Lehman Unplugged

So, this summer, as promised, the blog is going to focus more on my travel journies than on the grief journey, though I’m sure grief will work its way into many of my thoughts.

My first adventure of the summer originally was planned to be a trip west to the Mark Twain National Forest where I was going to spend 10 days camping and hiking, then travel to Tulsa to view the new Outsiders Museum. However, Mother Nature intervened. On Memorial Day, I got an email that all my reservations in the Twain were cancelled due to the flooding and/or storm and tornado damage. Moreover, the Outsiders Museum had to delay their opening because a large tree fell on the house and repairs had to be made. So, I had to drop back and punt; I still wanted/needed to hike and camp, but it wasn’t going to be the trip I had planned. I got out the maps and hit the internet to find a new place, and with a day of searching and considerable time looking at long range weather forecasts, I decided to travel East to Upstate New York and the Alleganies.

The first stop of this trip was in New York’s Allegany State Park, and the first word that comes to mind is “wow.” Most “wild” places within 400 miles of home aren’t really that “wild,” you have to suspend disbelief and ignore the power lines, cell towers and the notifications you get on your phone while you are hiking. This is not the case in Allegany State Park. It is truly remote.

ASP is located on the northern edge of the Allegany National Forest, which strides the border of Pennsylvania and Southwest New York, in the western reaches of the Appalachian Mountains. It is also the home of the Seneca Nation, and the small town, Salamanca, his the capital, for wont of a better word, of the Seneca Tribe.

My camp site was located on the side of a mountain, up a winding single lane road and next to a beautiful creek which was the ideal of a mountain stream with the water flowing clear and cold over granite rocks, around felled trees and making that wonderful falling water sound. Although I had electricity, there was not a cell signal to be found for miles. You don’t really realize how addicted we all are to our devices until you are forced into sudden withdraw, quitting cold turkey. The most disconcerting part of the remote site was the large metal box which instructed campers to put all food items in it to protect them bears. Now, I’m pretty used to camping by now, but the idea of a thousand pound black bear coming to eat my Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is a little worrisome. I’ve fought the battle against raccoons (trash pandas) and skunks, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to fight the battle against a true apex predator; especially when calling 911 wasn’t an option and the nearest other people to hear you scream are a good 300 feet away. Spoiler alert: I was not eaten by a bear.

In my five days at ASP, I hiked four of them, covering about 27 miles according to my watch. If you are a day hiker (a hiker who hikes during the day and comes back to a campsite vs hiking and setting camp along the trail,) you would be hard pressed to find the challenge and variety of trails that the ASP has anywhere this close to home. I took it fairly easy the first hike, choosing a moderate 5 mile hike in the valley with little change in elevation. It felt so very good to out in nature. I hiked through broad flat meadows of wild grasses and flowers, through spongy glades of cattails and through brushy new growth forest. It was easy to get lost in the moment, especially without the phone pinging every 10 seconds with a new Instagram post or Facebook share.

I stayed in the “moderate” category for the first two days, knowing that my legs, hips and back were not up to the challenge of the harder trails, but I definitely was not going to let myself go unchallenged. Finally, with a couple days and about 15 miles under my belt, I decided to go for it, and set out on the 9 mile advanced trail with 1500 feet in elevation change. It started out easy enough as the first two miles are also part of a cross country skiing course, and was a wide, groomed trail. Then the blaze sign pointed right onto a narrow winding steep down hill and it was on. When a trail is labelled “advanced,” it means there will be trees to climb over, streams to ford, and a little bit of rock climbing. I got to do all of those.

The first major obstacle I found came at the bottom of the first downhill section. It was a stream, about 10 feet wide and maybe a foot deep. This wasn’t one of the slow flowing, muddy creeks we have in Mercer County; this was clear water rushing wildly down hill. One thing all hikers hate is having wet boots, and I really didn’t want to do the next 7 miles in wet boots, so I assessed the situation and found a place up stream where I could cross stepping on rocks with only a moderate risk of getting wet. Stepping carefully from rock to rock, I was nearly across when my footing shifted and I ended up stepping in freezing cold water up to my ankles. However, much praise to my friends from Cabela’s, my boots stayed dry. It was long switchback climb to what proved to be the most difficult obstacle of the day. Near the summit of the trail, after a mile or so of uphill hiking, a ring of granite boulders served as a wall to the next part of the trail. Now, I’m not, nor will I ever be a rock climber, but I was faced with one of those “continue or face defeat and turn back moments.” I weighed my options. Try to find a path up through the boulders risking breaking an ankle with no one around and end up a delicious snack for Yogi and Booboo, or turn and go back the other way. I surprised myself, really and chose to push on.

It was fairly technical, but I was able to find a path through and up the wall, several times using my hiking poles to steady my ascent, coming out of it with a few scratches and scrapes, but coming out of it, nonetheless. The reward, as I reached the top of the trail, was worth the effort. All of the forest, and even the town of Salamanca spread out before me, and to quote Where the Lilies Bloom, I ate my lunch propped up against a cloud. I took a good long rest and happily ate my trail mix looking over the whole scene. This area was rife with hardwoods, many of them virgin old growth, and it looks like how I imagine our area looked before our ancestors decided there was good farm land under all those trees and clear cut them. Even though the temperature was pushing 80 degrees, the shade of the trees and the breeze made it almost chilly.

I spent a good hour on top of that mountain; looking, enjoying, memorizing. I noticed some dark clouds gathering in the West, so I decided it was time to get moving. The descent of the trail was a straight path, probably a mile or so in length of steep downhill. For me, downhill stretches are more painful and grueling than uphill. Yes, uphill sections tax the cardiovascular and I end up breathing heavy and having to stop occasionally, but downhill sections tax the muscular as you try to keep from slipping and just seem to tighten every muscle. About half way through, the rain started, and I geared up in my poncho and put my back pack cover on. The trail became slick and it took even more effort to keep from slipping, not so much on the mud, but on the buried boulders that popped up every so often. At the bottom of the mountain was a narrow valley, again populated with wildflowers, and in that valley, the mountain stream I crossed earlier became a meandering brook with a sandy bottom, 15 feet wide and about 3 inches deep and was easily crossed.

The final mile of that trail…oh the last mile of that trail! As the saying goes, what goes down, must go up, and man, did it go up. The last mile was one of the steepest climbs I’ve ever had to make, even topping Jefferson Hill in Athens. I can usually do a mile in about 20 minutes; this took a good hour. The rain had made the trail slick and each step had to be very measured and I did slip and catch myself with my poles several times. Calves burning, knees aching and back about ready to lock up, I finally reached the trailhead, and I’ve seldom been so happy to see my truck. I sat down, every muscle burning, every joint screaming “uncle,” but with a sincere sense of accomplishment. The sheer beauty of nature in the raw and that sense was worth all the pain.

I crawled into my tent that night exhausted, with some Aleve and a muscle relaxer in my stomach and feel asleep nearly instantly, not concerned about the bears for once.

The next day, I took it easy and went into Salamanca to the Iroquois/Seneca Cultural Center and Museum, and that was a quite interesting and mind opening experience. I’ve always known that we had a Shawnee great grandmother and the Shawnee tribe are cousins of the Senecas, but I never learned so much about the history. It was one of those “ashamed to be white” moments when I read and saw what we did to the woodland Indians, and I’m really not sure the United States can really hold the high ground on any argument. The most mind blowing section of the museum was called “how they portray us.” Suffice it to say, and at the risk of consternation, you folks from St. Henry, Ft. Recovery, or anywhere an American Indian is used as a mascot, need to stop. I had a long conversation with the docent, who I later learned is the curator of the whole museum, and his point was that yes, you can claim to be “honoring” American Indians by using their fierceness and fighting prowess as symbol, but that reduces people to a simple stereotype. All people are brave and fierce at times, but to paint them as solely that ignores much of a people’s history. It’s okay to stereotype a bear, or a wolf, or a wildcat, but to do that to a people, a people with a rich history, with never ending struggles and a long history, reduces them to a cartoon; and no ethnic group deserves that. I’ve long thought there are more important battles for American Indians to fight than to worry about mascots, but when he put it like that, I fully agree. Chief Wahoo needs to go; the Washington Redskins need to find another name and we all need to be more sensitive to what we are doing.

I moved on to my next adventure, of which I’ll write about later, the next day.

On a side note, I will say that New York does right by their state park system. Where Ohio’s has been cut to the bone and largely privatized, New York’s has not. It still has ranger programs, is very well kept and even has life guards at its beaches. Say what you want about Progressive government, parks and public spaces are best left to the public sector; everything needn’t be for profit. We need public parks and they deserve to be kept up and enjoyed by the public.

I’ll be posting pictures of this adventure later, when I’m on wifi, but suffice it say, the beauty is well worth it.


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