Blue Blazes

Scattered around Ohio are thousands of little blue markings that can lead you on a Thoreau-esque, 1,400-mile trek otherwise known as the Buckeye Trail.
It’s chilly, there are occasional clumps of snow still about, and I’m sweating. I’m in a city I don’t know, in a state park I’ve never heard of, walking into the forest on an old fire trail with a man I’ve just met. Sometimes we stop to listen because we’re not sure if what we just heard is merely the crunch of our feet on the forest floor or any number of wildlife species that might be nearby.

I’ve got hiking poles for balance, and we both carry backpacks with the usual: water, breakfast bars, trail mix. Mine is the tiniest bit heavier, because I’ve also got a book created specifically for these circumstances. “Follow the Blue Blazes — A Guide to Hiking Ohio’s Buckeye Trail” could help us out if we need additional information. Chances are good that we won’t, though — my hiking buddy, 68-year-old Bob Pond, is the fellow who wrote it.

At the trailhead, I know I’ve found the right guy because Bob’s car sports vanity plates that read “Hike BTA,” and a bumper sticker that asks “Got boots?” Being a thorough sort, Bob brings out his Ohio gazetteer to show me the black dots that mark the Buckeye Trail around the state, and he gently traces the path we’re about to take.

We’re in Cambridge, at Salt Fork State Park, to hike a path Bob has decided will be typical of the Buckeye Trail’s offerings. Our two-hour trek will take us through mature forest trails and into meadowlands on a course that climbs and descends about 250 feet over a few miles.
We’re barely into the woods before realizing that we’re kindred spirits, and, considering we’ve never met before this hike, this comes as a huge relief. We discover not only similar political views, but also an affinity for imported beer and vintage Merle Haggard. Bob’s a genuinely likable guy, the dad you’d want to spend your afternoons on the trail with.

Being a good dad was what led Bob to the Buckeye Trail in the first place. A native Ohioan, he was looking for a way to spend time with his then-14-year-old son, and hiking and backpacking seemed like a good idea. “I started hiking the trail before I became a member of the [Buckeye Trail Association],” he says. “A lot of people do it that way.”

A lot of people do it that way because many of them come across his book. In 13 chapters, it covers the entire trail, offering three featured hikes per 100-mile section. (The trail was roughly 1,200 miles long when the book was published four years ago; it has since grown by 200 miles. Section updates are always available at Bob leads you along the entire trail, blue blaze to blue blaze. (Blazes are paint markings on trees, rocks, posts, sometimes even the back of stop signs.) The book also covers Ohio’s geological quirks as well as flora and fauna found along the trail. Intrigued readers then set out to experience it for themselves.

That’s the point, Bob says. “I wrote the book, not for the experienced backpacker, but for the single mom who’s got two kids, lives in Cincinnati and wants to get them out and do some things together. I can’t guarantee you’ll see wildlife every time, but you will see trees and rocks, so I talk about trees and rocks and plants in the book.”

Bob, a retired engineer, donates his royalties from sales of the book to the BTA. “I enjoyed the trail for many years, and I didn’t like maintaining or working on it that much, and this was something I could really do to help,” he says.

In the book, he assumes Thoreau’s belief that “to enjoy life one must rid oneself of the complications brought on by the accumulation of material possessions and the urge to travel to distant places when there is so much to understand in one’s own backyard.” The Buckeye Trail is our backyard, and Bob knows better than almost anybody the Walden-like journey of personal discovery that can be found there. “The Buckeye Trail grants me a peaceful perspective difficult to find elsewhere,” he writes.

Hiking with him leaves little doubt of his peaceful outlook and love for his statewide backyard. During our hike, he often stops to admire the trail. “This section is in pretty good shape,” he says, and then, with a hint of that little-kid excitement so often present in his voice, he adds, “Look at this. What else do we need?”


Trail Stories
Five things you should know about the Buckeye Trail:

1.  It winds through more than half of Ohio’s 88 counties.

2. The most popular section is Grandma Gatewood Trail in Hocking Hills.

3. Grandma Gatewood, one of the founders of the trail, was in her 70s when she became the first woman to through-hike the Appalachian Trail.

4. The trail is 1,440 miles long, roughly the distance from Columbus to Denver, Colo.

5. The paint used for the blue blazes is Sherwin-Williams No. 2408, “Sweeping Blue.”

Hike It Your Way

The Buckeye Trail Web site breaks the trail down into 26 manageable sections. There’s sure to be one that speaks to you.
Luxury Lovers
Burton Section
Hiking through Big Creek State Park from Chardon to the Grand River will bring you near the Renaissance Quail Hollow Resort, where you can tuck in to a comfy bed and a stellar meal after a long day on the trail. (440) 497-1100

Family Style
Old Man’s Cave Section
Your brood will enjoy exploring the Hocking Hills area. Families with small children regularly hike from Old Man’s Cave to Cedar Falls: The area has plenty of family-friendly restaurants and lodging, with everything from a Holiday Inn Express to cottages and B&Bs.

Athletic Hikers
Shawnee Section
Portions of the Buckeye Trail in Shawnee State Forest follow a 42-mile backpack trail, so backpacker types will find lots of rugged hiking conditions and natural beauty (but take note — in this region, the trail isn’t marked with the traditional blue blazes; it shares the orange blazes of the park’s main Backpack Trail). If you like the idea of a strenuous hike, but hate the idea of pitching a tent, the park also has a 50-room lodge with a restaurant and swimming pools.
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