By Gerry Seavo James
When it comes to the Red River Gorge National Geological Area there are two facets; there’s the tourist scene with readily accessible destinations: Red River Gorge Zipline, Torrent Falls, and Natural Bridge - which are amazing in their own right. But as someone with an Indiana Jones Complex, I find myself drawn to its more rugged, feral side: hikes to Indian Staircase, Copperas Falls, stumbling upon one of the Gorge’s hundreds of unnamed waterfalls, or getting caught up in the thorn laden forest off the trails . When I came across Kirk Gilchrist on Instagram, it was immediately clear that he suffered from the same “affliction “as me. Kirk’s love for the unsung natural world was evident through the exhilarating photos on his account: bounding over rocks, exploring unnamed arches, and other geological formations I had never fathomed existed in Kentucky. Thanks to the power of social media, I soon found myself and Field Team Members, David Rogers invited on a weekend guided hike into the Gorge’s back country lead by Kirk, a self taught naturalist, hiker, and owner of an import car shop. He warned us that we would bleed, become fatigued, walk in cold creeks etc, but that we would emerge having seen sights few have ever seen...
I didn’t want to be selfish, so I invited quite possibly the most badass newlyweds ever, Stacie Hewitt and Nate Spicer on the excursion. ( And by badass, I mean these two ditched your typical wedding registry gift requests and asked for cold weather sleeping bags.) Then I invited Sarah Logann Thomas who had contacted me about being involved with Explore Kentucky and she had friend David Pace tag along, forming a solid squad ready to conquer a hoth-esque frozen Red River Gorge.
Rising at 6 A.M on a Saturday, we streaked across the countryside, witnessing 100 miles of beautiful Kentucky land swathed in picturesque snow, a scene worthy of its own Bing Crosby special. Hitting exit 33, we pulled over to the Park & Ride where some go to pick up ladies ( inside joke) to meet Kirk and his right hand man, Kevin Siples. Honestly I was expecting Kirk to pull up in a Jeep Wrangler with a winch, KC lights, offroad tires...the works, you know? But instead he rolled up in a Mercedes SUV. As he stepped out his vehicle, I sized him up:tall, fiery redhead, intense green eyes, not an ounce of fat on his body despite seemingly being in 40s. As he stuck out a well calloused hand for a shake, I knew we were in for a great day. Real recognizes real as the saying goes. Pleasantries exchanged, bowels emptied, we started convoying up to the Mountain Parkway. At Chimney Top Road our group stopped in a clearing, parked, and hopped out to start gearing up (you know, actually putting Patagonia, Outdoor Research, and North Face clothing to its proper use, not just for vanity) surrounded by the beautiful scene of a snowy Daniel Boone National Forest. We plunged into the woods, hitting a forest service maintained trail, then veered off into the great unknown in a single file line, all following and trusting Kirk’s lead..
Thats where the sketchiness began and having agility came into play. We negotiated a steep ridge line where we had the option of using a tree’s exposed roots as our rope. Gradually we navigated around snowy cliff lines, forage, weaved over and under felled trees, tramped through frigid creeks & eventually emerged , a few us with cold feet and scrapes. Our eyes were delighted with spectacles of Trinity Shelter and Laurel Branch Valley Double Arch, rock shelters that formed semi circles around the sky, bejeweled with large icicles, & semi frozen waterfalls. And then it began to snow and we were standing in a real life snow globe. Tears welled up in my eyes, as a collective we stood in awe of nature’s beauty thinking philosophical thoughts, and listening to nature’s sounds. However Kirk, as the true mechanic he is pulled out a bluetooth speaker shaped in the form of a socket wrench and soon punctuated our pure thoughts with sounds of Wiz Khalifa, “ Yeah, you know what it is, Black and Yellow , Black & Yellow” reverberating across the rock walls. You can take mechanic out of garage, but can't take the garage out of the mechanic...
After crisscrossing several miles of back country, most folks would be done. But that is not the Kirk Gilchrist way. As soon as we caught our breath after ascending out of the forest, he hotrodded and we frantically followed him almost 30 miles to the city of Frenchburg. Next thing you know, we are back on foot tramping through the forest. Turns out Kirk wanted to show us a rock house called Devil’s Markethouse Arch that was seemingly air dropped in the middle of the woods.
Thanks Kirk, Stacie, Nate, Sarah, Kevin, & David (s) for an amazing day. Lets do it again. Explore Kentucky.
“The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, not the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when you discover that someone else believes in you and is willing to trust you with a friendship.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson.