Sunday, April 18, 2010

John Bryan State Park/Clifton Gorge

I set out in my Volkswagon today to appreciate the natural beauty of the Clifton Gorge Nature Preserve. I'd been there once or twice before, but had never driven there on my own, so I plugged the location into my GPS system and went on my merry way. And my GPS, as all GPS systems are want to do, tries to drive me off a bridge, and not even into the gorge. But the sign up ahead says "John Bryan State Park," and knowing the state park included the gorge, I pull in there instead.

It's a great time for state parks. The brisk April morning is not so cold you can't make do with a sweatshirt, and the sun shines through the new leaves just enough to keep your face warm. Flowers are beginning to bloom along the paths - just the occasional blossom now, but as the days grow warmer I imagine you'll be able to see little trails of white, blue, purple, yellow as far back as the eye can see. There aren't too many bird sounds yet, but that absence is covered by the air rushing through the branches, and the occasional groan you hear when the wind pushes two trees against each other.

Like most state parks, the color is green, with moss growing over the huge rocks that have broken off the limestone cliff walls and thundered into the valley below. And if you get close enough, you can see the flowers that grow there, too.

It's not so secluded that you can't hear highway traffic over the rushing waters of the Little Miami River, but you can't have everything.

The trails in the park move between dirt, hand-placed rock, and the odd wooden platform. The wood feels like it's near ready to fall apart under my feet, but it rained the day before, so I am grateful for their presence.  

After little over an hour of walking, I have yet to reach the gorge, but I have developed a shameful pain creeping up my legs, the kind of pain that suggests you should try more exercise and less pizza. Crossing the bridge to the other side of the river, I don't want to leave without seeing what I came to see, but if I go much further, my little legs might not be able to carry me back.

And then, up ahead, I finally see it. "Clifton Gorge." Yes! Victory in our time!

But when I see "1.2 ->" written beneath it, I take a moment to reflect.

"It's only another mile or so," says my brain. "Surely I can make it there."

"Surely you can," says my thighs. "But will you be able to make it back?"

"You raise a salient point, thighs, but I can't help thinking I'm too young to be this out of shape."

"Does this mean you'll stop eating entire pints of ice cream when you watch The Biggest Loser?"

"As soon as Ben and Jerry's stops being so delicious."

I concede defeat to John Bryan state park, and begin the long trek back to my beetle, feeling slightly defeated, and utterly gorgeless.

The view is just as lovely on the way back.

Nearing the path that will take me back to the parking lot, I catch a flash of something red just barely in my sight line. Looking up, I can only just see it - hints of color peeking out between the trees. What could it be? Animal life? Moss? Secrets of the Illuminati? I have to know.

Standing before steep half-trail of rock protrusions and dirt, I think, "I can climb that."

Ah, the naivete of youth.

I do make it to the top of that hill, out of breath and craving cheeseburgers, and what do I find that was so important?  

Congratulations, Jaden. You'll forever be remembered as a defacer of dead trees.

If you follow the river you'll eventually hit Clifton Mill, established in 1802. When it was a proper mill, it provided power for the towns of Clifton, Cederville, and Yellow Springs for as little as a dollar a month. Now the water wheel is decorative, strung with Christmas lights for the holiday season, and the mill itself is a restaurant that serves enormous pancakes for breakfast.

Driving home, I can't shake the feeling that I have failed. John Bryan state park is lovely, but I had come for the gorge and now I was returning home sans gorge experience. But as I rounded the corner that would send me back to the highway, I saw a small cluster of cars, and the best sign in the world.

Clifton Gorge Nature Preserve. Parking.

Oh America, it felt like Christmas.

Physically, it's the same as the state park, but the gorgey atmosphere makes it different somehow, in a way I can't quite put to words. So I'll put it to picture instead.

Learn more about John Bryan State Park and Clifton Gorge at their official website.

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