By Jeff Tome, Public Engagement Specialist

I wanted to write an article for you about setting goals for the year. It was going to be a practical and spiritual path to accomplish something for fun, for growth, and for self betterment. But I can’t write it. I feel like I should have a pile of resolutions and goals for the year, yet I feel stuck. I don’t have anything in mind to do. It feels like I am getting pushed down the river of life without a rudder or paddle, with currents and eddies sweeping me into places I never expected to go. And so, this year, I will have no goals and no resolutions. I shall enter the year with the aimless goal of drifting down the river of life without capsizing and seeing where life goes.

The truth is, sometimes the best adventures are drifted into without purpose. Have you ever turned down a road that you have never travelled just to see where it goes? Sometimes, it just connects different chunks of my mental map of the world. Other times, that unexpected turn takes me to an amazing trailhead or a rock city that I have never explored. Rock cities litter the landscape of the Allegheny National Forest, but I more often stumble across one than find one on purpose.

Like life, rock cities are full of serendipitous moments. They are filled with odd pathways, stunning overlooks, unexpected wildlife and interesting phenomenon. If you haven’t been to one, rock cities are made up of house-sized rocks with pathways, caves and tunnels throughout them.

The first rock city I ever went to was called Beartown Rocks, near Clear Creek State Park. I was young, maybe not much older than a toddler, and I remember scurrying through a thin passageway in the rocks that was like a maze to my young brain. It was magical. I haven’t been back to Beartown Rocks since third grade, but the joy of scurrying through tunnels and valleys in the rocks is still with me.

Since then, rock cities have always had a magical attraction to me. The rocks, remanants of ancient sea beds that go back to the early days of the dinosaurs, feel ancient and timeless. These giant stones have been sticking out of the ground, ready to explore, longer than this country has existed. They have been part of the United States of America, the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy, and, well, whatever came before that. Their ancientness brings a natural sense of awe with it that is inescapable.

Rock cities are often the scene of memorable moments in my life. On one solo backpacking trip, I walked on a trail through a rock city and rounded the corner of a house-sized rock at the same time that a Black Bear rounded the other side. The image of those big ears and black body, glimpsed for only a long second, is unforgettable. Another time, I took a group of teens from Audubon to visit a rock city on a trail a couple miles into the forest. We emerged from a crevice to what sounded like a huge tire deflating, SSSHSHHHHSHHHHHH. Two young, black and white Turkey Vultures stared at us from up the trail, not yet able to fly, and slowly hissing to keep us away.

It’s those unexpected moments that keep me going back to whatever rocks I can find. It’s the random Porcupine cave, or live Porcupine in a tree that surprise and delight me. Sometimes it’s the odd wildflowers, like Pink Lady Slippers, that pop up around the rocks that amuse me, or the twisted swirl of roots growing up to capture all the drips from the rocks above in a cave. It’s the Fisher tracks or bobcat trails or coyote dens that make my heart beat fast in excitement and, sometimes, a bit of nervousness. I once went out with a bear biologist to visit a bear den, which was under a rock that I ate on top of while backpacking the summer before.

I shall treat the upcoming year without goals, but look at 2024 like a rock city, full of unexpected passages to explore, fascinating things lurking in the shadows and opportunities for memories that will last a lifetime.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at or by calling (716) 569-2345.