Making Your Getaway

Everyone loves the summer weekend getaway—a quick trip to an easy-to-reach locale to enjoy a break, however brief, from weekday obligations. Summer means projects around the house, playing outside, and more events around town than there are days to attend them.

So, while there’s certainly no arguing with the joy of skipping town for a weekend, in the summer months we find ourselves looking for something a bit closer to home, if for no reason other than making sure the tomato plants are getting enough water. Plus, it can seem a bit extravagant to take a quick flight or long drive to more inviting climes when we’ve finally conquered the doldrums of winter and the lingering, teasing, second-winter that we euphemistically refer to as “spring.”

We visited Cleveland’s past and present during a day-long excursion right in the city, in the heart of the Hidden Valley. Despite its name, this particular Hidden Valley isn’t hard to find. Exit I-77 at Grant Avenue, turn onto East 49th Street, and in no time you’ll find yourself at the entrance of the Metropark’s Ohio and Erie Canal Reservation. Alternatively, hop on your bike and follow the Towpath south from Steelyard or north from Peninsula. There, at the confluence of the villages of Cuyahoga Heights, Valley View, and Newburgh Heights, the Cuyahoga River, and Slavic Village, you’ll find yourself within the Hidden Valley’s otherworldly confines.

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The proximity of the reservation, our access point to the Valley, belies the richness of opportunities offered. If you’re looking for wildlife, you’ll find plenty. Blue herons abound, as do hawks and woodpeckers. Beavers’ work can be seen along the secondary trails, and if you’re looking for deer, you won’t find any more tame. We saw all of that on our trip, and we got in some fishing as well. Not the “gas up the boat, worry about the weather” type fishing trip. But a simple, “let’s grab the rods and some worms and enjoy the sunshine” outing. With the Reservation’s central location, just about anyone from the Greater Cleveland area can have their line in the water in less than half an hour after deciding to take the trip.

As the name implies, the Ohio and Erie Canal Reservation offers a well-preserved look at a portion of the namesake canal that thrived in the 19th century. Now, it’s an all-too-rare example of an antiquated relic being repurposed and reborn, in its own way as relevant now as it was in the past. New York City has the High Line. We have this. A leftover and outdated transportation route given over to masses.

Far removed from its original function as a crucial way to export our products back into the economy, today about the only thing found in the canal are the fish that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources stocks there. We started out casting from the viewing platforms perched over the historic canal. From there, you’d have to squint pretty hard to envision the canal in its heyday—imagine mule teams pulling barges along the canal—but there are plenty of clues pointing to the recreation area’s utilitarian past. While the reservation is more visitor-friendly than I imagine it was in the 1800s, with well-maintained bike trails and comfortable sitting areas, you don’t have to look far to realize that Hidden Valley’s importance to the growth of Northeast Ohio continued well after the abandonment of the canal in the early 20th century.

The canal’s demise as a transportation route coincided with the rise of the railroads, the coal-powered steam engines that replaced the mule teams emblematic of the region’s, and the country’s, shift to a faster pace. The steady din of train traffic from railroad tracks high overhead—a sound that must have seemed like a death knell to the canal—is a constant reminder to any visitor that you’re in a factory town. Overhead oil lines complete the picture, as does a landfill across the Cuyahoga. It’s a gritty park. That’s part of the point. It’s who we are and where much of our beauty lies.

After striking out from the platforms we moved a little farther south, with the Cuyahoga River, the workhorse waterway that fueled this city’s rise, rushing past us on the right. We settled in at the end of the canal, where the neatly manicured and cleanly cut pool of water became a bit less regular as it transitioned back to a natural form. We had good luck along the asymmetric shallows, throwing bobbers over small hooks baited with worms. Bites were nearly constant, and hooking little crappie and bluegill was addictive. Time flew, with the catch of the day being a tiny rainbow trout we released back in the water for future urban anglers. It was hard to be anything but thankful, and maybe a bit curious. How did an abandoned portion of a canal that thrived in the 19th century, surrounded by the haunting beauty of industry that moved Cleveland forward in the 20th century, become, now in the 21st century, such a perfect place to spend the day?

After a few hours of exploring and catch-and-release fishing, we were ready to explore that question, and a few others, over lunch. Not quite ready to head home, we exited the park and headed north to Fleet Avenue. Whereas the park reinvented itself to keep up with the times, becoming fully modern in form and function, Fleet Avenue in Slavic Village seems to desire no such makeover. It’s an open-air museum, and the perfect place to grab a meal after a day outside.

Riding along Fleet, we came upon the Red Chimney Restaurant, a throwback diner and Polish restaurant hybrid. Red Chimney and Seven Roses, just up the street, are stalwarts on the ethnic eats circuit. Like the Hidden Valley we just left, the Red Chimney is a relic of a bygone time that still has much to give. With soul-filling chicken noodle soup, and the best stuffed cabbage and city chicken short of your grandmother’s, you’d be hard pressed to eat better anywhere in the city. The staff makes you feel welcome, and the place is as relevant now as it’s ever been. There’s no pretension, no irony, nothing to wrap your head around. There’s simply a spirit and old-timeyness that comes, basically, from being around forever. There’s no substitute for all those years.

Just as satisfying as anything from the kitchen, the Red Chimney exuded a stoic confidence that defies trends. It’s the proverbial tortoise, with a tried and true formula that nourishes generations of locals and local pilgrims alike. And like the Hidden Valley, it allows us to spend time in present without leaving our past behind.