Midway through the workload on Monday morning, as I was navigating the pile of ex parte orders and doctors’ dictations on my desk, I had an epiphany about walking. I knew the time for long walks (indoors at least) is drawing short, since fall officially began at 4:22 a.m. on Wednesday, and cold weather loom ahead of us.
More specifically, this epiphany involved a specific place and time for said walk. That very moment, I decided that on Saturday, I would walk the distance from Nelsonville, Ohio to Athens–about 12½ miles altogether–and go along the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway. The specific plans were easy: On Saturday morning, take the GoBus from downtown Columbus to the Hocking College campus, and then step onto the Bikeway and begin walking. Once in Athens, stay in town for a few hours, and then catch the 5:30 p.m. bus back to Columbus.
So, I was planning a trip to Athens, as I have countless times before since high school. This time, though, I would have the above Cervantes quote (from Don Quixote, of course) in mind. There would be more road than Athens on this trip.
The only thing that would prevent the trip from happening was the weather, so I logged onto The Weather Channel’s site innumerable times between Monday afternoon and Friday, checking the Nelsonville forecast. I finally bought my Columbus-to-Nelsonville and my Athens-to-Columbus tickets early Friday evening.
For those of you who are surprised by my use of the word epiphany, it has nothing to do with the Christian holiday. This is purely a lower-case E meaning, “an experience of sudden and striking realization.” I guess aha moment would be another word. Even atheist Christopher Hitchens used the word, describing why he quit years of heavy smoking in 2008. (It would have been much more worthwhile if he had experienced an epiphany about the sin of supporting the Iraq war. There is more documentation for the Virgin Birth than there is of Saddam Hussein’s possessing weapons of mass destruction.)
The forecast said there was only a 20% chance of rain on Saturday, so, before the sun rose, I was downtown at the Greyhound station with my ticket in hand. I had stripped the backpack to the bare necessities (a shirt, some fruit bars, my diary and pens, and aspirin) to lighten the weight, and realized, as the bus went down U.S. 33 and the usual stops in Lancaster and Logan, that the ride was the easy part of the trip. I was heading on to Athens, but with nothing but my feet to convey me.
Part of the reason, on an unconscious level, for my wanting to take this walk came from church the previous Sunday. Eric Meter, our associate minister, spoke at some length about Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I had only recently learned about the existence of the Pacific Crest Trail, and decided that, if I ever had the leisure time or money for such a project, I would walk it rather than the Appalachian Trail, which has been trod and retrod ad nauseam. I may have been making a mental note to go to the library’s Website to reserve Wild, and my mind, as it so often does, ran off into the ditch and I began to think of trails closer to home.
The walk did not involve any extraneous or unnecessary steps. The trail itself begins in downtown Nelsonville itself, but the GoBus stop is in a parking lot on the small campus of Hocking College. (It was Hocking Technical College until 1991, and those of us at Ohio University less than kindly referred to it as Tinker Tech.) I walked about a hundred feet, and came to Robbins Crossing, which was an entry onto the bikeway. I did not want to waste time backtracking to the start of the trail at the Rocky Boots Outdoor Gear Store in downtown Nelsonville, only to have to turn around and go to Robbins Crossing again.
I confess that I have a horrible sense of direction. I didn’t want to waste time walking in the wrong direction, so when a camouflage-clad guy driving an O.U. ROTC truck stopped at an intersection, I felt foolish as hell but I asked him, “Which way to Athens?”
I’m sure his military training never prepared him for a middle-aged guy with a backpack and gray beard appearing out of nowhere and asking where Athens was. But, he very smoothly pointed eastward down the trail. “Athens is that way,” he said. I thanked him, but he still seemed a little perplexed as he drove away.
So, around 8:45, I made the first step onto the bikeway. I had packed no water, and was not wearing boots, just tennis shoes that have definitely accompanied me on one too many walks. (I made sure that I had my diary with me, but did not pack any water. It speaks volumes about my priorities, n’est-ce pas?)
The time was early enough that I encountered very few runners or cyclists along the way. All the ones I did see were kind and friendly, and we all exchanged greetings. Totally exhilarating was seeing a family on the path which included a son in his early 20s who was riding a blue Schwinn Meridian, just like mine. He was developmentally disabled, and I don’t think he could speak, but I told his mother that I had a Meridian and loved it, especially when grocery shopping.
I liked to think that my knowledge of Athens County is somewhat vast. Besides the many years I spent in Athens, either as a student or visiting it, I made several trips to the Feed My Sheep food pantry in Mineral, in the western part of the county. However, taking the bikeway was an experience that awakened me to a part of the county I did not know existed. Dead leaves were under the soles of my feet at almost every step, but there was still enough foliage that there was some darkness along the way. Although it never rained, there were gray clouds in the sky throughout the walk, and the sun’s light was barely visible behind them.
I saw several large rocks in the side of the hill, much like the ones I had seen on trips to Old Man’s Cave and Ash Cave when I was younger. It was quite moving when, at Mile 12, I saw the remains of a railroad bridge, marking the former presence of the Baltimore and Ohio rail line which had gone through Athens County well into the 1980s.
This is not to say that I could feel cut off from civilization during this trip. Several bicyclists and runners came behind me or facing me, and their numbers increased as I neared Athens. Except in a very few places, I could hear the sound of traffic, including sirens and truck brakes. At one point, I could hear the sound of a man’s voice on a loudspeaker or public address system, probably announcing a Saturday morning sporting event.
The only landmarks of Nelsonville I saw were the buildings of Hocking College. They were deserted, since it was Saturday morning. I didn’t go into town itself, so I did not see the Stuart Opera House or Doctors Hospital Nelsonville. (I am old enough that I still think of it as Mount St. Mary’s Hospital!) As I first began walking, I tried to orient myself by looking for the Nelsonville Cross on the top of Kontner’s Hill, but could not find it above the treeline. (The cross–“a tribute to God, a memorial to Betty”–has been there since 1973, when a widower named Walter Schwartz built it in honor of his wife.)
And there were people who lived out this way. That would not be feasible for me, as a non-driver, even if the idea attracted me. I saw a log cabin with all the comforts of home, including a satellite dish, out front, so I guessed the owner did not try for an aesthetic existence like Thoreau at Walden Pond. All Thoreau deemed essential were his tools, the Bible, a copy of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and his journal–who could ask for more? It’s doubtful the cabin-dweller I saw would strip his life to the bare bones like that.
I did not see any large animals on the walk. There were birds, but no deer, and not even any raccoons or squirrels. I did not go during hunting season, so I did not hear any gunfire, nor did I make a special effort to dress in clothes that would have made me stand out against the background.
The only time there was anything remotely dangerous was when the bikeway crossed State Route 682. It does not see nearly as much traffic as U.S. 33, and nowhere near as much as an interstate, but there is a steady flow of traffic in both directions. As I came to the intersection, I looked across 682 and saw three or four senior citizens (I know–I will be one in less than 15 years!) on bikes on one side, and I, the lone pedestrian, on the other. We were at an impasse for several minutes, waiting for a driver on either side to be nice enough to let us cross. Yes, pedestrians and bicyclists have the right of way on that road, but, as a famous driver’s ed cliché loves to point out, “The cemetery is full of people who were dead right.” When traffic stopped in both directions and we all could cross, I felt like I was re-enacting the pivotal scene in Make Way for Ducklings.
I did not follow the bikeway to the end, since it would have meant almost totally going around the city of Athens and ending up east of the campus. One of Susie’s friends raises goats on a farm, so I got a kick out of walking past the Armitage Farm and seeing two goats staring through the wire fence at me. A handwritten wooden sign, possibly in a child’s hand, told me that I was meeting Ava, Lily, and Bailey (I’m not sure which two I saw), and that I was welcome to hang out with them–just that feeding them was a no-no. (I wonder if you should always say their names in that order, just like Daniel 3 always mentions Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in that order and no other.)
According to Google Maps, the Armitage Farm was over three miles by car from the west side of Athens, but almost exactly a mile by following the bikeway. I turned from Armitage Rd. back to the bikeway, and then I was on Currier St., which at first seemed like totally foreign terrain for me. I had been in this neighborhood many times before, but I had always come to it via the city, and never from the west.
The bikeway did not exist when I was a student at Ohio University. Two friends and I kept making vague plans to do a walk from Athens to Nelsonville, and then have a friend meet us at Yankee Burger in Nelsonville (this restaurant is long gone). This was in 1986 and 1987, and the only way to make the trip was to walk up U.S. 33 in the days before it bypassed downtown Nelsonville altogether. The walk never materialized, because Saturday morning was the only convenient time to do it, and two of us were usually too hungover to contemplate walking anywhere beyond a source of caffeine. I realize now, from the many bus and car trips I have taken on 33, that walking alongside it–even facing traffic–was a foolhardy experience.
I had walked 4¼ hours before I found myself standing at the corner of Currier St. and W. Central Ave. in Athens. (The time stamp on my camera phone shows 12:52:14 p.m. as when I snapped the picture of the west side.)
I spoke some thoughts and impressions on the trip, using my digital Olympus VN-7100 recorder (also called Diane, like my earlier microcassette recorders, named after Dale Cooper’s unseen aide in Twin Peaks). It’ll be awhile before I play the recordings back. I’m afraid they’ll sound like the rantings of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979).
Even with that, they probably sound better than the “Travelling Tapes” I used to make when I was nine or 10. I would describe things like “We’re going past an old Mail Pouch barn that’s falling apart. And here’s another Mail Pouch barn, and this one has to be propped up by a stick.” Instead of describing scenery, I usually included, “The dumb lady in the car in front of us wasn’t paying attention to the road, but was just fixing her hair.” In one such travelogue, one that we mailed to my grandfather, I was all of eight years old, and somewhere on 33 (we were going to see my mother’s relatives in Logan), talking about being “way out in the open, far from Marietta!”
My exhilaration about having made this trip without any accident, tragedy, or disappointments far exceeds the pain that I’ve been experiencing in my foot ever since. I walked around Athens for much of the day, but didn’t see anyone I knew. I even went to Little Professor, the bookstore I loved to visit when I was a student there, and bought a copy (for $.99!), of Go Ask Alice, the “real diary” of a 15-year-old drug user.
Susie noticed I was limping when I met her in the McDonald’s near campus which has become our nocturnal base of operations. Just for the record, I had invited her to come on this safari with me. She replied by playing this for me:
Although the weekend has involved very little sleep, and more physical activity than normal, this was definitely time well spent. I had thought about even going the extra distance and leaving my cell phone behind, but I realized that I would need it in case I had an emergency on the trail, or encountered someone else who needed help. On my dictation, I made a snide comment about “Just watch. This’ll be when the aneurysm decides it’s had enough.”
And, according to My Fitness Pal.com, I’ll drop over 25 pounds if I do this every day for the next five weeks.
I kept thinking about this audio clip, Jack Kerouac reading parts of On the Road and Visions of Cody.