‘The Cliffs’

A county escape that captures the imagination

Times Observer photo by Dave Ferry The slow approach to The Cliffs. I celebrated the 4th by taking a hike out to where I spent a good chunk of my youth. The heat combined with a little rain created a light mist that added to the experience. While the area has changed over the years, it still feels like a magical place to me.

Shhhh. It’s a secret.

A few miles from where I grew up in Lander, there is a 60-to-80-feet-deep gorge that winds its way through the woods with a slow running creek at the bottom. Actually, it’s more of a crick. No wider than a local street and ankle deep. Once in a while you may come across a chest-deep pool fit for wading.

The Cliffs, as they are affectionately known by friends and family, have long been an escape that captures my imagination. They may be known to others by many other names, but to me The Cliffs they will always be.

The steep, rocky slopes that line the trickling spring are made up of a combination of large rocks, loose shale, and in some cases, deeply embedded trees with elaborate root systems that make for some interesting climbing.

The mind boggles when I try to imagine the ancient glaciation that rounded off the mountain tops in our northern half of the Allegheny Plateau. Even more wondrous still when I picture the receding glacial runoff roaring through my homeland carving out the hills and deep valleys.

Every summer, a group of neighborhood friends got together with our backpacks, tents and sleeping bags and made the hike from Lander. The journey took us through cornfields and clearings, over and under barb-wire fences. Once we hit the creek, the path was clear. Some chose to walk through the trees along the embankment, others walked through the water. Either one fraught with perils as the banks steepened the closer we got to The Cliffs. The water, though shallow, had long stretches of flat rocks slick with an algae coating that could put you down fast without warning.

“Watch out for slippery rocks,” we would chant for the sake of the novices.

The deeper we hiked, the more the landscape around us transformed.

Although only a few miles away from home, it seemed as if we were entering another world.

On the hottest summer days, the deep ravine, forest canopy, and the stream kept things cool.

Once we reached our campsite, we would exhaustedly drop our camping gear, eager to start climbing. Things can get tricky in the spots with little to no vegetation because the best hand or foot-hold can crumble beneath you and send you sliding. No, it was much safer to climb where the larger trees had taken root. But if you wanted to, you could forge a path up one of the slower slopes to the top, secure a rope and repel down the open face.

Depending on the season or time of day, just the right amount of misty fog could create an ethereal atmosphere as mysterious as anything Mr. Spielberg could conjure up at the Cinemas III at the Warren Mall. Certainly more stimulating to the imagination than an Xbox or an iPad. It was here where I spotted my first owl and there is nothing quite like witnessing the Great Blue Heron alighting on it’s treetop nest in the early morning stillness.

These youthful experiences fed my imagination and made me curious to see more of the world. But I will take my secret hideaway over a public tourist spot any day of the week. I have as much of a fondness for a visit to New York City as I would the Bavarian Alps. The thing that will always draw me back to Warren County is that it has a little bit of everything and the people are friendly, too.

Each of us are on our own individual paths in life and it’s so easy to get caught up in the mundanity. It’s no wonder we feel the need to escape once in a while.

The next time you’re running late for work, remind yourself that in between our rural state highways and interconnecting dirt roads lies a little bit of untouched American Frontier.

The urbanites may deem it “flyover territory,” but we know better.

Dave Ferry has moved back home to be a Paginator/Reporter for the Times Observer. Do you have your own hidden oasis that takes you worlds away in an instant? Feel free to email dferry@timesobserver.com with your stories and photos.