By Jenny Bradley, Guest Contributor
Would you believe me if I told you that I have lived within 15 miles of the Red River Gorge the majority of my life and that at 32 years old, this summer was the first time I ever set foot in it?! I’m afraid it’s true.
I grew up in Wolfe County, Kentucky. A small rural county with a population of around 7,100 people. My graduating class in 2001 was a whopping 76 students. We have one stop light, a Dairy Queen and 2 Dollar Stores. In all reality, our little town very closely resembles Mayberry. Campton is very typical of small town life, the men gather at the local barber shop to discuss everything from the weather, their wives, to politics. Pretty much everyone either knows you by name or they know your family. When I would make a new friend at school, my parents would want to know who their parents were because chances are they went to school with them or we were related to them. Just like most of the small towns in Appalachia, we have a slow economy with no big boosters like a Wal Mart or other big name franchises to produce jobs. And basically, the only form of entertainment for the “young people” is to mindlessly drive around our small square block. I’m not complaining or trying to shed a negative light on us because I love our small town. I truly can’t imagine living anywhere else, let alone, raising my son anywhere else.
I’m sure if you’re reading this you follow explorekentucky.org and are interested in our wonderful state, so no doubt you’ve heard of the Gorge. I’m also sure you are wondering how on Earth it would be possible to have nothing to do other than drive around when you have “The Red” in your backyard.
Well, I’m so glad you asked! Growing up in Wolfe Co, the only things I heard about the Gorge were negative….i.e. people die, it’s dangerous, you have no business there, people only go there to do drugs or get in to trouble, there are devil worshipers in the Gorge, etc. I’m sure you are laughing and shaking your head at the ridiculousness of such descriptions, but it is the truth. I can remember being in about the 8th grade and having friends who were older, they had their drivers licenses, and hearing them talk about driving through the Gorge after school with their windows down and the music playing. I remember thinking… “What Rebels!” But that’s all that people did, they drove through the Gorge.
This summer, my friend Morgan, who loves Kentucky more than anyone I know, took me on my very first hike. We ventured out to Grey’s Arch and I was hooked. I truly fell in love that day. When we came down the steps and went around the bend Morgan made me close my eyes as we approached. When I opened my eyes and saw that arch in all of her glory, boldly standing out among the trees, in the gorgeous undisturbed nature, hearing nothing but the trickling of the water running off the overhanging rocks, …I got choked up. I was completely speechless….how could people think this was a bad place?? I wanted to go out and drag every person I knew out to see what I had just seen. To experience what I had just experienced. How was it possible that for the majority of my life this was here and I didn’t know it???
That was it for me. I couldn’t get enough. I wanted to explore every inch of the Gorge. My dear friends Jaclyn, Morgan, and Amy joined me on many quests to visit as many of the arches as possible over the weekends this past summer and fall.
My best friends, Amy, Barb and Jaclyn at Creation Falls
What many people don’t realize is that the Gorge offers more than just hiking and rock climbing. This summer my friends and our families went on a canoe trip on the Red River via Red River Adventures. Once again, I live about 15 minutes from this and had no idea it even existed! Red River Adventures supplied us with the canoes, paddles and life jackets. My husband loaded our fishing equipment and coolers and we were all set. We had the best day canoeing up the river. Periodically we would get out and dads would give the kids lessons on the art of skipping rocks. We stopped and had a picnic near “Jumping Rock” and watched the brave souls squeal as they worked up their nerve to jump into the muddy water as everyone cheered. Days like that can’t be bought in a mall or found playing on an Ipad.
Kids skipping rocks
As much fun as I have hiking with my girlfriends, there’s nothing like spending time in the woods with my son. My 4 year old son, Cooper, loves the Gorge. Cooper has explored all the close arches like, Princess, Whistling, Hidden, Moonshiners, Half Moon, Grey’s and Rock Bridge, Sky Bridge, etc. but what impresses me the most is he remembers them. He knows them by name and will talk about specific features of the arches. With the large boulders around Grey's Arch, he is convinced that's where Dinosaurs once played. He is trooper on longer trails like Auxier Ridge and Copperas Falls, as long as we pack a picnic. Spending time in the Gorge with Cooper is one of my favorite things in the world and I'm so thankful that he has also developed such a love of the beauty of the Red that we have at our disposal.
Cooper after making it to Auxier Ridge,announcing that he was in fact the "King of the World"
The first of October the bank I work for sponsored the Natural Bridge Tourism Board's Annual Dinner and I gladly went as a representative. Who was at my table…none other than Joe Bowen!! Unbeknownst to me, Joe Bowen had walked on stilts across America not once, but twice. The first time being 3,008 miles; which landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records. He also rode his bicycle across the US and parts of Canada 14,000 miles at the age of 23 and again at the age of 63. I didn't know the significance of this man but when he handed me his card and I saw it said the Rugged Red I went wild. I had read about the Rugged Red on Facebook and desperately wanted to try it, but the fear of 13.1 miles through trails that I had just ventured on for the first time won out. Joe and I talked and talked…I could have sat and discussed the Gorge and tourism of Eastern Ky with him for hours! He told me of his passion for the Gorge and tourism. I nodded enthusiastically as I listened to him and then I told him how I am desperate to break the thought process of the local people not taking advantage of what we have. I told him how I have my (then) 3 yr old out on trails and he can tell you about Daniel Boone and how the Sheltowee Trace got it's name. I told him how my husband and I talk to Cooper about the trees and how to recognize them by their leaves and the importance of never ever littering and going in to the Gorge and leaving it undisturbed. I told him that Cooper’s birthday was just a couple of days away and that he wanted us to hike that day. Joe was fired up. (It’s always so energizing talking with someone who is passionate about the same things you are!) He told me he wanted to do something for Cooper and took my number. Honestly I thought he was a nice man and that I would never hear from him. So help me, the next day he called and asked me to meet him, he left Cooper a finishers medal from the Rugged Red for his birthday!!
Cooper with his medal on the Sheltowee Trace
This summer I was on a trail and there were some people rappelling. We spoke and instantly I knew they weren’t from here in good ole’ KY. They were from Australia! It’s so hard to wrap my mind around the fact there are people who plan their vacation time, they save their money and they bring their families from other countries, not just states, other countries to visit the Gorge and the people that LIVE here, won’t use it.
As Mr. Bowen and I discussed, it’s going to have to start with our kids. We need to teach our children to appreciate what we have. The Red River Gorge is a treasure! I will admit I have gotten several raised eye brows from "concerned" folks when I mention that I took my son hiking or that I was out hiking in the Gorge. As I mentioned before, the Gorge tends to get a negative response with the local people.....one of them being "You'll get killed!" In light of the recent and very tragic death at Chimney Top over the past weekend I feel that a good common sense plug is necessary for any positive publicity about the Gorge. Am I afraid of the Gorge? Simply put, No, not even a little bit. Do I fear the Gorge? Yes, I fear the Gorge in the same type of respectful fear I had of my parents growing up, the same type of respectful fear I have of driving my car every day and the same respectful fear that I have of a gun when I go hunting. In life, everything we do pretty much is governed by rules. People are killed in car wrecks daily, however there are rules in place to try and prevent as many of those deaths as possible. i.e., stay with in the speed limit, don't drink and drive, wear your seat belt, etc. How many times after a car accident do we hear..."If they had only worn their seat belt....." We don't hear people running around preaching against driving cars after a death. However, it seems to me, when there is a tragic death in the Gorge, all of this negativity is stirred up...."The Gorge is dangerous, see there's another death, etc" What people forget is that there are in fact rules in the Gorge to try and prevent such a senseless loss of life. Barriers are there for a reason. DON'T cross them! I promise, the view is just as good behind them. No view in the world is worth dying for. Stay on the paths and the trails, especially when you're aren't used to the Gorge as some of the most beautiful things about the Gorge are also the most deadly, the sheer cliffs and drop offs for example. Just as vehicles and alcohol do not mix, neither does alcohol and the Gorge. It's just a bad idea. Just always use common sense....don't cross barriers, stay on paths and don't drink in the Gorge and I promise, you'll be fine. The Gorge isn't a place to be afraid of, It's a place to enjoy and be thankful for the beauty that God has blessed us with. Teach kids to love nature, to identify an oak or a maple, to know the history of Daniel Boone, to enjoy the satisfaction that comes from taking in the views that you've hiked hours to reach. There's just nothing like it!
Cooper under the hole in Moonshiner's Arch
When I was in school all anyone talked about was getting out of Wolfe County because there was nothing here. My fear is that unless a movement of excitement, wonder, and exploration is instilled in our kids, that give them a driving force of pride in our area, these small towns in rural Appalachia are going to dry up and die. Small towns like ours need the youth to have a future. There is no denying that big cities can offer things and lifestyles that small towns like Campton can't touch, but at the same time, we have things they can't touch either. We have an opportunity here for tourism that not many places have. When I go to our favorite beach town of Corolla, NC, I'm not interested in shopping or eating at franchises, I want the local mom & pop stores. There are so many opportunities here for entrepreneurs to find a niche in our area and thrive. I have to give a shout out to places like Sky Bridge Station and The Red River Rock House. They found their niche and are doing great things! The quesadillas and hot dogs at Sky Bridge are awesome and the burgers & oh my those heavenly brownies at Rock House are fabulous!!
When my son grows up, my desire for him and the youth of Wolfe County, is to say, "What can I do to make where I live better? What can I do to continue the efforts of groups like Explore Kentucky to ensure the future of our town so that they can stay here in Wolfe County and make a living and raise a family and not feel the pressure to move away because the lack of jobs?"
What Explore Kentucky is doing is just phenomenal! I love that it shows people that you don’t have to travel to other states for a good vacation or trip, we have so much to offer here at home in this fabulous state we live in. As Jesse Stuart so perfectly put it, “If these United States can be called a body, then Kentucky can be called its heart.”
I want to stress to everyone, young or old, that it's never to late or too early to start exploring...you never know what you'll find, as in my case, within minutes of your front door! Never stop exploring!