Red River Gorge, KY: August, 2019
We began by walking down the Sheltowee Trace, a trans-Kentucky trail that starts just north of here and winds its way to the Tennessee border, the little cousin of the Appalachian Trail through the Appalachian state the original one forgot. It was a bumpy and shady single track and quite pleasant but we were not to follow it for long. The instructions to find the unmarked trail we needed to turn on were simple enough:
—Follow the Sheltowee Trace from the *redacted* trailhead. Start counting creek crossings. After the second one, walk 100 feet and take the trail to the right.—
This seemed easy enough until you become hypersensitive to what is considered a creek. We passed a few brooks as well as a gully or two, each time debating whether or not the stony trickle deserved creek status. In August there is also the possibility of missing one that has dried up and passing it by unnoticed, demoting it to a lowly gully, or as they say in this part of Kentucky, a run. Fortunately, there were two distinctly larger streams of water, the kind you need the assistance of exactly one rock to step across, and after the second the main trail hooked a right angle and an unmarked yet unmistakable offshoot angled up a hill.
Most years, Lauren and I join a group of friends for a long weekend at Red River Gorge in eastern Kentucky, but this summer, for whatever reason nobody’s schedule lined up and we decided to go it alone. It seems when the first digit in your age flips from a two to a three, suddenly putting together any sort of joint event is like getting congress to cross the aisle despite the nearest thing to having a family in the group is a couple of dogs. We love our friends, but the difference was felt immediately – we could pick the cabin. We could pick the trail. We didn’t have to worry about Derek and Carly’s veganism or Steve’s picky eating. And it had been a busy summer almost to the point of sensationalism and Lauren and I were looking forward to slowing down together. But before that, we decided to take advantage of our newfound independence and hike the toughest trail in the area, more of a climb than a hike at points, one that our friends had demurred ad nauseum. Right after checking into the cabin, we drove a heavily forested serpentine road along the Red River and found the inception of the internet’s directions to the Indian Staircase.
The steady rise of the hidden side trail culminates in a pile of boulders and the spiritual sequel of the now nonexistent path went upwards through a limestone-flanked chasm. Twisted bushes of rhododendron, waxy-leaved and subtropical, obscured the entrance and hid it from the main trail, which was otherwise mostly open beneath the canopy. The exposed wriggling fingers of tree roots gripped the massive rocks like a knuckleballer and oozed through empty spaces like half-cooled lava. This provided us with a natural slanted ladder to the flatter top and soon we were at the base of the main event.
The staircase was allegedly carved by the Adena people nearly a millennium ago to ease climbing along the sandstone cliffs of the region, but this theory is only the most probable as to why there is a series of handholds dug into a thirty degree tilted sheer slab of stone. The holes look a bit like a dog ran through still-viscous quicksand which then hardened and preserved the prints, but they were perfectly placed for a human to crawl upslope and certainly not natural to the rock. They run in parallel dotted lines, one for the right hand and right foot and the other for the left, running mostly straight but occasionally curving around outcroppings and sticking to the smoothest part of the rock.
Near the bottom, some more recent imprints were left – initials and declarations of love were carved into the wall – and even the gentlemen of Alpha Epsilon Pi decided to add their artwork to the canvas of the millennia. Fortunately these modern markings were almost exclusively within arm’s reach of the base and once climbing had begun or been aborted, people mostly focused on the task at hand.
The toughest step of the Indian Staircase was the first as the initial foothold was nearly at eye level. I asked if Lauren wanted to go ahead but she gave me an after you and watched me fruitlessly try to pull myself up using the smooth notch. Even on a dry afternoon there was no grip as the sandstone had been polished by innumerable hands past and present, and it took splayed fingers and my entire core to hoist myself high enough to grab the second handhold. Once past the first step, however, the grade levels to manageable and I scampered fairly quickly using the indents as a guide. Only near the top and bottom of the two hundred foot rock face would it have been impossible to climb without it.
Midway through the climb I turned around to see how Lauren was doing (fine, by the way) and the precipitousness presented itself. The ledge below had shrunk and I realized a slide down the staircase in reverse would fling me far beyond where we stood to hoist ourselves onto the first notch and into the canopy below like an overshot Mario Kart jump except that I would lose more than five seconds and a firing shell. Still, the parallel dotted lines s-curved their way up the escarpment until a final step similar to the first, and a flat, rocky platform emerged as a convenient checkpoint. Prickly pines grew out of sandy crags and rhododendron, smaller than their lower altitude cousins, sprouted from the cliff sides at impossibly wonky angles. The dry soil and wafting scent of evergreen made the area seem more like the Front Range foothills than anywhere in the eastern states, and the 270 degree view from this vantage confirmed that distinction. All along the ridge top, sharp outcroppings encircled the valley like the lip of a giant salad bowl, pockmarked by nearly spherical caves partway up the sheer cliff as if replicating an early computer punch card. They reminded me of the impassable Himalayan monk dwellings though obviously more modest. Towering pines leaned over the edge to glance at their downslope doppelgangers, whose uppermost boughs reached the height of the caves in the wall but no further. On one slope, an outcropping called the Frog Head sticks out into the sky like a fat horizontal stalactite, bearing a slight resemblance to a crouching frog perched on the side of the cliff. Hikers have died trying to slide down to the Frog Head and straddling it like a mechanical bull, forcing the park to expressly forbid doing so.
Lauren and I rested on the ridge for a bit and a group of five college-aged hikers caught up to us, three guys and two girls, making a ton of howling noises and seeing if their voices echoed across the valley. While irritating at first, the college crew turned out to be pleasant company and we sat together atop the staircase with them for a while, taking pictures and talking about the hike.
“We’ve never been able to find it before” said the tallest of the guys, who had a bandana and a shoulder tattoo of a north arrow. “It’s impossible in the fall or winter.”
We had lucked out with the weather, as August in the gorge can bring temps in the mid-nineties and chewable humidity without much water access or shade on this particular trail, but the day was pleasant. Hiking the Indian Staircase is far more common in the buffer months but it is also tougher to find the unmarked trail. We let the group pass by and we watched them follow the edge of the plateau and one of the girls took a picture on the Frog Head.
The remainder of the hike is unmarked and trails diverge and reconvene but we generally followed the ridge in a concave pattern so that the valley was always over to our left. Several times, the distance between the open air and the cliffside narrowed and the forest reached out, necessitating a high stakes single-file shuffle over roots and rocks. After the triumph of the first section of the hike, this seemed a bit tame but would be a stunning hike in nearly any circumstance. After completing a semicircle we were able to see the Indian Staircase from above, across the wide valley, and it looked like a playground slide in profile. A group was hunched over, crawling slowly up, motions not unlike a kid climbing one of those slides, and when the leader reached the platform at the top, a series of howls rang out, echoing throughout the basin below. Someone on our side was cheering on the frightened pseudo-climber from our crow’s nest vantage point, letting them know the effort was noticed. They raised two hands up in appreciation for the mysterious cheer of support, glancing around the ridgeline, nature’s bleachers, for their lone fan.
We drove back up the long gravel driveway to the cabin, pausing for a flock of wild turkeys to amble across, and cooked dinner before relaxing on the substantial front porch. It wasn’t as wild as we would have preferred – the little town of Campton was a couple miles away and a Dollar General was even closer. Still, with the curve in the driveway and the towering oaks it felt further, at least until a semi-truck whirred its way down the Bert T. Combs Appalachian Parkway. The proximity asserted its convenience the first morning, however, when I realized the only coffee maker in the cabin used the throwaway cups and we had a bag of coarse grinds.
The cabin sat in a valley, with a long lawn the shape of a crayon, about a mile long but only a few hundred feet wide. It looked like somebody mowed it regularly, the grass ankle high and uniform all the way to the edge of the forest. The wild turkeys spent their time at its fringe, ducking in and out of the woods scavenging for food. Much svelter than one would think, the turkeys looked more like buff roadrunners than the barrel-chested, long-gobblered goofballs that adorn grocery store ads in November. We followed the lawn away from the cabin as it narrowed into a trail and wound up into the wooded hills. This did not appear to be a popular activity for guests at the cabin, as we were clotheslined by dozens of silky spider webs, and the undergrowth became closed in and itchy.
Dusk falls quickly in August, especially in a shaded valley, and despite the outdoors looking and feeling like summer, the mid-evening chirps of the katydids were a reminder that Halloween is nearly as close in the future as the high sun of mid-June was in the rear view. Seasons are often objects that are closer than they appear. We played dominoes on the front porch into the night, scratching the tiles over the wrought iron table and jumping up or dancing around every ten minutes to reignite the motion light that hung above. Barely macroscopic gnats and butterfly-sized moths, distracted until the bulb flicked off, would rush over to keep us company like dogs who just noticed a stranger at the door. Eventually, we learned to preemptively strike with an arm wave and the night became veritably relaxing. We sipped cans of beer, from West 6th in Lexington I think, and shuffled and dealt dominos, playing to one hundred. I squeaked out a win in the opening game, but Lauren crushed me in the final two.
Campton is not a large town, and the drone of cars a couple miles away had ceased after dinner, replaced by the late summer insect orchestra and a bi-minutely ‘Who cooks for you?’ croon from a barn owl.
“Come on, I was going to play on that double five.” ‘Who cooks for you?’
“23 more points for Lauren.” ‘Who cooks for you?’
“Getting another beer, you want one” Clink goes the empty into the recycle bag. Crack opens its successor. ‘Who cooks for you?’
Eventually another noise echoed through our rented hollow, falsetto yips that sounded more like a group of people imitating a coyote than the real thing. It sounded as if it was just across the yard, likely in the part of the woods where the turkeys were hanging out earlier. The light went out, the bugs descended, Lauren won again, and we called it a night.
The following morning we awoke in the predawn to follow the advice of the woman who rented us the cabin. I drove us along Tunnel Ridge Road to the Auxier Ridge trail which was allegedly the best place to view the sunrise in Kentucky. The show began shortly after we reached the trailhead when the initial rays slung their arms over the mountains like the Abominable Snowman in the Rudolph cartoon, one at first then another, before the sun burst its entire celestial face over the jagged horizon. We hustled along the ridge, the trail brightening by the minute to reveal a dusty series of ledges covered in droopy fan-leafed bushes and knotty pines with z-shaped trunks. It appeared simultaneously dry and lush, as if the intermountain west had colonized the Carolinas. The sun bobbed atop the distant cliffs, illuminating the valley between in an impossible combination of lavender and safety orange, the trees in the foreground acting as a prism diverting the light in every direction along the ridge. Fog sat still in basins like stagnant purple smoke and the creeping ivy on the south sides of trees glowed red like a fire-maned horse. The gradient of dawn had ironed itself out into a clear daytime sky by the time we reached Courthouse Rock and turned around towards the car. We lingered for a bit, watching the hills awaken while eating cashews. There was no rush, no schedule to keep but our own, just my lifetime travel partner and I watching the earth raise its curtain on another day.