Hocking Hills stir wild passions

03/09/2013 12:00 AM

03/06/2013 1:57 PM

When “bouquet” and “beer” appear in the same sentence, you know these aren’t the hills of hillbillies.

Something in the Hocking Hills gives folks crazy dreams and the energy to achieve them. Maybe it’s the water. Or the caves. Or the air crisp enough to buff your face to a childhood glow.

One native quit a Hollywood career to come home and brew sipping beers presented in corked wine bottles. A couple built an inn from reclaimed country cabins and junked materials. A Native American storyteller performs his stagecraft in caves. Instead of waiting for balmy days, the locals mass for frozen waterfall hikes and rainy-day romps around cliffs and gorges. Want to make washboards and dedicate a museum to them? That’ll work. And where else can a moonshine festival — with hooch-making demonstrations using an authentic still — an annual five-day family event?

Here in the hills and hollows of southeastern Ohio, the dreamers are doers and what’s done is worth savoring.

In the spring, after the waterfalls thaw, the region gears up for wildflower hikes, ghost talks, Flaming Torchlight canoe rides, New Moon Glow float trips, May’s Moonshine Festival and the Washboard Music Festival in June.

The vistas throughout sprawling Hocking Hills State Park would have wowed hobbits. Rolling Appalachian foothills ensconce cliffs, waterfalls, massive slump blocks that cracked off cliffs, bubbling creeks, and caves where Indians performed rituals and loners dwelled.

Blackhand sandstone fortifies the cliffs, and honeycomb weathering pocks the huge rocks; we’re seeing a cross-section of an ancient sandbar once covered by an ocean. Now the landscape’s fed by the Hocking River and populated by owls, deer and wild turkeys. The gorge’s microclimate nurtures plants and animals uncommon in this part of America, such as the yellow-crowned Kinglet, a sociable bird. Hikers appreciate the natural air-conditioning provided by the sandstone’s fissures and caverns. The caves, called recess caves, are not underground caverns but above-ground openings in cliff walls carved by centuries of erosion.

Tagging along on one of naturalist Pat Quackenbush’s free guided hikes to Old Man’s Cave, I imagine the namesake hermit drifting to sleep, warmed by his hound dogs. This shelter, carved by nature, runs 200 feet wide, 50 feet tall and 75 feet deep; it’s recessed in a cliff rising 85 feet above a stream. The hermit lived here for years in the early 1800s until one wintry day, cracking ice with his rifle, he accidentally shot himself in the head.

Grandma Gatewood Trail, named for a more fortunate Appalachian Mountains wayfarer, connects Old Man’s Cave with show-stopping Cedar Falls and Ash Cave, an even larger cave, in a 10-mile loop.

Old Man’s Creek cascades over ledges, then plunges 40 feet over the Upper Falls. Downstream, the flow swirls around Devil’s Bathtub. The cool, misty atmosphere suits the slender, proud hemlocks for which Cedar Falls would have been named had the namers not confused tree species.

The great outdoors is counterbalanced by indoor allure. The Inn at Cedar Falls sprouted from the imagination of Ellen Grinsfelder’s mother and the resourcefulness of Ellen and husband Terry Lingo. The innkeepers reclaimed and remodeled cabins and farm structures for their buildings, renovating and expanding them using recycled materials. Newspaper insulated walls, scrap wood became chairs, old pallets undergirded floors, fiber remnants turned into carpets. “Bootstrap green,” Ellen calls it.

The quarters are rustic, the cuisine refined. Chef Anthony Schulz began his career in fast food then advanced to slow food techniques. His farm-to-table fare now attracts lodgers and locals.

I visit during one of the inn’s “TasteInn” dinners, curious about the craft-beer pairings that have locals abuzz. Matthew Barbee, brewmaster of Rockmill Brewery, does the uncorking. Yes: Rockmill Belgian-style ales come in handsomely labeled wine bottles and are poured into snifters and goblets. The grandson of a local winemaker, Barbee left his film industry job to turn the family farm into a microbrewery in 2010. He uses organic yeast, hops and malt, and his secret ingredient: clear, clean water from the Hocking River. Barbee’s family wine heritage informs his old world approach; he speaks about terroir, aromatics and palate calibrators, and uses corked wine bottles for his ethereal brews.

Testing indicated that the minerality of his farm’s water matches that of Wallonia, Belgium, the birthplace of Saison, the original farmhouse ale. Course by course, I’m surprised how deliciously beer complements the food. The citrusy Witbier pairs well with Schulz’s sun-dried tomato teaser. The earthy Saison blends perfectly with grilled entrees. The cask-aged Tripel, a golden ale with clove and apricot notes that’s aged in whiskey barrels, is a match for a poached fan-sliced quince. The exquisite flavor of the quince, butternut squash and greens, I learn, come from local sustainable farms.

Drawn by a picture-book moon hanging in the dark skies, several diners skip coffee for a stroll around the inn’s gardens.

By day, you can alternate nature hikes with offbeat amusements such as a tour of the Columbus Washboard Company, tucked in a historic brick building in the town of Logan. The business started in 1895 with such machines as a finger-joint maker, gravity-fed nailer and broad board printing press, all on view. By the 1970s, the nation’s other washboard manufacturers closed, even though the contraption, says the tour guide, is the best way to clean collars and cuffs. The Washboard Music Festival in May attracts washboard bands from worldwide, and, last year, nearly 15,000 attendees.

Housed in a replica 19th century gristmill, the Hocking Hills Regional Welcome Center boasts sights of its own: a towering water wheel, charming gardens and a hut containing the free Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum. Of the late reverend’s collection of 3,400 pencil sharpeners, no two are alike. Categories span mythology to politics to space; specimens include antique autos, musical instruments, celebrities, heroes and villains.

Some say the Hocking Hills water and other locally sourced ingredients earned New Straitsville the reputation of “Moonshine Capital of the World.” In 1884, after the local mine was set on fire during a strike, out-of-work miners pulled themselves up by the bootlegs, er, bootstraps, and launched home-based businesses involving moonshine. Caves sheltered untold numbers of stills. High-quality hooch proved quite the job-creator: merchants sold tons of sugar, drivers logged miles cross-country, scouts watched for federal agents. During Prohibition, New Straitsville spirits were highly coveted.

The town’s History Center displays parts from original stills, but to watch the making of white lightning, visit during the 43rd annual Moonshine Festival in May. The air smells of yeast; the town’s population swells six times its size as families enjoy moonshine pie, flea-market finds, parade floats, carnival rides and games.

But no moonshine tastings. A permit allows the distilling of high-proof whiskey for educational purposes as long as it’s destroyed. But the miners’ descendants still dream of the day they can legally fire up those heirloom stills, brew old family recipes and revive the town’s tradition. Considering the national thirst for small-batch craft beer and spirits, perhaps that day’s not far away.

Until then, there’s plenty to savor in the dream-inspiring Hocking Hills.

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