Today I want to move back to Kentucky. No, no, don't expect a big change over at the Pavement's Edge any time soon. I realize my desire to remain here is based in the fact that after a few visits back here from Colorado over the past three years I've come to wax nostalgic, not for the time when we actually lived here, but for the times we've come back on vacation released temporarily from home, work and school obligations.
And today I rode through my beloved Red River Gorge, the place where I spent so much time exploring both the earthen landscape and my own spiritual landscape. I'd forgotten how much I love the place.
I had a great ride despite the swelter. I rode from Hatton Creek where we used to live out through Stanton and into the broad river valley east of town along highway 11. I was planning to ride the Red River Gorge Scenic Byway (The Gorge Loop) and return to Hatton Creek. My plan was to ride the loop counterclockwise to avoid having to climb the hill below Sky Bridge. Until today I had never gone up Sky Bridge hill.
But when I reached highway 77 at Nada I turned toward the tunnel and began a clockwise circuit of the loop along the Gorge Loop.
As I passed through the rural residential area I wondered at the odd new-ish siding and roofing on all of the houses throughout Nada. They were all uniform in color and style. The community of Nada, or "Snakey Holler" as its known to many locals, has long been considered the armpit of the county and the region. As irony would dictate, Nada is also the gateway to the Red River Gorge and people from around the country and around the world have experienced the wonders of the RRG after having tasted the funk of Snakey Holler.
But it seems someone has been making an effort to spruce up the place and that's heartening. I wonder if its just a community initiative or if some organization is funding the upgrades.
I paused at the spring below the tunnel and topped off my water bottle. I carried my camelbak and a single bottle on the bike for today's ride. By the time I reached the spring around 8:45 the heat was ratcheting up.
I enjoyed the cool shade of the green dappled tunnel through the trees and rhododendron beyond the spring. I began to shift back into Gorge mode, looking into the thick undergrowth for tell-tale signs of boulders and cliffline that might hold good climbing.
I reached Nada Tunnel and stopped for a photo and then switched the Lazer on "Deep Fat Fry" and pedaled into the darkness. On the other side of the tunnel I was treated to my first good descent all the way to the Iron (Arn) Bridge at Red River. I seemingly had the road to myself.
I took my time pedaling east along the river. They say scents are the most potent trigger for memory and the overpowering smells of the woods, of the river and of my home stomping grounds unlocked an infinite stream of memories in me.
The roads of the Red River Valley traverse the landscape of my memory as surely as they are draped over the physical geography of Powell, Menifee, Wolfe and Lee Counties.
I rode along with a happy grin on my face, reliving my days of wandering over the rugged landscape of this edge of the Cumberland Plateau. I know the nuances of the Pottsville Escarpment like I know the lines on my own hands.
I continued alone on the road, taking in the smells, the sights and the deluge of memories. The temperature crept upward, but the shade persisted and I sucked on my drinking tube frequently.
I took a quick break at Gladie Creek. There I bumped into an old friend who works with the Forest Service. I believe Rita is the last remaining person of those I have known and worked with from the old Stanton Ranger District over the years who is still around. But then I pushed on. I had many miles with a considerable climb ahead of me.
I kept my energy up by cramming down a Clif Shot every hour. Those things, though nearly unpalatable otherwise, make for a great fuel supply on long rides. They saw me through to the end.
I continued deeper into the Gorge, headed toward the Concrete Bridge where the Upper Gorge gives way to the Middle Gorge. I miss stomping through the twisted and remote terrain of the Upper Gorge, but today didn't offer an opportunity for a visit. I paused momentarily at the Concrete Bridge, but each time I stopped and the breeze of my passage ceased I felt as if I had burst into flames. I had to continue on.
The Concrete Bridge, just below the mouth of Swift Camp Creek, marks the beginning of the wicked climb from the bottom of the valley up to the ridgetop. In a mile and a half you gain about 250 feet. It doesn't sound like much, but its a steep ride and in 95 degree heat with 90% humidity it feels like you're going to die before the end.
After leaving Gladie I found myself at the top of the steep climb in about 30 minutes. I was shocked I had made it so quickly.
Making it to the top without stopping I felt compelled to celebrate, first with a fist pump and a growl and then by riding out to Sky Bridge. I hopped off the bike at the start of the trail (no really) and walked out to the arch.
I lingered only a couple of minutes before hiking back to the trailhead and slipping back onto the bike for the long bike back.
I love the ride out Sky Bridge Ridge between the arch and the sleepy community of Pine Ridge. I cruised along, enjoying the coolness of the shade combined with the breeze. I had the road to myself. Only a lone motorcycle passed me. As I neared Pine Ridge I thought to myself that I felt good, really good, as if I could ride all day long. I began looking forward to returning to Colorado and striking out for Evans, or on an overnight or three day tour.
And then I exited the dark green tunnel into the full sunlight as I neared Rock Bridge Road. I was almost back to Pine Ridge and the long final leg of my journey.
I didn't even pause as I turned back west onto highway 15 again. Again the smells overwhelmed me as I rode past a few houses toward Slade Hill. Honeysuckle is in bloom and growing wild along most of the roads and the strong fragrance accompanied me for most of the ride. There were some other plants in bloom and the intertwining of the scents sent my synapses into frenzied activity.
And then I was at the top of the three mile descent from the top of Slade Hill down to the small "town" of Slade itself. I pushed hard on the pedals starting to feel the miles behind me for the first time.
After a screaming descent I rolled casually up to the front porch of Porter's, a gas station at the junction of highways 11 and 15. I had two dollar bills, and a Snickers and an Ale-8 rang up to exactly $2.00.
I sat in the shade out front and rested as I took in some sugar for the final push back to Stanton. I had been fantasizing about lunch for at least ten miles. My tank was getting low.
When I checked my phone I saw Mandy had texted me. She was visiting with friends in Clay City and they missed me. Would I come on over when I was done with my ride?
I started planning an alternate end to my route in my mind. I knew how I would traverse through Stanton and continue on to Clay City. I knew it would tack on a few miles to my original ride, but I wondered if the heat and fatigue would get to me before I reached the end of my journey.
I had enjoyed the ride immensely to that point. I think I have only ridden the complete Gorge Loop one other time and that was an unforgettable ride. It was in the late fall a year or so before I met Mandy. I took off on a weekday and rode the Cannonball around the 30+ mile loop in the best autumn weather Kentucky has to offer, on roads that no one else laid claim to that day. It was a wonderful ride.
Today was a great ride as well. I mostly had the roads to myself and despite the heat the weather was fine. I didn't come all this way to sit in the air conditioning after all.
The ride was surreal. I rode Tom's Giant OCR2, which is identical to the Giant I slew almost a year ago. So the ride, the location, the overflow of memory triggered by my senses...all of it put me in a coalescing experience outside of time and space. My mood and thoughts transcended the moment, which is out of the ordinary for me. I am a creature of The Moment, almost unable to live beyond the instant in which I find myself. In some ways today was like a very vivid dream.
I reached our friends' house and there was turkey for sandwiches, chips, a fruit salad, Oreos and sweet tea. Oddly by the time I got to the Oreos I was full and had no room in my belly for them. Alas!
While days like today make me miss my home stomping grounds, I think having moved away I appreciate this place so much more. When we lived here I was always bemoaning the lack of time to do the things I wanted. Family obligations, work, school, chores...all competed for my limited time and I missed my solo rides, climbing, paddling, hiking...I missed it all so much when those things were within arms reach.
I still have to wrangle the time to get to squeeze in a ride of this magnitude, but it was worth it, and I'll remember this ride for a long time.