Athens County, Ohio: Cream of the Country

A trip to Athens County is a sentimental journey to the heart of Ohio's magnificent Hocking Valley hill country.

| May/June 1989

It's a straight shot out of Columbus on route 33 to the hills of southeast Ohio, and I waste no time putting the airport and the All-American City's fast, busy outer belt behind me. Columbus was home for eight years, and I remember—with some disbelief, now—how I used to thrive on early morning competitive car-dodging, a rush-hour ritual that was at least as good as a couple of cups of black coffee in sheer wake-up power. Now I just want to get away from the traffic; I barely glance at familiar buildings and landmarks. In the decade-plus since I left the area, Columbus has become a much bigger town—and I've become a much smaller-town person. Finally, the city fades in my rearview mirror.

Flat. Sheesh, I'd forgotten how flat central Ohio is. "Only" 2 million years ago, as geologists blithely put it, the entire state was rolling or steep hill country, the eroded remains of primordial seabeds after some 60 million years of wind and rain, freezing and thawing, heaving and upheaving. Then came the last ice age, when sheets of ice up to a mile thick slowly ground over the region, sandpapering the hills, filling in deep river valleys and generally leveling the land encompassing 56 of present-day Ohio's 88 counties. The glaciers stopped just short of southeastern Ohio, leaving the rugged terrain there intact but adding new streams and rivers created by glacial meltwater.

As I drive south, passing beyond the bustling, industrial town of Lancaster, in Fairfield County, the countryside begins to change from glaciated flat to unglaciated rolling, and off to my left a wide plain of farmland is bisected by a winding path of willows and oaks, trees tracing the banks of one glacier-spawned tributary, the Hocking River. This is the northernmost end of the Hocking River Valley, a region of rich history and natural beauty that embraces all or portions of six Buckeye counties: Fairfield, Hocking, Perry, Vinton, Morgan and Athens. It's October, and the hills, growing increasingly steep and close now, are aglow in vibrant gold and yellow fall foliage.

In Hocking County, I pass the exits for Hocking Hills State Park—actually a cluster of state-managed parks and woodland encompassing some 9,000 spectacular acres of forests, gorges and caves. The entire valley offers much, but I've decided to focus on Athens County (pop. 57,592) for its affordable real estate, cultural diversity, near-but-far proximity to major cities, and other reasons both objective and, I admit, subjective.

When I think of the first time I came to Athens County, I have to laugh and shake my head at the peculiar workings of fate and time. It was 19 years ago—1970—and I'd driven down from Columbus for the weekend to visit a friend who'd rented an old farmhouse in the hills. No one was home when I arrived, so I settled into a mostly seatless rocking chair on the front porch and picked up a copy of a strange little pulp-paper magazine I'd never seen or heard of before. The cover portrayed a couple holding hands in a farm field, watching a sunrise, over which was a banner that read "How to Get Out Of the City and BACK TO THE LAND." It was issue 2 of THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

I cross the line into Athens County, Ohio. Here I am, almost two decades later, an editor for that little magazine, come to rediscover the county in which I discovered MOTHER.

5/31/2007 1:37:04 PM

Love this article! As soon as I sell my house in Ferndale, WA, I'm coming back to SoEastern Ohio, Athens County, remembering the times there, as I grew up in Lancaster, Ohio. Just Southeast of Lancaster, yes, everything changes. Here we come, me, and my two Farm Collies, MaLassie and Sir Laddie.

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