Hiking in the Hills: Part II

Fresh from our 3-mile warm-up hike at Strouds Run, we headed into Athens, OH, for our next hiking excursion: The Ridges. Personally, I like to imagine that there was a flash of lightening and a roar of thunder right after that colon and a cheesy echo after THE RIDGES-idges-dges-ges. Have I properly set the scene for you?

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Opened in 1874 as the Athens Lunatic Asylum, The Ridges offered state-of-the art treatments for the mentally impaired and disturbed. The grounds and rambling buildings scattered throughout its campus were carefully planned and designed to promote an atmosphere of elegance and peace where patients could be guided toward self-sufficiency in agricultural activities as well as outdoor recreation.

From the time that it opened its doors in 1874 until it closed them in 1993, the hospital was a showcase for the IMG_1738ever-changing field of mental health. In the early days, science had not yet caught up with practice, therefore many people across the nation were admitted to these sorts of facilities with symptoms that we no longer associate with insanity (symptoms of one going through puberty or menopause, for example). Along the way, treatments that are now known to be not only cruel but ineffective were commonplace (e.g. lobotomies, electroshock, etc.).

Given its history and vastness, it’s no surprise that The Ridges is rumored to be haunted — several “sightings” have been documented. In my opinion, the most disturbing would have to be the story of one Margaret Schilling. Schilling was a patient at The Ridges who “wandered away” on December 1, 1978. One popular story is that she was playing hide-and-seek with one of the nurses who then got distracted and forgot to go looking for her. When staff realized she was missing, the hospital conducted a lock-down and full search for her, but they were unable to find her. Six weeks later, on the fourth floor of an abandoned ward building, a maintenance worker discovered her body. Adding to the spookiness, her clothes were neatly folded in a corner of the room rather than on her body.

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For those who make a study of all things paranormal, this case is particularly fascinating. The partially-decomposed body left an unusual stain upon the floor which makes the imprint of her body and even her hair perfectly visible. You could spend hours reading about this by simply googling “Margaret Schilling” and get all sorts of theories to mull over. For me, whether the stain is real or was created by someone, it’s mostly just chilling to think of that poor woman wandering off into an abandoned ward and then not finding her way out.

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Here I’ll say that visiting The Ridges was James’ idea! Even though the entire property has been purchased by Ohio University and many of the buildings have been converted to office spaces, storage, and other facilities — even an art museum — there are still buildings and areas of buildings that have remained closed and virtually abandoned. I’ve always had a very active imagination. With or without rumors of spooks, I can find something to be uneasy about! The Ridges seemed like a recipe for goosebumps at the least.

James had read about an interesting self-guided tour called “The Ridges Cemeteries Nature Walk.” Obviously he was maximizing the “nature walk” part of this as a means of getting me to agree to coming along.

Before heading off down the trail, however, we stopped in at the Kennedy Museum of Art which was formerly the IMG_1729institution’s main building. Housed in the museum is an interesting permanent collection, but what drew our rapt attention was the visiting collection entitled “Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals”. The photographer, Chris Payne, visited closed and abandoned state mental hospitals all across America — all of them built on a grand scale and many of them now in a staggering state of neglect and decay.

We stared at all of the photos in wide-eyed fascination — especially me. I’ve always had the willies about empty rooms and buildings that are sealed off “forever”. Aside from the fact that these were mental hospitals, however, it’s a shame to see such beautiful (not to mention expensive) architecture going to waste. Inside these giant fortresses are marble staircases, beautiful woodwork, and genuinely impressive craftsmanship — a big thanks to the photographer for showcasing them, however, seeing as how you couldn’t drag me in there to look at it in person!!!

From the museum, we set out for the nature walk. The trail is a little over a mile long and meanders through the extensive grounds of the former hospital. Aside from guiding you through all three of the cemeteries on the premises, you also get an interesting and beautiful look at the way nature is reclaiming the old orchards and croplands that were once used by the hospital to create a nearly self-sustaining operation. It was interesting to see this natural and yet miraculous process in its various stages along the trail — undergrowth and young trees mingling with older, more advanced trees.

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My favorite view on the trail was “Abundance Hollow”. The centerpiece was this majestic beech tree which was regaled in autumn color from top to bottom. Beech trees are fast becoming one of my favorite trees (maples are still holding the spot of #1, currently). I love how a single beech tree can encompass so much of the autumn color palette all at once — from emerald green all the way through sparkling yellows and oranges. The wooden steps along the sides of the hollow were also beautifully placed.

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On this particular day, the weather was a bit warmer than was seasonal, but there was a crisp enough breeze blowing and the colors were vibrant enough that the overall landscape was breathtaking and I was able to forget, if only briefly, that we were someplace I definitely didn’t want to see at sundown.

As seemed to be our luck, that day, we’d managed to not be where we expected to be once we were “done” with the trail. In fact, we’d done the trail backwards! No matter, the trail is not circular. Was it the convenience of a shorter route back to the car that led us to walk along the side of the main road rather than double back down the trail? Or was it something else? Something deep down that said sunset would soon be upon us? And why was it that my pace was so hurried down most of the trail? Why did I feel myself halfway afraid to look behind us? Some questions are best left unanswered, I guess.

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~ by Jason on November 11, 2010.

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