Ohio Life

My Ohio: Two Men and a Map

A driving tour connects father and son to Ohio’s history and resplendent autumn landscapes.

Fall is here. At last.

As fast as summer flies by, it can’t become autumn too quickly for me. It’s the best of seasons, a smorgasbord of rich, dusky aromas, fiery color and soft changes. The always-magical transformation of leaves from green to gold feels like the soothing confirmation of a deep, abiding friendship.

But best of all, when fall arrives I think of my dad.

He’s a robust mid-70s guy who stays sharp and in shape, and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. But the 3-hour-plus distance from Oberlin, where he lives, to Kettering, where I live, means we don’t see each other often enough. Over the years, for no particular reason, fall has turned out to be the time when we’ve done something about it.

When I was in high school, dad and I indulged a mutual love of history to take a mid-autumn guided bus tour of Civil War battlefields in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, which we recall quite fondly. A few autumns ago, dad and I did something special: We mapped out a three-day weekend, traveling along the southern border of Ohio from Indiana to Pennsylvania at a pace that allowed plenty of touristy stops and a leisurely ride.

On a warmish early-November Friday, we set off toward the border west of Cincinnati, near Cleves and North Bend, to start out. The plan: head east, hugging the river up to East Liverpool, where the Ohio takes a hard right into Pennsylvania. We’d drive cross-state back to Dayton, staying off the interstates.

Rand McNally road atlas in hand, we picked up U.S. Rte. 50 and made our first stop at the tomb of President William Henry Harrison, a tall obelisk on a hill affording a stunning river view. We watched long coal barges tug slowly in the direction we were heading.

Skirting downtown Cincinnati on U.S. Rte. 52, we zipped past the forest of office towers and hit Clermont County. At Point Pleasant, we saw Ulysses S. Grant’s boyhood home, a tiny white house that might fit entirely in my suburban kitchen. The Civil War buffs in us happily imagined the future general playing kids’ games in the yard.

U.S. 52 follows the river to Huntington, West Virginia, where it turns into St. Rte. 7 and meanders north. We enjoyed its winding ways, stopping when something looked interesting. In Portsmouth, we took in the amazing floodwall mural, enjoying its historical scenes in fading afternoon light. We discovered a cool local microbrewery and spent the night in the city, in keeping with our loose plans of making the trip up as we went along.

In Ripley, we were surprised at the Tobacco Museum to learn that the plant we associated with the deep South has played a big role in the Buckeye State. We browsed antiques stores and small shops, and visited the Rankin House on the hill overlooking the river, an icon from Underground Railroad days.

In Gallipolis, we dallied in a lovely riverside park and soaked up the town’s pleasant, vaguely French quaintness. In Marietta, we had a drink at the Lafayette Hotel, a proud structure that reminds one of a steamboat, watching over the river that made this fascinating small town Ohio’s first pioneer settlement.

In between the river towns, the road changed constantly from one interesting scene to another. We passed dilapidated tobacco barns, stately bridges, electric plants and big factories, long stretches of old forest, bulky concrete locks, lovely riverside homes and hamlets nestled on the bank. The brilliance of fall in Ohio was a colorful supporting player to our enterprise.

As we drove, we talked and talked and talked. We pointed out roadside curiosities and wondered what might be around the next curve. We spent time together, uninterrupted, as we hadn’t since I left home as a young man. It was wonderful.

In the years since, dad and I have considered repeating the trip. Scheduling is hard — life gets in the way, and somehow one autumn after another drifts by like the river itself. We talk about that long fall weekend on the byways of southern Ohio.

When I smell the turning leaves and feel the air go brittle, I wonder if this will be the year that we get back to them.

Ron Rollins is an Ohio Magazine contributing editor based in Kettering.