Feature Story

Retreat in the Woods: When a Place Becomes Us

The Inn
Winter Retreat
Winter Afternoon at the Inn
Evening Falls
Spring Journey
November Moon
Winter Cover
Winter Recedes
Autumn Sky

May 2003. I was not that far removed from the multiple-day trips I made while living in Utah, to photograph the national parks out west. For the serious landscape photographer these areas necessitated much more then the simple day hike. I had learned to love and appreciate the soft, even light that lies within the margins of the day. Dawn and dusk is the natural habitat of the ethereal light that moves the soul of the visual artist. I had returned to my home of Dayton, Ohio and was anxious to get back to the area where I first explored the creative outlet of nature and landscape photography - the edge of the Appalachian foothills in the Southeastern part of a Midwest state better known for flatlands of corn and soybean fields. More specifically, Hocking Hills State Park. But where in Hocking Hills could I stay where I would have the access to the landscape at those hours of the "good light ?"

The answer came to me in a manner very similar to many of best photographs - unexpected and unplanned. It was May of 2003 when I decided that rather in staying in a chain hotel in Chillicothe - which was still a good 45 minutes away from the Park - that I noticed the sign for the Inn at Cedar Falls, off to the left side of the two-lane hilly road that connects Cedar Falls to Old Man's Cave. There stood the 1800's era log cabin and the other small building that was the office and gift shop. Across the road was the gravel parking lot. But I would soon learn that there was much more to this bed and breakfast inn in Hocking Hills.

In our modern, consumer-driven society with immediate, mass marketing and branding of just about everything, how comforting it is to know a place that is original to the land on which it sits. The Inn at Cedar Falls fits seamlessly into the landscape of Hocking Hills. It would be a shame to merely refer to it as a business. It's an outgrowth of a passion for what makes Hocking Hills so unique, encapsulating the nature of the land in every room, cottage and cabin that are spread out over the hilltop and woodlands that's part of the Inn property. In fact the original log cabin is still present. It's now the Inn's kitchen and main dinning room. When I walk in and hear the old wood planks creek and moan it's as if echoes of distant memories are suddenly released to the air before settling back again in the soul of the old building.

"It's a sacred place," the Inn's owner Ellen Grinsfelder is fond of saying. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to stay there knows why. Ellen's mother, Ann Castle, started the Inn with just an idea, an adventuresome spirit and a love for the land that is Hocking Hills. What was once just a simple farming homestead, that up until sometime in the mid-1940's lacked electricity and running water, has now become that special place in the woods. That place where writers, lovers, poets and artists throughout Ohio, and beyond, have come to know as their touchstone to the purity of the creative process, rooted in nature so easily accessible, so welcoming, so cherished.

It was Anne Castle's dream taken to form when the Inn was established and first built, officially opening in 1987. Anne had picked-up and moved to Hocking Hills from Columbus and set about in accomplishing something that so many others told her was an impossibility - a bed and breakfast and country retreat in Hocking Hills State Park. Despite Anne's fight with cancer in 1991, her dream took root and began to take shape. When Anne passed away in 1991 it was her daughter Ellen, and Ellen's husband Terry, who put forth a tireless dedication and commitment to see Anne's dream come to full realization. Much of Terry's own skills in construction and woodworking can be seen throughout the various buildings that comprise the Inn at Cedar Falls.

The Inn at Cedar Falls is the artist's retreat within the creative refuge that is Hocking Hills. It is a place that I discovered at that perfect time in my life and career as a photographer, becoming the fertile ground from which I would extend my photographic work beyond what I could have foreseen when I walked in and asked if there were any available rooms on that bright spring day in May 2003.

Behind the main office and old cabin restaurant is a hill that ascends to a garden. To the left is the "barn" that includes nine guest rooms. The hilltop is a natural compass. Standing in the middle of the garden, facing away from the barn, due east is directly to my left. The position seems to be a gathering point of positive energy from all four points of the compass, with an elevated view of progressing ridge lines and hollows to the south. I would come to appreciate the visual splendor of this vantage point when experiencing sunrise that morning of my first stay.

But visual aesthetics aside, there is something else on the hilltop. An almost indescribable aura that causes the creative and sensitive spirit to linger. An energy that gathers you in and directs you to stop, be still and let the light on that land and of the day seep into the mind's eye. Being there feels like a coming home to a place not previously known but always felt - felt in a heart that longs for something much more meaningful and lasting than the constant onslaught of the mundane and meaningless.

It's been seven years now and I've lost count how many times I've stayed at The Inn. Yet each time I approach, coming from the north and around the tree-lined bend on state route 374 and I see the old cabin, I can't help but feel a sense of comfortable peace. I walk through the door to the check-in counter, hear the sounds, take-in the smells and see the familiar, smiling faces. I smile back and say "I'm home."

Like the Hocking Hills that surround the Inn at Cedar Falls, each season brings it's own gifts to all the sensations when a guest at this "sacred place." The almost absolute quiet of a snowfall on a winter's eve. The intoxicating scent of breakfast being prepared in the kitchen and drifting outside and up the hill in the frosty air of a morning in February.

The subtle sights and sounds of life renewed in April. Cravens of crows call in the deep woods and hollows. Cardinals and robins greet dawn on the hilltop with the fervor of an energized chorus of unrestrained joy. The ridge lines and woodlands are highlighted by flowering dogwoods and red buds. The ground breaths a deep, cool mist into the rising sun, as it to awakens and stirs after the long winter slumber.

Downhill from the Inn lies first Cotterman, and then Ilesboro roads, each leading through hollows between rolling, wooded ridges. When the mist fills these low areas during a cool, spring evening and April, the sunrise next morning is often a spectacular display of light beams radiating through still-bare branches.

Summer is a time of dusk taking its time to linger before nightfall. Thunder from a passing storm that relieved the afternoon heat still echoes across the hills. In the open, slanted field on the other side of the barn the dance of the fireflies begins as the first crickets begin their night song. Guests of the Inn occupy the old rocking chairs on the front porch. Now, at this special place, away from the pressures and restraints of their work-a-day-world back home, a peaceful relaxation overcomes them and they are reminded of how life is meant to be lived. No cell phones or televisions. Just conversation, a beautiful light and nature all around.

However, it's with the arrival of autumn when the sacred light and spirit of the Inn at Cedar Falls nearly overwhelms the senses. The poet and the artist are called back by an invisible force carried in the cool clarity of that first autumn night. The lengthening shadows and nature's final splendor arrayed on the hillsides, and the Inn at Cedar Falls welcomes the annual rush of autumn day trippers and weekenders with the rich aromas of hearth and season's feast.

The forest surrounding the one-room cottages, along the winding, gravel road that parallels route 374, take on a gold cast in late afternoon of a beautiful day in mid-October. The glow and color fills the insides of these woodland hideaways. Watching the afternoon turn to evening on the back porches one can see leaf after leaf, from the maples, oaks and elms make their silent decent to the forest floor, joining eons of previous autumns that celebrated the end of summer with this final, falling gesture. The land here lives with the trees serving as its silent army of giants connecting earth to sky.

November's full Moon - the "Frost Moon" - ascends from the eastern horizon, rising from that perfect point on the hilltop behind the Inn like a giant specter in the soft purple of late autumn dusk. Time stands still. The only sound is the slowing, sad cadence of that last cricket of the season. The day of Thanksgiving feast is done and winter's sleep is soon to arrive, but before it does there's still a hint of the fall season to be celebrated.

The in-between time of twilight, in-between two seasons, and a temporary opening appears in the haunting light over a timeless landscape. The ancient Celtic people of Western and Central Europe were particularly attuned to life's rhythms manifested in the changing light of the day and of the seasons. If they had been in the area that is now known as Hocking Hills there's no doubt in my mind that on the hilltop behind what would become the Inn at Cedar Falls would stand a stone temple marking the annual paths of celestial migrations.

By early December the first snowfall has come and quiet descends once again in the woodlands surrounding the Inn. The ice cathedrals take shape as frigid night air makes solid form of the flowing water in the gorges. But life at the Inn goes on as winter guests arrive for snowy hikes and long evenings by fireside. Outside the cabin window is a mix of grey, tan and brown bark, interspersed by the stark white of the huge, bare branches of sycamore trees. "Paperwhites in a Dark Wood," the title of just one of the many poems inspired by just such a winter scene, by friend, poet and fellow regular guest at The Inn, Stephen Emerick.

The Inn at Cedar Falls embraces the artistic spirits that have found a home away from home amongst the winding, gravel roads, cabins and cottages on the wooded hillside and the naturally positive energy that flows so freely on the hilltop. And they return, time and time again. To recharge. To create. To be at, and in a place of peace. In all the rooms in the barns, as well as the cottages and cabins, there are copies of Stephen Emerick's various volumes of nature-based poetry, written while he stayed at the Inn. In the dining and common area rooms the walls are filled with paintings, drawings and photographic prints, also of the Inn and the scenic landscapes throughout Hocking Hills, including Cedar Falls, Ash Cave, Conkle's Hollow and Old Man's Cave. Every artist, poet and writer who visits the Inn leaves a little something behind that speaks of his or her creative interpretation of the place.

In the Inn's "Gathering Space" - the big, open common room with the oversized, comfy chairs, couches and stone fireplace - are book shelfs filled with the completed guest books, dating back to when the Inn first opened in 1987. These are the little decorative journals left in each guest room and cabin, set out for those who so choose to leave a personal note or thought about their stay. Many of the words written are from couples celebrating anniversaries. Some 10 years of marriage, still others 50+ years. But occasionally one will come across notes from souls on a more singular quest or retreat. The cancer patient who knows her time is short. A person mourning the recent loss of a loved one and who "just needed to get away." And then there's the young couple who are about to part because of active duty and deployment to war in the Middle East.

There are also the heartfelt, innocent meanderings and impressions from the younger children of a family that decided to take a weekend trip to Hocking Hills. A pencil sketch of "Monday," the resident cat, or a drawing of the scene on one of the back porches, looking out into the woods. With several visits behind them, my own two daughters have made their fair share of contributions to the Inn's scrolls of memory.

"We love it here. We are so happy we found this place. We needed more time to truly enjoy the Inn. We will be back. I needed this break. I never knew how nice it is to go without television for a couple of days. How beautiful nature is here. You should take some time and go 'crunch' around in the woods. Don't change a thing. Thank God there will always be the Inn at Cedar Falls. This was our last weekend together before my husband deploys to Iraq and I'm so happy we could spend it here at the Inn."

"When we stepped outside the cabin this morning there were several deer just a few feet away, staring right at us. How incredible ! And our hike to Old Man's Cave was spectacular. I never knew there was such a place like this in Ohio."

A sacred place indeed on the Appalachian foothills. The Inn at Cedar Falls is now the place where so many memories have been made, meals shared, art created and love shared. A small piece of land that serves as the touchstone for those especially attuned to nature's cycles and seasons. A place of calm peace for the more sensitive souls among us, deep in the middle of the hollows and wooded ridge lines of Southeastern Ohio's Hocking Hills.

For the most part people are social creatures. We've come to rely on "community." For some that community is a urban neighborhood within a large metro area. For others the environs of upper-middle class suburbs that surround cities. And still for some there's the occasional small, rural town or village. But there are those times when we pine away for a break when our communities become a bit too "communing" - too closed in, too predictable, too "wired" and too urban or suburban, keeping us away from that other vital need inherent to all beings of the Earth. We have the need for nature and the beauty of light and life unhindered, in how it heals and how it moves the essence of the creative process.

Early dawn in mid-October at the Inn. The calls of blue jay and wild turkey echo through the hemlocks and oaks and a spirit takes flight in the gathering light in the southeastern sky. A mist begins to rise in the hollow below. With camera and tripod over my shoulder I open the wooden gate between the original, old cabin and the Inn's office and gift shop. I start my up the stairs and then path that leads to the hilltop garden. I look for my best vantage point, moving about for just the right combination of foreground elements that will work with the landscape composition that's taking form before me. For this moment, at this place, I am the solitary artist in his element. A time of perfect balance between subject, light, state of mind and artistic approach. The morning star fades and the sun breaks the horizon. The oranges, reds and golds of the treetops on the distant ridges are set aglow. A few high clouds above take shape in tones of pink and purple. I look through my viewfinder, carefully focus and release the shutter.

The light of this place moves me to create. I feel the overwhelming need to capture with camera and lens the external manifestation in nature and sky that which is felt within my heart. I think of all those whom I desire to share this moment with and I hope for the possibility that these photographs will hold and visually express, if only temporarily, the fleeting moment of my peaceful union with the sacred uniqueness of this particular day at this special place. And I am thankful for the Inn at Cedar Falls and Anne Castle's courage and determination that brought forth this refuge in the woods where the lover of nature, the artist, the poet and the lovers of life return home, again and again.

There was a child went forth every day,

And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became,

And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,

Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.

The early lilacs became part of this child,

And grass and white and red morning glories, and white and red clover,

and the song of the phoebe-bird,

And the Third-month lambs and the sow's pink-faint litter,

and the mare's foal and the cow's calf, . . .

- Walt Whitman

Dance like no one is watching.

Sing like no one is listening.

Love like you've never been hurt and

Live Like It's Heaven On Earth.

- William Purkey

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—The JPG team

1 response

  • Mayette Ignacio

    Mayette Ignacio gave props (15 Jun 2010):

    Love this story... yeah it's totally rad!

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