Recently, I was in that inspirational and exhilarating space of planning for a week away from the responsibilities and tedium of daily life. Some may call this a vacation, but for me, these times of freedom and creativity are more akin to a pilgrimage into an unfamiliar space, over-flowing with magic and self-discovery. In the “before times,” I used these respites to explore the archaeology of an ancient civilization in the desert beyond Guadalajara; to wander the Jewish quarters of Prague and Rynek Glowny in Krakow; or maybe to explore the freeways of America from the backbreaking seat of a Greyhound bus. Whatever it was I had planned, it was created in an elemental alignment with my INFP personality.
However, this year, and perhaps for every year moving forward through whatever timeline is unfolding from the current space of chaos, I am grounded. My American passport may never fold into another border agent’s palm, and bus stations are questionable, even in the most sanitary of times. Additionally, the speed of uncertainty and the weight of instability felt like inertia on my tired shoulders. To travel far and fast would be as restful as wading through two miles of thigh-high mud. I needed something simpler.
When I first arrived in Cincinnati, I was surprised at the diversity of Ohio’s landscape. The Appalachian mountains extend from the southeast into the southwest; gorges and waterfalls dance alongside mountain roads, carved like caverns into the landscape; and thick forests of evergreen and deciduous trees offer access to miles of both easy and strenuous hiking trails. I packed my car for a week of camping, and ventured eastward toward Hocking Hills State Forest.
After five days of traversing over rocks and into gorges, of baked goods in Amish country, and reflection at sacred burial sites of the Indigenous people who used to inhabit the land, I arrived for one final night at a state park about 100 miles outside of Cincinnati. It was called Pike Lake State Park, and was a laid back place with children playing innocently on bikes while their adults kicked back over fire pits and Tom Petty music. Most guests were in large campers, and from all appearances, they had moved in to settle for the fall. Twinkle lights hung from tree limbs, and dinner was prepared outside over full cooking range. That evening, I set up my modest tent, and sauteed green beans in canola oil over my single burner propane stove designed for the back country.
The next morning as I prepared my coffee over the same propane stove, my neighbors, who were three women that I assumed were mother and daughters, invited me to join them with their fire. They told me how they had trouble getting it to light the night before, and one of the men from the next camp came and rescued them from the chill. They said they considered the fire a group effort, and they wanted to share it with me. I happily accepted. I had assumed that I would journey through the entire week without any new connections. It is easy to meet people at an international travelers’ hostel; but far more difficult at a quiet American campground.
Like all travelers gathered at a fire, we exchanged stories of inspiration and experience. The older woman is a photographer in Dayton, and the younger women are her friend’s daughters. I shared a bit about myself, and we all talked about religion, faith, service, purpose, and dreams. After I disclosed that I was engaging in personal growth and seeking answers to existential questions in my life, the older of the three women asked me the sacred question. “What did you learn?”
I shared my insights into travel, and of the depth and richness of beauty I had witnessed here in my current backyard. While camping among pine trees reminiscent of the undergrowth in the Humboldt Redwood forest, I had initiated a bit of a love affair with the Great Lakes region. It’s abundant water, it’s lush and fragrant landscape, and it’s biodiversity– even the insects and spider webs– are perhaps under appreciated in the traveler’s imagination. Maybe it is an undiscovered traveler’s market, with plentiful ecotourism and adventure opportunities. Caving, climbing, canopy walks, kayaking, and hiking was everywhere; the colder season will bring snowshoeing, cross country skiing, snowmobiling, and hiking beneath a sparkling clear sky in a night silent beyond the sound of my boots crunching over fresh snow. With so many farming paths and winding country roads to explore around me, it might be many years before I board an airplane again.