Vacation (n): an extended period of recreation, especially one spent away from home or in traveling
Recreation and traveling – two of my deepest passions. This week was devoted to both, starting in Ohio and progressing gradually to my ultimate destination in Toronto, Ontario. Along the way, I explored sights familiar and new, indulged in fantastic food, reunited with old friends, and watched some baseball (of course).
Dayton is not exactly what comes to mind when one thinks of a vacation. It’s not exotic, it’s not flashy, heck, it’s not even the hub of southwest Ohio. But it is a solid American city with a strong history and military tradition, as well as a minor league baseball team that has sold out its stadium for over 1,200 consecutive games.
My only night in Dayton was spent primarily at the park, where the homestanding Dragons knocked off the West Michigan Whitecaps in front of another capacity crowd. After the game I walked into a neighborhood bar in the Oregon Historic District and had a pizza burger with mozzarella cheese and marinara sauce for days, and the most delicious bun and sautéed onions. That’s not important, though.
What is important is the retired couple I sat next to and had the most incredible conversation with for the entire game. They’re originally from Alabama but moved to Dayton in the late 1980s. He is a prostate cancer survivor who now rides 50 miles a day on his bike, and he and his wife now travel the country in pursuit of the things that truly matter. They offered to buy me a beer two minutes after we met, insisted I eat some of their peanuts, and handed me a 50-50 raffle ticket hoping I’d win.
These were the kindest, most down-to-earth people you can imagine. Her support during his battle with cancer has united them so strongly, and she encourages him to take part in various bike events, including one from California to Florida and another along the Natchez Trace Trail in Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. They were both so passionate about life and spending a few hours with them inspired me a great deal.
I spent the next morning walking around a pleasantly surprising downtown and checking out the University of Dayton, a mid-sized Catholic institution that is probably most known across the country for its basketball success. Visiting college campuses in the summer can be misleading; without a student presence things appear too quiet and it is hard to gauge what life at that school might be like. UD’s campus is compact but very pretty, and I enjoyed some reflective time in the chapel before heading up the road to Columbus.
As the largest city in Ohio and the third-most populous state capital in the country (fun facts!), Columbus was a natural next stop. As a huge Michigan Wolverines fan, though, I’ve always been negatively biased towards Columbus as it is the home of Ohio State University, a school that I despise. Buckeyes fans refuse to acknowledge Michigan by name; even while touring the Statehouse the guide referred to Michigan as “that state up north”, and Michigan fans refer to Ohio State as “Ohio” or “that school down south.” It is the most historic rivalry in college football, known simply as “The Game.” We won’t get into who has been more successful in recent years, but this year’s contest is in Ann Arbor so I’m optimistic.
While in Columbus I did walk around OSU’s campus; with over 45,000 undergraduates alone it is, as one would expect, sprawling. Unlike at Dayton earlier on this beautiful day Ohio State was buzzing with student activity. Architecturally the buildings have been constructed in different styles, but the traditional center of campus is the Oval. Expansions throughout the years have made the university a thriving community unto itself. A sizable percentage of the population I saw was international, but there were also athletes and traditional students on campus. You couldn’t help feeling as if you’d just be an anonymous number as a student there, particularly in your classes, but as a major athletic and academic power nationally Ohio State is undoubtedly a premier institution.
That’s more than enough about the Buckeyes, however. I also walked around the Statehouse; unlike the vast majority of state capitol buildings, Ohio’s Greek Revival structure is not inspired by the architecture of the United States Capitol. It is in the heart of downtown Columbus, and the juxtaposition of a smaller edifice with beautiful gardens and green space amongst a jungle of skyscrapers and office buildings was very refreshing, as well as aesthetically successful.
It was another evening at the park, as the Rochester Red Wings came into town and defeated the Clippers in front of nearly 9,000 fans. Huntington Park is also urban in setting, part of an arena district that features several other venues for live events as well as commercial and residential development. The stadium looks out onto the Columbus skyline, which can be viewed most prominently from North Bank Park overlooking the Scioto River.
I finished the night in Short North, Columbus’ trendiest neighborhood. Lively bars, restaurants, art galleries, coffee houses, and colorful murals can be found up and down Short North, and I relished the mac and cheese with bacon and spicy honey and the cornbread at Double Comfort.
The next morning I continued heading northeast, first stopping at Cuyahoga Valley National Park just outside of Akron. Cuyahoga Valley is a recent addition to the 59 national parks in the United States, only gaining that status in 2000. It follows the Cuyahoga River and the historic route of the Ohio & Erie Canal and is intended to preserve the rural landscape in what became a very industrialized and urban region in the 20th century. The park is best known for Brandywine Falls, an 86-foot high waterfall, and the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, a passenger train that follows rails originally laid down around 1880, features dining cars, and takes patrons on seasonal journeys like the Polar Express, Ales on Rails, and Grape Escape.
The park is best suited for bikers; there is not a plethora of interesting hikes and the river is not ideal for canoeing and kayaking. It was certainly not my favorite national park experience, but nature is nature and it was nice to start the morning with some fresh air.
Just up the road from Cuyahoga Valley National Park is Cleveland, where I stopped briefly at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and stared out in wonder at Lake Erie for the first time since graduating from Mercyhurst University in 2011. Lake Erie is the shallowest and the fourth-largest of the five Great Lakes, but as anyone who has been on any of their shores can attest, it’s like looking out into the ocean – the most brilliant blue water stretching out to the horizon as far as the eye can see. On average, water spends 2.6 years in Lake Erie before flowing past Buffalo, over Niagara Falls, and into Lake Ontario.
Mercyhurst, Niagara Falls, and Lake Ontario were all on the agenda for later that afternoon, before capping the night near City Hall in Toronto. More on those adventures in my next post!