Wilderness Something: Red River Gorge with Friends

Red River Gorge, KY: July, 2016

Danny was staring up into the branches of a tree when Lauren and I drove down the skinny lane to the cabin, listening to the familiar popping of gravel on the car’s belly. His girlfriend Veronica was on the balcony looking in the same direction, hand above her eyebrows as if she was saluting the lanky oak.

“My brand new drone is stuck” he said “literally took it out of the box and then it was up there.”

I could just make two of the propellers as the contraption lay like a snoozing bird in a V between two large branches fifty or so feet up. The trunk was unclimbably smooth and the lowest branches were just below the ones that stole the drone. Ready to play triumphant hero upon my arrival for the long weekend, I opened the trunk and grabbed a football, also fresh from box, and got ready to send it off on its maiden hurl.

“Get your controls ready” I said and stepped back, catapulting the football up towards the expensive toy. The aim was nearly perfect, but the tree, an unwitting and stoic receiver, caught the ball in its woody arms and held it just inches above the drone.

“Well, damn” said Danny, defeated, and we hoped for some wind.

Red River Gorge isn’t one area, but a conglomerate of parks and designations with differing rules and amoeba-like boundaries. There’s the Red River Gorge Geologic Area, Natural Bridge State Resort Park, and Clifty Wilderness. Parts of each are within Daniel Boone National Forest, and a strip of road cutting through the center isn’t included in any of the above, and most of the cabins are technically on private land. Unless you are primitive camping or bringing a dog and have to be familiar with ordinances, however, the difference isn’t noticeable once you exit the Appalachian Parkway, and it all has collectively become known as simply Red River Gorge. Also, there is very little in the way of trailtowns, the main road housing only a gas station, a few rental offices and tourist traps, the shockingly good Daniel Boone Coffee Company, and the most popular/only restaurant in the area, Miguel’s Pizza, where you can get a massive slice along with a bottle of Ale 8-1 ginger ale and a long wait.

We left the drone canopied and set out for our first hike of the weekend, hoping to get back before our Derek and Carly arrived. Veronica picked a trail at random and it ended up being a four wheel track covered in weeds and spider webs, the latter of which occurred at both comedic height and irritating frequency. After the first dozen of web-to-face encounters, we rotated the lead like southbound geese, and whoever was in front had to be in charge of the spider stick, a meter long broken branch that we waved like a paper fan in front of us to preemptively strike the invisible clotheslines. After a mile the stick was saturated with silk to the point where it looked like someone had just removed a roasted marshmallow but left the gooey part that got stuck. It seemed we were the first group in a while, four wheels or two feet, to have traversed this path and we turned off at the first available moment to the Savannah’s Arch Trail which was far more pleasant. I tossed the spider stick symbolically into the brush.

Dusk approached when Derek and Carly showed up, he in a foul mood and she by extension, as happens with siblings, even those who actually hang out together.

“He’s just mad because of his car.” Carly said as they both carried their stuff into the cabin.

“And the traffic jam, and getting lost” Derek yelled from inside the cabin, his foam pillow in one hand and a case of Great Lakes porter in the other. The man has always packed light. These two had only met Danny and Veronica once in passing, this trip a social portmanteau of hometown and college groups, a common occurrence in your late twenties as only a few good friends advance from each level of life. As such, Derek tried to be on his best behavior, yet Lauren and I could tell he was severely peeved.

Carly told us some drunk had punched Derek’s car several times in the garage the night before, that 71 south was blocked for an hour and a half, and that they had driven around the area looking for either the cabin or cell service for about that long, the sun and their chances of locating the cabin dropping in tandem. By luck, they saw me and Danny again trying to free the drone from the tree, which put us just in view from the road, and Derek sped down the driveway, the flying rocks adding dents to the Mustang to accompany those from its midnight one-sided fisticuffs. He had a couple of the warm porters, pet Veronica and Danny’s dog Zoey for a bit, and was fine.

Lauren and I woke first and started breakfast, setting the tone for the better day ahead. I made eggs while she cooked goetta and washed berries, then we both poured coffee into lime green mugs and sat on the front porch in rocking chairs. The hazy morning announced a steamy Saturday ahead but the air was at the moment pleasant. Birds singing in morse code, alternating short chirps with long whistles, were the only sounds save for the rolling wood on wood of the rockers. The porch wrapped around the cabin on three sides, one of which had a hot tub, and it looked out over a thick forest of oak, elm, and pine on the other side of a grassy lawn. The hill with the drone-nabbing tree shielded us from the road, and the cabin’s name, Wilderness something, seemed apt.

We had registered six spots for a kayak tour of a flooded mine, and arrived early to claim our watercraft. The cave exhaled cool air and made a fool of my board shorts and tank top, but I had brought nothing heavier with me into the soupy midsummer woods. We each flickered on our headlamps and paddled over remarkably clear and still water, around a corner and into the dark. Our group occupied the back of the tour group, so we could hardly hear the guide, but still the visuals were fascinating. About ten feet beneath the surface were piles of metal beams left over from the mines, scattered about like flotsam from a sunken ship. The water was so transparent that the beams from our headlamps hardly refracted, highlighting every detail of the cave’s bottom. Decommissioned machines and other gizmos lay strewn about as if there were no water above them, and we could see the submerged portions of massive boulders that only just breached the surface like a deceptively small iceberg. Loose wires dangled from the roof like skinny stalactites, and though I’m sure they weren’t live, I paddled around them at a wide berth just in case.

At one tight turn, I heard a scrape followed by the distinct sound of plastic on stone. Lauren had caught one of the rockbergs that crested just below the surface and couldn’t move, even when using her paddle to press against the wall. The cave seemed to suppress sound and nobody realized we had dropped back, the headlights of the others bobbing away slowly like clumsy fireflies around another bend. I worked to dislodge Lauren’s kayak but ended up spinning my own 180 degrees in my effort, the glassy water acting like an ice rink and I the slippery curling stone. Now heading the wrong direction, I nearly bumped into the vessel of second guide, who we had no idea was there, and told her what was up. She pushed the wedged kayak while Lauren used her paddle to distance herself from the wall and off we went. The group had moved too far ahead so Lauren and I spend the remainder of the tour slowly kayaking with the second guide, which actually ended up being more enjoyable than the first half, as we could hear what she had to say and didn’t have to worry about clicking paddles with the others, which happened frequently up front. At one point, since we were now a small group of three, we all flicked off our lamps and floated in complete darkness for a few moments. This was an eerie sensation of weightlessness and sensory underload, the cavern eating up all light and most sound. When we caught up to the main group at the exit, we pulled our kayaks up the sandy slope and back into summer, squinting in the hazy sun.

Back at the cabin, we had finished eating a lunch of Miguels’ Pizza and watermelon slices, and Derek and I were waiting on the deck and playing with Zoey when Danny came out of the cabin and stopped short. He pointed out a small black spider making its way up one a wooden lattice, red hourglass on her bodacious abdomen, her short and stubby fingers wriggling like a plotting Mr. Burns. Zoey then noticed it and gave it a proper sniff but Danny pulled her back by the collar.

“We have to get rid of that thing” he said calmly with the same grin he has any time he finds himself in an uncomfortable scenario. “I know you’re not supposed to kill it, but I don’t want it biting the dog.”

Derek demurred, not wanting to add a bite to his weekend of surprises, so I took a long branch from the fire pit and tried to encourage her to hop on board, adding a new intensity to the term spider stick. She crawled on and I started to walk towards the woods, but only made it a few steps before she slipped off and hit the deck with a barely audible tap followed by a much louder expletive as we jumped back and further startled the dog. ‘This is ridiculous’ I thought, and grabbed a newspaper from the kindling pile, swept the spider onto an article about the NBA Finals, and took off for the woods, shaking the paper and brushing it with the stick until she had landed in the dirt and I had done enough collateral damage to Steph Curry’s face. Zoey jumped and yelped at the scene, nearly jumping the gate in elation.

The iconic hike in the Red River Gorge Area is to climb up to and cross over Natural Bridge, an enormous sandstone arch that spans a wooded canyon. There are several ways to reach the bridge, and we chose the most direct route, rise over run implying it was also the steepest. Immediately beyond the trailhead, the elevation change begins, and soon we walked with a cliff to our right and a drop to our left with nothing to slow a twenty meter tumble except a few bushy rhododendrons growing outwardly off of the brim.

A steep staircase that became a three-point-of-contact affair branched upward from the main trail and offered a challenging shortcut to the top. Partway up was a side trail to a promontory that features a warning sign begging hikers not to jump the nearby chasm as several have lost their lives doing so, often while combining the gorge’s two most common draws: heights and intoxicants. People who have lost their lives at Red River Gorge are so disproportionally from Ohio that local search and rescue groups came up with this joke: How do you know it’s autumn at Red River Gorge? Because the Buckeyes are falling.

Once atop the Natural Bridge, the trail becomes bald and near-tabletop flat, crossing the arch longways and providing a 270 degree view of the valley. If not told, you would have no idea the land beneath you had a hole in it, as hiking across it feels more like walking on an exposed ridge or a dusty plateau than an enormous piece of sandstone the shape of a catfish’s mouth. Small and twisty pines and a few oak trees and smaller brush grew from cracks in the stone but for the most part it was a smooth rock causeway, the aptly named arch truly more like a natural bridge than like anything on the Utah license plate. While at the top, always-online Derek had enough service to inform us that Hillary Clinton had chosen Tim Kaine as her running mate for the 2016 election, but that seemed like something to care about when I could no longer look out onto the sea of green from above.

Slip cup was Veronica’s idea and she had purchased two slip and slides from a box store to set up on the grassy part of the cabin lawn. The game is a bit like flip cup except that one team member slides down the tarp and then runs over to a picnic table before performing the drinking and flipping aspect of the game. We filled twelve cups with ultra-low proof session ale, the image on the cans practically explaining that the contents must be consumed in the woods, and split into teams, each member set to slide and flip twice per game.

I found the garden hose curled up like a potted snake near the grill, but after several circumnavigations of the cabin the water valve never presented itself. Lauren finally spotted it, hidden underneath the deck and Derek, his inauspicious start to the trip now hiked off, his spirits rising with the climb of the gorge, volunteered to crawl under to twist on the hose. There wasn’t more than two feet of clearance so he was understandably somewhat hesitant to slink into the dusty crawlspace considering the earlier spider and the realistic chance that the garden hose wouldn’t be the only thing underneath the deck that was serpent-shaped. Still, he performed nobly and soon the water was flowing over the tarp.

We played a few rounds of slip cup and I think the girls won most of them. My strength seemed to be the slide and quickly righting myself but the flipping of the cups stymied my team enough that I usually ended up behind. Danny on the other hand excelled at the table-end of the game but dove on the tarp vertically like he was giving it the people’s elbow. Eventually the front lawn of the cabin was amply torn up and one slip and slide ripped and we had to call it a day.

As the sun set, thousands of fireflies flickered against the darkening backdrop of the dense woods. They blinked their lights rapidly, and for less than a second at a time, differing from the longer glow and wave shaped flight pattern of childhood summer evenings. The quick flashes are more fitting of the insects’ other monicker, lightning bugs, and makes them far more difficult to gently catch in palm, so instead we just watched them go, as the display of Earth’s vibrancy reached the most accessible of locales for just a few weeks like a 30 day free trial to nature’s Netflix.

Embers burning and branches gathered, we ate s’mores with peanut butter cups in place of Hershey’s bars and finished the rest of the ale, talking about politics, new friends, and friends we no longer have. Our separate social circles would become one, and a year later we would all attend Veronica and Danny’s wedding, where Derek would get drunk on red wine and dance with his eyes closed to Weak by AJR. Lauren and I often became glue for disparate groups, the marshmallows of the social s’more, and this trip was no exception. It was cemented the next morning as all six of us cheered when Danny’s drone and my football finally came tumbling down from the oak it called home for the weekend. Danny took one aerial photo before we got into our separate cars and headed north.

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