On Saturday we were up earlier than normal in order to make our 10am flight at LAX. This was our first flight since the start of the pandemic and we were nervous about covid and the experience in general. Other than keeping watch on who was and wasn’t wearing their mask properly not much had changed. Traffic still backed up at the LAX roundabout, security still made us take off our shoes, and our flight was delayed. But only by 7 minutes. Honestly, it felt like Spirit needed to keep up their reputation for delays more than any real reason. I mean, 7 minutes? Really? But we knew what we were in for when we bought tickets with them, so we prayed Lord Vader wouldn’t alter the deal any further. And it worked!
But, unlike Vader, mask-wearing was only loosely followed at LAX. Guess nobody’s heard about midi-chlorians yet. Those who didn’t sip a bottle of water as an excuse to remove their mask just pulled it down below their nose in a bit of magical thinking (the Force!). That said, Los Angeles was a bastion of anxious precaution compared to Ohio. At LAX there are signs on every other seat to not use them in order to distance and, largely, at least that practice is observed. I will describe what we observed at the other end of our flight shortly.
First, I would like to describe our self-policing and, depending on who you voted for in 2020, you can roll your eyes or sympathize with our attention to detail. Before you judge I will remind you we have health issues that are minor but are on the at-risk list and we were on our way to see not one, but five people old enough to get their booster shots before the rest of us. One of them will be ninety next spring.
The thing we were most worried about was not social distancing or which masks to wear (we bought a 20 pack of certified N95s for this trip and paid extra to sit two across in the first row of seats), but what and especially how to eat.
I got up early enough to eat a big bowl of oatmeal before we Ubered to LAX, but by midday my stomach was grumbling. We had spent hours in the past week discussing how we would sate ourselves on an 8-hour journey with no mask removal. Yes, airlines and airports let you remove your masks to eat, but whether you should is another story. The virus doesn’t take a time out just because you’re hungry, so we wanted to shove sustenance through the mask as quickly and efficiently as possible. We decided on slim Jim’s and homemade oatmeal cookies a few days before the trip. Biting off a quick snip of pepperoni was easy enough on the plane, but try chomping on a crumbly cookie with a tight mask on sometime.
The pilot made up for the delay in the air and we touched down in Columbus around 5:30.
My brother, his wife, and his son (almost into the terrible twos so he was busy getting all the cuteness out of the way first) picked us up and took us out to a local taco shop where we ate outdoors. We finished the day with a cup of Coldstone sitting at outdoor tables that were probably about the same temperature as the infamous stone inside the shop. The Ohio fall chill was setting in, but it hadn’t turned into the bite yet that comes from below freezing winds.
At the airport, we were mostly surrounded by the other passengers who had come with us and kept their masks on. When we journeyed out into the real world we found a different approach. Most restaurants in Columbus had a mask rule for the kitchen staff, but not the wait staff. And if you want to eat inside and spray your particles around nobody seems to mind. In October this wasn’t terribly uncomfortable to get around by eating outside, but come January I’m not sure what health-conscious consumers will do.
Yes, I am. They will cook at home exclusively like Sam and I did for over a year until we were fully vaccinated.
We spent the night at a hotel literally next to the runway at John Glenn. It’s a good thing CMH isn’t a huge busy international* airport or the jet engine whine would have woke us up far more often.
*international in Ohio = we fly across Lake Erie to Toronto occasionally.
My brother and his family had kindly offered to entertain us if we happened to get up early on Sunday. However, EST and PST have a three-hour difference and it isn’t in sleep’s favor if you head east. As such we weren’t coffeed and ready until nearly noon when it was time to meet more family for lunch.
We met with my parents and my aunt at a brewery with outdoor seating. Here again, another taste of Ohio covid reality – which to this Californian seems like a complete disregard of it. “It” being the ICUs in small towns (like the one I was born in) being maxed out with intubated magical thinkers. This is not fake news, but local, rural, real news. To put that in lay terms: there were no masks to be found among the staff or patrons of Brew Dog Restaurant and the outdoor seating we realized was not created to ensure a covid safe eating environment for humans, but for dog lovers to not have to spend a brunch apart from their fur babies (I often wonder if vaccine skeptics would think differently if Covid had a high fatality rate for pets instead of people).
Aside from the nonchalance about overall public health, the brewery actually had plenty of flexible options for gluten sensitivity and whatever else you may find yourself afflicted with. Although, being a brewery, I have to assume the majority of gluten-sensitive patrons are faking it for weight loss reasons. I was delighted to have my first hamburger on an actual (gluten-free) bun in almost four years since my EOE diagnosis. I wish I could have had the beer too (perhaps they have some kind of gluten-free beer, I didn’t think to ask).
After we finished our food we drove to a nearby public park to meet with more family. My cousins had picked up their mother and my mom drove back into town to pick up another aunt. That’s three aunts of mine if you’re counting. All of my father’s sisters, most of which I had not seen in 5-15 years. Two were the last family (other than mom and dad) to see me before I moved to California. My two (of a great many!) cousins, I hadn’t seen since 2004.
Despite the best-made plans, a strong wind blew through the covered patio so my industrious cousin (pictured above) created a wall out of upturned benches, bungee cords, and tarps to protect our two more vulnerable aunts. Their older sister, nearly 90, paced behind and chided me for not calling more often on our birthday. No, that’s not some new snowflake pronoun I’m using, we were born on the same day decades apart.
Eventually, the sun started to wane and we gave some and extended-hug goodbyes. The sisters split one more time and my parents took my “birthday buddy” (as my aunt used to call us) home, as she lives nearby.
The four of us (my parents, Sam, and me) stopped at a truck stop on the interstate to eat Popeyes for dinner on a bench outside in the dark. The employees were clearly told masks were the policy, but a policy without policing. The chicken fryer pulled his mask down around his neck and yelled “mild is ready” overtop of the chicken chutes to the cashier who repeated orders with her mask strung tightly around her chin (isn’t that more uncomfortable?). The only person who could have completed surgery without infecting the patient was the employee who finally picked and packed the bag without touching any of the food directly. Not that anyone else in 200 miles noticed, Sam and I were the only mask-wearing snowflakes in the building. In the town? In the county?
Including my parents. It would be wrong to castigate your parents on a blog post, but it was disheartening to see that not even my nurse practitioner mother was wearing her mask outside of the few times (like a Columbus Chipotle) where the establishment absolutely wouldn’t allow entry without it. Disheartening both because I fear for my parent’s health, but for the obvious implications this behavior has for our ability as a nation to ever free ourselves of this virus. An endemic pathogen was never inevitable, at least until November 8th, 2016. Even then a blustering clown could have saught the spotlight as the nation’s savior and listened to the advice of scientists and other professionals who dedicated their lives to public health. Instead, our national clown saught only advice from other clowns on private payrolls, and here we are. A nation divided about basic health and safety protocols as a proxy for partisan politics. After visiting Ohio, I am convinced we are past the tipping point. Now it will be a life of boosters and avoidance strategies with my (and everyone else’s) statistical likelihood of dying from increasingly transmissible (but hopefully not increasingly fatal) rising every year as we edge closer to an age where immunosenescence begins the slow torturous maze of avoiding death.
I am assuming most people have not availed themselves of the truth about this virus. The truth is rather the opposite of what Tucker or Joe Rogan might tell you to make money. The truth seems to be that it attacks your immune system directly. It’s not “just a cold.” We might see more “jabs” (I hate that term) in rural areas if people understood it’s more like “mild HIV” than a “bad cold.” The virus attacks your lymph nodes, your lungs, your heart, and even your brain. Unlike a normal cold or flu, it’s not limited to your respiratory system, and it doesn’t get up and go when you’re done. Oh, and for all those absolute units that idolize a stud like Rogan for taking horse dewormer instead of a vaccine – this thing gets in your vascular system too. I don’t think the Chads everywhere realize what vascular problems entail. Let’s just say viagra is going to be sponsoring a lot more NASCAR drivers in the future. Do your own research some time.
Okay. Putting soapbox away. Thank you for your patience.
After fresh coffee on Monday morning, my mother took Sam and me to a hiking trail behind the Washington County Career Center, a blue-collar training center (think all the stuff Mike Rowe thinks is more important than a liberal arts education-that stuff) about a mile from their house. For me, while I still lived at home, it was just the place that we went to pick up pizza from the delivery drivers because we lived too far out in the country for the town pizza places to deliver all the way to. I had no clue there was a hiking trail back there.
Or did I? My mother was swift to remind me that we took a family hike back there when I was little and we’d had such a great time we vowed to come back and experience it in every season. It’s a shame this did not happen, though it’s hard for me to have regrets about something I have no memory of. And by my teen years, I had graduated from an interest in outdoor activities to a focus on ear-splittingly loud (and parental patience-testing, I’m sure) basement noise making.
But life is cyclical, and, unfortunately, I’ve certainly done more hiking as an adult than basement jamming, so mom chose to bring this hike to our attention at a more opportune time than any of my previous college weekend laundry-doing visits.
The trail starts simply enough, dropping down through a ravine to follow a dribbling stream. It must not be well-traveled lately since we lost the trail several times, using our directional knowledge to eventually carve a path through the occasional bramble to a meadow.
But not after stopping for a few minutes at a miniature version of what Hocking Hills advertises as Ash Cave.
Tucked away in the hills outside a tiny town at the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio is another dribbling water feature misting the visitors of a soaring cliff etched into a cave over the eons by that slow trickle that can’t help backwards erosion under the pull of surface tension on its singular drops.
My brother would later inform me that it can be quite a sight after heavy rain. I had no idea a waterfall (even if the spray is normally less than that if a garden hose) existed a long walks distance from the house I lived in for 18 years.
Back at that house, we had a lunch of bacon and eggs, which would become a staple of the trip. Lately, the Venn diagrams of my parents and my food preferences have moved closer together. I can assure you I wouldn’t have wanted hummus and spinach on my eggs before playing embarrassing “music” with my friends in the basement half my life ago. Lunch in the 90s might have been hot dogs, box mac & cheese, or steak-umms. I don’t remember even hearing the word hummus, much less tasting it, until some time in my twenties and perhaps thousands of miles from Marietta, Ohio.
After lunch mom took us to a trail near Parkersburg, West Virginia. This one wasn’t as impressive and I can understand why nobody told me about it before, but a walk through the woods is better than a walk through the mall. Especially during a pandemic in a town still sporting “Hillary for Prison” homemade roadsigns.
After the hike, we went to the Krogers to stock up on essentials for the Hocking Hills excursions in days to come, but also to get another staple food of our trip: ice cream. It sounds silly to even note it, but a strange highlight of our trip was a daily bowl of ice cream (and fruit). Oh, and liquor. About twenty different kinds. Everything from Chartreuse to Ouzo was out for display in mom’s “mulberry room” and ready to be served cold over french vanilla (or magnum chocolate, as Sam prefers). We definitely were not sharing meals like this when I lived in the same house!
We slept off our hangovers and set out for Hocking Hills late Tuesday morning. At a gas station outside of Athens, a neckbeard local with wrap-arounds (fresh off another driver’s seat “Let’s Go Brandon” TikTok performance perhaps?) hollered at me.
“Yeah. That your girl?” (Sam walked past his car into the shop for a bathroom break a few seconds back while I pumped the crude)
(Not sure where this was going since “my girl” is often mistaken for Chinese in places where any and every Asian must be from there and we know how the wrap-around sunglasses fellows feel about Gigh-na these days)
Surprised (relieved) I laughed out loud. “Yeah”
This was not the reaction he expected. A look (hard to judge behind glasses, scruff, and an old cap, so I guess I am basing this on a nose wrinkle?) of half embarrassment and half disrespect crossed his face.
“Jus sayin’ that’s all”
I didn’t share the interaction with my travel companions until we were safely back on the road and well out of earshot.
Ash cave’s waterfall was little more than a sporadic trickle by the time we arrived, but the majesty of the soaring natural amphitheater couldn’t help but impress.
Yosemite it ain’t, but it’s far more interesting than folks outside the state would ever be comfortable giving it credit for. Back in Los Angeles we call every little baby dribble over the side of a boulder a “waterfall” and name the whole damn trail after it. This thing was 90 feet high and they named it after the cave. To put that in perspective, the Staples Center, where perhaps Ohio’s favorite (living) son plays, is 500 something feet in diameter and 150 feet high from center court to the roof, holding 20,000 people. Imagine that, but made out of rock, cut in half, and with a leaky roof – and you’ve just about got the experience of Ash Cave. For those closer to home and wanting a better analog: Ohio stadium, before the end zone renovations, was the same length as the cave (700 feet), and the height of the scoreboard about halfway up the waterfall at Ash Cave.
But we had more waterfalls in store.
A short drive away was cedar falls, and then the most famous attraction: Old Man’s Cave. Again, named for the cave even though there are two waterfalls that would make places like Eaton Canyon Falls in LA blush and turn their “waterfall” certificate in for fraud.
Sadly, because we slept in so late that morning, we didn’t have time to hoof it down to lower falls before dark, but we had fun taking our album release PR photos on the way out.
After another big eggs and bacon brunch, mom took us to a mussel conservatory across the river in West Virginia Wednesday morning. The conservatory didn’t pull any punches about the effects of local industrial pollution on the indigenous fauna. I wondered how the locals would ever allow such an anti-American establishment to be built (companies are people too, my friend!), but I have a feeling the kind of people that would visit a museum about river clams aren’t the same people that wear “fuck your feelings” shirts to work.
The trail at the mussel museum was little more than a walking path among dying weeds in October (I have heard there are superfluous wildlife photography opportunities at other times of the year) so we went to the trail near Willow Island instead.
Unfortunately, half the island is closed for hunting this time of year (I guess that makes sense, harder to accidentally hit a pedestrian on an isolated island with your arrows).
Fortunately, since we spent a modicum of time at the first two spots we had more at the last stop in Wayne National Forest. The scenic view trail took us up the side of a well-forested hill with increasingly panoramic views of the river.
That said, it was a bit strange that we hiked all the way to the top after following the “scenic view” direction sign and there wasn’t a clearing for an actual scenic view. At the top, the trail heads back just below the ridge away from the river and away from the view. Mom and dad didn’t make it that far up and we were all getting hungry again so we took some pictures and turned tail. On the way down Sam discovered the leavings of a buckeye tree and collected her souvenirs for this trip. We also happened upon a small patch of honeysuckle and I got the chance to share the fun of pulling the little drop of sugar out of the flower that I had spent summers doing at a similar patch in our backyard as a child. Sam said there was a similar red flower that produces sugar in Thailand so she wasn’t wholly unfamiliar with the experience.
On the way home, we phoned in an order of pork ribs to the boathouse on the river. I went in to pick up the ribs wearing a mask, ray bans, and a shirt with Thai characters on it. The mask alone would have brought enough attention (“what pandemic?!?”).
After dark mom and I went to Churchtown to try and take some night shots, but nothing that wasn’t private land or a dangerous road seemed suitable.
Apparently, when my father was younger he became very particular about setting up shots as well, so now my poor mother has spent time waiting for two generations of Long men to fiddle around with the switches and wheels on their cameras in the dark.
On Thursday we took a “day off” from hiking and did things around the house like sort through old drawings and take pictures of spiders in the garden until my brother showed up with my nephew.
Once a two-year-old shows up it’s the only show in town. After dinner, we watched my nephew try and make sense of many of the same toys we enjoyed 3+ decades earlier. Outside, a storm was moving in, the kind where lightning only goes halfway, splashing the clouds with purple and pink but not making a sound or splitting any trees. After my brother left my mom and I went to a lookout point to try and catch a few of those pink splashes over my hometown. Unfortunately, the lightning had moved too far over the horizon, moving southeast into the West Virginia mountains, by the time we arrived. In twenty minutes of constant shooting, I only captured three bolts, both muted and indistinct against the lights of the town. But one can work wonders with RAW files later…
On Friday, we stayed in as it was raining all day and we hadn’t slept well. We made up for it with day drinking and ice cream slurping.
After sleeping in again on Saturday, we ate another big eggs and bacon brunch and drove up the 33 towards Hocking hills.
We started hiking at the top of 374 with Cantwell cliffs.
The trail meanders down through high moss-covered cliffs to the valley floor before coming back up to another natural amphitheater, this time with a drip that couldn’t even qualify as post nasal.
I got caught with a splash on my camera during an upward-facing shot having forgotten there was a waterfall there at all.
At the top of the hike, we walked by a wooded area hosting a very vocal murder of crows. Or some other black loud bird. Despite numerous attempts to catch the murder as it moved through the trees, this is the barely discernable lone result:
We knew we only had time for one more stop before heading to Columbus to fly back to LAX, so we mall walked down to Rock House only to find it more like a fossilized bounce house, overrun with children. In the dark. On slippery rocks.
I guess the nanny state hasn’t reached Ohio parents just yet. Did I do things as technically dangerous at that age back in the woods? Yes. Do I worry about strangers’ kids cracking their heads open against a cave protrusion or falling fifty feet onto the sandstone boulders? Yes. I don’t know how to reconcile those two things democratically, but without children of my own, I suppose I don’t have to.
We couldn’t hang around and wait for the crowd to thin out, we had a plane to catch in Columbus.