Monday, February 10

The Misunderstood Wilderness: Driving Deep Into the Wilderness

Today's post—late as it is—is not the conclusion to the series as you might be hoping.  I guarantee at least two more installments.  And I’ll stop trying to guesstimate what the actual final count will be.  Perhaps we’ll just continue with this thread indefinitely as needed.

I’m late in getting it out to you, Three Dear Readers, because a coworker left to be employed somewhere else and I took advantage of the void and occupied her cubicle.  It has better furniture and a better (less distracting) view.  So, after much ado, here you go:

I want to do a deeper analysis of the book Past Titan Rock by Ellesa Clay High, but for now I’m only going to make a quick reference.  Recently I re-read the book after about twenty years.  The book is about life in the Red River Gorge area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  During my first reading I was caught up in the landscape because at the time I was in the process of an intensive systematic exploration of the Gorge area.  I was also consuming any literature I could get my hands on that focused on—or merely made reference to—my home stomping grounds.  At the time this was my least favorite of the entire bibliography of my coming-of-age in the Red River Gorge.  But revisiting it again, twenty years later, has changed my perception of the book.

I once asked to rent this house.
Anyway, Ms. High described a Red River Gorge unlike the one most of us know today.  And I’ve heard stories about locals going in not long after the gubment bought up all the land and it was truly a wild place then.  There was still evidence of habitation, but the land had been scoured to extract resources diverting the natural wealth of the land elsewhere.  Rails had been pulled up to support the war effort.  People left the Gorge area after it had given all it could stand to give in a generation or two.  It was truly an apocalyptic landscape. 
Somewhere between the covers of that book I realized that if I had been born two generations earlier that I would have lived the harsh and hard life she described.  My station in life—the class of people I am—would have had me maybe growing up like Lily May Ledford as a one of a few children of a sharecropper, living off the land and scrabbling for any kind of leg up out of poverty.
So why today am I not destitute?  Why don’t my children live in poverty?  What has changed in two generations?
My dad’s dad had a job with the state highway department.  Back when the Mountain Parkway was completed he had a job at the Clay City toll booth.  In the 1960s in Kentucky the automobile was king.  It was taking over the landscape, shaping the future of Eastern Kentucky society.  Bert T. Combs’ vision of a connected Appalachian Kentucky seemed to be coming to fruition. 
My mom’s dad was employed by Ashland Oil as a result of the Big Sinking (oil) Field boom.  Things got good enough that Mamaw and Papaw moved to town into a nice big brick house in the late ‘70s just after I was born.  American oil had peaked, but demand was high and memories long enough to still sting from the OPEC oil embargo of 1973.   
Because of the rise of the automobile and the widespread acceptance of suburban development and all the accoutrements thereof my family enjoys the splendor of kings, a life fraught with luxuries my great-grandparents would have marveled at. 

Modern conveniences:
Klean Kanteen, Hersey's dark chocolate, and an Xtracycle
Twenty years ago I didn’t realize these things about the Gorge area.  I guess in my head I assumed it had always been a wild place.  It never clicked that geographic names like Schoolhouse Branch and Railroad Hollow were more than romantic pinings.  But of course they held the full value of their labels at some point in history.
I enjoy the benefit of the exploitation of the Earth’s one time endowment of bulk fossil fuel deposits.  The coincidence of my fortune is that I was born during a time when technological advancement and population combined to create the demand drivers that took humanity to the next level of civilization.  But did we go too far too fast?  I think we did.  We did not exercise prudence.  We didn’t think of the external costs of our glut on oil.
I believe the Gorge area will once again appear as an apocalyptic landscape.  But it will be different.  It will be apocalyptic in the sense that it will be a place that people see as a refuge from the maelstrom of calamities that ensue from the collapse of society as we know it.  Humanity will once again claim the ruggedness of the Red River Valley as a place to dwell.  It will be easier to defend homesteads that are remote from roads even in a world where oil doesn’t flow as easily.
In the back of my mind I have a story idea.  I’m not going to go into the idea because it’s good enough that I want it for myself.  Basically it’s an alternate history.  And one of the results of the divergence in my story is that the Red River was dammed in the 1960s without opposition.  There was never a National Forest.  Logging and extractive enterprises continued unabated and the river was impounded and subdued for a time.  In my story my beloved Red River Gorge will be destroyed.
Why would I do that?  I don’t know.  Sometimes you have to imagine life without the things you love.  It’s practice for when you experience real loss.  Perhaps that’s why.  There is also the response to a feeling of impotence in preventing further pointless exploitation.  There is guilt and shame at having exploited without real purpose yourself. Sure I’ve benefited by living during the Age of Oil.  All of its effects are accounted to me as they are to you.  We’re all responsible for the state of the world today.  We are cognizant, or we’re obstinate in our ignorance.

Is that "Titan Rock" in the upper right?  Don't know...
Saturday I embarked on one of my mini-adventures.  Tom started out with me, but fell off as the effects of a lingering bronchitis made riding his bike in the heavy falling snow unsustainable.  He begged off at Rosslyn and faded into the white curtain of flakes.
I stomped down on the pedals of the Cannonball.  Oh, the Cannonball!  It had been so long since we’d been on a solid, purposeful ride.  By taking the Xtracycle I was able to portage coffee along with me.  I was able to bring a jacket.  Extra gloves.  Food.  The CBX made life on the road easy, if a bit slow.
Tom turned back and I pushed on up North Fork.  The snow fell and fell.  It never really accumulated, but it kept falling bestowing itself for ambiance if nothing else.  I continued on with a plan.  Originally I was going to ride up and bag Raven Rock.  Ride to the base and up the old road as far as possible and then walk from there.  But the Crash Test Librarian had been going on about riding past locked FS gates.  I would have been game to ride the deeper snow up on Tunnel Ridge or Chimney Top ridge, but I was near Indian Creek.  See the difference?

But I couldn’t really pass on the opportunity to experience Indian Creek on a Saturday when nary a yahoo could access it.  And so mine were the only fresh tracks up FRs 9, 9a and 9b.  By the time I got back to North Fork Road, the road where Ms. High opens her book, I was out of food/gas, and running short on time.  I was at least too short on time to venture up to Raven Rock, and definitely too short on energy.

Near Nada Tunnel
I settled for closing my loop out through Nada Tunnel and headed back toward town on Campton Road.  With less than ten miles to go my legs lost all power and I began to feel hollow and weak.  Joe.  Joe Bowen would give me food.
And so he did, and I plodded on after visiting with Joe for a few minutes and rolled into the Red River Regional Bikeport completely and totally spent.  Nada.  Nothing left. 
As I had pedaled up North Fork and into the Gorge I couldn’t help think of the book.  I let my thoughts wander back to the 1970s when the author was researching her book, and of the Gorge that I’d heard of in my younger years.  I tried to untangle it all from what I see today.  But memory and perception intertwine sometimes into unmanageable knots.  And so I have to go forward with the picture I hold in my head now and try to relate the changes of time as best I can.
One thing is for certain, like all other places in the land the Red River Gorge has been fundamentally changed by humanity’s easy access to cheap energy.

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