Years ago I heard of the Red River Gorge. I heard of a Pizza Shop in the middle of the gorge that hosted rock climbers from all over the world on their backyard campground. I heard of the endless overhung sandstone crags, of coming back to camp and sharing pizza and beers with happy climbers.
We would spend Saturday morning of Memorial Day Weekend at Secret Garden in the Miller Forks climbing area. Dave and I climbed hard on Friday and wanted to save our strength for Sunday. We are both from the south and have almost zero experience climbing cracks, so a 5.7 on trad feels like more like a 5.11 to us. Dave lead his first 5.9 on trad, destroyed his hands, and fell on his gear for the first time. Dave and I made the decision to beat the crowd to the showers and head back to Miguels early at about 3pm. We leave the rest of our climbing party behind and make the short hike back to car. As we are squeezing the car through the crag parking lot packed like sardines, our other friend, also named David comes out of the woods and into the lot shouting "Kenny!" He changed his mind and also decided to take the rest of the day easy.
As we drive slowly down the dirt road in our friends beige Volvo XC70, we notice there is a line of Super ATVs behind us. They can go much faster than us and are spending the day overlanding through the Red. We pull over to let them pass. A few pass by and one of them pulls up to our window and turns off his machine. He's what you would imagine as classically-Kentuckian. "Y'all climbin' some rock?" We exchange niceties and tell him where we are from. "Y'all want some beer?" I look to my left to Dave in the driver's seat. He raises his eyebrows, and I quickly switch my head back and exclaim, "YES". "All we got is Natty-Light. That alright with y'all? We would offer ya whiskey but she done drunk it all, look at her". The tank-topped woman in the passenger seat smirks and nods her head in a circular motion. We all laugh hysterically as I pass ice-cold natties to the Daves. We chat with the good folks for a few minutes as we happily drink our beers until they turn their ATV back on. We allow 4 more to pass by and we continue on.
About 5 minutes later we pull up to a wide sandy clearing to find about 15 ATVs parked in a giant circle. The same man that so kindly hydrated us was walking across the way, waved us down and shouted, "Y'all stop in and have another beer!" Again, I look to both the Daves and all of our eyebrows sit high again and we laugh and happily oblige.
We get out of our Volvo and walk around to the hatch. I situate my sun hat and some sun glasses I found in the car and hear, "Hey! Ya'll want some-a-this? I look up and see Tony, a happy, long-bearded, sun-red man with dancing eyes, shake a mason jar full of clear liquid over his plastic windshield. Again, "YES!" I'd never had proper moonshine and didn't even consider turning it down.
We make our way over to the cluster of happy and hydrated Bourbon Country workers. Towards the back of Tony's ATV stands what I would guess to have been a 65-year-old man wearing glasses and an industry trucker hat pinching a joint with his eyes clinched tight and lips pursed. "The old man loves to get high". I take a swig of the shine and a man that we'd later find out was running for Mayor said to me softly, "Now thats a sippin' drank." "Oh I see". I take one more cautious sip and pass the jar along through the crowd.
Dave was a Psychology major in college so I deem him a good person to vet the moment and I ask him if he thinks Tony would mind If I made a photograph of him. He says he doesn't think Tony would mind. I walk to Tony and tell him that I'm a photographer and that I love the moment and would love to make a photograph of him. He kindly obliges. By the time I walk over to the Volvo, grab my camera and head back to Tony, He's walking across the clearing and a kind, loud, motherly woman called Anne, who reminded me of my family in Georgia was shouting and gathering everyone to take a group photograph. Next thing I know, I'm standing on top of a Polaris. "On three everyone just lose your minds! 1, 2, 3!" A shout goes through the crowd and I see the Daves tiny heads in the back of the group happy as I've ever seen them. Anne gave all of us another beer and we soaked in the moment. At one point I look at Dave and we know we are both thinking the same thing, I can't even remember if it was him or I that said it, "This right here, this is what life is about"
The Mayor hands Dave a gallon sized plastic bag packed full of mini bottles of bourbon and rum as everyone speeds off into the woods.
Its Monday afternoon on Memorial Day and the rest of our climbing party heads out to get back to Atlanta. It's just the Daves and I and we head over to check out one more crack climb. Its an 80ft 5.7 and we plan to climb it multi-pitch style, meet on the ledge atop the route to end the day taking in the great view of the valley and a sandstone cliff on the other side.
Dave leads the route and sets up his belay station. Dave and I agree on the ground that I'll go next. As I pull the first fist-jams of my life i look closely at my hands in amazement that its even possible. About 20ft to the ledge, out of nowhere, dumps a torrential downpour. In moments, I'm covered in mud, rock shoes soaked, chalk is pointless. I place another fist jam and hope my feet don't slide off the soaking sandstone. The moment just felt epic. I screamed as I cranked on my fist. I reach the ledge and carefully scramble up a 45 degree slosh of mud and pine straw for about 15 feet and go in direct to a tree we were using as an anchor. Dave is into the rope on a clove hitch on the edge of the cliff. Its pouring. It's thundering and lighting and we have a conversation shouting to each other whether or not David should follow us up. I shout that I don't think it's wise and that we should bail. Dave agrees and we begin to coil either end of the rope to set up a rappel. Its a mess. In my mind, rope was everywhere. It's brown, soaked and covered in brush. We finish and Dave begins to scramble up the slosh. He's made it about 10 feet towards the tree and losing his footing. Its exactly like a movie. A perfect cinematic moment. His feet go and he frantically claws at the mud. I notice streaks from his fingers in the mud, how far away he now is from them, and we lock eyes. He continues to claw, and continues to slide towards the edge of the cliff. I'm about to watch my friend die. I take a step forward and grab the two pieces of rope attached to my harness and hope it will stop him. We never break eye contact.
He stops, about five feet from the edge of the cliff. I don't know how. He was still on his clove hitch. He was safe the whole time. But something about that moment felt so severe. He stops and we each take two more breaths, still looking at each other. I scream. He screams. Laughter erupts. We set up our rappel and head down. Its pouring but at the base of the climb we're under a large overhang protected from the weather. We cant get a weather report but we do have cell service so I make a phone call to my mom and find out its going to keep raining for another hour. We make a dash to the car and head back to Miguels for Pizza and beer.