Black Hand Gorge. A hike through one of nature's primeval stony playrooms Last month the Monitor began a five-part monthly series of articles about places in the Midwest that offer a special feeling of wildness, solitude, and forested silence. Such spots pepper the entire United States, lying within a day's drive of major cities and beckoning to those who want their ``wilderness'' without an arduous week-long journey. Here is another such ``wilderness next door.''

Sometime during the morning of Jan. 7, 1978, a massive piece of cliff face fell thunderously to the floor of Black Hand Gorge and in one sudden gesture showed how, over 10,000 years, the forces of nature have shaped this place into a thing of wonder. Now you stand at the foot of the ravine, dwarfed by fallen rock, and see how the minutiae of undergrowth, small rain, and seeping earth have covered up the event, making it look, with that peculiar finishing hand of nature, as if this is the way it had always been.

Take a walk through Black Hand Gorge, and you stumble across this kind of phenomenon over and over again. Natural wonder is a commonplace thing along this deep gash in the Hocking Hills of south central Ohio.

For all its feeling of wildness and solitude, Hocking Hills State Park, which includes Black Hand Gorge, is ridiculously close to Columbus, the state capital -- less than 50 miles due southeast on a pleasant state road (SR 33). The park, about 14 miles west of Logan, actually consists of six separate areas: Hocking State Forest; Old Man's Cave, which lies midway along Black Hand Gorge; Ash Cave, the largest rock shelter in Ohio; Conkle's Hollow, which features a dangerous but breathtaking trail along the upper rim of the gorge; the ``Rock House'' cave formation; and Cantwell's Cliffs, a potpourri of trails, trees, and rock formations.

This park system covers a sprawling 1,982 acres; and there are numerous camping facilities and lodging accommodations, including 40 deluxe housekeeping cabins attached to Hocking Hills Dining Lodge, for those who want to spend the several days it would take to explore the region thoroughly.

Much of what the system has to offer can be sampled, however, in a two-hour plunge through Black Hand Gorge.

I came first to the gorge's upper falls, near a camp check-in station at the northeasterly end, and walked the short distance to the edge of the ravine, which was worked by time and weather into terraces that show the exposed layers of soil and ages of rock. Sunlight, captured by this or that small region of stone and green, was dappled around the scene. Small plant life clung to the sides, glistening with dew. An almost perfectly smooth stone basin -- called Devil's Bathtub because it sometimes swirls mightily with water -- lay at the base of the ravine.

I began snapping picture after picture of this scene until my guide and brother-in-law, Christopher Thoms (a frequent visitor to the park), stopped me. ``You realize, this isn't the scenic part yet,'' he said quietly.

And he was right. The real treasures of the place lay south and west along stone walkways, wooden bridges, and earthen footpaths. Nowhere do you find along these paths the kind of spectacles you get in Western parks, although Old Man's Cave and other massive formations do give you a feeling of being swallowed whole by monumental earth forms. But the real impact of Black Hand Gorge is cumulative, the piling up of small events on a hike:

A tree trunk splits the sunlight into shafts that fall to the semidarkness of the forest floor. Another slender tree wraps its root system around a boulder like a clinging hand. The earth has fallen away in one sector of the ravine, revealing root systems as detailed as the calligraphy of a medieval monk. Thunder rolls through the forest canopy, echoing out of mouthlike caves.

Most of these discoveries, however, come after the main event in Black Hand Gorge: Old Man's Cave.

The ``cave,'' named for a hermit who supposedly lived and died in it after the Civil War, is really a vast cliff overhang, a massive shell of rock overarching the most intricate region of canyon and ravine. The folks who walk through it are lost in its stony folds and are, in fact, unable to see the whole cave at once. ``Where's Old Man's Cave?'' asked one hiker who happened to be standing in the very yawning mouth of the thing, unable to get enough perspective to tell that this was indeed the cave itself.

People scurry over the ravine terraces that face the cave, happily taking pictures, although there is no way of getting enough of it in your camera frame to convince folks back home that the cave is everything you thought it was.

These crowds thin out considerably as you make your way farther southwest into the gorge, past the fallen cliff and into a more formidable region to hike.

You're missing something if you leave this piece of the journey out: mainly the time to get apart from the well-grooved passages into the lonely architecture of forest, ravine, and stream. Following the blue-blaze trail markers on the trees into the solitary reaches of the gorge, you leave spectacle for serene beauty. It's a good place to acquaint yourself with moss and stone and earth. Light steals down here and falls between the trees, creating luminous cameos in the underbrush.

The gorge here is so deep that you can't see the upper rim above the treetops -- only the white sandstone face rising out of the darkened earth.

Every now and again you come upon huge slabs of stone, known as ``slump blocks,'' which have fallen to the floor of the ravine. One has the magnitude and look of a white whale's head. Most bear a runic shape such stones sometimes assume, as though they were pieces of a geological alphabet.

Near the lower falls, which plummet down wide stone promontories, a man has stopped with his children. They are crouching at the edge of a limpid pool, fed by a cold stream. I can't hear his voice, but I see him, one arm around his little boy's waist, raising a pointed finger to some distant shape in the rocks among the trees. Together, they are wondering over something ancient, distant, and solitary. Next month: Headwaters of the Mississippi.

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