Driving up route 33 leaving Hocking Hills State Park last year, I looked in the back seat to see both kids asleep as the rain beat down in sheets on the hastily re-packed van. I turned to my wife who was also on the edge of Sandland and said, “You know, I think this place is played out for us. It's been great, but next year let's go some place different.” She sleepily nodded agreement, closed her eyes and turned towards the window. It figured. Hocking Hills is a great place for a summer vacation, but we had gone there every summer for the last three years and (for their age group) we felt like the kids had seen and done it all. I didn't know where 2014 would take us, but it was decided, let's try some place new.
Then winter 2013 happened, and I hardly need to tell you what that was like on the outside, but let me tell you what happened inside the Scarbrough house. First of all, when the kids got new backpacks at the start of the school year they didn't play school with them, they packed them with their camping equipment toys and said, “Bye Dad! We're going to Hocking Hills!” as they marched into the back yard to re-live last year's camp, or maybe set up a new one!
I take the kids to dozens of places throughout the year, but when they got new field manuals for tree and wildlife identification in their Christmas stockings, they immediately wanted to take them to Hocking Hills. And so it went, right though that dreadful winter. Two wide-eyed little girls peering out the kitchen window together, dreaming of when the snows would melt and the leaves would come back to the trees, and Dad would again load up the “family truckster” and head us all south for a week hiking the canyons, exploring the caves, hopping the cool clear creeks at the bottom of the gorge, and making a new set of family memories that would be re-lived over and over when the snows came again.
I suppose it's just their nature. We spend so much time apart in our crazy rat-race rush during the rest of the year, it's no wonder the kids hold dear the few days when we shut off all the distractions, pitch a tent, cook over a fire and leave home behind. Here, we live like a family. Everyone eats in the same place, nobody carries a plate over in front of the TV, nobody has to “take” a call or answer an urgent text during a meal, we live as one. We turn back the clock and live like families were intended to, like they used to live so many years ago. When we go some place, we go as a family not, “So long, Dad! I'm off to practice!” or “I have that event tonight, I'll be home late!” or “My flight gets in at nine!” We move as a unit, we wait for each other, and e bring each other along. There are no stragglers, no appointments, no deadlines, no crunch. Our roof is 8 x 12 and canvas, our dinner table is under a pine tree, and every morning we each wake up in the morning rays and chill with eager anticipation of what this new day of exploration, wonderment, and togetherness might bring. There is no plan, there are no limits, there is but one rule; whatever we do, e do it together.
Now, it can be said that this same experience can be done almost anywhere when there's so much emphasis on the family, and I guess that's true. But Hocking Hills is a place that never disappoints and there is so much to do for everyone to enjoy. It's true that little legs sometimes get tired, and Old Man's Cave is no place for a stroller, but Ash Cave is. In fact, the whole trail up to the cave is paved and relatively flat.
From the breathtaking view at Conkle's Hollow lookout to the cool recessed bottom of Cedar Falls and behind every oak and hemlock tree in between, there is adventure, fun, relaxation and discovery for every visitor to these Hocking Hills. I guess that's why this State Park is consistently ranked as one of the very best in the U.S. So this morning, just as you read this right now, I am again folding up our tent, dowsing the breakfast fire with the last of the coffee and breaking camp from another unforgettable and precious week of camping at Hocking Hills. And as we load the family truckster and head it north up route 33 with two sad and groggy kids in the back, I turn to my wife and smile, knowing we'll be back in person next year, and in spirit a thousand times until then.