Exploring the Ohio State Reformatory

The day after I went to the “Farm at Walnut Creek” I toured the Ohio State Reformatory. What a startling change it was to explore this old building when the day before I was in the peaceful and beautiful Amish countryside surrounded by animals. When I think of the Ohio Reformatory one word comes to mind – gritty! In fact, this is the grittiest building I have ever been in. Built during 1886 through 1910, it housed and reformed young first time offenders. Since it closed in 1990, It has mostly been left as it was with only a few rooms renovated. Almost every wall has peeling paint, unswept floors with missing tiles, pipes and iron railings corroded and rusted. Both the exterior and interior have a medieval castle feeling; dark and creepy. I learned about the building when I was reading a blog post from another traveler I follow. When I realized that the Reformatory was only a little more than an hour away from our campsite in Berlin, I knew I wanted to visit. This former prison is not only architecturally interesting, but also the setting for a movie I enjoyed, “Shawshank Redemption” which was almost entirely filmed here in 1994. It sounded like it would be an interesting and unique place and we had yet to visit a former prison in our travels.

Stand up of one of my favorite actors, Morgan Freeman, who played Red in Shawshank Redemption

The Reformatory offers several guided tours including self-guided, “History meets Hollywood,” evening ghost and a tour with an ex-inmate. I decided to take the self-guided and Mark decided to forego this attraction and headed off to do a little shopping in the nearby town of Mansfield. Most of the building can be seen on your own, but the tours offer more information and some extra rooms as well as the prison yard. I decided to do the self-guided and also obtained an audio wand that provided additional details at certain stops. Signs and arrows point the way throughout the building.

Andy and Red at one of the stops on the tour.

For those that haven’t seen the popular film, “Shawshank Redemption” is the story of the two main characters, Andy and Red who become friends while incarcerated. Andy who is the newcomer maintains his innocence, but Red has spent most of his life in prison and doesn’t expect to be paroled. The two men along with their friends deal with prison issues such as a ruthless warden, cruel guards and abusive inmates. Andy never gives up his dreams of a better future and does his best to encourage Red and also improve his own situation while at the prison. The photo below is of a room in the Reformatory that was used as a film scene of the hotel room of paroled inmate Brooks. You can see scratched on the ceiling beam, “BROOKS WAS HERE” and “SO WAS RED.”

Hotel room that Brooks used after parole

Another room used in the film was where the parole board met when they reviewed Red’s application for possible release.

Although I am not posting any photos of the prison warden’s living quarters, I was surprised at how many rooms were used for the family, taking up two floors of the facility. The photo below is the chapel where all inmates were required to attend services. It was in this room that I met a young couple and the man told me that both his father and brother had been incarcerated here. He explained that his father was here in the 70’s and his brother shortly before it closed in the 90’s. He said his brother who has been incarcerated at other facilities as well reported it was the worst place he had ever been imprisoned. The young man said that when his brother gets out soon, he wants to bring him back here so he can show him the cell that he used to live in.

Reformatory Chapel

The Guard Control Center is pictured below with the two cell blocks, west and east on either side. Another popular film was also shot here, “Air Force One” which starred Harrison Ford and was released in 1997. This action film was about terrorists taking the president’s plane hostage and demanding the release of a Russian prisoner. In one scene from the film, the Russian prisoner, General Radek is brought to this room prior to release. Unlike some of the others, this room has cleaned up floors and walls.

Guard Control Center

From here, the tour continues to the East Cell Block, where you step out on a walkway six tiers up. The area is very open with views of all the floors below. It was a little much for me with my fear of heights and I didn’t want to be walking by the cells and start feeling panicky. One lady I talked to found it scary and said she had a difficult time walking around up there. So, the coward I am, I took the elevator down.

View looking down the cell block from the top floor

The East Cell Block is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest free-standing steel cell block. The block could hold up to 1,200 men. It was quite a sight for me to stand and look up at this enormous and magnificent collection of cells. (Much better to look up than look down).

View of East Cell Block with stairway at the back to the levels
View of the enormous East Cell Block

Most of the cells I passed on the bottom floor were open and could be entered. These cells were tiny at 7’ by 9’ and housed two men. They continue to have the old bunk beds and some even have old mattresses. I saw a few people plunk themselves down on these disgusting mattresses and have someone take a photo of them. Visitors are supposedly warned to not close the cell doors when they enter as they can lock and the facility does not have keys to all of them. Being stuck in one of those cells would certainly put a huge damper on a visit! As can be imagined, they are dark, depressing and creepy.

I have only been locked in a jail cell once in my life and it was not an enjoyable experience. My job as a social worker required me to visit the local jails occasionally to visit clients. Most of the time I met with them in a common area or a small, unlocked room. But one time while at the men’s jail, I was led by a guard to the cell of the client I planned to interview. I was put inside and the door locked. When the guard left, she gave no indication when she was returning and the guard station was quite a distance away on the bottom floor (I was on the top). It was somewhat unnerving to be sitting there, listening to all the loud sounds of other inmates around us. I focused on asking questions, writing down answers and trying not to think that I was stuck in there. After about 40 minutes, one of the guards came down the hallway to put another inmate in a cell across from us. I stood up and made it known I was ready to go. Thankfully, I never visited that jail again.

West Cell Block

The West Cell Block is not as large as the East, but it still housed 700 inmates. It was the first set of cells built in 1886 with completion in 1896. The cells are larger here and considered luxury quarters that housed trusties. Trusties were inmates who had earned the confidence of the staff and held better jobs. No loud talking was permitted and the Inmates were given tin cups to be used for emergencies only. If an officer was needed, the inmate would ring the cup against the bars as many times as the range number he was located on. Scenes of the Russian prisoner were filmed here for “Air Force One.”

Solitary confinement cell

One section was used for solitary confinement when inmates did not cooperate with regular incarceration. They were placed in cells in either total darkness or total light for 24 hours a day. Originally there were no cots so the temperature was kept around 90 degrees as inmates slept on the floor and they didn’t want them getting sick. They were served bread, broth and water with a full meal on the third day. Scenes from the film ”Shawshank Redemption” when Andy was in the “hole’ were filmed in this part of the facility.

Shower facility – Once a week men hung up their towels on wall hooks and walked down in a line under the pipe for their shower.

The prison closed in 1990 by Federal court order due to overcrowding and inhumane conditions. A new prison facility was constructed close by and from the windows of the guard control center the new facility is visible.

It was a fascinating visit and I am glad I had the chance to explore.

Next time, something much less gritty……….

The Farm at Walnut Creek

A farm with exotic animals is not what I would expect in Ohio Amish country. But two people highly recommended this place, talking about their recent visit and how enjoyable it was to pet the animals and ride in the wagon. The Trip Advisor reviews were excellent as well and people said it was great for all ages. I really enjoy farms and animals so it sounded like a fun adventure. I ended up spending half a day and was not bored. The countryside was beautiful with interesting animals and plenty to see and do.

A welcome to the Farm from this gorgeous peacock

Since it was spring there were a lot of new babies on the Farm. Here are a few photos of ones I enjoyed seeing. In the first photo are Jacob lambs, a British domestic sheep known for having four horns and piebald coloring.

Jacob lambs
Mute Swan with goslings

As I was walking down a path I came upon this cockatoo who was hanging out by himself. He sat on my foot for awhile and could even say a few words like “pretty bird” and “hello.”

A friendly Moluccan Cockatoo

The Farm exhibits a number of exotic birds in aviaries as well as other animals in enclosures or in the fields such as camels, kangaroos, pot-bellied pigs, donkeys, goats, sheep, cows and horses. One of my favorites to watch were the ring-tailed lemurs. There was a baby who was very active jumping and climbing all over the adults, making a nuisance of himself at times. When I took this photo though he was taking a break.

Ring-tailed Lemurs

The highlight for visitors is the horse drawn wagon ride to feed the larger free roaming animals in the hills above the Farm. People lined up for a turn but the wait wasn’t long as there were multiple wagons. Small buckets of pellet feed were provided for each person. Before we left, our driver gave instructions on how to feed the animals such as dropping the food in the mouths of the larger beasts and putting food in our palms for the smaller animals.

It was a bit of a crazy ride as some of the animals mobbed us, grabbing at the buckets. A few had long and rather dangerous looking horns and there wasn’t much protection from getting poked in these open wagons, but everyone was having a great time.

Watusi Cattle from East Africa

I decided to just watch others have fun feeding the animals and getting slobbered on by big tongues.

Dropping food into the mouth of a Water Buffalo

Not all the animals were mobbing us, some like the fallow deer below were relaxing and left us alone.

One option at the Farm is to drive the road in your own vehicle. I only saw one on the road, the rest were wagons. In front of us was a wagon of Amish, so the locals seem to enjoy this activity as much as the tourists.

Emus enjoying a handout

When we reached the downhills on the road our elderly driver picked up the pace by trotting the horses and giving us a bit of a thrill ride.

A Brahma checks us out

Wagon riders were hoping to feed the zebras and giraffes but they ignored us, showing no interest in a handout or being petted. Our ride lasted about an hour and covered over two miles. After the ride I headed over to the house and barn area.

Amish buggies and wagons on display

This is considered a working farm although a family was not living in the home. Visitors are allowed to wander in and out and see what a typical Amish farm house would look like. There is minimal furniture and household items though, so not much a tourist could bother. Around the house were gardens that had been planted but it was too early for harvesting. I was told that later in the summer they will be selling some veggies. Free cookies were a nice touch and there were also items for purchase such as homemade bread made in the kitchen on site as well as jams, pickles and canned goods. There were friendly locals to talk to and answer questions. I was told that the farm owners lived elsewhere on the property and there was a lot to keep up with. This was one of the more easygoing attractions I have visited. People were allowed to wander all over the property and enjoy themselves.

Separating the milk and cream

In the mid afternoon was a milking demonstration in the dairy barn. A cream separator was set up for visitors to see the old fashioned process. The cats seemed to enjoy milking time too as they hurried to lick up any spills.

I really enjoyed my time at the Farm and I hope you liked following along!

Exploring Ohio Amish Country

It was good to be back in Amish Country! It was the same time last year that we were exploring the Pennsylvania Amish Country and I was looking forward to seeing the differences between the two places. We had already learned that Ohio has the largest Amish population. The countryside here was just as beautiful as in Pennsylvania and actually seemed a little greener. The first thing I noticed was how hilly it was compared to Pennsylvania. We felt a little bad for the horses pulling those buggies up and down the hills. The other thing I noticed right away is that the Ohio Amish ride bicycles. In Pennsylvania they use foot powered scooters instead of bikes. I was told that the Amish want to stay close to their home and community and a bicycle is faster and can take them further away.

Our campground was located in the small town of Berlin in the heart of Amish Country where we sometimes saw horses and buggies ride by next to our Park. Just as in Pennsylvania, shopping is a popular pastime for tourists with a number of stores and flea markets. We are usually not much for shopping and the stores seemed to carry a large assortment of stuff that is not made locally. One stop at a “flea market” was enough for us. The best shop we visited was for quilt and sewing where we watched four elderly Amish women quilting and also saw a beautiful display of finished quilts. Something was said about me learning to quilt and the women laughed and said I was not nearly old enough. Okay with me as I have never liked sewing!

Amish buggies lined up near the parking lot of Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen

Eating is another favorite pastime here and we did hit up a couple of buffets which are hard to pass up in Amish Country. At Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen we were happy to see a favorite Amish specialty, red beet eggs and there was something new for us, pickled banana pepper eggs.

Colorful pickled eggs

Located on the table of both buffet restaurants was something else new – Amish peanut butter, which is basically a mixture of peanut butter, corn syrup and marshmallow cream. We squeezed it onto their homemade bread. It was good, but a little too sweet for me to make a habit of.

Trying some Amish peanut butter at Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen

In this land of dairy where there are several cheese companies, we visited Heini’s Cheese Chalet which has been in business since 1935. They have more samples of cheese than any place I have visited in the U.S. You can sample almost every cheese they make and there must be at least 50 different ones although I lost track. One of their specialties is cheese fudge and they have over ten different flavors with interesting ones such as root beer float and rainbow sherbet. On certain days you can watch them making cheese and take a tour of the plant which wasn’t offered the day we visited.

Too much cheese to try at Heini’s Cheese Chalet

When there is a chocolate shop in the area my driver and I are there as we are chocoholics! Coblentz Chocolate Company has a beautiful store where they make amazing chocolate treats with large viewing windows to watch the process. A signature treat from Ohio is buckeye candy which is peanut butter fudge partially dipped in chocolate that resembles nuts from the buckeye tree. The buckeyes looked great but I went for the dark chocolate toffee.

One day Mark and I made a stop at the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center which turned out to be a great visit. They have an amazing and very large oil painting completed by one painter in 1992 called the “Behalt” which means “to keep” or “remember.” It measures 10 feet by 265 feet and is a circular painting or cyclorama that wraps around one large room. The Behalt illustrates the heritage of the Amish and Mennonite people from their Anabaptist (believers in adult baptism) beginnings in Zurich, Switzerland in 1525 to the present. Due to persecution in their native country, they were forced to immigrate to America in the early to mid 1700’s. Our guide took us around the room explaining the historical scenes depicted and important people involved. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photos of this masterpiece, one of only four cycloramas in the United States (we saw one in Gettysburg). In the photo below, I am standing outside in front of the mural completed by the same cyclorama artist, Heinz Gaugel. This mural is called a sgraffito which is a European art technique where layers of paint are scratched to form the design.

Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center Mural depicting immigrants arriving in the New World

After our Behalt tour we checked out the museum where we saw artifacts and learned more about the Amish/Mennonite lifestyle such as clothing choices. Below, Mark sports an Amish hat with his serious photo face.

Display of Amish/Mennonite head coverings

The most fascinating part of the museum was the display of Amish song books called “Ausbund.” There were a number of printings going back hundreds of years. There were also Bibles including the one below dating from 1531. In 1750 it came from Germany to America with an Amish immigrant named Johannes Holly. At that time he had a new cover put on the Bible with his name on the back and the year 1740 stamped on the front. Through the years it was passed on to other family members where it traveled from Philadelphia through other Pennsylvania Counties, to Ohio, Kansas and then back to Ohio. It was donated to the Amish Library in 1996. This edition has many illustrations.

Johannes Holly Bible

While at the Center we also took a guided tour of a typical Amish barn where we learned about a barn raising and how Amish barns are constructed. Community barn raisings are only done when a family doesn’t have one, for example if one was destroyed or if this is a new couple. We also viewed a former Amish school and learned how all children in a district are taught by one teacher in one room. He discussed the curriculum and showed us a few books including one he said would not be seen in a public school – a buggy driver’s manual.

Amish students only attend school through the 8th grade as the prevalent belief is this gives them all the education they need. Our guide told us he felt his 8th grade education prepared him very well for life. He said a Harvard professor evaluated their program and determined the education they receive equals an 11th grade education at public schools. He also said having the different grades together was helpful because students learned from those in the grades above them.

Holmes County Rails to Trails

While staying in Ohio Amish country, I found a great walk/bike path. But this is more than a path for feet and bikes as horses and buggies are also allowed. The Holmes County Rails to Trails is 12 paved miles and bills itself as the only dual purpose trail in the U.S. as half of it consists of chipped limestone for horse traffic. I loved walking on this trail because it was beautifully shaded with trees and near water but mostly because it was fun to be on a trail where there were walkers, bicyclists and horse and buggies. I never get tired of watching those horses and their passengers go by!

Holmes County Rails to Trails

One family with four or five children passed very close and I was amused to see a little girl holding a McDonalds cup, an interesting blend of the old and the new.

I hope you enjoyed this look at Ohio Amish Country with more coming in my next post when I visit a farm with exotic animals.

Ohio Amish Farmstead

Exploring Cleveland Museum of Art

While staying in the vicinity of Toledo, several people recommended the Toledo Museum of Art, reporting it was one of the best in the country. We got so busy seeing the birds at Magee Marsh, that we didn’t make it to that museum. Once we had moved on near Cuyahoga Valley National Park and closer to Cleveland, I set my sights on visiting the Cleveland Museum of Art. When I researched the best art museums in the U.S., this museum usually showed up as a top contender. I was excited to get to visit a museum of this caliber as we hadn’t seen one since full time RV traveling except for the fantastic Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas. That museum though focuses on American Art. The last time I was at a big art museum was in New York City in August 2012 for our son and daughter-in-law’s wedding and we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Royal patterned carpet designed for the dining room of Louis XV of France.

I found the Cleveland Museum an easy place to visit. For starters, there is no admission fee, so when I walked in the main door there was no counter or anyone to direct me. The Museum also had few visitors and in some rooms I was the only person there, except for the occasional security staff walking around. It was so great to see the art without fighting any crowds. Another nice thing was that the day we visited, Wednesday, it stayed open until 9:00 p.m., so no worries about not having enough time! My big decision had to be where to start and what to focus on as this place is huge!

My driver decided he didn’t want to spend hours at the Museum and since he was interested in checking out two coin shops (he is a collector) he dropped me off at a side door and went on his way. His plan was to return for the minimum acceptable art experience knowing also there was a nice cafe and sitting area in the Museum. I started off with the armor collection which is located in one big room and is quite impressive. It features European arms and armor from 1400-1700. There were exhibits of chain mail, helmets, plate armor, shields and cross bows. The horse and rider above are wearing armor from around the year 1575.

Yosemite Valley, 1866

I next spent some time looking at the paintings of American artists as well as the European Masters. Here are two of my favorite American artists. I really like the works of Albert Bierstadt and have enjoyed many visits to Yosemite, so his painting of Yosemite Valley in the photo above is one of my favorites.

White Flower, 1929

I love New Mexico and the Southwest with Georgie O’Keefe another favorite artist. I especially like her big flower paintings like the one above with the title, “White Flower.”

Gray and Gold, 1942

The colors on this painting, “Gray and Gold” really popped out when I walked in the room. The artist, John Cox painted it shortly after the U.S. joined World War II. The symbolic image is of amber waves of grain threatened by ominous storm clouds with two dirt lanes at a crossroad. Vincent Van Gogh is perhaps my favorite European artist and I always love getting a chance to see his paintings. I still remember reading the biographical book about him, “Lust For Life” when I was a teenager. It is one of the books from my early years that stands out. This painting is called “Poplars at Saint-Remy” and was painted while he was in an asylum near Saint-Remy in Southern France. It was so neat to be able to stand inches away admiring this work and think about Van Gogh applying these thick strokes of paint so many years ago.

Poplars at Saint-Remy, 1889

I found the Contemporary Section to be …. well, interesting. One of the more unique pieces was called, “Washing Away of Wrongs” and featured two stainless steel dryer doors that “speaks to the experience of loss and separation.” When doing a little research after my visit I read that each door supposedly transmits a different scent, but somehow I missed during my visit that you could open the door and sniff inside.

My favorite part of the museum were the antiquities. It is quite an experience to see works of art with some dating just a few hundred years after Christ. The antiquities section includes Egyptian, Near East, Greek and Roman works. The painted “Coffin of Bakenmut” from 976-889 BC was made for the priests of Amen and their families. It has amazingly preserved decoration.

Coffin of Bakenmut

I spent a lot of time looking at the antiquities and there was so much I enjoyed seeing. Here are a few pieces I thought were especially impressive. Below is a bronze Roman statue of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius from around 180-200 A.D.

The Emperor as Philosopher

The relief pictured below is from the palace of the Assyrian King, Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud. It is believed at one time there were 300 reliefs decorating the palace. The city was destroyed in 612 BC and the palace lay buried for 24 centuries until rediscovered in 1845.

Saluting Protective Spirit, 883-859 BC

The museum has a huge central Atrium that is three stories high and nearly as big as a football field. It was completed seven years ago and is very impressive. Mark and I took a break and had a late lunch at the cafe which is situated at one end with table seating in the Atrium. After eating we both spent a little longer looking. I think I spent about five hours with the exhibits altogether and still didn’t see it all. But, I was so tired from all that I did see!

Museum Atrium

Below is a gallery of some main pieces the Museum lists as “Must See’s.” My favorite was the “Tomb Guardian” from China in the early 700’s. I was a little disappointed with Monet’s Water Lilies though. The one at this museum is part of a three panel with the two other panels at different museums. I guess it just didn’t grab me although I usually like Monet’s paintings but this one didn’t seem as colorful as I thought it would be.

One of the fun things about doing a blog is that I get to relive my travel experiences and I usually learn more about what I experienced because I do research that I didn’t do at the time of my visit. I hope you enjoyed following this post and stay tuned for next time when I write about our time in Ohio’s Amish country.

Exploring Cuyahoga Valley National Park by Bike

I have missed bike riding since full time RV travel. I used to ride occasionally back in California and always enjoyed it. We debated bringing my bike with us but decided it would be too difficult to carry on the RV, so into storage it went. But I hoped to rent bikes from time to time as we traveled. So here we were, 20 months into our journey and still no biking as a good opportunity hadn’t come our way ……. until we came to Cuyahoga Valley National Park. As we passed through the small town of Peninsula on our way to check in to our KOA campground, I noticed a bike shop advertising rentals. It sat next to the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail, a great location to do some biking. I spent two afternoons riding different sections of the trail, once going north, the other day south.

Exploring Cuyahoga by bike turned out to be my favorite way to visit this National Park, especially since some of the time the trail followed closely along the river, the best way to see it.

Biking beside the Cuyahoga River

It also offered opportunities for some history as there were multiple stops with canal ruins and sign boards. One sign told stories of canal boat crews getting into fights over who had the right of way. There were also traffic jams and boats getting stuck. Another sign talked about businesses that once flourished along the canal such as sawmills and quarries where their products could be easily shipped to urban areas.

I was distracted from riding by all the signboards along the trail

Below is a photo of Lock Number 28, at 17 feet the deepest lock on the Ohio & Erie Canal. While the railroads became a more efficient transportation source beginning in the 1850’s, the canals in Ohio remained in operation until the late 1800’s. In 1913, a flood damaged the canal making it too expensive to repair.

The scenery was beautiful on the trail and much of the time I had it to myself. I was very happy to see all the wildflowers by the path.

The 81 mile trail follows as closely as possible the original route of the canal with plans to eventually extend to 110 miles. One of the neat aspects of the trail is that it connects at several points with stations of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. For those that want to bike part of the trail and then ride the train back, it is only $5.00 to put your bike onboard. I didn’t try this option as I was biking on weekdays and the train at that time was only running on the weekends.

The towpath trail is beautifully shaded much of the way

I visited the Stanford House, a farmhouse built in 1843 that was a short jaunt off the trail. The Cuyahoga Valley has quite a farming history and the National Park System (NPS) has incorporated some of these historic farms into the Park. The NPS owns nine farms and is assisted by a Conservancy in managing them. Farmers are carefully selected and are granted long term leases of the farmsteads and fields to grow crops and raise animals. This house though is actually used for lodging with the whole house available for rental. There are nine bedrooms with 30 beds, living areas and a commercial kitchen. It would be an amazing place to have a group retreat or family reunion!

1843 Stanford House

I am crazy about old barns – this one is part of the Stanford House property.

My first day of riding on the trail I rode as far as the Brecksville-Northfield High Level Bridge before turning back. I took this photo from a trestle bridge that is now part of the towpath trail. It was here that I read about the Cuyahoga River catching on fire in 1969. It was not the first fire on the River as there have been at least ten dating back to the beginning of the 20th century due to years of industrial waste. This last fire was a wake up call for environmentalism and this year Cuyahoga Valley National Park is celebrating 50 years since the last fire on the River.

In 2012 there was a failed plot to blow up this bridge with five men arrested and later convicted!

It was great to be back biking again and the perfect place in the beautiful valley of the Cuyahoga River! As I write this I am excited because we have located another bike shop and biking trail that I plan to ride in the next few days. More on that to come!

Exploring Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio

Cuyahoga River

Cuyahoga Valley National Park is what I would call a “different” kind of park. I think most people imagine National Parks as wilderness areas away from the hustle and bustle of normal life. At many, the scenery is often grand and inspires awe. Parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone and Glacier have unique and dramatic features that can be seen in few other places. Cuyahoga is more of an urban or suburban park as it is surrounded by towns and a freeway runs close by. In addition, it is located between two major cities, Cleveland and Akron. I like to read reviews on the places I visit and it was interesting to read reactions of people that visited here. Some complained that wherever they went they could hear road noise. A few others complained there wasn’t enough to warrant it being a National Park. But for the most part, the reviews were positive. The Park was developed to preserve its centerpiece, the Cuyahoga River Valley. This area is full of history, with the Ohio and Erie Canal as well as farms and mills once dotting the land. Some farms continue to operate within the Park. As towns and cities began to encroach upon the area, there was fear that this beautiful valley and all its heritage would be lost, so preservation efforts began with National Park status granted in the year 2000.

Everett Covered Bridge

At the first activity I attended a ranger asked our group to think about when was the last time we did something special or unique that stood out for us. We had met at Everett Covered Bridge after finishing an evening walk where we strolled by a creek looking at wildflowers and listening to bird calls. He reminded us that we were in the only National Park in Ohio and also standing under a full moon, but not just any full moon, a “blue” moon that only happens once every year or two. He told us we were experiencing a special event that night we might not have thought about. I appreciated his enthusiasm and also his encouragement to think about those special moments in our lives. For those of you that remember my article about the full moon event at Saguaro National Park, I also appreciated that this time we could actually see the full moon!

Countryside Farmers’ Market at Howe Meadow

Today there are a number of ways to enjoy Cuyahoga NP with walking, hiking and biking on trails some of the major highlights. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad runs through the Park and on to the city of Akron, connecting with several towns and providing passengers views of the Park. With a variety of attractions, I found ways to keep busy here for several days. One activity I did not want to miss was the Saturday farmers’ market located in a lovely meadow. I love farmers’ markets and how often does one get to visit a market in a national park? This one was very nicely done with not only a great location, but also plenty of vendors with lots of goodies.

I bought delicious pierogies here

In addition, there was a great band playing and singing throughout the morning, worth coming just for the music. Since I can’t remember the last time I had pierogies I tried some and they were delicious! There were tables scattered around for sitting, eating and relaxing which was nice. I had to try a few other goodies, indulging in some homemade bienenstich “bee sting” cake (one of the best desserts I have eaten in a long time) and baklava. It was definitely a multicultural eating experience but I also got some healthy foods to take back such as greens and veggies.

Beaver Marsh

Down the road from the market was Beaver Marsh which ended up being an interesting site. One of the most beautiful marshes I have seen in my travels, I was surprised to learn that an auto repair shop with old cars and worn out parts covered this area before the National Park Service (NPS) purchased the land. Many, many years before it had been a wetland. The site was cleaned up by the Sierra Club and working together with the NPS they hauled all the trash away. The NPS wasn’t quite sure what to do with this piece of land but beavers were returning to the Valley and built a system of dams that flooded the area, creating the marsh. The marsh is very large, full of blooming water lilies and a rich variety of plant and animal species. It is a wonderful story of restoration with both humans and animals working together to create something special.

Wood Ducks

A nicely constructed boardwalk has been placed through the marsh for easy viewing. Although I didn’t see any beavers I did see some birds including these adorable wood ducklings and their mother. As she sat patiently on a log, her babies swam and splashed around the lily pads until they joined her to dry out their feathers.

View of Brandywine Falls from the lowest level

Another day Mark and I traveled around the Park hitting some of the main attractions with Brandywine Falls perhaps the most popular. I have to confess that I have a mental block about these falls as I can never remember their name! I always have to look it up as the name doesn’t seem to stick for some reason. The falls drop 65 feet over a rock face and into a gorge. You can see them from several different viewpoints; the lowest requires a stairway with many steps. I like to judge how I would rate a falls by the wow factor I feel when I see it. These falls are quite nice and large, but I wasn’t feeling the “wow” that I have felt at other waterfalls.

View of Brandywine Falls from the top level

Ritchie Ledges is an interesting geological spot with a hiking trail that goes by dramatic and tall sandstone cliffs. Some of the cliffs have broken off in areas creating a rock garden of huge boulders with interesting colors of orange, yellow and brown. There are narrow openings to walk through into rooms or enclosed areas. I found it to be a mysterious and fun place to explore. Since I love seeing rock formations, it was one of my favorite places to visit in the Park.

Tunnel of rock at Ritchie Ledges
A class field trip views rock formations in one of the large “rooms.”
Ritchie Ledges Trail

Cuyahoga Valley NP Visitor Center is located in the former mill town of Boston. Built in 1836, the building had been a warehouse and boarding house. It was here that we got our passport book stamped and saw exhibits about the Ohio & Erie Canal including part of an old canal boat. In 1825, construction began on this Canal as a transportation system that would connect Lake Erie with the Ohio River and be routed through the Cuyahoga Valley. It took two years to hand dig the canal section from Cleveland to Akron with Irish and German immigrants providing most of the labor.

Boston Visitor Center

We also visited another canal site, the Canal Exploration Center. The historic building here was once a tavern, general store and residence. We got to see Lock 38 which is one of the few restored working locks along the historic Ohio and Erie Canal. A signboard described the locks acting as elevators by raising and lowering boats between levels with 44 locks between Cleveland and Akron. Heavy wooden gates seal the stone chamber and water is added to raise a boat headed upstream. For a boat headed downstream, the water could be drained out to lower it.

Canal Exploration Center at Lock 38

In the photo below, I am trying my best to close the gate for an incoming vessel. Well no, not really, hee, hee. They wouldn’t let me do that without supervision as the Center wasn’t open when we visited. No boat was actually coming through either. But I tested my strength on it for a little while and tried to get it to move.

Manning the gates!

We found Cuyahoga to be a very nice park to visit and also enjoyed the nearby towns. There weren’t quite as many attractions as some National Parks but it was a clear example of quality versus quantity. I appreciated that the Cuyahoga Valley has been saved from destruction by urban development.

In my next blog I write about my favorite activity at Cuyahoga – biking!

Spring Hike at Oak Openings Metro Park Near Toledo, Ohio

Oak Openings Metro Park, Toledo

After traveling around Ohio we noticed something unique – metro parks. These parks are all over the place and provide a great deal of recreation. Located near cities or metropolitan centers such as Toledo, Cleveland and Columbus, they are not the usual kind of city parks that I would expect. These metro parks have acres of forests, waterways and miles of biking and hiking trails where you feel you have really gotten away into nature. Ohio has done a great thing protecting and making available so much green space for residents and visitors. While staying near Lake Erie for the warbler migration, we decided to visit one of these parks that had been recommended to us.

After driving to Oak Openings Preserve, we started our walk near Oakes Lodge. The trails were a little confusing at first but we eventually figured out a course that we hoped would take us to the Buehner Center where we would be able to do some birding. The forest here was so green, especially after all the rain the state has had. As a California native where “green” only lasts for the early spring months, I continue to be amazed at the lushness in the Eastern part of the U.S. This lushness seems to last much of the year. Since traveling in Ohio. Mark and I have often commented about all the people out mowing their lawns with riding mowers, an activity that must consume a lot of free time!

White Trillium

It was a beautiful spring walk with many flowers in bloom. White trillium was the most abundant and there were masses of these plants with large green leaves and white flowers throughout our hike.


I was thrilled when I heard the screeching call of a Pileated Woodpecker. I was able to see one flying about and followed it along the trail but it wouldn’t stay put for a photo. I did get some pictures of a Red-headed Woodpecker, a bird I have only seen a few times in our traveling, the first time in Louisiana. But the lighting this time did not make for a good photo.

We saw lots of flowering Dogwood near the trails
Mark taking a photo of me while I take one of him.

We arrived to the Buehner Center after a great hike! This Center sits next to a lake and has a building available for events as well as picnic areas and a playground. We were most interested though in their birding window. Sitting inside there were perfect views of a number of feeding stations outside. I was rather surprised that we saw 19 different bird species in a short period of time including Indigo Bunting, Scarlet Tanager, American Redstart, American Goldfinch, Pine Warbler, Red-headed Woodpecker and Baltimore Oriole.

Baltimore Oriole – never get tired of seeing those orioles!

I was most excited about having such a great view of the Red-headed Woodpecker, a vibrant colored bird.

Red-headed Woodpecker

We spent more than an hour at the Center watching the birds and met a local named Michael. We had fun talking about birds, travel and life experiences. We found out he and his wife follow some of the same full time RVers that I follow on You Tube. After spending some time in Ohio I have been thinking about the people here and how friendly, easy to talk to and laid back they are. This seems to be a trend throughout the state as Ohioans have been interested to get to know us. Along with many other things, this has been a plus to visiting here.

A photo with Michael – a friendly Ohioan

I will close with some more nature photos. These are actually from Magee Marsh and include my favorite Warbler (Magnolia) and a Blanding’s Turtle with its characteristic yellow throat that is considered endangered.

Until next time when my post will be about our time at Cuyahoga National Park in Ohio.

Magnolia Warbler
Blanding’s Turtle
American Redstart

Warbler Migration at Magee Marsh, Ohio

Before Mark and I started RVing, I would take group trips with a program called “Road Scholar.” I was introduced to them by my parents who had taken several trips that they enjoyed. We even took a trip together to the Gulf of Texas to see birds. Road Scholar has trips all over the U.S. as well as many parts of the world and caters to those of middle age and up. They frequently send out catalogues with their offerings and I would look through them to get travel ideas and also to see if there were any trips I wanted to take. Since travel is one of my favorite activities, I never tired of reading about new possibilities. One offering was at Magee Marsh in Ohio for the warbler migration. I thought this sounded intriguing since I like birding and had few opportunities to see warblers in my home state of California. I kept Magee Marsh and birding in Ohio in the back of my mind for a possible Road Scholar trip.

Cape May Warbler
Cape May Warbler

Magee Marsh is located next to the shore of Lake Erie and it is here that warblers as well as a number of other birds stop on their migration from warmer winter climates such as Central and South America. They spend time at the marsh resting and “fueling up” before heading over Lake Erie to their summer grounds in Canada. It can vary, but the time for migration is usually the first three weeks of May.

Northern Parula

There are over 40 warbler species that pass through, some earlier or later than others. Magee Marsh (as well as other nearby birding parks) has become one of the premier birding places in the U.S. with people coming from all over the world to see the birds! When traveling through the Southwest earlier this year and meeting other birders, we sometimes mentioned we were heading to Ohio to see the warblers. The question from them would usually be, “Are you going to Magee Marsh?” In the birding world, Magee is the place to go.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

When we were staying in Tucson this past March I went on some trips with the birding group and met Barbara. Barbara was visiting from Ohio and lives not too far from Magee Marsh. She told me about the upcoming birding festival in Northwest Ohio which she attends and encouraged me to plan a trip there. It is sponsored by Black Swamp Bird Observatory and is billed as the “Biggest Week in American Birding.” There are a number of events associated with this festival which is held in various locations outside the Toledo area including Magee Marsh. There are guided birding trips and classes which start around the first week of May and last for more than a week. Since we planned to visit Ohio this year I figured checking out the warbler migration would be a great opportunity. This could be our first main activity in our tour of the Midwest states this year.

Barbara and I with Greg, one of the festival’s birding guides who led our nature walk
Chestnut-sided Warbler

We spent a week at a campground near Lake Erie and I visited Magee Marsh four different days. Barbara was able to bird with me twice and introduce me to Magee. I have birded at places all around the country in our travels, both before RVing and during our recent travels. I found Magee to be the most interesting place I have ever birded. A boardwalk one mile in length went throughout the swamp with so many different birds to look at it was mind boggling. Many places I have birded the small birds are high up in the trees making identification difficult. At Magee the birds could be seen closer to the boardwalk so birding was more fun. I recall someone telling me years ago that watching warblers can be addicting and after seeing all these colorful little beauties, I could certainly understand.

Prothonotary Warbler

I enjoyed adding 22 new birds to my life list and eleven of those were warblers. People on the boardwalk would ask others if they had seen a particular kind of warbler and others would help if they could with information as to where they had seen one. This leads me to write about another reason I found Magee to be such an interesting place to bird. There were a lot of people on the boardwalk, so many that at times it became a traffic jam. People tended to cluster in certain areas when there were sightings and a few times it became difficult to make my way through the crowd. This was especially true when I went on a Saturday morning. At one spot I was stuck in a crush and could not move in either direction. One lady next to me started talking about feeling claustrophobic and not able to get out. Eventually I broke through and went on my way.

A crowd birding on Magee Marsh Boardwalk

It might sound impossible to bird in such crowded conditions, but somehow it worked. I found people to be polite – not pushy, rude or impatient and helpful with identifying and finding birds when able. I have found this to be a trend with birders in other places I have visited as they want others to enjoy the experience too. At Magee, a few even had scopes set up so people could view close up, owls and nighthawks in the trees. Thanks to fellow birders, I was able to see birds that I probably would not have been able to spot on my own. Since the warblers were so unfamiliar, I needed all the help I could get! Occasionally I was able to find quiet places on the boardwalk, sometimes with no one in sight.

Quiet spot on Magee Marsh Boardwalk
Photographing birds

There were other birds besides warblers that also caught my attention with the Scarlet Tanager my favorite. This bright red bird was a dazzling sight and it was here that I first saw them. One stayed in the same area near the boardwalk for perhaps a half hour or more. I lost track of time as I kept watching him and taking pictures.

Scarlet Tanager
Scarlet Tanager

Bald eagles nest in the marsh and kept people captivated. Several times I would see one flying carrying a long stick to add to its nest. The stick usually looked much longer than its body! The nests are so large that they were fairly easy to spot in the trees. I will close with a photo of one sunning next to a nest. I hope you enjoyed a tour of this popular birding spot!

Bald Eagle

We are working on galleries and I am going to try and add some bird photos at the end of this post. Hope you like it!

Exploring Mark Twain’s Hometown in Hannibal, Missouri

Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer Statue

On our journey to the upper Midwest, we made a stop for three nights at Mark Twain Cave and Campground in Hannibal, Missouri. The historic town of Hannibal is known as the boyhood home of famous author Mark Twain. When Twain was growing up he was known as Samuel Clemens and here on the Mississippi River he drew from his life experiences to create the characters in two of his books, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I was excited to visit his former home, especially after seeing other Twain historical sites including his home in Hartford Connecticut last year. Some years ago we also visited the old mining town of Virginia City, Nevada where Twain had been a newspaper reporter.

Stream next to our campground

This campground was a good choice for us as it was only a few miles to the downtown and the Twain Cave was walking distance. The campground was also pretty with our site backing up to a stream and woods. We set up our bird feeders and had some good sightings. My favorite was the Indigo Bunting and Rose-breasted Grosbeak (a life bird)!

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

In Hannibal you can visit Twain’s boyhood home as well as other homes significant in his life. I started at the Visitor Center which has exhibits, information and a film. I have always enjoyed Twain’s witty humor and some of his quotations and sayings were on the walls like the one below where he describes his younger years along the Mississippi.

From the Visitor Center I went on a self-guided tour of Twain’s boyhood home with the entrance at the back of the house. Following the directions you visit the various rooms which have been set up to look like the period of time in which he lived here. All of the rooms had been glassed in for protection and therefore did not look very natural. Once I saw the rooms, the route took me back out through the front to a small street. There are several other buildings of significance that can be toured on this street including the home of Twain’s childhood friend Laura who was the inspiration for Becky Thatcher in the book Tom Sawyer. There is also a house that was the law office of Twain’s father and around the corner is the former home of “Huckleberry Finn.” Although informative, I was a little disappointed in the homes which seemed too sanitized and did not grab my attention as I thought they would.

Mark Twain’s boyhood home and location of the fence from his novel Tom Sawyer
Becky Thatcher Home

A museum in town has a collection of Mark Twain memorabilia and information about many of his books. Areas have been set up to portray scenes, for example visitors can sit on a raft on a simulated river while watching a segment from a Huckleberry Finn movie. In another area, kids can try their hand at whitewashing a fence like Tom Sawyer tricked his friends into doing. In the photo above next to a bust of Mark Twain is a type of bicycle that he learned to ride at the age of 48. He wrote humorously about the experience: “Get a bicycle, you will not regret it. If you live.” One area of the museum has paintings done by Norman Rockwell, my favorite American artist. I really enjoyed visiting his museum in Massachusetts last summer although I haven’t blogged about it yet. Perhaps some day. Rockwell was commissioned to complete illustrations for Twain’s books and traveled to Hannibal so he could immerse himself in Twain’s world. He even spent some time in Twain’s Cave so he would have a feel for what it would have been like when Tom Sawyer and girlfriend Becky got lost.

Norman Rockwell’s painting of Tom Sawyer white washing the fence

Hannibal was a nice town for walking around with well maintained old buildings. At the edge of the downtown you can walk up several flights of stairs to a small park and then on to a lighthouse memorial on a bluff. I was hoping to have some good views of the Mississippi River and the town up there. I got up below the lighthouse but the stairs leading up to it were closed. I did find beautiful wildflowers though.

Purple Wallflowers

Hannibal lies right next to the Mississippi River which when we visited had been flooding. I climbed the levee and was amazed at how wide the river was. Nearby roads had been flooded as well as a few buildings, a park, parking lot and walking paths. In the photo below you can see railroad crossing signs emerging from the water.

The flooded Mississippi next to Hannibal’s levee

While I was standing on the levee another woman visiting the town came up and we talked about all the water. I exclaimed how neat it was and then had to catch myself. This wasn’t neat for the people of Hannibal and neighboring communities. It was also interesting to watch large cranes continuing to pile sandbags along the levee. While visiting the local museum I had asked a staff member how to find the statue of Mark Twain with a pilot wheel. (Twain was once a riverboat captain). She told me I wouldn’t be able to get to it as it was now in the flooding river.

Sandbags along the levee
Someone thoughtfully put a life jacket on Twain in the flooded river!

There was also flooding across the road from our campground. The driveway leading to a resort was too flooded to cross and part of the property was inundated as well. In addition, the main road heading past our campground was closed. Right before the “closed road” sign was the turnoff to the campground. We were very glad that the camping entrance was not flooded as that easily could have been the case. I read that this year has been the worst along the Mississippi in several states since the great flood of 1993. Concerns continue even as I write this article as flood waters in some areas have not receded. (We arrived here on May 4).

One afternoon I visited Mark Twain’s Cave and took a tour, the only way to see it. As a boy, Twain explored this cave and wrote about it in his autobiography. He also used the cave for his book about Tom Sawyer. Tom and his friends spent time exploring it and got themselves into a fair amount of trouble.

Mark Twain Cave Entrance – upper left of photo is a green sign marking the “discovery entrance.”

This cave was much different than others I have visited. Most have had bigger rooms and included formations like stalagmites and stalactites. The Mark Twain Cave has many narrow, winding passages and lacks formations. It would definitely be easy to get lost here and our group was glad to have a guide showing the way!

A narrow passage in the Mark Twain Cave
Our cave guide

Our guide told us stories about Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher getting lost in the cave for several days trying to find their way out. At times they put out their lamp light to conserve it. The lights were turned out for us as well and to be expected it was pitch black. Crawling around there would have been a nightmare! She also shared stories about other people that have explored or used the cave and the walls have a number of signatures from long ago. Jesse James, Missouri’s most notorious citizen also had a hideout here and his signature can be found in a remote part of the cave we could not see.

Jesse James Hideout

It was a great few days exploring Hannibal and Mark Twain’s Cave! I hope you enjoyed coming along.