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If you know me and grasp that I have spent a large portion of my life in the shadows of Disney World, you might be surprised to learn that there are places in Kentucky that I have visited innumerable times and yet always have returned with a gift of something ineffable.
To have survived the daily assault of tee-shirts and billboards perhaps left me inured to overwhelming promotion and more embracing of our state’s precious jewels, even if they are sadly too often unpolished to the sheen you see of their peers elsewhere.
It was with such perspective this past weekend that I renewed my relationship with one of those bluegrass valentines by making the not-so-long drive to Red River Gorge.
You doubtless have visited the Gorge dozens of times, so I don’t have to paint pictures, summon sermons or extend evidence about the wonders of these timeless sandstone canyons and hardwood forests a mere hundred miles away.
You, like me, have learned to doze through the Florida-esque ugliness of Clark County’s horrible zoning and construction practices and the overwhelming sadness of roadside methlabs-in-waiting that mar an otherwise anticipation-building drive because you understand the payoff of natural wonders at its end.
I have been visiting Natural Bridge, the monarchal magnet of the Gorge, for more years than I am willing to count, beginning, I have been reminded often, with the time my Uncle Pat carried me to the top of the bridge on his broad shoulders and I returned that loving gesture, witnesses say, by visiting upon those shoulders a warm wet gift. I can’t testify to its authenticity, but that’s the legend.
Those visits were almost annual during my childhood, back to the days before Interstate 64 and the Mountain Parkway made the trek simple and quick, when the grounds were less developed, the services less refined and even the trails less marked.
I’ve been there with grandparents, parents, siblings, extended relatives from all sides, my grown children and my nature-loving wife, who was initiated on a Sunday afternoon during her first visit to Kentucky, packed with my family into three vehicles for an assault on the Bridge.
I have become familiar with trails, steps, shortcuts and the silly walk-arounds that kids find to irritate their parents. I can recall caves, vistas and, for me, the knee-shaking fear of watching uncontrolled children prance across that ancient arch as if it were a sidewalk leading to a toy store. Please pause with me while I shudder.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve embraced and appreciated the drive through the narrow Nada Tunnel and into the wonder of the mountainous forestlands along the Red River. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon and been bathed in its power, and I’ve traveled the treacherous bypasses of the Rockies.
But beyond that, I’ve seen nothing better than these few meandering miles through one of our most inviting wonders. There’s a treat on every corner, and an opportunity at every crest. Each time, each season, each visit, there is something exquisite to experience.
And every time I ponder: Why in the world would the politicians have thought that damming the river and stealing all of this would be OK? God simply couldn’t allow such artwork to be banished by bandits, could he?
This past weekend, though, all of that appreciation scaled new heights, if you will, when my family rented an A-frame log cabin overlooking the sheer cliffs just south of Natural Bridge in what would be my elementary-aged children’s first visit to the Bridge.
Memory asserts that this was my first trip in the dead of winter. There was no snow or ice to contend with, and Saturday was perfectly sunny and about 50, perfect for climbing that mountain to the Bridge, an idea I had to sell to no one.
I realize for real hikers this is a nothing hike, that to those such as Judy Young who have trod from one end of the earth to the other, it seems, this is like swimming laps in a wading pool.
But to a boy of the generally flat lands – and half his life in the below flat of Florida – this is a climb to be appreciated at every step and curve.
For every season, the Red River Gorge offers a new piece of art splashed across the same remarkable canvas. The bursting greens and yellows of spring blend their way to stunning oranges and golds in fall. And I like winter best.
In the winter, you gain perspective, vision, understanding. You see things you can’t when the leaves are full. You understand more easily the landmasses and rock structures. You start to see how God used these elements to mold and sculpt these ridges and valleys into a unique masterpiece.
In the winter, you can visit in your own time, without being pushed by crowds, heat or insects. You can stop and inhale without slowing someone else’s pace or taking in too much pollen.
In the winter, you don’t have to worry about park workers or repairs or clean-ups, but you learn to appreciate how much human effort is required to keep all this cleared and policed.
In the winter, you can feel God reaching down to warm you when a chill runs up your spine. You can see the best of Kentucky, the best of nature and the best art God can produce. You can see yourself growing from a fearful boy into a man of perspective and watch new generations embrace all this with incandescence and inquisitiveness.
Yes, on a winter visit to Red River Gorge, you can see the new heights of life to be attained and the accomplishments of reaching them.
In the winter, the Gorge becomes a metaphor for you.