I met a man in the forest near Kirkwood dressed in lederhosen. He sports a red kerchief around his neck. His head is covered in a green, handmade woolen cap and his white whiskers peak out from its sides, framing his well-aged face. His eyes are glazed over and losing sight. He’s got a rugged pair of hiking boots, perfect for leading the curious through the enchanted world of nature surrounding him. He smiles.
For 39 years, Mr. Rich (a.k.a. Richard Humphreys) has been entertaining children of all ages at Gnome Countryside, an enchanted and themed nature trail winding through his Colerain Township property. The former art teacher started the educational attraction shortly after he was forced into retirement due to vision loss from macular degeneration connected to a lifetime of diabetes. Before we took a shortened trail walk on a rainy morning in August, we sat and talked in a hovel-like room filled with story-telling devices, books on Gnomes and bits of treasured past.
“They say the gnomes are nocturnal, so I’ve never seen one, but I’ve had a great time looking for them,” says Rich. “A lot of kids tell me they see gnomes and fairies, which I think is pretty neat. I’m a firm believer there are legends of little people to foster the imagination of children. And it does work.”
Rich first discovered the wee spirits when living in Iceland. He also traveled to Denmark where they flourish in folklore.
“There are legends of little people in all the indigenous cultures,” explains Rich, who produces a world map specked with red dots marking gnome activity—Northern Europe is almost completely covered in red. He points out a small red dot on Lancaster County.
“This is such a beautiful woods, it’s just breathtaking. It’s the perfect place to look for signs of the nisse,” says Rich about why he chose here for his endeavor. “I love outdoor work. Now it’s gotten pretty difficult.”
Rich openly talks about his sight loss, his diagnosis of diabetes at age 14 and life spent monitoring blood sugar levels. Without insulin, he would have only lived to age 17. When his blood sugar gets high, he feels extremely lethargic, and when it is low, he can lose consciousness. His vision started leaving him in 1980.
“Diabetes has been such a major factor in my life. A big part of my life is forcing myself to do things. And I’ve been a pretty terrible risk taker,” says Rich, who throughout his life has been attracted to doing things for the experience, like climb to the absolute top of a 120-foot tall Norway spruce, circumnavigate the globe and walk from Ohio to Lancaster.
“I’ve had lots of adventures in my life,” says Rich, whose new adventure is here teaching kids—and the occasional adult. He’s legally blind, but can distinguish outlines with what is left of his sight in his right eye. He sees no detail, but knows the nature trail and his home perched above it by heart. “I’m written about in a book, 50 Secrets of the Longest Living People with Diabetes; my secret is humor.”
It’s true; we spent a lot of time laughing.
“I love to hear children laugh. Sometimes I wonder if they are laughing at me or with me, but it really doesn’t make any difference because I love to hear kids laugh,” says Rich, who pulls out a pair of “silly oversized sunglasses,” which he wears to greet kids before they get off the bus. “Everybody comes here, we sit down … and I really can’t see, even with these glasses on.”
After the introduction, we head out into the rain to the half-mile trail where we receive comedic anecdotes, discover talking rocks; pound on a gazebo-sized, homemade drum and come to a troll bridge where we are given the choice to go over or under—being a rainy day and that we are boring adults, we chose to go over. A section of the trail turns into a playground where the kids can enjoy some free time.
“It’s probably one of my favorite parts of the trail because they get to explore, build gnome houses, and stack rocks, which I love doing,” says Rich.
Gnome Countryside is one of those “best kept secrets” in Lancaster County and gets a lot of “oh yeah, I heard about that place” reactions, but the true gem of the forest is Rich. The lessons he teaches come subtly, with humor and sincerity. He teaches about our differences as human beings, the importance of respect and the necessity of Earth stewardship. Meeting him was like no other experience I’ve ever had in my life.
Go to gnomecountryside.org to book your visit.