On Easter Sunday, 2013, my husband and I began our 110ish-mile trek from Cleveland, Ohio, south to New Philadelphia on the old Ohio-Erie Canal towpath trail. I was writing a book about an 1840’s mule driver, and wanted to replicate his journey. Somewhat. I’m fifty years old. I hadn’t backpacked for twenty-five years. And I was recovering from two herniated disks.
We mitigated the grueling daytime schedule by overnighting at bed and breakfasts along the way. If my back acted up, Northern Ohio’s spring weather was too awful, or we injured ourselves, we would call for a taxi and drive to our next night’s lodging. Amazingly, the weather cooperated. No nasty downpours or freak snowstorms. In fact, our faces, the only part of us showing through our cold weather gear, sunburned.
But other obstacles arose. Our mental challenge became crystal clear on the first day, hiking through Cleveland, to Jaite Lock in Northfield, then off the trail and straight uphill to the Shady Oaks Farm Bed & Breakfast. After fifteen miles of walking, my body screamed, “Enough!” But we had ten miles to go. Twenty-five miles hadn’t sounded so bad in the abstract. Eleven hours after we started, we stumbled upon our hostess entertaining her family for Easter dinner. When we finally escaped to our room, and those boots came off, my feet sang the “Hallelujah Chorus”.
My feet were a blistered mess. I didn’t see how I could continue. Soaking in a warm bath was the first step toward feeling human again.
And the restorative power of sleep was remarkable. We slept like the dead. The next morning I applied more moleskin, wrapped my feet in duct tape, dusted them with foot powder, and resolved to continue. After a gourmet breakfast, we proceeded to our next stop, The O’Neil House in Akron. Along the way my husband developed hip pain, forcing him to walk like the proverbial tortoise. We hiked more than twenty miles, then left the trail to climb another few miles into the city. By the time we rang the doorbell, we were both fried.
But the night worked its magic. My feet were toughening up, and Steve took pressure off his hip by unbuckling his waist strap. It’s the way he used to backpack in the military. That third night, swaying at the check-in desk at the Hampton Inn in Massillon, I was giddy with anticipation. Unwrapping my feet, bathing, dinner in bed. These memories are as intense as if they happened yesterday. Day Four we pushed on to Bolivar and the Enchanted Pines Retreat. The owners were supposed to pick us up, since they lived eight miles off-trail. A hot tub awaited us. Suh-weet!
During our daily lunch of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, I called Earl Menges with our ETA. No answer. I called again during our mid-afternoon GORP break. No response. By the time we reached our rendezvous point, I was freaking. Bolivar, Ohio, is in the middle of nowhere. The thought of walking further right then, when we’d anticipated being whisked away to our hot tub, struck me as inhumane. In frustration, we dropped our packs and waited.
Fifteen minutes later, Earl located us. We were so thankful we didn’t care when he told us his hot tub was broken. He upgraded us to a room with a Jacuzzi, and once again we reveled in pealing off our layers of toil, and washing away the pain. Earl had a menu from the town pub in our room and they delivered! That pub sandwich and milkshake ranked as a five-star meal.
Day Five called for walking from Bolivar to New Philadelphia. A huge challenge, because the restored trail peters out after Zoar. We continued along the Tuscarawas River until we reached the town of Canal Dover, then bushwhacked through farmer’s fields, woodland, and circumvented squatter’s camps. By the time we hit New Philadelphia’s city streets, we were lost.
Meanwhile, our friends were waiting to retrieve us for dinner and reunite us with our car. We tweaked our itinerary, deciding to drive ourselves to the official end of the proposed trail the next day. After falling asleep in front of a fire in our restored Amish cottage in Stone Creek, we set out to find Blake’s Mill Lock in New Philadelphia.
We’d done it. Over the past five days I’d marveled at the beauty and serenity of woodland, riverbank, and canal basin; traipsed through quiet country and belching city; and experienced tedium, pain, and the power of mind games. I’d kept going when I was sure my reserves had run dry, and reveled in the simplest pleasures. And, most importantly, I’d done it all with my husband and best friend. Creating memories we’ll never forget.
A triumphant adventure to be sure.
About the Author: Kim Van Sickler is a writer and Girl Scout volunteer living in Willoughby Hills, Ohio. When she isn’t writing, reading, or running the scouting program in western Lake County, she’s mulling over adventures to lure her husband and any combination of their five children.
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