Saving heart health in Kentucky and other adventures before sundown

By Captain

Being on a grammar guide reading kick lately, I am aware of the difficulty of explaining the dependant clause and its frequent companion, the conditional sentence. As a task, it compares in complexity to comprehending the inner workings of an automatic transmission. The familiar P-R-N-D of a shift console is merely the public interface of a black box below, the insides of which are understood only by auto mechanics of the highest order. Dare not to call them grease monkeys. They are Jedi. Their shops tend to be housed in mystic cinderblock buildings, painted white but peeling and weathered. Deteriorating letters, usually red, spell out "transmissions," maybe in all caps -- the only flourish.

Grammar guides are the repair shops of language and they, too, are  unconcerned with exterior flaunt, although without question Strunk and White's The Elements of Style is more gracefully titled than Fowler's Modern English Usage. (Sidenote: Beware! Graceful invites risk. Stunk and White may be too dead to care, but someone has appropriated their elegant title for a go-to blog on whether and when to wear heels or flats. Utilitarian Fowler's has not suffered this indignity.)

My point? Everyone knows how to use an automatic transmission. Few know much else about it or bother to learn. The same could be said of the dependent clause. We take both for granted, using them without the curiosity they ought to inspire, as if we were cats too lazy to swat a dangling string or pursue a passing mouse.

It took an epiphany atop Eagle Point Buttress to undo my apathy.  We had arrived ignorant of our whereabouts but equipped with a copy of Jerrell Goodpaster's masterful and well-detailed Hinterlands: Unofficial Hiking in Kentucky's Red River Gorge. Said one of us to the others, "If we are where we think we are, then we should go left here." How's that for a dependent clause upon which much depends? Were the protasis (that is, the dependent clause in a conditional sentence, or in plainer language, the clause expressing the condition) incorrect and we were not where we thought, then to go left was to go to oblivion. We followed the apodosis (the independent clause) and turned left. Trust the force, Luke!

Why does any of this matter? Fair question.

The world has a lot going on, and the Patio Boys have been lost before without consequence to mankind. But this trip would be different. A young heart doctor's life would depend on our dependent clause. And with him were his students. So if he were lost to the world, his students might lose their way in life and become English majors, Chipotle servers or both, not cardiologists as once destined. Suppose, God forbid, that in a few years one of the Patio Boys were rushed, unhappily, to the Happy Chandler Medical Center at the University of Kentucky for chest pains and the receiving staff had no choice but to utter gravely, "We are so sorry. But we lost a generation of heart doctors to the raging waters of the Red River back in 2015, and we have no one to save you."

Such is the power of the dependent clause.

Now replace that unbearable vision of the future with this heroic story instead. The Patio Boys turned left, onward through the glory of a Red River spring with its dwarf irises blooming purple and its southern red trilliums blooming, yes, red. A cushion of decomposing leaves, the foodstuff of future dwarf irises and red trilliums, softened each footstep. The oaks, poplars, hickories and other hardwoods were just budding, giving the forest a bright and lovely green tinge while still leaving it sufficiently barren to permit open viewing of what the Gorge is known for, the glorious gorge itself, cut over eons by the Red River's purposeful waters.

It was those waters that lured the good doctor, whom we only know as Hassan, to arrange with an outfitter to rent canoes and paddle the swollen Red River as it snakes alongside KY 715. It was those waters that flipped his canoe, leaving him about 35 feet from the shore, holding on for life to a low-hanging sycamore. It was those waters that Mark McGinnis was watching from the backseat of Jim Ankenbauer's Toyota Highlander when he saw a man in the water. Perhaps.

Ensued a discussion about whether to go back and look. For Hassan, this was, I suppose, a dependent moment, though he had no way of knowing about it. About 24 hours earlier, the Patio Boys were atop Eagle Point Buttress, wondering whether to go straight, right or left. Dependent clauses have consequences. Because we went left, the consequences were favorable for Hassan and the future of heart health in Kentucky.

In retrospect, there of course would be no reason to not go back. But in the moment you tend to disbelieve anything so dire as a man stranded in the river and holding to a tree limb as if his life depended on its strength and his. Maybe McGinnis mistook debris of some sort. Maybe he was just tired for the day's hike. Maybe a man was fishing behind the river, not in it. Maybe this. Maybe that.

To our credit, it took only the briefest of discussions to decide to go back and see. Sure enough, a half mile down the road, a pickup truck was pulled over, and a woman was beside it, pacing worriedly and saying something about Randy. Down the steep and muddy bank and in the water was Hassan. The woman and Randy had stopped to render aid but were unsure what to do.

"He doesn't speak English," someone called. That would turn out to be incorrect, but it was part of the moment's circumstances nonetheless, as was the information that he didn't swim very well.

"Tell him to let go of the tree and float feet first," someone instructed, offering the advice given to people who go whitewater rafting as the panacea for every capsize. As a veteran of whitewater canoeing, I more or less agree with that advice except that it only works if there is no real danger downstream. In a swollen, wilderness river, that is not assured.

We might have called 911, but cell service is spotty here. Also, the situation looked manageable. Hassan was standing in water just above his waste and wearing a life vest.

Before proceeding with the story, let me add this odd detail. As we turned around to come back and look to see if there was in fact a man in the water, a van pulling an empty canoe trailer yielded to allow us to make our U-turn. This was an outfitter, though maybe not Hassan's. Regardless, you might think he would stop and assist with the rescue. He did not.

Hustling down the bank with a length of rope that McGinnis had the foresight to pack along, we first considered shimmying along the tree that Hassan was holding. Its main trunk extended over the water and above Hassan. But straddling a tree over swift water seemed imprudent. We might end up rescuing each other. Tying a loop and using a bowline knot to do so, I attached the rope to an 11-foot limb about the girth of a baseball bat. Bob Pauly, a nurse by training and not given to panic, took command of the other end of the rope, laying it over the leaning tree for a makeshift pulley to reel Hassan to shore. My first toss failed but the next was more like Captain Ahab tossing a harpoon at Moby Dick, which may or may not have inspired Hassan. The limb landed nicely aligned with Hassan's position and floated perfectly to his grasp. With instructions shouted to him from several helpful Patio Boys, he placed the loop around himself. It appeared at first that he was going to place it around his neck. What? Huh? Did he plan to hang himself? "No, no! Around your waist," came further instruction. I don't think Hassan planned to do anything other than put the loop around his waist, but doing so one-handed (he needed the other to keep hold of the limb) as swift waters try to dislodge you takes a moment. Hassan got it right. With a team of Patio Boys keeping the rope taunt, he walked safely out of the water and up the steep bank, smiling.

The apogee of the day had been achieved. Hassan's companions gathered around in delight, giving us fist bumps and good cheer and speaking to one another in a foreign tongue. Randy gave them all a ride back to the outfitter. We coiled the rope, climbed the bank, discussed whether Hassan was in great danger or just out of his element, and then drove on.

The Patio Boys find a front porch.

God, guns and gonzo. It takes a good tavern to those three things gathered in your mind. Sky Bridge Station has a chalkboard full of craft beers creatively named. Cougar Bait and Cliff Jumper rank near the top but you have to hand it to Shotgun Wedding as the best-named brew -- and, by our taste buds, perhaps the best-tasting brew, too. At the Sky Bridge, we had to step over the leash of a little dog named Doc -- "After Hunter Thompson," the owner was quick to tell us, as if the dog gave a rat's ass about being named after the god of Gonzo. And wouldn't Gonzo be a better name for a dog? Or maybe just Spot.

It was Jim Ankenbaurer's 64th birthday, which meant that someone would hum and mumble, "When I'm 64..." and all of us would toast our friend, whom we once knew as the Guru. We called him the Guru because we knew him only from the tall tales related to us by his brother, Bill, who told us with Jim's adventurous hikes out West and his knowledge of gear. On one trip, Bill took out a little device that looked like a digital thermometer for evaluating a child's fever. It was a SteriPEN, the latest device for purifying water. It uses ultraviolent light and involves perfect positioning and a ritualistic stirring to assure the death to the water-borne bugs of intestinal disorder. Beside it, every water purifier you've ever seen before looks like a musket beside the sleekest new rifle, a Vortex StrikerFire, say. Both are deadly; but unless you're into retro, only one is cool.

"Jim has one of these," Bill told us, which was the equivalent of saying the SteriPEN had the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for Use in the Woods.  If Jim had a Black Diamond tent or a Marmot down jacket, then it would only be a matter of time before we would all want the same.

Life and marriage being what they sometimes are, Jim's hiking partner decided against a continued partnership -- and Jim found himself back home in Kentucky. And so we met the man, the myth, the Guru.  A former seminarian turned school teacher, with a gentle way of talking, he fit the persona we had given him. On our first trip, he spoke often of spirituality and told a story of another Ankenbauer, whose wife had recently died but, from the afterlife, was communicating to her widowed love by rearranging the shoes beneath his bed each night. Wow. The Guru was in touch not just with gear but also with the spirit world.

In time, the aura wore off a little, as I suppose it would if you spent a few days with Dalai Lama and found out that he, like you, put his pants on one leg at a time, if only he wore pants not robes. This more human Jim is great, bringing wit and humanity to every trip. So it was a particular joy to toast him on his 64th birthday. Here, here, Guru! We were going to get you some gear as a present but you have everything already. How about a Lemongrass American Wheat from the tap instead? It's a seasonal from Lexington's West Sixth Brewing, and perfectly tasty after a rescue.

The beer and birthday respite occasioned a reflection on the day so far, which in addition to the rescue of the heart doctor had also included Indian Staircase, a somewhat famous and terrifying spot in the Red River Gorge. Imagine a giant, bald, sandstone rock roughly the size of a football stadium or two, and then imagine tiny footholds spaced six feet or so apart. Your obligation is to try and get the toe of one boot securely into a foothold as you reach forward in spidery extension to get a grip on the holds above, and then repeat this several times over until you are safely up top.

The holds are indentations in the sandstone, which by its nature is slick. Each hold is maybe two inches in depth, three at best. Not a lot there. Also, halfway up is not a good time for your nerves to fray because there is no turning back. Going up is easier than going down. When going up, you can see each hold, and pulling up just feels more surefooted. To go down is to blindly search for each hold below, and to say gravity would not be your friend would an understatement. Also, this a look straight ahead endeavor. Should you possess the nerve to look left or right, you would see exactly where you would fall to your death, dismemberment or both if you slip.  So most people don't look.

The climb is not terrifying to experienced climbers. On our way up, we watched a free climber effortlessly summit a much steeper section of this massive stone face. As we were going up the staircase, he was walking down as if he were in no more danger than on the escalator at a shopping mall. Wiry and small, he was young and oblivious to risk -- and a reminder that all men are not created equal when it comes to scaling heights. Though he walked upright, with a skip in his step, the rest of us were unconditionally sentenced to our dependent crawls.

You do not have to climb the staircase to get atop the Staircase. There's a back way, and Bob Pauly -- no fan of heights -- took it up. We all took it down. It's a trail that winds through a canopy of forest, hugging the cliff's gradualist backside and, when things get dicey, has a wooden staircase built by the Forest Service to take you the final 50 or so feet. The trail passes a stone arch, one of many in the Gorge and this one more charming for just showing up unannounced at a bend in the trail. No fanfare. A few miles away, Natural Bridge has a whole state park build around it.

The wooden staircase was one of two gifts from the Forest Service on this particular day. The other was a pair of interns, one from Utah and one from Maine, carrying trash bags so that they could collect what they could of the beer cans, freeze-dried meal wrappers, and other debris that the back-to-nature crowd had left behind, often in fire pits but equally often just hither and yon.

Therein lies a downside of the Gorge, which, after it was "discovered" in the late 1970s, became a magnet for weekend naturalists whose enjoyment of nature was, in those early days, fueled by six-packs and weed and today by twelve-packs and medical marijuana.  Back then, everyone wore tie-dye and Levi 501s. Today, they wear REI and North Face. Somehow, you would expect people who invest in all those polypropylene layers so as to have that outdoorsy look would respect natural places maybe enough to give the Gorge a shot at preserving its own outdoorsy look. This has long been a scourge here. It seems as if every inch of sandstone at any featured site must be carved up with initials. Every overhang beneath every cliff must host a bonfire so that the soot can permanently discolor the rock. It's all a good argument for new model of how the Forest Service might use its interns. Instead of picking up after us, they should just tell us we are not welcome here among things nature has so carefully nurtured into an intricate and interdependent biosphere that should command our stewardship not our abuse. It's time to make some rules.

Fallen but he could get up -- and a bar of soap

To put things back in sequence, it was after Indian Staircase that we returned to our vehicles, encountered the heart doctor, executed our rescue, headed off for a celebratory beer with the Guru and, afterward, drove to the trailhead of the Rock Bridge Loop.

The loop is a little 1.5-mile hike that includes a natural, sandstone arch over Rockbridge Fork. Upstream, a gem of a waterfall cascades to a pool beside a sandy beach below an alcove of more sandstone. This loop, though short, has more features per foot than any other walk in the Gorge. Once unknown to all but the most devoted Gorge visitors, it has become the park's Old Faithful, over-visited but no less impressive just because this excess of admiration. I remember coming once in winter, and everything was draped in stalactites of ice. The place was a cathedral.

We did have a near-death experience on the loop. Lured by the scenery, Bill Ankenbauer, our cameraman (it's his day job and passion) was doing what he does -- looking for angles. So he'd gone to the far side of Rockbridge Fork to squat and duck and twist his body to see things properly. To see him work is to be reminded that, while everyone can own a camera and does, not everyone knows how to use one. Bill does. Through his lens, light is transformed into art.

To cross back over to the side of the stream where the trail is, Bill attempted a broad jump above the falls. Usually the most surefooted among us, and hence his trail name Billy Goat, he jumped short, landing on a flat, mossy rock and fell, splayed on his back. His hat floated gracefully downstream and over the waterfall, where he would shortly retrieve it with less fanfare than our earlier retrieval of the heart doctor, Hassan. Billy Goat was wet but uninjured, and really only wet on one side at that.

Onward we pressed, with our next stop a dinner called the Hitching Post, which was as much a local dried goods store and pool hall as it was a diner. We were there on Saturday night, whereas on a Friday night you could pay $12 and enter a pool tournament. Don't be deceived into thinking pool isn't played at a high level in places like this. An hour from here, the great Walter Tevis was inspired to write The Hustler, the pool hall genre's sole contribution to the canon of must-read American novels. Just listen to Fast Eddie, who would come to life on the screen in the person of Paul Newman: "How should I play that one, Bert? Play it safe? That's the way you always told me to play it: safe... play the percentage. Well, here we go: fast and loose. One ball, corner pocket. Yeah, percentage players die broke, too, don't they, Bert?" Fast Eddy, who also said, "I'm the best you ever seen, Fats. I'm the best there is. And even if you beat me, I'm still the best." When you sit down at the Hitching Post, you have to think of Fast Eddy and Mr. Tevis. He was a schoolteacher before he was a novelist, so around here, those who remember still call him "Mr. Tevis."

The dining tables of the Hitching Post are at one with the store's shelves, stocked as they are with Fruit Loops, bags ofcharcoal, tube of hemorrhoid creams, jars of locally produced barbecue sauce, screwdriver sets, and an assortment of beanie weenies. It is not a well-stocked store, but one assumes the market has adjusted to the local demands. Cigarettes are not in short supply. You can smoke inside the Hitching Post, a right unpleasantly preserved if you are trying to eat, as we were. A patron recommended the spicy, fried chicken sandwich but we mostly selected cheeseburgers and availed ourselves of the rich selection of side dishes -- fried mushrooms, fried onion rings, fried tater tots, fried potato wedges and French fries.  A nice meal, this.

And then we were off to the Koomer Ridge Campground, which the night before we discovered to have a working pump where we could fill water bottles at no charge. Next to the pump was an electrical outlet for the convenience of RV campers who come to the woods to watch ESPN and "Naked and Afraid."  With the site unoccupied, the outlet box was serving as a soap dish for a bar of Ivory that someone had, with consideration, left behind. So, in addition to filling water bottles, some of us took the opportunity to freshen up.  Others of us did not. Think of that the next time someone asks why the Patio Boys famously sleep in separate tents and do not double up.

We had one additional stop, at a gas station for a bag of ice. Why ice? A bourbon in a tin cup around a blazing campfire with friends, old and new, is just a bit better on the rocks. That's why. The ice was compliments of this trip's newbie, Donnie Duckworth, who with an external-frame backpack borrowed from the late Sean Hudson. Sean, big of body and heart, was an original Patio Boy who, among other things, was known for carting everything into the woods aboard that pack. He shopped at Trader Joe's, so there was always something exotic to eat but there would be no reason to be surprised were he to pull out a cast iron skillet for preparation of the evening's dinner for one. Donnie's homage to Sean was complete once he carried the pack and a bag of ice. We miss Sean, though just a little less so knowing his big pack is still.

Trees eat signs because nature can outlast us

You, dear reader, would be within your rights to ask me whether the Patio Boys, being noted backpackers, even bothered to backpack this trip, now that I've described all of this driving, stopping for draft beers, stopping for cheeseburgers, stopping for water, stopping for ice, stopping, for gracious sakes, to bathe, stopping to rescue a drowning heart doctor. OK, he wasn't exactly drowning, but it is the nature of storytelling that exaggeration appends with each retelling, which is how legends are made. So if the doc (Hassan, not the dog named Doc) weren't drowning yet, he surely will be in the years to come as the rescue is retold over and again. We might just as well have him drowning now.

First, let me say that we sort of owed this trip to Paul Hennessey, whose inaugural hike with us on what would be our most grueling and life-threaening trip, Pine Mountain in the Fall of 2013. Paul's brother, John, talked him into going and the trip began at a campground in shirtsleeve weather. It ended with blizzard conditions that obscured the trail which, when you found it, was slick and steep. The group was split up for a night, unsure of each other's whereabouts or security. Everone was cold, wet and worn. With all that on his first Patio Boy hike, Paul had earned an easier trip. This trip.

For the record, we did in fact backpack. We parked in a gravel lot labeled "Pioneer Parking" that had a very nice outhouse and a bear-proof trash bin. From there, we walked about a half mile over a flat trail to a campsite just above a beautiful, U-shaped cliff that is a classic Red River Gorge land feature, clothed in rhododendron and other gnarl-rooted, low-growing trees that camouflage danger so that you might easily  walk to the edge of a cliff if you don't pay close attention. These same trees provide handholds for making your way down, should you elect to explore as we did.

Such a place is so typical of the Gorge that it easily ignored as just another cliff. One of many. And this one, underappreciated further because, hidden by a denser growth of forest,  it doesn't open up a panorama. To stand atop Eagle Point Buttress, Indian Staircase or some of the other magnificent heights within the Gorge, Chimney Rock, to list another, is to see vast and open views of the Gorge. Places like this are more intimate. Yet the night before we had discussed at length John Curtin's plan to take his family out west for several weeks this summer with an early stop at the Grand Canyon. Here, as we stood on another rim what's often called the "Grand Canyon of the East," we were doing so after only a two-hour drive, $50 in gasoline split several ways, a single day off from work and a half-mile hike.  So here is bit of appreciation. An ode, if you will.

About 50 yards from the cliff's edge, a spring emerges from the ground and creates a stream about the width of a ladder, and trickling decidedly toward its plummet to make another classic Red River Gorge feature, a beautiful, long fall of water that is more shower than torrent. The water catches light as is falls 100 or so feet to the sandy soil below and the cliff is concaved so that, once descended, you can stand behind the waterfall and marvel. All about it the forest, as lush and diverse as a biosphere as you are likely to find anywhere on the planet. It is in the presence of places like this, or at least with the memory of them in mind, that Wendell Berry would write, "And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”  That is from  The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky's Red River Gorge, a book widely credited with saving the Gorge from an Army Corps of Engineer's dam that would have submerged all of this wonder beneath unnaturally deep pools of placid water upon which cabin cruisers, bass boats and pontoons could ply and pollute and beside which the well-heeled could construct log cabins equipped with flat-screened televisions and Jenn-Air kitchens. Thank you, Mr. Berry.

And so we were blessed with this visage without earning by walking miles and miles under the load of  backpacks weighing anywhere from 35 to 70 pounds. Loads vary by person, with some carrying enough food, clothing and home comforts under the apparent philosophy that if the pack can hold it, you should bring it. When the hike is only half mile from the parking lot, this philosophy is almost wisdom. Folding chairs, iPod players with speakers, a can of chili instead of freeze-dried, and, as I've mentioned, ice were among the accessories. And our smart phones worked, so we knew in real time that the Reds had lost, again, to the Cardinals. Maybe this was not the hike Wendell Berry had imagined for the 21st Century when he raised his voice to save the Gorge from the Corps. But we had a good time.

A pall did hover over this trip from the start. The forecast was sunny and warm for Friday, with a dry night and a low of 55 degrees. Likewise for Saturday but by 3 a.m. on Sunday rain was assured. The weather map was unequivocal on this point. The only real question was whether the rain would begin at 3 a.m. on Sunday or 5 a.m. At 3 a.m. on Sunday, some of us were still up, talking about who know what. I don't because I went to bed at 10:45 p.m. to read Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Jefferson, which had the effect of putting me to sleep quickly. That is not a criticism of the book, which is excellent; it is a commentary on my sleeping habits in the woods, which include going to bed early, falling asleep fast, and waking up at daybreak.


That is a "however" that deserves to stand alone. However, those inclined to stay up later did so and were near enough that their boisterous and bawdy conversation caused sleep apnea for the rest of us. And I distinctly remember looking at my watch at 3:15 a.m. after hearing Bob Pauly loudly inform Bill Ankenbaur, "Hey, Bill, it is 3:15 a.m. and it's not raining." This is an old thing between Bob and Bill, sort of like an old thing between a long-married couple, in which one spouse is always warning of something dire and the other one always doubting the warning. Like, "I told you smoking doesn't cause cancer," because the smoking spouse isn't dead yet. Or, "I told you Republicans are good for the economy," because the stock market hadn't crashed yet. But the inevitable always, by definition, happens, and so by 5 a.m. it was raining. Bill had seen the rain on his weather radar app, which displayed a map that confirmed rain hovering or soon to hover over all of the South and the Midwest. In fact, this is why we had come to the Gorge rather than, as originally planned, to the Smokies. Once the rain started, we wanted to get out and get home.

It was, to its credit, a gentle and warm rain at first. We put on rain suits and made tea as we packed up to leave. John Hennessey, John Curtin and Mark Neikirk, i.e., me, your Captain and correspondent, took a walk further down to trail to what the trail book described only as "the old campsite." Fallen trees blocked this trail frequently, and a new growth of pine trees was busy eliminating the trail entirely in some spots. We came across a box turtle, resting in the middle of the trail, its head, limbs and tail out until it detected us, and then retreated into it shell, which was mostly brown but speckled with bright yellow that must have some evolutionary value, though given how visible the yellow made the shell it was not immediately obvious what this advantage might be. Then, a little further down the trail, a band of something was grown around a young pine tree. It was speckled yellow, exactly as the box turtle's shell. Maybe, we guessed, this was something predators over the eons had nibbled upon to their detriment. Maybe, though attractive to the eye, it is poison to the bloodstream -- and so they had learned not to eat it. Likewise, they avoided eating yellow-speckled turtles. Like I said, maybe.

Tree Eating Cumberland forest signOff the left and a little into the woods, we spotted a sign, incongruously tilted and with the bark of a hickory grown up around it. The bark had become shaped like lips, smiling, and the sign looked as if it were a cracker being consumed by the tree, half in the barky mouth and half out. "NO DOGS, GUNS, TRAPS OR DISTURBING THE WILDLIFE PERMITTED," the portion of the sign visible read, adding that his was by order of the supervisor of the Forest Service and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife as a protection for the Cumberland National Forest. The sign, like the turtle and the band of growth on the pine tree, was yellow with patches of brown, the yellow a fact of its paint job by the government sign makers and the brown a contribution of time and perhaps a local mold.

A little further on, the old campsite was tucked beside the trail. It has a fire ring, room for one tent, maybe two, and by Red River Gorge standards, very little trash. Only one beer can, tossed unglamorously over the hillside, and we brought that out.

Walking back to the camp, John Curtin observedd in wistful appreciation, "We don't take these nature hikes very often, do we?"  Such was the gift of the morning's gentle rain. Such are the gifts of this gorge, so abused by its visitors, so resilient by its nature.