Right, so I'm on a Red River Gorge hiking and photography kick. We took the kids hiking not so long ago. It was a good loop with lots of interesting stuff to see and photograph. My former obsession is reawakening.
Most recently I strode off through the fresh snow up the unofficial Douglas Trail along the Upper Red. I intended to shoot only black and white but the green of the water, the smattering of rhododendron, and the flaming earth-tones of sandstone had me constantly switching the settings back to color.
|Along the Douglas Trail, Upper Red River Gorge|
I pushed deeper into the Clifty Wilderness. I needed to be back in a couple hours, but there were days worth of uninhabited forest ahead of me to explore. The possibility that I could wander into obscurity or break a leg and get stranded in such rugged terrain was tantalizing. Don't slip on the ice over that waterfall and die now.
I found the overgrown trail I remembered from more than fifteen years ago. Is it an old trail? Mule-skid road? Why is this steep bench cut into the wicked tight hollow behind the buttress? I climb using rhododendron. I jam toes into the carpet of leaves beneath the shallow veneer of snow as it fades into a more vertical Red River Gorge landscape.
Over one darkly iced cliff band after another. Looking down I see bars of sunlight glazing flecks of snow crystals dancing on bitter updrafts. I see elevation gained that could be quickly and painfully lost. I grind the rands of my boots tighter into the steep slopes.
|The trail ahead|
Beyond the dark green and brown screen of forest I see blue skies, washed pale in the cold sunlight, burnt oranges, tan, and nearly red bands of sedimentary material frozen until it can be eroded back into sand. I try to keep moving, but the starkly beautiful wilderness keeps stopping me cold. I drag the camera up to my eye again; I frame out all of the world except the scene that has plucked another of my heart strings. I trip the shutter and preserve the moment.
I need to turn back, but oddly the clock is ticking slowly despite my truncated time in the woods. My life in the world of men pulls at me with a gravity I cannot resist. Despite the urgency to return I've brought a headlamp and warm clothes. Maybe I hope for a broken leg to keep me out overnight on an impromptu camping trip.
The CTL would love this. He said he's never been here. I've made this trek too many times to count. It was my old, old standard. It was the trunkline for my explorations into the deeper wilderness. The Douglas Trail was an escape route from tragedy in the Narrows. It was an escape route from the reality of job, home, and society. Now it's simply a temporary escape; best utilized to reset the overwhelmed system.
|Below Grand Piano Rock, Upper Red|
Once I dragged my whitewater kayak two miles upstream to the mouth of Clifty Creek and paddled down, going against convention, good sense, and the cowardice in my heart. I paddled the lower section of the Upper Gorge. That was one of my more successful solo adventures.
It was a dream fulfilled and recognized. As I floated between mild rapids I remembered the winter day more than a year before when I hiked into the wild place alone and undetected observed three kayakers cruising the same section of river. I'd already hatched my own plan to buy a boat. It was sealed as I saw those other boaters framed in the Gorge that confined my life during those years.
Age has dulled my sense of adventurous bravado. Walking along the edge of the cliffs west of Eagle's Nest I cannot ignore the exposure. When I find the spot where I took a photo eons ago of the magnificent Eagle's Nest buttress I can't decide if I brought the same cahones with me. I ease down to the edge of the rounded cliff top. There's nothing but two hundred feet of void below me. My center of gravity is low, and angled away from the gaping gravitational death that awaits as I ease my right foot out to the crook of root and trunk. A small, shallowly anchored pine braces me against my doom.
Ah, the beauty of technology! I rotate the LCD screen and extend my arm far into the wilderness sky and get and even better angle on the looming buttress in partial view from my protected stance. My eye does not have to physically hover in space high over the naked trees to get the image I want. My electronic prosthesis does that just fine. I'm cyborg venturing into the wilderness.
|Eagle's Nest, Upper Red River Gorge|
Afterward I move over to the top of the buttress where I command a view unrivaled in my part of the state. I marvel that I've made it here so quickly, so surely, and so cautiously.
My camera battery becomes exhausted after I managed one panoramic shot. I stow the tool securely for the chase that follows. I'll go fast back downriver over fallen trees, creek crossings, rocks to be scrambled. I'll make up time. I'll meet my deadline and return to life in the non-wilderness of the mundane.
I hear fiddle music in brain. A story unfolds as I act out character development for my latest story. I imagine my protagonist and antagonist in this place on this day. I become a part of the story I craft.
Only my intimate knowledge of this Gorge allows me to move so swiftly back to the world of non-fiction. My legs carry me. The road moves closer as I contribute my body heat to the atmosphere. Once again, with changed lighting, I move past objects recently photographed. Using my cell phone I recapture scenes I had hoped to obtain with the now useless camera. But these places will remain for me to revisit. With my unexpected hike I've proved that. Little has changed, only the edges of the riverbanks and some rearrangement of deadfall.
Back in the car I sped away. Back on the pavement I lost my mind to humanity’s call.