Back To Ohio
Travel For The Grandkids, From Mansfield To Hocking Hills
By MARY O’BRIEN
Special to the Journal & Topics Newspapers
It’s good to be remembered for comfort, bedtime stories and freshly baked cookies, but travels with a grandchild fall into the unforgettable category. I found this out last summer as my grandson and I pursued adventure and enlightenment in the nearby State of Ohio. The trip is a day’s drive from Chicago to Ohio’s capitol, Columbus, conveniently located in the center of the state. It’s an hour by plane and since our time was limited, we flew and rented a car.
At first, I was a little worried that Dennis might feel homesick; that he might be too young for the kind of itinerary I had in mind. But a seven-year-old boy is active, full of curiosity and enthusiasm, and he was up for all of it.
He looked awfully small, sitting up there on the mule, a timid smile on his face. But I had a problem of my own having discovered that a mule ‹ a cross between a horse and a donkey ‹ is more the size of a horse. It was a far from graceful vault into the saddle, but eventually I got up and we followed Mountain Man Ken Wells, the keeper of these mules, into Ohio’s Hocking Hills. This wide swath of geography southeast of Columbus is the result of millions of years of rocky uplift and water erosion. It contains rocky gorges, caves and streams that rush over precipices and swirl around fallen boulders. Over 10,000 awesome acres of state park are set here in a deep forest.
Ken led us across a meadow and into the trees. On his instructions, we leaned forward when our mules were climbing and backward on the downward slopes, but for an hour or so we were mostly climbing. We startled a white-tailed deer that bounded off as soon as it saw us. A bald eagle presided from the top branch of a towering hemlock tree, but it chose to ignore us. Finally, we reached Ken’s destination, Airplane Rock. We tied the mules to trees and moved cautiously toward the edge of the triangular promontory. Far below, the forest stretched away for miles in every direction. We could hear wind in the trees and water rushing through the gorge beneath. We sat on the rock while Ken told stories about the Wyandotte and Shawnee Indians who inhabited these woods 300 years ago.
That afternoon, we hiked to Cedar Falls. At the top of the trail we met a guide, Leland Connor, who seemed to know everything about the Hocking Hills. He talked as we went down into a deep ravine, around fallen rocks, across two footbridges and some steppingstones. I wanted to hear more about the shallow sea that covered Ohio 350 million years ago and formed the bedrock of this incredible geography, but my grandson has a habit of running ahead and having to be called back, so the story was often interrupted.
At one point, Dennis stopped of his own accord near the edge of a stream, calling, “Granmary, come look at this very big turtle!” It really was a big turtle, easily 15-inches long. Leland pronounced it the largest snapping turtle he’d ever seen and, with great pride, Dennis showed it to some hikers coming down the trail.
Cedar Falls was more a trickle than its usual torrent when we saw it in mid-August, but it was fun to walk across the nearly dry riverbed to where the water came streaming down the rocks.
On a candlelit patio at the Inn at Cedar Falls, Dennis and I had a delicious and remarkably sophisticated dinner. (Actually, I had seared Mahi Mahi with an herbal champagne sauce, while Dennis had grilled cheese.) Then three minutes down the road, we fell into large, comfortable beds in our large, comfortable log cabin at Cedar Grove. In the morning there was dew on the grass and five deer, including two sweetly spotted fawns. I resolved to give my grandson a copy of Felix Salten’s Bambi as soon as he’s old enough to read it.
Returning to Columbus, we went straight downtown, to COSI, the city’s impressive, kid-friendly science center that features interactive exhibits that show how things work. Along with scores of other children, Dennis experienced the mechanics of pulleys, gears and levers, and experimented with the magic of electricity, magnets and lasers. The museum’s most wonderful attraction was an outdoor exhibit demonstrating the power of a giant lever where my grandson pulled mightily on a rope and was able to lift the front end of a ’68 Mercury Comet one foot off the ground!
We left our car at the COSI parking lot and walked back across the Broad St. Bridge to visit Columbus’s Santa Maria replica, the world’s most authentic, museum-quality representation of Christopher Columbus’s flagship. This is no Disney-esque production. Realistic to the last detail, it presents life aboard the 98-foot-long wooden vessel that carried captain and crew on a 70-day voyage to parts unknown. We both came away with great respect for those courageous adventurers and for their daring, determined leader.
All these discoveries and the scrambling from forecastle to steerage to quarter deck ‹ not to mention the lifting of the full-sized Mercury ‹ made a boy and his grandmother much in need of refreshment (and sitting down). I did have a bag of apples in the car ‹ a good idea when you’re traveling with children. But we needed a respite and found a deli called Max and Erma’s where kids who clean their plates are invited to make their own sundaes. Dennis had no problem with the plate cleaning and he soon ladled peanut butter sauce over caramel sauce, covered it with sprinkles and promptly demolished it.
The Columbus Zoo is one of the best in the country and we covered as much of it as we could. The 10-foot long manatees that lumbered around a large aquarium tank fascinated Dennis. These endangered mammals, once common in Florida waters, are almost never seen in the wild any more. We saw black rhinos, leaping monkeys and tropical birds in gorgeous, gaudy plumage. Finally, we took a restful little boat ride through the Southeast Asia exhibit where we observed cool Komodo dragons and orangutans at play.
We followed road signs to the nearby Olentangy Indian Caverns, a maze of winding passages and underground rooms formed by the force of an ancient river cutting through solid limestone. The hundreds of artifacts found there indicate that the Wyandotte Indians used these caves as a haven from the weather and from their enemies, the Delaware Indians.
As we trudged through rooms that were home and hideout to people who lived here two centuries ago, I hated to disturb their ghosts. We were careful to avoid touching the cave’s pillars, which are formed by mineral-rich water that slowly drips from the ceiling and builds up from the floor. They’re called stalagmites and stalactites, but I’m still unclear as to which is which. Dennis’s young brain easily mastered the difference and he loves to show me up.
When we came back up to daylight, my grandson made an announcement. “I finally decided what I’m going to be when I grow up.” “What?” I asked.
“A spelunker!” That is, a person who explores caves, but I think Dennis had just learned a new word and he liked the sound of it.
By happy coincidence, I have two friends with sons about Dennis’s age who live in Ohio, and we agreed to meet in Mansfield, a historic, stopped-in-time prototype of small town America, just an hour north of Columbus. We met on a Saturday morning at Brunches Cafe on Main Street for a breakfast that was so good we asked them to pack us lunch for a picnic later.
Stowing the picnic in the car, we wandered down the street past Victorian buildings with iron fences outside and tin ceilings inside, intriguing shops and an old-fashioned diner. We were bound for Carrousel Magic, a workshop where antique carrousel horses are meticulously restored and new ones are chiseled from blocks of kiln-dried basswood. The hand carved, hand-painted horses produced here by painstaking craftsmen are shipped to merry-go-rounds all over the U.S.
Just down the street, the first new hand-carved wooden carrousel built since the early ’30s is Mansfield’s pride and joy. At 75 cents a round, we all went for rides on a variety of bright, painted steeds ‹ grown-ups included.
We took the picnic to Kingwood Center, the 47-acre former estate of Ohio industrialist Charles K. King. The boys behaved as we toured the house, through stunning rooms containing King’s original furnishings. Then, released for good behavior, our rambunctious three chased each other through the shrubbery and fed black swans on the lake, and we had our picnic surrounded by prize-winning roses and daylilies.
An unstoppable hilarity reigned among the children and we decided to go back to the Holiday Inn for a little quiet time before we met for dinner ‹ dinner and the theater, in fact.
We had tickets for Johnny Appleseed, an outdoor historical drama performed in the middle of a forest not far from Mansfield. This musical production, the story of a true American hero, was so successful in its first year that it will be a summertime production indefinitely. Born in Massachusetts, Johnny Appleseed lived most of his life in north central Ohio. He was a pacifist and early environmentalist, giving away seeds and planting orchards in Ohio and beyond. Always on the move and usually barefoot, he encouraged good will between the homesteaders and Native Americans, but when the Indians sided with the British in the War of 1812, the situation became perilous. Johnny warned the settlers when Indian raids were imminent. It’s an exciting, dramatic story, well sung and well acted. But the setting steals the show.
In a lush, old-growth forest, the amphitheater is built into a natural hillside that slopes down to the forest floor. The ground is the stage; tall trees the backdrop. Dappled moonlight is part of the lighting. And these are the very woods where Johnny Appleseed lived his legend! Powerful stuff for a seven-year-old and his grandmother.
We stayed up late, got up early (usually) and ate when we felt like it (often) in Ohio. And at the end of the day, in our beds and our pajamas, there were conversations with my sleepy little boy about our shared adventures. When the trip was over, Dennis remarked, “I wasn’t homesick, Granmary. But I think I’m going to miss Ohio.”