled with hemlock and birch, rocks draped with phosphorescent mosses and liverworts, ground carpeted with ostrich ferns. This lush year-round color softens the high walls of rugged sandstone. Within the gorge, waterfalls don’t roar; they trickle and spray. Pileated woodpeckers with flame-red crests drum trunks and call “wuk wuk wuk.”
As the skies darken, a patter rises — rain caught by leaves and rock overhangs as we thread our way back up the slopes.
“Let me look long at the trees stripped of their foliage and see the very backbone of life. Let me feel the crystal coldness of the wind in my face, the silence of a woods filling up with snow.” Mosley captures the rough beauty that winter brings.
Approaching Fat Woman’s Squeeze, we stop to pick up some trash stuck between rocks. A flash overhead is trailed by thunder.
Exiting the Squeeze, I realize that the essay has popped out of my pocket. “We need to get out of here . . .” Mimi’s voice vanishes as I tramp back down the Squeeze’s now-dark passage. Lightning wouldn’t strike someone tidying up nature’s cathedral, would it? Fortunately, the paper’s easily spotted, glowing white atop wet leaves.
A vibration passes underfoot. Mother Earth just reached out and touched me.
What I call a touch, Mimi interprets as a shove. “Let’s move,” she cries. “Now! If that rumble’s an earthquake, the worst place to stand is under slabs of ancient rock.”
I finally learn to slow down, and she’s hurrying me.
Soslow is a writer and photographer who covers outdoor adventure, culture, food and art. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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