THE FARM WAS ALWAYS FULL OF PEOPLE for the holidays. Fireplaces going in the living and dining rooms, and at night up in the master bedroom. More often than not, snow blanketed the lawn, clung to every limb of the huge old willow out front, to every inch of the fence. That snow, marred only by bird tracks and the paw prints of the dog, turned the lawn and the surrounding fields and the hill out back into a barrier against anything threatening safety or peace.
Home. It is the only place I want to be for the holidays. But every year, life seems to pick up speed midway through November and fly to the first of the year. Each winter I think about returning, but never do.
This year, I determined, would be different. I would go back, if not for the year-end holidays then for the fall, the time to harvest and collect for the long winter. More than wheat and corn are needed to sustain.
I had no way of knowing that once there, I would become a tourist, purely by accident.
Home for me is Ohio. Cincinnati, to be specific. But my emotional focus has for as long as I can recall been the old farmhouse in the town of Lancaster, about 30 miles southeast of Columbus. That is true no matter how far I wander, and was only confirmed last September when I walked in the door. Even before turning on the lights, I was reminded of it.
Though the house had been locked and unused, the smell of logs having burned to ash in the fireplace filled the downstairs. Upstairs, I caught the scent of the old wool blanket on the chaise; in the basement, the damp feel of the stone walls.
Each sensation stuck in my mind and hurled it back in time, to Independence Days and setting off fireworks in the side yard, to Thanksgiving and trying to keep the family parrot quiet during dinner. And, of course, to Christmas.
My father bought the farm in the 1940s, and for two decades we all gathered there for holidays and vacations. The family is scattered now -- my father died 11 years ago -- but we have hung on to the house.
It is a funny place. Bedrooms too large to be practical, dining room as big as the living room, a long, narrow kitchen with a stainless steel counter running its entire length. High ceilings, and walls finished in plywood paneling. The plumbing is suspect, the wiring so antiquated that every switch thrown is a gamble.
But the time spent there has always been of such a nature that I come away feeling Ohio is some kind of better world. My reaction is admittedly sentimental; returning is so charged with the best memories of being a child that revisiting makes me feel good, regardless of any outside reality.
On my first day back last fall, my discovery of a forgotten treasure -- a small statue of a spotted dog -- sent me on an impromptu visit to Buckeye Lake, the scene of much of my preadolescent adventure.
Unfortunately, I was late. Years late. What had been a somewhat seedy Tivoli a mere childhood before was gone. The lake was still there, but little else.
Once, restaurant after restaurant had lined the lakefront, and little shops sold taffy and souvenirs. There were penny arcades; a kid could play Skee-Ball for hours, collecting tickets all summer long to win a plaster-of-Paris Dalmatian. And rides: dodgem cars and a ferris wheel, and a roller coaster so rickety you paid upon leaving.
Now there was nothing. Foundations in the ground. A set of steps leading nowhere. A fountain with no water, surrounded by weeds. And the lake, always the hub of activity, was dark and quiet.
Seeing the lake like that left me pensive. Suddenly some of the most prized memories of my youth seemed threatened; what else was gone? As I stood there among the ruins, my casual visit home took on an unexpected urgency. I felt a need to capture what I could as quickly as possible.
Ohio, serious farm country, is replete with fairs and festivals; Circleville's Pumpkin Show was a regular family outing. Now it was time for the Reynoldsburg Tomato Festival, just on the outskirts of Columbus. And although the temperature topped 90 degrees that Saturday afternoon, the festival grounds were crowded. There were booths selling tomato fudge and tomato jellies, cakes and pies and breads all made with tomato. (The fudge tasted like chocolate fudge to me.)
It only seems odd that Reynoldsburg should identify itself so intimately with the tomato. The town's most famous native, Alexander Livingston, is credited with developing the commercial tomato midway through the 19th century; today 22 companies have tomato-packing operations in Ohio.
The festival schedule for children was tight: Big Wheel race at 12:30; puppet show at 1:30; magic act at 2:30. Any kids not drawn by these could visit the rides section, or go with their parents through the exhibit tent, where they had a good chance of being ambushed by a giant remote-control, talking ketchup bottle.
Most parents seemed happy enough to saunter through the big tent, to examine Clara Reed's award-winning tomato jelly, John Briski's tomato sauce and Sam Hessler's winning "smallest tomato," about the size of a raisin.
Regrettably, I missed seeing the "largest tomato." That was grown by T.J. York and reportedly weighed 3 pounds, 15 ounces. T.J. picked his prize winner earlier in the season and froze it. He and his parents rushed it to the judging on the festival's first day, and barely had it weighed before it burst in the warm air. A plastic bag with traces of tomato juice were all that remained beside the award.
Alcy Haden, the festival president, says that only fresh-grown tomatoes will be permitted in 1986.
My only other disappointment was that all the best eating tomatoes had been sold from the fresh tomato booth. But on the drive back to Lancaster I stopped at a farm stand for a basket full, some green beans, and corn that ended up being so sweet that I saved the last ear for dessert. Honest.
Much as I like festivals, in truth, I prefer county fairs. Festivals have themes -- like tomatoes or pumpkins or beans -- but county fairs have 4H competitions. I love to walk through the pens of cows and sheep and pigs, to watch young farmers proudly keeping company with their victorious animals, or consoling the losers.
The best county fair in southern Ohio is Fairfield's, in Lancaster. Not because the sheep are prettier or the cotton candy more fluffy -- but because of the fairground.
Lancaster's fairground has an antique harness tack and covered stands so picturesque that for the 1948 movie "The Green Grass of Wyoming" the racing scenes were filmed there. (The town earned a special screening; as part of the celebration that weekend, the main square was painted green.)
These days the fair is a blend of old-time rural America spiced with modern country: trotting races and demolition derbys, baking and canning and knitting, and a full day given over to the high school band competition.
About 20 miles southeast of Lancaster is the town of Logan and Hocking Hills State Park -- 10,000 acres of forest, hills, waterfalls and gorges.
Among the specific features are Ash Cave, an immense sandstone gash in the earth, 90 feet from its rim to the valley floor, and Cedar Falls, a deep gorge shaded by hemlock trees (early visitors mistook them for cedars). Both spots usually come with waterfalls, although the dry summer had reduced those to trickles.
My favorite spot in the park is Old Man's Cave. Like the other caves in that part of the state, it is sandstone and not limestone, more of a huge recess with a rock ceiling above a rock floor than it is a conventional, tunnel-in-a-hillside cave. It was once home to ancient cultures -- pottery fragments date from 1 A.D. -- and later, the Wyandot Indians. The "old man" was a hermit who lived there after the Civil War.
The cave and its attendant rock formations all exist in a giant hole in the ground; I was certain they would still be there. Still, I was relieved to see that they actually were.
There is a point -- about halfway along the rock-and-dirt trail that runs down through the cave and on to the gorge below -- when you feel the distinct presence of a world before time was kept.
It is just before you enter the cave, and from there you can see it all: Far below, on the floor of the gorge, traces of brackish water tell of the dry summer; normally a stream runs through, fed by waterfalls to the north. Just above where the stream would flow is the beginning of the cave, a massive open mouth in the rock, inside of which centuries of people have found safety. Outside that dark space, great trees wrap their roots around the jagged boulders that fill this cavity in the earth and stretch their limbs upward toward the opening of sky. The surface -- where the rest of the world lives -- is high above those treetops.
Though it was a Sunday and all the sites within the park were well attended, there were no sounds of transistor radios, no screaming children -- though plenty of children -- and a marked scarcity of paper cups and film wrappers. Years of city living had led me to fear the worst.
While sandstone is common in the southern part of the state, limestone in the northern soil forms great subterranean cavities. There are several in the northern half of Ohio, but the ones in West Liberty -- about 45 minutes northwest of Columbus -- are among the best.
Called the Ohio Caverns, they were unknown until 1897, when a farm worker got curious about the disappearance of water in a low spot in the field. He dug down a few feet and discovered what has become one of the more successful privately owned attractions in the state.
The caverns consist of a series of caves and rooms that begin 35 feet below the ground and descend to 103 feet. Thousands of years of seeping water have resulted in a spectacular collection of crystalline forms in a wide variety of shapes: great conical stalactites hanging like oversized carrots; long slender formations, thin and hollow like straws, often ending at odd angles; columns that go from ceiling to floor without a break.
The process is ongoing: As surface water seeps through the rock and soil, minute particles of mineral are deposited on the ceiling of the caverns. Over hundreds of years of buildup, stalactites begin to form. Continued dripping creates stalagmites on the floor just below.
Predominately they are milky white, but different minerals create fascinating variations: blue and black tints from manganese dioxide, brown and red from the oxides of iron.
The guided tour lasts 45 minutes through the series of rooms, where the temperature is a steady 54 degrees year-round and no colored lights are used to enhance the crystals. Color film is a must.
Between Lancaster and Cincinnati, where my brother still lives, are at least a half dozen sites where Indians once lived and left remains of their villages and graves in the form of burial mounds.
Most prominent are the Serpent Mound in Locust Grove, a snake-shaped bank nearly a quarter-mile long left by prehistoric Moundbuilders; Fort Ancient in Lebanon, earthworks left by the Hopewell Indians; and the Mound City Group in Chillicothe, also by the Hopewells.
The first, Mound City, is 23 burial mounds within a 13-acre tract inside a low embankment. From the observation deck it resembles a lumpy putting green -- not thrilling to see. But when the recorded lecture begins about those Indians who lived in southern Ohio from 200 B.C. to 500 A.D., and vanished for reasons nobody knows, it gets better.
Down on the ground, in the mound that has been cut open and fitted with a glass wall, you see the remains of four cremated Indians, along with their tools, effigy pipes and a copper headpiece in human shape.
Was it enticing enough to send me in search of other burial sites? Maybe not, but the choice was taken away. The other two sites are state run, and open only on weekends after Labor Day.
I contented myself with going to Cincinnati along Route 22, the old road from Lancaster before I-71 was built. My family spent years driving one dark-green Buick after another through Washington Court House, through Wilmington, Sabina and Sligo. All seem sadder today. Coffee shops are closed; service stations still display Sinclair and Pure signs, but pump no gasoline.
Taking the dipping, twisting two-lane also gave me a a taste of the rolling countryside and, now and then, a glimpse of some majestic farmhouses, set way back from the road and nearly hidden by stands of tall trees.
Driving through Morrow -- a town of 1,200 just outside Cincinnati -- I was startled to see a sign advertising a free winery tour and tasting. I know Ohio has vineyards -- the Lake Erie region has 20 or more. And Meir's Wine Cellar is a Cincinnati standard.
But Morrow? I felt impelled to stop.
The tour sent me walking through a cavernous, dimly lit basement, reading a series of signs beside large vats. But upstairs in the little bar, a sampling of their product revealed one -- their De Chaunac -- to my liking. Not as dry as I normally drink, but perfect to bring to my brother, who never likes my dry red wines.
Driving back to New York that week, I had plenty of time to reflect on my visit. I thought specifically about a conversation I had once overheard at 38,000 feet about how little of value lies between the two coasts of this country. Bad coffee and inedible food, dull conversation and, outside of maybe Yellowstone National Park, nothing worth seeing.
My week as a tourist reminded me that wherever you live, the odds are good that something worthwhile is right around the corner. And it showed me that my sentimental view of Ohio was not so far from reality. But then Dorothy had said it -- there really is no place like home.
About halfway through Pennsylvania, my attention was caught by an old black-and-white bumper sticker: "See Rock City." I laughed out loud. When I was a kid, every other car you would see in Tennessee or Kentucky had one of those stickers.
But we never went. And I bet it's a terrific place!