Matt Walker is a math & sciences teacher and business man. His wife, Melinda, manages an outpatient diagnostic imaging center for Baptist Health. They are both outdoor enthusiasts and two of the newest members of the Explorer Kentucky Initiative's ambassador program.
We had an opportunity to join The Explore Kentucky Initiative founder and director, Gerry James and Kentucky Natural Lands Trust Forest Steward, Preston Lacy for the first day of EKI’s inaugural guided hike weekend as an organization at Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve, in Harlan County, Kentucky. Myself and my wife, Melinda joined a diverse group of 15 adventurers from all across the commonwealth for an opportunity to come together and marvel at one of the last old growth forests in the state of Kentucky.
I'm going to start out by giving you a quick rundown of the facts behind the hike and then I'm going to take the time to tell you the story that really matters. So, here we go….
We gathered to hike an uncut old growth forest and nature preserve located on Pine Mountain. Our guide Preston Lacy did a wonderful job of telling us about the historical facts and significance of the forest, the geological formations, and ecological diversity of this region of our state. We then hiked a fairly strenuous 4.5 mile loop that had our group crossing streams, scrambling on wet, root twisted trails, and squeezing between boulders as we quickly changed vertical elevation.
Along the way our path led us under a canopy of tulip poplars, maples, oaks, hemlocks and magnolias twisting and winding its way up the south face of the mountain to reach our rocky destinations. Knobby rock, Sand Cave, and the Maze are worthy destinations for any hiker. Our group was not disappointed in the least.
For me to try to describe this to you would be a folly. I know that I would come up short.
Truth-be-told, the best way I can share all of this information with you is by encouraging you to check out the photos that Gerry and Matt shot.
Also you can check-out the links below:
(Queue the late Paul Harvey's voice in the back of your mind)
"And now you have...the rest of the story."
As we met one another early Saturday morning, it quickly became apparent, that this was going to be a great event. The level of enthusiasm that Gerry brought to the gathering was contagious. Everyone was smiling and sharing a little bit about themselves. Rather quickly everyone was making informal introductions as they seemed eager to meld into a group.
Our group consisted of hikers of all types, young and old, novice and experienced, foreign and domestic. I can honestly say that it’s the first time I have shared the trail with anyone from Indonesia. Wyan Suke was eager to share a smile with every one of us. Prestonsburg is lucky to have him as their neighbor, as he tells me that he enjoys the trails around Jenny Wiley State Park and helps them maintain their trails. I asked, Wyan about the forests in Bali, his home, and he gave me a sly smile saying, "Jungle out my back door, ocean out of my front. Sometimes, I ask myself, "why am I here? But I think, this is a beautiful place too."
The first new friend my wife, Melinda, and I met was Diana who has taken to hiking somewhat recently. She asked lots of question upon her arrival. "Am I in the right place for the hike?", "Have you ever hiked here before?", or "How strenuous do you think this will be?" She seemed a little nervous at first, but I then realized that she was more eager than nervous. As others arrived, she became involved in numerous other conversations.
I then had the opportunity to meet Sean, a young artist and baker, who was eager to discuss the great music scene that is happening in Whitesburg. We learned that we both have a healthy respect for John Haywood, both as an artist and a musician. Talked about how John would be the torch that passes on a heritage of mountain music as the older generations pass on. We both acknowledged that neither of us has any innate musical talents, but that we both still have a great appreciation for the skills of the artists around the region.
A group of ladies from Lexington rolled out of a jeep and took the place by storm. One of the ladies, not sure if it was Virginia or Diane, raised several eyebrows among our growing numbers by declaring that "We hiked 9 miles of the Rough Trail in the Red River Gorge last weekend! And Mary Lynn is 75 years old! ”. We all knew that we were in for a treat. These ladies were chomping at the bit to hit the mountain. Mary Lynn was a source of another first for me on this trip.
While we were all taking a moment to enjoy the view of the mountains from our new perch on Knobby Rock, I overheard her telling about rafting the Colorado River last year. Well, me being me, I declared that was a noteworthy adventure at any age and suggested we share a "nip" of Fireball Whiskey from my handy trail flask (Gerry later informed that this was not allowed in a Kentucky State Nature Preserve). So, in this moment of fellowship in adventuring, I shared a drink and admiration for a new friend who is obviously living life right. Cheers to you ladies, I marveled at the sight of you conquering muddy hills, navigating dead fall entanglements, and scurrying over boulders on our journey. Y'all rock!
Of course, all of this was documented by Gerry and our new friend Matt Herp, a free-lance photographer who came to help us newbies with our photography skills.
He and Gerry did a really nice job sharing tips on how to capture better images while on the trail. Roy Crawford, a member of the board for the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, bounced back and forth talking about the digital versus film photography, camera formats and lens compatibility. It was a learning experience just listening in on their conversation.
While discussing coffee house decor with Lauren Staton, a young barista who likes to hike "for mental health days", Matt got a chuckle out of us by declaring, "it would be perfect if I could figure out how to combine espresso and beer." I guess that is the life of a photographer, "I need to get there fast, but have steady hands when I arrive."
Together Matt and Gerry captured plenty of photos and I'm sure their efforts will do more to tell the story about the day better than I possibly can.
All the while and all along the way, Gerry moved in and out of conversations with the skill and ease of an accomplished leader. We had a great time. We learned a lot. We laughed and smiled and lingered on the trail after the hike was over. You see the story about this inaugural EKI event was not about our location. The story, my friends, is about the people involved and one man's passion to build an adventuring community within our great state. We did meld into an Explore Kentucky community. I am confident that it is going to happen to other adventurers as well.
My wife and I had such a great day and I’m sure that we will share in other great days. I know I am looking forward to getting together again with Gerry. He is planning events to hike, climb, paddle, and more all over this state and it would be a shame if you missed out on being a part of these amazing chances to be a part of our community.
It's happening now, so come join us, and let's Explore Kentucky together.