By Captain

Cloudsplitter is to the Red River Gorge what Lincoln is the presidency, a monumental presence that multiples the glory of the whole.

Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover. No matter how ruined their respective reputations, each are magnified because they held the same high office as Abe. So it is with all of those attractions in the Gorge that have the misfortune of being too close to the road or the easy trails. Rendered putrid by discarded beverage cans and fire pits fouled by refuse, these places are sanctified just by being in Cloudsplitter's magnificent shadow.

If the hard used places were all that remained, the Gorge would no longer be worth seeing. Because you might still come upon a place like Cloudsplitter, the Gorge remains a place of wonder.

I began going to the Gorge in the mid-1960s, a full decade before it was discovered by hippies and rednecks, who seemed to merge into one demographic in the 1970s. I thought I had been to every nook and cranny, and could not imagine there might be places unknown to me. This is part of the beauty of Cloudsplitter. It is unknown. Sky Bridge, Chimney Top Rock, Rock Bridge, Swift Creek. They all are too close to Kentucky 715, the skinny snake of asphalt that loops through the Gorge and delivers the criminal element so that they might piss in the streams and snub God, who made this place without intending its degradation. Cloudsplitter is tucked away, safe for now.

People cannot find Cloudsplitter, as the blogosphere confirms , with posts such as this reply to a simple inquiry as its whereabouts: "Don't know ... but it's gotta be around here somewhere." We heard more or less the same comment from hikers atop the much better known Indian Staircase, one of whom laughed and said, "It's gotta be one of those cliffs over there. Pick one." They were right in one regard. The cliffs nearby were spectacular. They were wrong, though, to suggest that one cliff might just as well be the next. Either discern or keep quite. Or, since we began with Lincoln, maybe it is time to quote his familiar counsel on this point: " Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."

The route we took to Indian Staircase was marked only by the letters "I.S." scratched into a four-square inch metal tag nailed to the tree by the U.S. Forest Service to label the Sheltowee Trace Trail. You could walk right past the "I.S." and never notice it – or if you did notice it, still have no idea what it meant. That "I.S." was a billboard compared to the trail markings for Cloudsplitter, which is best found simply by staying on the Sheltowee Trace until you come to a bend left. It's enough of a bend to suggest you are about to descend. Look right and you will see a sheer cliff rising like the prow of the Titanic. Or maybe it looks more like the iceberg the great ship struck. You have found Cloudsplitter.

Another way is do what Ank did for us: Put the coordinates into a handheld GPS and wait for it to beep its "you are there" signal, sounding like a smoke detector with tiring batteries.

A short, steep trail knifes up to the foot of the great rock, winding through roots and a drainage grid carved by the wild rush of water. This part is just huffing, and otherwise not difficult. Mostly, the approach is an exercise in careful walking, as if ascending wet steps with loose boards. You're fine. Just pay attention. The last few boulders and the buff of the big rock a challenge. . A rope would be handy but we didn't bring one. Like a lot of the final accesses to the high places in the Gorge, one slip and it's ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

I climbed with Ank behind me assessing other routes up. Mine way was off to the further side and involved a lot of reliance on roots as handholds before arriving on the rounded edge of Cloudsplitter, after which the walk to the top is safe stroll across barren sandstone with the immediate reward of a panorama that is, bar none, the finest view I've ever experienced in the Gorge. You can see nothing modern in this view. Not a road. Not an electrical line. Not a cell tower. Just trees and cliffs and hollows and sky, with a soft wind wending through and rustling whatever leaves it can on a winter's day. There is evidence of human traffic atop Cloudsplitter, but not much of it, and certainly no trash. This is the Gorge as I remember it when I first came here as a boy of 14 or so.

Ank's exploration and some map reading by the rest our team made it evident that the recommended route up Cloudspitter is through the rock's namesake – the split. It's a fissure almost too narrow to slip through, and apparently there's a way up. By the time we realized all of that, I was already up and back down and Ank was finding a third way up so he could see the top and photograph it. Bob and McGinnis kept watch from below, playing the better odds. That is, if you don't climb up there, you are very unlikely to fall from up there.

Back down from the heights, we rejoined the Sheltowee Trace to hike out. The trail from there was about as perfect as trails come. The big rocks all around you are the drama but the youngish forest feels like the natural world winning back its turf, triumphing over a past when loggers took away what they could. There are sections of trail canopied by mountain laurel and other sections framed by the usual eastern Kentucky hardwoods – oaks, poplars, maples, ash. Rivulets weave down, feeding the Red River. Trash, so evident elsewhere, is absent here, as if this was just too far to walk to litter.

We were on this trail on Feb. 19 – a day of modest chill and, by afternoon, some snow. The flakes were a little wet but not heavy, and they collected on what apparently were the abundant remnants of spider webs on the undergrowth, which captured the snow as they once captured bugs. Once a bit of snow accumulated, each web took on the look of flashy white flowers, blooming as if it were July in Glacier with the beargrass everywhere. Or maybe they looked like miniature clouds, fallen from the sky and deposited here beneath the majesty of Cloudsplitter. Apropos, that.

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The winter trip is, by tradition, a combination of one night with the Patio Boys in tents at a campground followed by one night in a cabin nearby, with our wives joining us. As is our custom, step one is the planning and it is rote: Bob asks us where we want to go, we make suggestions, he accuses us of being indecisive, he picks a place, books a cabin, and informs us of our decision.

For the 2012 trip, he decided it was time to go back to the Red River Gorge – not my first choice. I have come to hate the Gorge; not the Gorge itself, but the way the Gorge has been treated by people who pretend to love nature. I don't know if they despise nature, could just care less, or are following the insights of Rick Santorum, who counsels "Earth is here to serve man, not the other way around," which lacks the cheerleader rhythm of "Drill, baby, drill!" but is more disturbing because it is more sweeping. According to this view, the Earth is for mankind abuse as we see fit, like JKF abusing barely of age women (see "Once Upon a Secret," mistress Mimi Alford's new book if you doubt me). Tawdry.

Tawdry is a good word, too, for how too many people visiting the Gorge behave. Along the roadside and the main trails, it apparently is OK to drop any bottle or can to the ground once you have consumed the contents. There is not one kind of beverage consumer who is worse than another. All categories offend: beer, hard liquor, soft drinks, even water.

The Gorge does look better than it did the last time I was here, and far better than it did a decade ago. New regulations that require a permit to park overnight and rules about where you can camp have cut down on the misbehavior. But these regulations have not protected the Gorge enough, even from people who should know better. In the drop zone below Indian Staircase, for example, I picked up someone's discarded beer can, thinking I'd cart in out. Then I saw another and another and another ad infinitum. The drop zone is where climbers end up when they rappel off Indian Staircase. It's not on the main trail, so this trash was not from hikers but from climbers, who apparently toss their empties over the cliff. I piled the cans and bottles together, hoping the trash heap would make a statement to passersby, a sort of anti-cairn warning against the assumption of out of sight, out of mind mentality that led so people to leave these at the foot of the cliff.

None of this diminishes the Red River Gorge's status as sacred ground, and a place that anyone whose bones ache for the woods and especially Kentucky's woods must go. I was wrong to avoid it for so many years, if for no other reason that I needed my passion for the place restored including my passionate hatred of its degradation. For those who remember the 1970s, the plan was to dam the Red River and bury the Gorge beneath a houseboating paradise. "Dam Wendell: Not the Gorge!" the giant red paint protested on the side of a barn along the Mountain Parkway, condemning our United States senator, who favored the project. The populist voice stopped the dam. Thirty-five years later it is especially egregious to know that we saved the Gorge for hikers only to see them destroy it.

My own origins as a Patio Boy are related to all of this. Once an avid Kentucky backpacker, I made countless trips into the Gorge. One of my first dates with my wife was to the Gorge to camp. On that trip, a young man crazy on some kind of drug traipsed through our campsite, sat down between a stream where we had gone for some privacy, stared at the water for what seemed an eternity while sitting there bare chested, and then let out a rebel yell as he dove in the stream. Calmly, he got out – sobered a little by the cold water – and headed back to wherever the hell he came from. We did not return to the Gorge to camp again. It was not that I was frightened by this one nut; it was that this is what the Gorge had become: a frat house. I came to the Gorge to get away of such nonsense, not sleep beside it.

Fast-forward 25 years. Bob asked me why I only hike and camp out of state. My answer wasn't great. It was this: I don't care to hike in a garbage pit, and Kentucky's wild places had become garbage pits. The more I thought about that answer, the more I thought I should join the Patio Boys and hike with them in Kentucky and see for myself what was good, what was not. And if I were offended, then I should raise my voice. By staying away, I had buried my outrage. Well, it's back.

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We drove to the Gorge in the McGinnis van, which held all of our stuff. And because we were car camping, the back was crammed with gear, including a miniature charcoal grill. Last year, we grilled steaks on the winter trip, and they turned out very good. So we decided to repeat that. What we didn't bring were steaks. So we pulled off in Campton to find a grocery. Because this is the day and age of smart phones and the GPS, McGinnis – our IT whiz – inputted a question into his – but the answer wasn't forthcoming. Grocery/Campton perplexed its circuitry. Simultaneously, Bob pointed to a plainly visible Kroger's two blocks away. Eyesight, 1, iPhone, 0.

Steaks in tow, we drove on to the 715 loop, stopped at the Koomer Ridge camp ground to select a site, and then made a jaunt to Chimney Rock and neighboring Half Moon, with Ank going more boldly into its danger zones than the rest of us. McGinnis had good reason for holding back. He was fresh off some surgery and was under doctor's order not to strain his incisions. As for Bob and I, we had good reasons for holding back, too. We value our lives. Ank was born with the feet of a mountain goat.

From there, we headed by car back to Koomer Ridge to cook, build a fire and kick back. The steaks were, once again, great – though Bob didn't eat one. He says he doesn't like steak, which may be true, but it also may be true that he doesn't like paying for steak. He had a can of chicken gumbo. And a bite of steak.

By now, we had a fine fire, fueled by some wood we cut from the fallen trees nearby and by some split logs we purchased at a roadside stand for $10 for a wheelbarrow load of oak and locust. Settled in for the night, the stories began, with Bob holding forth. I am not at liberty to recount the stories told around the fire, as there is constitutional provision that says what's said around the campfire stays around the campfire. I am perhaps not in violation if I tell you that women were discussed, both as objects of love and objects of desire, and our respective prowess in this arena at a younger age was generally exaggerated when recalled and recounted. Current prowess was not really on anyone's mind.

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When you are hiking, things come up out of the blue. When you are hiking with Bob, the things are songs. Bob, and exuberant singer, does not have perfect pitch. Nor those he have a photographic memory for lyrics. So when, for whatever reason, he decided while resting at a high point on the Sheltowee Trace, to belt out "Tiny Dancer," it came out like this: "Hold your head up, Tiny Dancer, count the headlines on the highway... lay your head down on sheets of lemon, you had a busy day today." Hold your head up lacks some of the romance of the actual lyric, "hold me closer" but holy smoke, Bob, sheets o lemon? He insisted -- even after McGinnis played the song on-demand from his iPhone. This prompted a discussion about other malapropos lyrics. McGinnis used to think Credence was singing "there's a bathroom on the right" not "there's a bad moon on the rise." With this, someone wondered off to relieve a bladder. To the right.

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The final part of our winter trip involved connecting with our wives, who arrived in the Gorge as we were coming off the Cloudsplitter trail. Our winter trips involve one night of car camping, with tents at a campground – Koomer Ridge this trip; followed by one night in a cabin, joined by our spouses. For this trip, we ended up at Almost Heaven, a log cabin big enough for the gang with four bedrooms, a serviceable kitchen, a den with a pool table and a deck with a hot tub. All I have to say about that is that men of a certain age should not get into the hot tub in beach bum trunks that fit before they gained weight and then play pool without putting on a shirt. Almost Heaven is not the Playboy Mansion and, even if it were, Hef would have the decency to wear a silk robe and his pajamas. Also, if there was ever a worse game of pool played on the planet than the games we played, it would be hard to imagine. We're blaming it on the pool sticks at Almost Heaven.

Next morning, we had a truly great breakfast with distinctive Northern Kentucky flavor. The Paulys brought a French toast casserole and goetta. The Ankenbauers brought a quiche and goetta. And the McGinnisses brought fruit salad and goetta. Goetta, for those of you who don't know, is a sausage-like concoction that ranks among the top culinary treats of our region, along with Skyline Chili, Graeter's Ice Cream, LaRosa's Pizza and the hamburgers at Herb & Thelma's.

Well fed, we headed out for a day hike, which was to Whittleton Arch inside the boundaries of Natural Bridge. If you've not been, go. It's an easy hike – maybe a mile – and rewards all along the trail with beauty, and finally with the arch itself, which has a cascade of water coming off its top and, structurally, is part arch and part cliff, combining two of the mainstay features of the Gorge/Natural Bridge area into one sight. I don't know how it stays obscure, but I wish for it what I wish for Cloudsplitter; that is, to be left alone more often than not.