A Red River Gorge Thanksgiving Pilgrimage
A Southern climbing trip always begins by packing the Toyota station wagon with the tent, stove, two packs and a rack, rope, food, beer, sleeping bags, a banjo, deer scent, neck sunscreen… the usual. But this year, three days shy of Thanksgiving, I crammed into the car a large, 40-pound bag of grade-A guilt.
My mother had called a few days prior, wondering if I might find it in black heart and chalked hands to join her at my grandparents home in Maine for Thanksgiving. “They might not be alive much longer,” she said. “This might be the last time we…”
“They seem plenty healthy to me,” I answered, recalling the soberly austere-led lives they led—no meat, no booze, no preservatives, and not a lot of fun. Between them, my grandparents were pushing 180 years, and though with each day they were geriatrically slipping through the cracks of life, I figured they’d be alive for another year.
Hanging up the phone, I felt torn. Naturally, no matter how distant they become, family blood is a precious thing despite how successful you are at rebelling against everything they stand for in your youth. But I have a family of my own now which consists of a Berlin-born wife whose concept of Thanksgiving is about as foreign to her as a pair of tight leather lederhosen is to me.
So, with a three-day weather window promising sunny skies and chilly nights, we headed for the Red River Gorge in the bluegrass state of Kentucky—Thanksgiving be-damned.
Now for those in the know, the Red is, bar none, one of this country’s best crags. For those out of the know, the Red is a destination yet to be ticked off sooner rather than later. Besides several lifetimes of routes and its varied walls of splitter trad cracks and sporty finger-numbing face and roofs, the Red is a vast and complicated watershed of canyons and sub-canyons—hollers, as the locals call them—where sandstone bands rise proudly out of the rhododendron shrubbery, the pines and deciduous trees, trees that make every attempt to hide all the climbing potential.
Driving the seven or so hours from Georgia, I found myself holding the steering wheel like I was crimping down on a sandstone hold. The wife, meanwhile, highlighted the crap out of the Red guidebook, marking climbs that she thought best of us to do. Anticipation always make the drive go longer and less fonder, but we were getting out of town and the sack of guilt I’d packed was beginning to feel like a bag of fallen leaves.
Not cherishing the thought of setting up the tent in the cold and dark at Miguel’s we opted for a civilized first night at the True North Outfitters Hostel. For what you normally pay for a good, cheap breakfast, you can sleep the night away in the cozily rustic lodge and have a breakfast of eggs and pancakes in the morning too. Dirtbag excuse aside, the missus lacks the ability to deal with the cold, which has pretty much shut down any dream of climbing in Alaska or Greenland for now.
In the morning I took my coffee outside in the morning sun to acclimatize to the Kentuckian air. Sitting on a piece of timber by the road (warning: unsightly Southern stereotype ahead) I basked in the weak November light, pleased to be here, and even more happy to know that we would, within an hours time, be roped up and climbing. And then, over the rise of a hill came a beat-to-shit pick-up truck with three men in the cab. As they passed, gunning the engine loudly, the man in the passenger side looked out the window at me, giving me a grin that would send the hairs of a hound standing on end. It was the kind of menacing leer that downright hollered, “Boy, you best squeal like a pig.”
As the hillbillies disappeared around the bend belching smoke out the back I suddenly felt rather fruity. Dressed as I was in a down Marmot coat, women’s pile Mountain Hardware beanie, and Evolv approach shoes, to them I no doubt stuck out like a sore thumb by the side of the road, a climber/nature enthusiast/queer-ass vegetarian/pinko Californian commie. And I wondered what it was like to live in Eastern Kentucky all your life. To hunt coons at night and make moonshine with gramps out in a secluded holler by day and then begin to see all these climbers mob the area with no other purpose than to go up and down the rocks all day. It would seem strange to me too, I guess.
Soon enough, though, the wife and I made our escape out to the Muir Valley Nature Preserve, a private tract of hollers and hovels owned by Liz and Rick Weber who have over the last few years turned the place into a climbing paradise. Named after John ‘o the mountains, there’s a plaque in the parking lot that says John Muir was this country’s original climber. That climbing allowed him to get into beautiful spots that only lowlanders can dream of. Something like that. And all true, especially as you clip into one the Valley’s anchors and fondle the scenery before lowering off.
We chased the sun around walls all day, never encountering another climber. We could only hear them yonder, grunting up the steeps, the overhangs, the forearm pumpy roofs. Ending up at Slab City by afternoon we flashed a delectable 5.10b that left me fulfilled, whole, mentally nourished. Just the right amount of solid crimpers and unruffled footwork for my off-the-couch constitution. I could have climbed it again, but Caroline had more highlights to tick off.
Always the same at the Red. Climb hard all day and when the sun goes down, amble down the road to Miguel’s for pizza. If only life could be so simple every day of the year. Looking around at the healthy crowd inside and the array of tents pitched out back, I wondered if all these climbers were orphans or if their families had died tragically. Had they forgotten that tomorrow would be Thanksgiving, that they had been born to two mostly loving parents who were wondering where they were? I could picture it now: a man and a woman sitting at a table in a lonely farm house in Indiana. “You know, Bertrand, ever since our dear boy Johnny started clamoring on those rocks, we haven’t seen much of him anymore. Shame really. He might as well be dead to us.”
That night we headed up to a new campground perched on a ridge on the former site of a flea market. We figured it would be warmer than down in the valley where Miguel’s is squatted. And because the puddles had frozen solid the night before and we only had our summer bags we thought this prudent. We knocked on the office inside a huge airplane hanger to be greeted by Dave Terrill dressed in pajama bottoms and a flannel shirt. Dave invited us inside out of the cold. His mother, Betty, sat in Lazy-boy chair watching the History Channel. She looked up at us with palpable motherly love, with eyes that were as clear as the local creeks. I straightaway adopted her as my own surrogate grandmother without telling her I was doing so. We were home for the holidays.
“Set your tent anywhere you want and stay as long as you like,” Dave said, pointing out back where a group of climbers were huddled around a fire. “The warshroom is inside at the end of the building.”
In the clarity between sleep and wakefulness while Caroline nuzzled next to me in the tent, I dreamed of all the routes we had done that day, replaying them each in my memory knowing full-well they would be replaced and forgotten by tomorrow’s climbing.
And when I slept, my dreams were filled with bits and pieces of my family. My grandmother (who looked oddly like Betty) trying to pick up a midget of a grown man, which upon closer inspection and REM provoked analysis turned out to be me.
Slippery narratives found my grandfather running a red International tractor through a grove of apples, his cap flying off as the tractor, which had lost its brakes, picked up great speed, crashing into a cardboard barn filled with angry deer.
My mother combing her hair with a rake, while a coyote, coming out of nowhere, bites me on the hand.
“What is that sound?” Caroline says, nudging me awake, the bleak morning sun lighting the inside of the tent. I startle awake, stiff from the cold and the hard ground.
BANG, BANG!!!! Bark, Bark, Bark! 1.
“That’s a shotgun. Hunters, probably,” I say. “With their dogs.”
“They sound close.”
“Good thing our tent is orange,” I say, unzipping the tent and peering outside. “International color of ‘don’t shoot me.’”
Of course, once outside I realize I’ve made a big mistake. The cold bites at my legs and I’m clad only in my red Patagonia silk boxer shorts with the floral design, the only merchandise that was on sale for a reason—Yvon Chouinard’s fashion faux pas. Damn. I duck back into the tent and pull on a pair of pants. I hear Dave talking to the fellers with shotguns. Turns out their rabbit hunting for Thanksgiving dinner. “Keelled four so far.” One of the hunters, Dave tells me later, is the county health commissioner, “so you gotta stay on his good side.”
The hunters are kindly fellows with accents so thick they could be speaking in tongues. Dressed in orange vests with shotguns over their arms, they walk away from the camp to their pick-ups. Just then, a small white dog bounds out of the woods with a dead rabbit in its mouth. Blood covers his tail and haunches. Happy Thanksgiving.
Counting our blessings, Caroline and I fire up the station wagon and head downhill to the Lady Slipper/Global Village crag. We want trad and today seems appropriate enough. We walk through the thick forest on a winding climber’s trail, tamping on dead leaves as we go. On an outcrop jutting out above the trees, we rack up for Jake Flake and Vision, both stress-free moderates, but good solid cracks that eat pro for breakfast. Then, around the corner, following the sun, we do Father and Son, Miguel and Dario Ventura’s family-values crack climb which seems more than apropos for the day. (Besides the famed pizza maker and his son, the route was additionally authored by Alex Yeakley and John Bronaugh) Then, breaking out the draws, we do Kentucky Pinstripe (5.10a), a fine-tuned arête that gets progressively easier the higher you go.
In the lengthening shadows, we head down the cliff to Casual Viewing (5.7). Caroline leads the steep crack and I lead on her gear. It’s the way we always do it, switching off back and forth as if we’re on a multi-pitch. We both concur it’s one of the best trad routes we’ve done at the Red. A few routes later and we’ve built up enough appetite for a Thanksgiving dinner at Miguel’s.
By the time we arrive there’s a line out the door. So many pilgrim climbers that the kitchen is beginning to run out of food. Caroline and I squeeze into a long table festooned with votive candles and pine branches. Our family, our tribe of climbers sits together eating turkey and fixins on paper plates. It’s not fancy but it’s good. And the sweet potato pie takes me home, wherever that is these days, and drops me in front of my bag of guilt. Soon enough, though, the blood in my thoughts migrates down into my stomach to assist with digestion, leaving me satiated, nearly guilt-free, and ready for bed.
That night, back at the camp on the hill, three climbers from the tent next door invite us over to their fire. The Milky Way blazes brightly over our heads and we tentatively get to know each other. They’re college students—Rhett Kenny, Mike Angstadt, and Tom Luckey—from Houghton College in New York who’ve all managed to escape familial duties. They’re on their second climbing trip ever, greenhorns trying to figure how the Red works, but totally, completely enraptured by climbing. It’s love. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Dave comes out of his hideout in the hanger. He’s had a Thanksgiving from Hell, ending up at one of his rentals trying to jury-rig a stove that was ready to blow though the roof with a turkey inside. Dave, who grew up here, says he has a lot of respect for climbers and may even try it himself one day. But for now, he’s seen the future of the Red and plans to improve the camp little by little to accommodate the crowds of climbers. He’s thinking of putting in a climbing wall inside the hanger; make a shower, and more fire pits.
“Well, about time we burned the Thanksgiving table, don’t you think?” Dave says with a sly grin. We look around at each other over the firelight, wondering if this is some kind of Southern figure of speech. “It’s a Thanksgiving tradition in Kentucky.”
“Is it really?” Tom asks.
“Nah, I’m just pulling your leg,” Dave says.
But Dave is literal for the most part. He hauls a thick-legged table out of the dark and heaves it on the fire. Soon we have a bonfire that could burn the back of your neck a pleasing shade of red and a new holiday tradition to boot. “You know,” he says, “I like this as much as you do. It’s been a pleasure having y’all here.” Dave goes on to tell us stories about growing up, how he used to explore under the cliffs searching for arrowheads. “We didn’t even think of climbing them cliffs back in those day. That would’ve been inconceivable to us. But I sure enjoyed bein’ ‘round them.”
We sleep soundly that night without gunshots to disturb our slumber. In the morning Caroline asks Mike, Rhett, and Tom if they want to join us in the Pendergrass Murray Recreation Preserve. We’ve never been there, and the college boys, lacking a guidebook, have been climbing only on one cliff in the Muir Valley for the last two days. Time, then, to expand their impressionable minds. After getting thoroughly lost on an unmarked road we find ourselves in The Playground of Sore Heel Hollow. We do a couple of delightful sport routes to warm up (Tire Swing [5.10a], Slide [5.9]), the sun on our backs. Then Caroline leads a nice dihedral trad line (Octopus Tag [5.7]) so the boys can see what it’s like to climb a trad route.
The college boy’s gear is all borrowed from the climbing club they are officers in. Sharing one helmet between them and ancient harnesses with edelweiss flowers decorated around the webbing, they nevertheless climb with enthusiastic abandon mixed with a healthy fear that they’re doing everything wrong. They check each other’s knots lovingly like nitpicking monkeys.
Speaking of monkeys, while Rhett launches up the trad line clipping our gear, Caroline and I, tired and worn from three days of climbing, attempt (badly) the ultra pumpy Monkey Bars (5.10a). Right after doing Balance Beam (5.11b) I’m way pumped out and hand the sharp end to the wife. Just as I get lowered to the ground, I look over in time to see Rhett screaming down the dihedral, taking his first trad and probably longest fall (at least 25 feet) of his short climbing career. Seemingly undaunted, he re-climbs to the belay. But it’ll be the fall he remembers for a long time.
It’s getting late and we make motions to pack up. Sweetly, generously, (“We’ve been thinking…”) the boys offer us a stay and dinner at Rhett’s grandmother’s house an hour’s drive away. But we have a long way and three states to Georgia and lives to attend to. We’ll meet again, I say, hopefully at the Red.
Throwing the packs in the car, I spy the bag of guilt and pull it out onto the ground. I lift it up (it’s slightly less weighty than before) and turn it over, spilling it onto the leaf-covered dirt. The fact that its biodegradable and will soon be composting into this sweet earth of ours doesn’t make the litter more appealing. But as I look around the parking lot of cars with license plates from as far away as Utah, I see more bags of the stuff and feel a little better. As soon as we get out of the hollers of Kentucky and out on the highway I’ll call my mother to say I wish we could have all been together, to wish her a belated happy Thanksgiving. And for the most part I’ll mean it.
1. Giving credit where credit is due, this acoustic narrative devise was pilfered from Burkhard Bilger’s fine book “Noodling for Flatheads.” In it he uses the tick tick tick of a fish finder in the title story of his book about weird and wonderful Southern traditions. I am grateful to have found his book by my side during the long nights in the tent and can only hope, in the off chance he reads Climbing.com, that he will be flattered.