Those who know me well understand that I am a fanatic proponent of the North Country Trail, the National Scenic Trail that traverses America’s northern tier of states from North Dakota to Vermont. The east coast has its Appalachian Trail, the west coast its Pacific Crest, and the Rockies have the Continental Divide, but as a loyal Michigander who thinks our beautiful Midwest deserves to be showcased just as loudly, I was thrilled when I discovered the NCT.
I’ve always loved the idea of National Scenic Trails. They allow you to participate in something so much larger than your typical walk in the woods. I love knowing that the trail won’t just loop back to the parking lot after a mile or two, that if I simply keep walking, I’ll eventually hit either Lake Champlain or the North Dakota badlands 2,300 miles later. I love the notion that when I’m hiking through Fallasburg Park on a weeknight stroll, I’m on the same trail and engaging the same locomotive procedure as a backpacker in the Adirondacks or a lumberjack in Minnesota. And on the flipside, when I’m vacationing far from home, I find familiar comfort seeing those blue blazes, knowing that if I just walked far enough, eventually I’d run into the same riverbanks and country roads back home in Grand Rapids. I once applied to an internship in North Dakota to study agrochemical levels in the Sheyenne National Grassland. Ignoring peer inquiries on North Dakota’s presumed lack of outdoor stimulation, I decided it’d be fine—because the North Country Trail was twenty minutes from Jamestown. If nothing else, I could backpack the Great Plains on the weekends.
But then there’s Ohio.
I’ll admit my dismay when I first discovered how deeply the NCT’s route plunged into Ohio. Being called the North Country Trail, I figured trail developers would view Ohio as a bland-but-necessary connection between the pristine forests of Michigan and the rock-studded hills of the Alleghenies. Like a skipping stone over the Great Black Swamp, the NCT would hop around Toledo, Sandusky, and Cleveland on its way to Pennsylvania.
But that’s not what the NCT does. It takes a severe downward gouge, nearly down to the Kentucky border in places, before coming up for air again in the prettier northern climes of Pennsylvania. But why? I wondered. Who would want to hike that much of Ohio? That’s so far out of the way! Southern Ohio is not ‘north country,’ not by my definition. There is no reason this should be highlighted in the official showcase of America’s northern beauty!
Naturally, Michiganders hate Ohio. Wolverines and Spartans sure know how to spar, but we set aside our differences when Ohio State visits the Mitt, because any school pretentious enough to include “The” in its name deserves to lose. Ohio is flat. Boring. Smoggy, smelly, and snooty. The cities sprawl into oblivion; legions of rusted warehouses and oily factories transition abruptly into very flat, very linear muck farms. There’s a river in Ohio that caught fire, the pollution was so bad. Do I need to go on?
I do. The highways are busy, congested with traffic, and chock full of tolls. Cut the corner from Toledo to Pittsburgh, and you can easily shell out thirty bucks. Now, it used to be the case that you only had to pay Ohio tolls when entering the highway within the state. One could get away with driving through Ohio and never stepping foot on the soil (or paying tolls) by gassing up outside the border and never leaving the interstate. In the spirit of tradition, my friends and I would stop in Erie, Michigan for gas and food, then drive nonstop through Ohio while staring disgustedly out at the soggy farmland and smoggy industrial corridors. If you had to use the bathroom, you waited ‘til Pennsylvania. Finally, we’d cross over into the Keystone State and breathe sighs of relief, having landed the roadtrip equivalent of a running jumping over shit’s creek.
Oh, how wrong I was. Ohio, I sincerely apologize.
This past spring, I had the opportunity to explore Hocking Hills, a rural slice of southern Ohio tucked away in the vast, interstateless void covering 3/8ths of Ohio’s total landmass. 17,000 square miles of twisting back roads, rolling hills, dense National Forest, and labyrinthine trails through it all. Hocking Hills is one of the more popular gems, with steep sandstone gorges, thunderous waterfalls, wind-carved caves, and towering cliffs.
Even through pouring rain—a lens that mires a good impression like news of a dead relative—Hocking Hills proved to be spectacularly beautiful. Here, the North Country Trail meanders through a narrow slot canyon, clambers over boulders, squeezes through caves, and flirts with death on sandstone ledges hundreds of feet above the churning, turquoise waters of Queer Creek.
That name deserves an explanation. As you’re hiking along the NCT, marveling at all the rugged beauty, seldom do your eyes return to the gurgling creek on your left as you walk downstream. But walk a little farther, and you’ll do a double take. You are now walking upstream, but the creek is still to your left, gurgling along innocently. “Well isn’t that queer,” thought more than a few early settlers. So you backtrack a half mile, keeping your eyes trained on the creek, lest it change its flow the second you turn your back. And sure enough, as inconspicuous as a raven in the night, it turns out you’d actually been following two creeks toward each other, which merge and disappear discreetly through a crack in the sandstone wall.
And the beauty doesn’t end with Hocking Hills. Southern Ohio is brimming with charming Trail Towns and backpacking corridors throughout its Appalachian foothills landscape. You can hike all over the Wayne National Forest, paddle primeval rivers, and explore a burgeoning craft beer scene, all within miles of the NCT.
This trail has taught me numerous times to take part in something bigger. And as 2016 marks the 100th year of the National Park System, I am reminded that the NCT doesn’t care about the trivial Michigan-Ohio rivalry; state lines are meaningless when the greater goal is connecting individuals with spectacular beauty through love of recreation.
Now I know why the North Country Trail divulges so thoroughly through the Buckeye State. Perhaps a better metaphor for its route might be that of an ice cream scooper, making sure to get the most out of a deliciously beautiful state.
Nick Meekhof (’15) graduated with a major in writing and a minor in geography. A farmer for the first twenty-three years of his life, Nick currently works for the Michigan Department of Agriculture. When he’s not traversing the state conducting orchard inspections, he can be found exploring the rivers, forests, and small towns all throughout the Great Lakes State. His current goals include kayaking one hundred Michigan rivers, swimming in Lake Michigan during every month of the year, and visiting as many Michigan breweries as possible.