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Adventuring, Learning and Listening in Hocking Hills

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea Adventuring, Learning and Listening in Hocking HillsAndrew Adkins.
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“We were never here!”

– Message left in the guest book of the Sumac Cabin, The Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls, May 27, 2006

Before Chuck Williams finishes up, he announces to the crowd the next song is gonna be one to sing along to. It’s maybe a risky move, for if you tell a crowd this is a song they’ll all know, you kind of have to deliver. It’s a consummation of the relationship between performer and audience, and a tricky question to ask; Are we all in tune here?

Chuck sits washed in blue light onstage in front of the giant letters ALR, which stand for Appalachian Listening Room. The ALR is not a bar or a restaurant or any other type of place where you might go to do something else and if there happens to be live music, well, isn’t that nice? No, the Appalachian Listening Room is a room for listening, tucked away in nondescript building in downtown Logan. About 60 people are packed in couches, chairs and metal foldouts that night, all here to listen to music, first and foremost.

Chuck Williams.

I hang out in the back by the door and the tables with water and coffee and CDs for sale and I watch Chuck play through his set. Maybe the folks in this crowd, in this town, are in tune with Chuck, but probably not me. I don’t expect to know whatever song this is going to be and I guess I still don’t really know why I do. Maybe from church, or from listening to my Mom’s bluegrass music on childhood road trips, or maybe it’s just a more prevalent song than I thought. But somehow I know the words well enough to keep up.

Will the circle be unbroken

By and by, Lord, by and by?

Is a better home awaiting

In the sky, Lord, in the sky?

Part 3: If You Build It

In The Sky

In the middle of a cold December day, people left the stores and coffee shops and restaurants on High Street. They paused the day, gathered solemnly on the sidewalks or leaned out of open windows and waited. Someone passed around little American flags. Fire trucks hoisted a giant flag over the street. The sound of drums rumbled from the general direction of Downtown.

A small parade of black-suited Marines marched up High Street, granting anyone with the right vantage point the unusual view of silver bayonets passing in front of the words “Magnolia Thunderpussy.” A silver hearse moseyed along behind them. All the while, the drums rolled.

Brrrrrum. Brrrrrum. Brrum bum bum…

There were no other instruments to be played. Just the deep, foreboding drums, like an ancient Viking funeral. It was a ritual of Marines – quite literally the tradition of mariners – to announce the final voyage of one of our first mariners in outer space.

John Glenn’s body was on its way to a ceremony at Ohio State University. The day before, hundreds and hundreds of people passed through the Ohio Statehouse rotunda to pay their respects as the late Marine fighter pilot, Korean War veteran, US Senator from Ohio, first American to orbit the Earth and later, the oldest person in space, lay in repose.

Not long after that, it was announced that the new astronomy park planned in the Hocking Hills would be named after Senator Glenn.

Funded by the Friends of the Hocking Hills State Park, the the John Glenn Astronomy Park-to-be sits on one of the highest points in Hocking County, on land leased from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Today, it is still a construction zone, with yellow vehicles and building materials scattered around the hillside. The grand opening has been pushed back to the Spring of 2018.

When finished, the park will be in a perfect position, far away from obstructions and city lights, to allow the Earthling public a chance to explore the universe free of charge. An observatory structure with a retractable roof will one day house the park’s 28-inch telescope, but the largest feature of the park is a round, open plaza for solar observations.

Six giant, brick walls surround the plaza with diagonal slots cut through them. Even under construction, with no visitors, standing in the center of the plaza, encircled by these structures feels a bit like standing in a modern Stonehenge. And, in fact, the circle of sun slots is inspired by Stonehenge, and by the earthworks built by the Native Americans at sites in modern-day Newark and Chillicothe. The precisely carved slots will use the sun’s rays to track its movements and mark the annual solstices and equinoxes.

The idea for an astronomy park has been around for about 12 years and a year before his death in 2016, John Glenn granted the park the right to bear his name. It’s fitting, of course, in all sorts of ways. Glenn’s is a multifaceted legacy, all of them suited for an astronomy park atop one of the Hocking Hills. It will be a place for scientists, for science educators, for intrepid explorers of the sun and the sky and beyond.

Pancake, No Taco

The canopy is remarkably quiet. The November trees high above the Hocking River are orange and yellow and quiet with the insects of summer long gone. There’s only the rustling of the wind, maybe the occasional bird, and then the silence is disturbed by the rapidly intensifying sound of wheels zipping along a metal cable.

Take it only as my opinion, but the only part of zip lining that isn’t terrifying is the part where you’re actually zip lining. Standing on the platform, waiting, watching, thinking about all the harness straps and clips and things that could break and drop you into the forest, is the real anxiety inducing part. Granted, that’s a highly unlikely disaster. But with every zip, the cable gets a little longer, meaning there’s a little more time in the air, meaning there’s a little more time for disaster to strike, which is, of course, part of the fun.

Once you’ve actually left the platform, the experience becomes much more enjoyable because enjoyment is all that’s left to do. Once you jump, you’re as prepared as you can be, and there’s no going back. I suppose there’s a metaphor for life or something in there, but you can dig it out on your own. I’m not holding your hand through this whole thing.

The views are one thing, but there’s also just soaking up how deeply bizarre this mode of transportation is. In terms of both speed and elevation, zip lining almost feels like the estranged twin of hiking. You transport yourself through the forest – in the fresh air and among the splendors of nature – only you do this very fast and very high. No gasoline, no carbon footprint, no clear-cutting the trees – in fact the trees are kind of necessary. Is there a practical reason this commute system never took off in the cities?

It’s not like we’re getting light rail anytime soon.

At the other end of the line, standing on the platform, is Ryan. Well, Ryan and all the other reporters who’ve already gone, but Ryan is the guy to pay attention to because Ryan is one of the two guides taking us on this trip at Hocking Hills Canopy Tours. The other guide is Skyler, who does the launching. Ryan does the receiving and he’s the one to watch because he’ll give the signal to brake. He’s already warned us that it will feel like he’s going to signal much too late, and it does. But if you brake too early you’ll get stuck in the middle of the line and Ryan will have to come rescue you. You don’t want Ryan to have to rescue you from the middle of the line. Neither does Ryan.

When Ryan gives the signal, I reach up behind my head and place my left hand flat on the cable. That’s braking. There’s a glove, obviously. I’m not burning through skin here. But it has to be flat; wrapping your fingers around the cable can be dangerous. They drilled this into us before we started. Flat, like a pancake. Not a burrito, not a taco, not a hotdog bun or any other non-flat foodstuffs. Pancake. So I do the pancake, no taco, and slow myself down as I approach the platform. My biggest concern now is accidentally kicking anyone off the platform, because even though everyone is harnessed to the tree, going over the edge is not necessarily a fun hang. So I maneuver my legs on approach and come to a stop and Ryan reels me in.

Ryan brought jokes, the kind that can lighten the mood among a group of people crowded onto a tree platform, some of whom may not necessarily love heights. On each platform he gives some more detail about the zips we’re about to cross.

“This line is a little tricky,” he says, “because it keeps falling down.”

That sort of thing.

Hocking Hills Canopy Tours is an ecotourism service, and Ryan knows the eco part well. He knows the trees and educates us on each of them. He delivers the somber news that within our lifetimes we could lose the ash trees of the Hocking Hills to the dreaded, invasive emerald ash borer. Even as someone who cares about trees when comfortably situated on the ground, their vulnerability seems all the more potent when you’re up amongst them. It’s hard not to feel all the more invested in the safety of the trees when the trees are keeping you safe.

At one point, Ryan offers a little history of the park. Supposedly, according to Ryan, the people who built the zip line course spent weeks living in the trees, constructing the platforms and running the lines across the canopy. Again, it’s oddly fascinating to imagine such a bizarre construction project and the people who would forego terra firma to make the canopy their temporary home.

Once Ryan finishes his lesson, he nonchalantly kicks off from the platform and just sort of floats away to the next tree, like a woodland Mary Poppins. Then it’s time for the rest of us to go, one by one. Skyler – who is more relaxed hanging off a tree platform than I am just going about my daily, ground-based routine – hooks each of us up, makes idle conversation while he waits for Ryan to give the word, then delivers a short, “You’re good,” and they’re off.

Ryan and Skyler.

Hook, wait, “You’re good,” zip.

Hook, wait, “You’re good,” zip.

I’m the last one to go. Skyler hooks me up and I hang out on the little wooden staircase you jump from. Out of curiosity, I ask Skyler how long it takes before the adrenaline wears off and zip lining as an everyday job just becomes normal.

“One tour,” he answers.

Huh. Would’ve thought it takes a little longer. Ryan sends the word. “You’re good.” Nothing left to do but jump, prepared as I can be, just like life. Enjoy the view, don’t worry about falling, watch for the signal, remember how to brake. Pancake, no taco.

Easier to Breathe, Harder to Live

The Appalachian Listening Room has a distinct sort of purposefulness. It can be hard for musicians to find a spot to play where people are actually listening, and the artists who play at the ALR pay their respects to the space and its creator, Craig Heath. A musician from West Virginia, Craig has played in places like the Bluebird Café in Nashville with it’s “shh policy,” places where the music is the point and not just background noise.

In 2016, Craig set out to create his own listening room in downtown Logan. He hired an artist from Newark to create the simple ALR logo and acquired the Listening Room’s furniture by searching Craigslist and offering anyone in Columbus who happened to be getting rid of old couches and chairs $25, regardless of the asking price. Plenty of people were willing to settle for $25, and unwittingly furnished a space for songwriters who, in Craig’s words, “write stories about hard times.”

Andrew Adkins.

There are plenty of hard times in the music at Appalachian Listening Room this night. The songs are full of references to addiction, poverty and collapsed industry. It’s Veterans Day and Chuck Williams plays a tribute to “The Tunnel Bum” – an ex-Marine and social outcast he once knew who used to live next to an abandoned tunnel. Andrew Adkins sings about straying from faith and encountering wandering, hitchhiking veterans. The Wayfarers reach back to the Civil War, playing the music of Union veterans reminiscing about their time “Marching Through Georgia.”

It’s music that isn’t to everyone’s taste, and it certainly doesn’t have to be. But it’s music with a distinct sense of place, music that tells the stories of people who are, at various times, trivialized, romanticized, scrutinized, exploited, exalted, ignored. It’s music that tells the story of a seemingly perpetual Catch-22, captured with simplicity when the Wayfarers sing about the dead coal industry in “Old Muskingum” – Now it’s easier to breathe, but it’s harder to live.

It’s old music that still survives and, perhaps against the odds, has a future. The Wayfarers in particular seem rather young. It’s music that survives as long as there are people to play it and as long as there are humble little places like the Appalachian Listening Room. It survives as long as there are people to listen, and if you know the words, to sing along.

Will the circle be unbroken…

All photos by Jesse Bethea.

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