Friday, August 18, 2017

Appalachian Gothic: You Don't Want Pears That Bad


Something you don’t do is mess with my family.  I’m not a testosterone filled muscle head who is always looking for a fight.  I’m a peace loving male feminist.  I don’t solve my problems with violence.  I’ve walked away from fights with those exact words and been hit from behind.  And still didn’t go on the offense. 
Someone invaded my bubble of peace this week.  Someone crossed a line that you do not cross without consequence. 
My maternal grandmother—Mamaw—had been in the hospital for some health problems and is back at home.  Family members have been taking turns sitting with her to help her get around as she’s on a walker and still in some pain.  One of my cousins spent the day with her yesterday and about noon sent out a group message on Facebook to the family with photos of a woman passed out in Mamaw’s back yard and a young man being questioned by police in the driveway that my family shares with her.
She explained that the couple had showed up and were nosing around the back porch.  When she went to the door to ask what they wanted they asked if they could get some pears from the tree in the back yard.  My cousin recognized the guy from church from years ago, and asked Mamaw if it was okay.  She said it was okay so they commenced to staggering around the yard and the woman passed flat out in the yard limp as a rag doll. 
The young man’s family attended church with ours for a few years. We knew him and his family well and so it didn’t seem dangerous to let them pick some pears from the tree, and in fact, the young man’s father had done just that but years ago.
My cousin called the cops and two SRO (Student Resource Officers) showed up and questioned the couple and then let them go.  They left Mamaw’s house and drove up my other (paternal-Chainring) Mamaw’s road.  There’s a bit of drug activity on her road.  And when I say “a bit” I mean an unacceptable amount of vehicular traffic.  In particular there are two destinations where people go looking.
I left work and headed east.  It’s a forty-five-minute drive back to the county and that gave me time to cool down.  After a few misguided scenarios, I settled on going to the sheriff’s office to get more information.  When I arrive one of the SROs was getting ready to leave and I asked him about the incident. 
He explained that they knew the couple were drug users and they tried to find probable cause to arrest them, but because they had been “invited” onto the property their behavior didn’t constitute public intoxication and while the female was obviously intoxicated the male did not seem to be impaired.  “Just goofy” was how he described him.
I was as satisfied as I was going to be with that conversation so I thanked the officer and went home.  On my drive back to the county earlier in the day I had wanted to confront the officer and ask if the kid had been let go because of who his daddy is.  The father had run for county office a few years back and lost.  But during my cooldown I decided that wasn’t prudent as I could possible end the day sitting in jail if things played out along the lines of my mood.  I was proud of myself for having an even and civil discussion and was beginning to calm down and think more rationally.
I kept my eye out for the kid though, and had full intentions of warning him against ever coming back to visit Mamaw.  I decided that the drug problem had pushed too close to me and my loved ones and since the police—while helpful and responsive—hadn’t been able to do anything due to the circumstances I felt like I needed to make it known that kind of behavior wasn’t going to be tolerated any longer.
When I got home I decided to put my baseball bat by the kitchen door.  I couldn’t find it.  I went out to the shed looking for a substitute and found a hardwood ax handle.  I moved it to the wall behind the kitchen door.  The kitchen door is closest to the road where all the drug traffic passes.  We have other means of protections as well, but I wanted something handy to the yard.
We’ve watched for years as my cousin and her deadbeat boyfriend (I call him Breaking Bad) have dealt drugs and attracted all kinds of bad actors onto the creek.  They live right across the road from us—opposite Mamaw—and we’ve worried for a long time that something like this was going to happen, as it’s known that she’s elderly and that she’s alone much of the time.  I also have an uncle (“K”) that lives with Mamaw Chainring and I believe he sells pills or pot.  I have no proof for either, but the patterns exist that point to drug activity.  High frequency and intensity of traffic and then periods of no traffic.  Lots of different people, staying only five minutes or so…yeah.  I’ve watched it go on for years and years.  We’ve seen needles.  We’ve heard the screaming arguments from the Breaking Bad house on the hill.  He broke her arm not so long ago.  They have feral children.  No car.  No jobs.  Lots of “friends” that don’t stay very long.
We watched Uncle K make a deal just behind our back yard one day last year.  I almost snapped that day.  Somehow I talked myself down.
After a failed attempt at fixing dinner last night my wife (who was at a meeting) texted back and said: Order pizza.  So I did.  When it was time my ten-year-old and I headed to town to pick up food.  On the way off the creek who should we pass?  The pillhead who’d been at Mamaw’s earlier in the day.
The ten-year old’s eyes got big as I made a u-turn in the nearest driveway and proceeded to drive excessively fast to chase him down.  It was easy.  I know that road like no other.  I’ve driven it my entire driving life.  I caught him.  And after he passed Mamaw Chainring’s road and my house and Mamaw’s house I knew he was headed on up to the head of the valley and on to wherever he lays his greasy head.  I started flashing my lights.
“No matter what happens, no matter what you see, you stay in this car,” I told my daughter.  I felt like a bad parent.  But I could not let him get away.
He stopped, and I stopped a few yards behind him.  I got out and walked up to the driver’s side.  He opened the door but didn’t get out.
 
“Are you So and So?”  His girlfriend was in the passenger seat.
“Yeah,” He didn’t seem alarmed.
“Did you show up at [Mamaw’s] house today?”
“Yeah,” his brow furrowed, “We were just there to pick pears.”
I cut off what he was going to say next:
“Don’t ever show your face there again.”
“I know her, I go to church with her!  She’s a good woman…”
“Don’t ever show your face on that property again.  If you do, or if I find out, you’ll regret it.”
The girlfriend said: “We were just picking pears” and So and So got angry and defensive.
“I know why you were there.  You weren’t there for pears.”
My memory is a little fuzzy, but the next exchange ended with him hollering:
“I’m not on drugs!  I’ll take a drug test right now!”
To which I replied: “If you’re not on drugs then you had no business going up Chainringville Road after you left her house.”
The girlfriend interjected: “We were going up there to see our friend ‘K’ Chainring.”
“He’s my uncle,” I said, “and I know why you were going to see him.”
So and So tried to make some point and once again I cut him off.
“If you ever go there again I will F*¢% up your $#!+ so bad you’ll wish you’d never been born.” 
I’ve never said anything remotely like that to anyone in my life.  But I meant it.  What that meant was: I won’t call the cops if I see you; I’ll call an ambulance.
He argued again, saying I couldn’t tell him what to do or where to go.  I locked eyes with him and said in the calmest voice I could:
“You don’t want pears that bad.”  He fell silent but glared back at me.
“You DON’T want pears that bad.”
He drove off in a spray of gravel.

We went and picked up the pizza and drove back to the creek.  As we approached the house I told my daughter: “I’m going to drop you off with the pizza, and then I’m going to go talk to Uncle K.”
I left the kids with pizza and told them to stay put.  I texted my wife and told her the kids were at home and that I was going looking for K.  She texted back: Be careful.
I wasn’t afraid of K.  He’s too decrepit to be much of a threat.  I was more afraid of myself at that point.  I wondered if I had crossed a line in my mind.  I wondered if I would just go off on him.  I love my family.  I even love all but one of my dad’s (other) brothers.  I looked up to them growing up despite their bad habits.  K is a good person.  He’s just messed up. 
At a certain point the consequences of kicking the hornet’s nest becomes equal to or less than ignoring it.  My wife and I have discussed this at length over the past few years.  We knew if we called the cops on Breaking Bad up on the hill there would be repercussions.  In fact, nosing around trying to find evidence of their illicit activities elicited a veiled threat from him a couple of years back.  That’s another long explanation and a story for another day, but basically he let me know he had a gun and he was watching me back.
I know Breaking Bad is small time (and reportedly now in jail).  And so by disrupting his little home occupation business we could anger someone higher up on the food chain.  There’s the distinct danger of escalating the situation.  K is small time.  Or at least he seems to be so.  So and So is just a sorry user.  But even so, just making it known I’m watching—and willing to act—opens a Pandora’s Box.
K wasn’t home.  I went back to my house to wait for him.  I knew it wouldn’t be long before he returned.  I stood at the kitchen door eating pizza and eyeing that ax handle.  I knew if I went out to meet him with it in my hand he would understand how serious I was.  But when he turned on Chainringville Road I went out empty handed to wave him down.
“You tell your little buddy So and So to stay off [the] Creek,” I said.  I stood with both of my hands on his door.
“He ain’t my buddy.  I’ve told him and his girlfriend to stay away from me.”
I implored him to remind them.  I told him So and So and his girlfriend had been messing around Mamaw’s house earlier in the day.  I told him to tell the rest of the people that came to see him I was watching, and I was sick of it.  He said all his “friends” (my quotes, not his) were honest and wouldn’t steal from anyone.  I told him I knew why people came to see him, and he said again all his friends were honest.
“That’s all good and fine, but you tell them I’ve had enough, and if something bad happens to anyone I love I might go crazy.”
He seemed to take my point to heart.  And I let him go.

 
I will say again, I’m not a violent person.  I don’t use violence to solve problems.  At this point I don’t see any other recourse with these people.  They have invaded my bubble of peace.  They have disrupted my quality of life.  They have threatened the things most dear to me.
A few years ago I was out one evening on a bike ride and got a text from my wife.  She was worried, and asked me to come home.  Over the course of the evening two different strange men had come to our door looking for my Uncle K.  He hasn’t lived in our house in at least thirty years.  I rode my bike as fast as I could to the house of a man I knew nearby and begged him to give me a ride home.  Nothing else happened that night, but it was the first real shadow cast over our home from the drug problem.
Not too long ago someone walked up to the door after dark and knocked.  The dogs hadn’t barked, and there was no strange car in the driveway.  He tried to sell us some used DVDs.  He wanted $5 for them or $20 for the whole CD wallet of discs.  He didn’t want to take ‘no’ for an answer.  We started locking our car doors after that.  When someone needs a quick $20 and seems desperate but won’t tell you why…
I won’t say I’ve been pushed too far.  I’m a cool and collected person most of the time.  I’m a law-abiding citizen.  I prefer peace over confrontation and drama.  Even a peaceful man can find himself at war.  Even the quiet man can find his voice. 
I hope that my warnings were enough to maintain the peace of my home and family.  I sincerely hope this.  I pray it to be so.  I do not want to be cooled by this shadow ever again. Unfortunately, my actions yesterday have not solved the individual or community drug problems that surround me.  I know that. 
For now, I will maintain my vigilance. 

 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Don't Be a Coat Rack for Hate


"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

“Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

Don't tell me you're a Christian if you don't live by this passage. Especially that second paragraph.  
These days so many people wear the counterfeit uniform of Christian in order to infiltrate the public dialogue.  They are poor impersonators at best.  And yet they incite so much anger, arrogance, resentment, and lies and end up ripping and tearing the very fabric of civil society in the name of Christ.
I believe there is a special place in hell for them.
These are the white nationalists who feel emboldened by Trump’s nefarious victory over reason last fall.  These are the racist bastards who have stayed just quiet enough for years that we didn’t realize how hateful and deplorable they really were.  We suspected, but couldn’t believe that people really felt that way toward other human beings.
But this post really isn’t directed at them.  They don’t even try to pretend to love anyone.  They hate their wives, girlfriends (yeah, I’m generalizing that they’re all male), children, co-workers, friends, and themselves.  I believe that for someone to hate strangers so vehemently enough to drive their car into a crowd they must hate themselves on multiple levels.  This is not a person who is content and happy.  This is not a person who has hope for a bright and loving future.
I could care less if some nazi-white supremacist-racist-asshole reads this post and is affected by it in any way.  They’re not going to listen to me anyway.  But who I hope may read this and come to a different conclusion about life after a moment of reflection are those holding the coats* of the Neo-Nazis. 
If you point out all the reasons why people are responsible for their own suffering you are holding the coat of hate. 
If you turn a blind eye to the things going on in our country; of the violence, division, and suffering then you are holding the coat of hate.
 
If you rationalize why people with different colored skin, or different accents, or who practice different religions, or who are different than you in any way shouldn't have the same rights as you then you are holding the coat of hate.
 
If you say that women are responsible for the violence directed at them and make excuses for their attackers then you're holding the coat of hate.
 
If you don't speak out against the bigotry of others then you are holding the coat of hate.

If you deflect from the issues of the day with chants of “But her emails!” or “Just let him do his job!” then you’re holding the coat of hate. 
If you make any excuses for Donald Trump you are holding the coat of hate.

For a president to not soundly condemn the congregation of Neo-Nazis and white supremacists is the very perversion of the ideals this country was founded on.  That kind of hatred transcends freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.  As so many memes, and tweets, and Facebook posts have stated in the past couple of days: we fought a war to stop that kind of nonsense.  The whole world was involved.  The veterans of that war who gave their lives and those who gave their hearts and bodies to defeat that evil would be appalled that the very same evil is being given a free pass by our president and those who advise him. 
I spent all last year expressing my disapproval of the idea of Donald Trump as president.  I didn’t believe he had a chance, but I was appalled at the remote possibility he would land himself in the catbird seat.  And there he sits.  Or rather, there he sits when he’s not playing golf in New Jersey or Florida.
I have lost all faith in our democratic process at this point.  I am losing my faith in humanity.  I maintain hope that this path we’re on will divert before more blood is spilled.  But I have little faith in that notion as well.
I don’t care what you think about Trump’s perceived acumen as a businessman.  I could care less if you believe in conservative or liberal economic policies.  I don’t give a flying duck if you are tired of establishment politicians and just wanted someone in office who says what they mean (really?!  He hardly says anything coherent, much less does he express any clear meaning)…
Donald J. Trump is destroying civil society and he most definitely was not God’s chosen salvation for America.
These days I am often ashamed to be called “Christian” or “American.”  The best thing I can do is stick to my own convictions and not give in to the hate.  And hold on to hope in the goodness I see in people around me.
I will end on this note:
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
~ Edmund Burke


*The Apostle Paul held the coats of those who stoned the first Christian martyr before his own conversion.  See, anyone can change.

"And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him." Acts 22:20

 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Leadville Saga: A Finisher Pace


 
Four years ago today at this moment I was lined up to start the Leadville MTB Trail 100 in Leadville, Colorado at 10,000’ in elevation.  It was my second attempt to finish and get a buckle, and I was out for vindication and redemption.  After two years leading up to my first attempt in 2012 the soul crushing failure at mile 87 had hung heavy on my shoulders.  Somehow, I got back in for 2013 and got my second chance.
The journey was deeply person for me.  While trying to train for the race, balance work and life, and be a good husband and father I was also suffering from depression, debilitating metal issues, and crippling self-doubt.  That I finished at all in 2013 was a big deal.  That I missed the coveted belt buckle by twenty-four minutes?
So I wrote and self-published a book about my journey.  And to be fair it’s the story of my family through that time as well.  They supported me and carried me when I couldn’t go any farther.
 
My book (for those of you who haven’t followed my bloggery over the past few years) is called Leadville or Bust.  In retrospect, I could have come up with a better name.  But it is what it is, and somehow it’s more than apt.
I left Colorado in 2013 with a finishers medal and hardly anything else.  I didn’t even carry the resolve to try again in 2014 to go back and get a buckle.  I was beaten down from three years of effort to cross that finish line.  I decided I needed some time off.  I needed to give my family some time off.  I’m not saying that lack of ambition led to my persistent suicidal thoughts through the rest of 2013 and into most of 2014.  But I am certain the letdown from Leadville contributed.
These days I’m happy.  Content even.  No, the doctors didn’t increase the dosage of my meds.  In fact, I don’t have a doctor for my head.  The peace I’ve found came from within, and it wasn’t magical, mystical, or novel in any way.  I’m not even sure I can explain it, but as complex as the past few months have been I think the simple answer is that I began thinking positively.  Maybe for the first time in my life.
The Kentucky state legislature has mandated a later start date for schools.  The law goes into effect next year.  Our kids started this year on August 8 which is ridiculous.  So even if I had wanted to try to get through the lottery for this year it would have been problematic.  However, for next year…
I haven’t discussed this with my amazing wife (or the kids) yet, but if she is agreeable I think I want to try to get back into the Leadville 100 next year.  If I don’t clear the lottery then I’ll shoot for a race closer to home as a trial run for 2019 and hopefully I’ll be able to find a volunteer opportunity in ’18 to boost my chances for ’19. 
This isn’t something I have to do.  I’m healed.  I can go on and count those memories as part of an amazing life.  But this is something I want to do now.  I enjoy doing long distance mountain bike races—God help me—and I miss the planning, the training, and the race day excitement that comes with them.  As long as I can maintain true balance in my life I think this is something I want to do again.  Putting on the Red River Gorge race was an attempt to recapture those feelings, and I have a good indication that it will, but it’s not the same thing as doing the race yourself.
 
The thing I have learned from all of this is one of the lines Ken Chlouber repeats at the pre-race meetings and which has been used by the race series as a tagline:
“You’re better than you think you are and you can do more than you think you can.”
I believe that now.  I didn’t believe that before starting out on the journey.  I didn’t believe that even three months ago; and while I carry around one persistent demon that likes to make my life miserable at times (ADHD)…I can fight off one demon.  It was the gang of demons beating on me all the time that kept me from functioning other than at a superficial level.  
Regardless of whether we decide to go back and regardless of whether I can even get back into the race for 2018 I am going to begin preparing.  From today I have a year and a couple of days to get ready.  Just in case.  If I can’t knock down this one bucket list item with a year’s preparation then I might as well move on to the next on the list and let it go. 
And even if I don’t get in, never go back, and eventually lose interest, the journey to claim a little silver belt buckle for riding my bike in the mountains of Colorado was a good one.  It taught me a lot about myself and what is possible.  While it didn’t push me over the top and provide the confidence I have so desperately needed my entire life, it did get me higher up the mountain than most other things I had tried.  When I got the final push I needed I was mostly there.  This has been a good path for me.  It’s been rough at times, but it’s been a path of light, and not a path of darkness. 
 

 

Friday, August 4, 2017

Crossing the Big Country


Haha!  For long time readers this will be a funny.  Recently I climbed Big Country with Becky.  Becky and I went to school together though she’s a couple of years older than me.  She’s also on Wolfe County Search and Rescue, and we end up running into each other frequently around the Gorge area.  We have a lot of friends and acquaintances in common and a few months ago climbed together at Dip Wall.
Becky had come across the route description for Big Country in the current climbing guidebook.  She posted a photo of the page and I commented that I had been present at most of the incidents described, if not all of them.  Mandy said we could take her to do the route some time and she was game.
 
A few years ago, I went and climbed it with the Crash Test Librarian.  Mark and I turned it into an all day adventure by riding our bikes from Stanton, climbing the route, and riding back.  I struggled to get up the route that day, and my body was already in decline from overuse and poor health habits.  Obviously, this was all pre-acupuncture. 
I was anxious for another return to Big Country when it came up last week to see how my joints and muscles would respond to being in the vertical realm again.  For the ascent it ended up being just Becky and I striking out after work this past Tuesday.  The temps weren’t as hot as the week before, but it was still the first of August in Kentucky.
The hike up is stout.  Long Wall is guarded by a long and steep hike.  Then you hike along the wall until the climber trail peters out.  Yes, we were going to a rock climb.  Big Country has never been a trade route.  In fact, years ago when I first ventured out to find it I couldn’t find a single other climber that had ever been on it, or knew where to locate the start.  So I bushwhacked to the top of Long Wall, walked all the way to the top of the Shield where the route is located, and rappelled the last pitch and top-rope-soloed it.
I went back a few weeks later with my regular climbing partner and cousin Dustin and a friend from school—Neil—and we did the same thing, but we also rappelled on to the ground and I finally figured out the entire route from the ground up.  I didn’t revisit Big Country for a couple of years after that, but when some friends were looking for a fun route to climb under a full moon Big Country came to mind.  I went up a few days before the next full moon and pruned a lot of undergrowth off the route, threw some old deadfall into the forest below, brushed off a lot of holds (I was a hard core boulderer at that time too) and added rappel bolts and chains at the top of the second pitch.
The little bit of work opened up the route for more traffic.  I then wrote an article about the route for a now defunct outdoor adventure magazine called Extremz.  The rag was one of the only good print sources of information on the goings on in the Gorge in 1999 and 2000.  My article got a lot of attention and people started climbing what was to become my favorite route for a long time and also the route I was nicknamed after for my heyday climbing years.  That was my original long term internet handle (I gave it up after too many flame wars on the forums of redriverclimbing.com) too.  Our friends referred to Mandy and I as “the Countrys” instead of “the Chainrings” for long after we stopped climbing regularly.
View from the middle of the last pitch of an aptly named route, 2014
At the time I also dragged countless friends and casual climbing partners up the route, usually after a long day of climbing elsewhere as a cherry on top of the day.  Man, I was in so much better shape then!
Anyway, I recounted a lot of the adventures I’d had with Mandy and other friends as Becky and I climbed the route.  I struggled at the unprotected crux (harder than 5.5 and more serious than “R” rated) but found that my body responded well to climbing again.  My new knees did well high stepping and pressing out the moves. 
It doesn’t look like many people do the route these days, but there were telltale signs of infrequent climber traffic.  The anchor bolts I placed seventeen years earlier still seem solid.  I remembered most of the gear placements, but found myself trying to activate muscle memory instead of just reading the rock on the fly.  Most of the time I could unlock long forgotten sequences that reflect the most efficient way to move up Big Country.  This was a route I once knew move for move and could race up like a steep hill on a jog in the park. 
The whole outing reinforced my newfound health.  I’m not old and decrepit like I thought.  Becky chided me for being old (43 to her 45!) and when I groaned trying to get off the second belay starting up the third pitch she called me fat.  Haha!  I had to laugh because for the first time in a long time I realized I don’t feel that way, and it was just funny.  She later said she was joking (we both joshed about our respective ages to be fair), and I knew she was, but that was another telling moment for me.  My mental health has drastically improved.  I’m still solidly standing on a block of confidence, and improved body image, and physical energy.
Contentedly re-racking for the last pitch
photo by B. Brewer
I wish I knew exactly what had been holding me back for so long.  Night before last Mandy and I were talking deep about life—again as we have been wont to do lately—and when I said something about knowing that the depression was still somewhere out there waiting to ambush me (even though I don’t have anxiety about that anymore) she said: “But you went climbing yesterday!  And you’ve been riding your bike, and running, and you do so many great things!”  She pointed out all of the things I’ve accomplished this past year.  She really is my biggest fan, though I don’t know what I did to deserve it.  That sentiment isn’t coming from a place of doubt for once.
If I can ever tell this whole story in the full light of day it’ll be important to stress how important and crucial Mandy has been in leading me out of the darkness.  For years, she has been telling me how handsome I am, how smart I am, and how great I am at life.  I’ve failed to believe her because of my own crippling self-doubt, but we were finally able to shove the doubt down into a hole and it’s been cowering there for two months now.  I feel like a new person.  I feel like I’m the person I always wanted to be…the person I wanted to grow into when I was a kid.
It’s fitting that Big Country is part of this transitional story.
Big Country takes the skyline of the obvious formation known as The Shield.
Becky and I walked off the top of Long Wall.  I suggested it.  The walkoff is actually a really great hike in and of itself.  The views are some of the best in the Gorge, and the top of Long Wall provides a spectacular position high above the treetops and the river.
In my newfound contentment I’m not chomping at the bit to go right back and do the route again.  I used to overconsume great experiences.  I think this memory will hang with me for a while.  I’m not saying I won’t go back and do Big Country again soon, but I think I’m ready to move on from this point and start finding out who I want to be during the second half of my life.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

On Top of Ol' Chimney

What follows is an older write up I did about my exploits on and around Chimney Top Rock in Red River Gorge...
 
Don't try this at home

 Chimney Top Rock is in the heart of the Red River Gorge. It is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the area, and, due to a short paved trail from the parking area to it's railed summit, is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Gorge loop drive. In high school and beyond, I, along with many of my friends, would venture out to the overlook during the full moon most months. I've encountered parties as large as twenty on the small, and safe, main summit. If you're lucky enough to catch the overlook vacant under a full moon you'll be rewarded with an amazingly peaceful and beautiful experience.
 
The trailhead is located at the northern terminus of a five mile long gravel road. From the parking area you walk west out a narrowing ridge until you exit the scrubby pine forest into the open, just before a manmade bridge across a five foot wide gap. On the far side of the bridge is a twenty foot by twenty foot area bounded by wood railing held in place by stone columns. If you're daring, you can climb over the far railing, carefully scramble down twenty or so feet to a ledge, and make the bold step across another five foot crack to the main "chimney rock." The trail ends just beyond.
 
When I was a teenager, the step across and step back hardly got my heart rate up. I even visited that airy perch under a full moon once with a friend who carried an electric guitar on the moonlit hike out. We sat for some time on the lonely rock passing the guitar back and forth and banging out random musical tidbits. On that visit I learned to fear the return move back to the real world from Chimney's summit. The funny thing is, to get over to the rock you must jump slightly down across the one hundred and fifty foot deep crack. To get back to the main ridge you have to make the leg-stretching jump back and up.
 
I grew up understanding the ominous history of that one doozy step: many young, and perhaps inebriated, people had failed to successfully visit and return from Chimney. In the darkness I didn't trust myself. Stephen bailed me out by straddling the great crack (guitar still slung over his shoulder) with his inhumanly long legs and pulled me safely across. I've only made the jump over and back a couple of times since that night. Discretion is the better part of maturity it seems.
 
Chimney Top, or Chimney Rock, or Chimney Top Rock—whatever you choose to call it, there is only one such stone in the Red River Valley—is best viewed from highway 715 to the north, just west of where the Sheltowee Trace crosses the Red River. There is a cut out in the trees on the south side of the road, and if you're careful as you drive the Gorge loop you can slow down and marvel at the northern aspect and profile of Chimney Top for a few brief moments. If you linger too long you're likely to cause a car wreck. But in those short seconds you can't miss seeing the massive crack that separates the chimney rock from the main ridge: one hundred and fifty feet from ground to sky and varying from three to maybe eight feet wide. If you know where to look and the light is just right in the southern sky you can see the glow through the tunnel on Tunnel Route in a parallel, but less striking, crack about fifty feet east of the more obvious fissure.
 
Before I began my official stint as a rock climber I often fantasized about climbing, not the cracks around the Chimney Top overlook, but, the wild exposed faces on the western end of the ridge. So when a friend from high school mentioned that he had "climbed Chimney Top" I believed he had clawed his way up the overhanging and exposed orange faces below the railing of the overlook, or perhaps one of the striking corners on the north- and southwest points below the overlook. At least, in my mind those were the only possibilities.
 
So one day Eric called and said he wanted to climb Chimney Top again, and did I want to go with him. Oh. Yes. The day was surreal. I don't think I was fully coherent through all of it. There are gaping holes in my memory of the experience, and I have to rely on a piece I wrote for a college composition class a year after the fact. I've included it here, intact and basically unedited. When I was writing it I was trying to get ahold of an idea, an image in my mind, of how it felt to be at that climactic point, that point of divergence that few people ever truly face, when one mistake, one error in judgment, one cramp in the calf would result in fatal disaster. I don't feel as if I captured the feeling even half as completely as I wanted to, and after the passing of so much time I am certain that I will never be able to consciously revisit that memory with enough clarity to recreate those heart stopping moments with the visceral simplicity they deserve.
 
I found out later, after I became a "real" rock climber, that the chimney Eric and I ascended on that day was named Chimney's Chimney and is rated 5.2 (easy) but is nearly unprotectable. So even if we'd had a rope it would have done little for the leader. On that day I was the follower, and a rope would have fundamentally changed the experience for me.
 
 
ROOM AT THE TOP
 
Red River Gorge, 1995
 
Last spring I danced briefly with the idea of rock climbing. I fell in love with a picture of myself I saw in my head where I dangled by my fingertips over an empty expanse of air. Never once did I slip on a climbing harness or tie into a rope. I had this romantic notion that it would be just me and the rock and the glory of nature around me. I felt that any colorful nylon accessories I might use would take away from my moment of spiritual glory as I hauled my self over the lip of a high sandstone precipice. There was an element of fear that existed, but for the most part that fear was but a shadow in a corner in a room in my mind while the awe and the beauty of the experience I sought would be a blaring light that quenched all fear.
 
One March day I found myself riding around with a friend of mine from high school named Eric. We were looking for some sort of adventurous diversion, preferably some rock to climb. Chimney Top was mentioned, and that’s where we decided to go. Eric had climbed the crack below the overlook back when we were in high school, and I was eager to try it myself. First we scrambled to the summit of Half Moon Rock which is across the hollow to the south from Chimney Top. Half Moon was an easy climb, and it warmed us up to what lay ahead. After studying our prime objective for a few minutes we made our way down and across the valley to the base of the south face of Chimney Top. The base is not quite vertical, but low angled and green, dotted with trees and rhododendron.
The first fifty feet were easy as we climbed up a gully to an exposed ledge. We traversed a few yards west to the big main chimney closest to the end of the ridge. It was the crack that ended below the overlook. Standing on the ledge, looking up through the chimney to the summit nearly a hundred feet above, I felt no fear. The room in my mind was bright with excitement. All the times I’d said that Eric was crazy for doing what we were about to do were forgotten.
 
I followed Eric into the crack, stepping across the three foot chasm as easily as I would a puddle. I looked up once I was inside the vast chimney and saw our means of ascent. On both faces there were many wide stepped ledges. Apparently all we had to do was find the path of least resistance. The wind shrieked through the crack cutting through my wool shirt, but I didn’t feel it. I hardly felt the cold sandstone under my hands. When I looked down through the crack, I couldn’t see the bottom for the darkness as the walls narrowed near the base of the cliff. We continued upward for a few uneventful moments.
 
Twenty feet from the top Eric stopped.
 
“What now?” I asked anxiously.
 
“You put your feet on one side and your back against the other.” He demonstrated by getting into position and proceeding to climb upward, his body spanning the gap precariously.
 
“Are you crazy?” I called to him.
 
“You wanna go back down?” he called back.
 
I didn’t. I couldn’t, not without Eric. Eric continued to ascend away from me. I carefully placed my feet against the opposite side of the crack. The room in my mind was darkening. I eased my weight fully onto my feet and hips and began to wriggle myself upward. I was suspended so high above the earth only by the outward exertion of force from my legs. They were beginning to shake uncontrollably.
 
Eric had made it to the top and began offering down words of encouragement, all of which fell unheard by me into the darkness of the crack below. The fear was driving the light from my mind. The darkness of my fear was making it harder and harder for me to move. I felt the cold intensely. My mind was becoming numb. And then suddenly I was less than a body length from the top. The crack widened above me, making it impossible for me to continue upward as I had been.
 
“What?! What now?!” I cried frantically at Eric.
 
“You’ve got to lean forward, find a handhold somewhere.”
 
He was so close, and he was safe, but I was so far from that safe ledge as blackness clouded my mind. I leaned forward as far as I dared, but my hands were still far from any conceivable handhold. My feet felt like they were slipping. I started to panic. The room was dark. I was blinded and afraid to move in the darkness. I couldn’t go forward and I couldn’t go back. My legs were burning white hot with exertion. I had to clear my mind. I had to find a way to continue. I stretched my legs out straight, forcing my body slightly higher. I reached again, still short, but I could not see a hold. I had to get closer so…I lunged.
 
For a split second I was free of the stone. I was unattached to the earth. Light flooded the room and all was clear.
 
Then my arms were snapped tight by the weight of my body as my fingers wrapped desperately around a hold and my feet scrabbled for purchase on the vertical stone. I held myself there only for a second, pulled up, swung a leg over the lip and then I was on top. I was sweating despite the chilling wind, and my legs felt transparent. The fear was gone, but the memory of the shadow would stay with me for some time. My room was alight with amazement at what we had just done and maybe fed by a little adrenalin as well.
 
 
LIGHT IN THE TUNNEL
 
Chimney Top was a major draw for early climbers to the region. Chimney's Chimney is an ancient classic; it's first ascent history lost in the flotsam and jetsam of antiquity. There are other classic and historic routes in close proximity to the popular overlook.
 
These days there is a ban on climbing within a certain distance of the main formation, which is terribly unfortunate, especially in light of the climbing policies of other federally managed public areas. Yosemite and Devil's Tower leap majestically to mind.
 
Early on in my climbing timeline I sought out partners for an ascent of Tunnel Route: a three pitch 5.5 just east of Chimney's Chimney. It terminated directly under the bridge over to the overlook from the main ridge and had been given a full three stars in the guidebook. Classic. Easy. Novel. If you can bear with me, I'll take you with me up that climb once again in memory.
 
Dave has tried to kill me twice. The first time was when we were kids; probably eight or nine years old. We were at a church picnic. Someone had brought a long thick rope to do a tug-o-war. The preacher at the time was a big guy, and there was another hefty dude in attendance. They were chosen as the anchors for the opposing teams. Us kids got to participate even, and after much heaving and dragging and heaving and dragging everyone collapsed in the cool grass laughing and resting. Both anchors had tied the ends of the rope around their waists, and as we all rested, perhaps for another round of tugging, Dave twisted a loop in the rope near the middle, dropped it over my head and around my neck and yelled "PULL!"
 
Both anchors were facing away from the middle, kneeling on the ground, and when they heard Dave's shrill cry they dug their feet in and threw their significant combined weight against the rope which immediately constricted around my skinny throat. Mayhem ensued. People screamed. I almost blacked out. An eternity passed before blessed oxygen was flowing back into my lungs and a circle of petrified mothers stood around me pawing at my neck and demanding to know which child was responsible.
 
"David," I croaked.
 
Two mothers flung themselves from the circle to hunt for their sons. Unfortunately for one of my friends, he shared a name with my would-be assassin. I tried to save him:
 
"Noo-that one!" I wheezed, pointing to the perpetrator.
 
I almost think both Daves had a closer brush with death that day than I did.
 
It was the middle of June, 1996, maybe fourteen years after Dave first tried to kill me. I called him up. He had climbed with me in the past, and without a second murder attempt I was comfortable being in the same county with him. I knew he would be up for a little adventure, so I laid out my plans to climb Tunnel Route. Dave was willing. He asked if he could bring another friend, Dan along. I said sure and told him my usual climbing partner and cousin, Dustin would probably go along as well.
 
While we were waiting for Dave and Dan at Miguel’s Pizza, the local climbers’ hangout in the area, we ran into Alyssum, a mutual friend of mine and Dave’s and we invited her along as well. After we waited for awhile we decided Dave and Dan weren’t coming and agreed that three was an optimal party for the ascent and headed off in the direction of Chimney Top.
 
We pulled into the parking area in the early afternoon. We had lost quite a bit of time waiting for our two stragglers. Just as we were ready to head off down the trail Dave and Dan arrived. Lost time was quickly forgotten and we redistributed the gear. We took three climbing ropes, a huge rack of other gear and various accessories for both fashion and function. I'd led much harder routes than the 5.5 we were going out to do, but some little voice kept telling me to be over prepared.
 
As we hiked out the ¾ mile paved trail to the overlook, each of the five of us carried a pack at least half full of some sort of gear. As we neared the overlook we dropped off to a ledge on the south side of the ridge below the trail where there was a massive rappel tree which would put us very near the base of the route. We decided at that point to stash some of our gear. We left three packs and one of the ropes and then dropped down to the forest floor; still seriously overburdened.
 
The 5th class approach gully went fast, and I belayed everyone up to the base of the tree pitch. It was crowded, but we were moving pretty fast for a party of five. I took the sharp end again and launched up the curving and thinning branchless tree that choked the severely overhanging chimney/dihedral. For protection I girth-hitched three shoulder slings around the tree at equal intervals. At the top of the trunk where the angle eased up I yarded on huge buckets (very large handholds) and flopped into the infamous tunnel. It is essentially a wide section of a vertical fracture that completely splits the narrow ridge just under the footbridge that connects the overlook to the larger ridge.
 
Me, leading the second overhanging pitch
 
After setting up my belay I hauled the packs up to the tunnel. I was clearly conscious of the fact that I could not retreat easily from my position and the hour was getting late. I was worried that one of the other four might have problems getting up the tricky pitch, but soon we were all crowded into the tunnel and happily moving through the ridge to the next belay.
 
The belay at the beginning of the final pitch is one of the best in the state. There is a sidewalk sized ledge that goes straight out of the tunnel and dead ends at an airy dihedral. The last pitch follows the dihedral through an exposed bulge and out of sight above. We could not see more than fifteen feet of the pitch and we knew we had at least forty more feet to go to the summit. Once we reached the belay we could not ignore the fact that the sun was quickly creeping toward the horizon. Red sunlight bathed the tunnel behind us. I quickly, but carefully, made my way out to the crack.
 
I was still at a stage of development in my climbing where I wasn’t completely comfortable with heights and exposure. Intellectually I knew that the route was 5.5 and well within my ability, but my mind fluttered with thoughts of broken ropes and blown cams. I got in a good piece of protection and explored the first few moves with my hands. I discovered a massive bucket hold just out of sight from the tunnel, and after I got onto it I plowed right on up the fun and exposed slab above. I could not believe how good the rock was and how easy and fun the moves were. I began to enjoy the exposure. But the joy was short lived.
 
I made my way into the dark gully below the footbridge above and opted to belay just below the bridge. I lost even more time trying to build a good anchor. As most other beginners, I lacked the confidence in my gear anchors and tended to over-protect. Finally I got something I was comfortable with and belayed the next climber up.
 
As Dustin appeared over the slab below I realized that the gully was much darker than it had been when I first climbed into it. By the time the last climber in our group was in the gully below the bridge it was almost completely dark. When I turned to take the rope up the final ten or twelve feet to the summit I realized I had made a bad decision. We didn’t have a single headlamp in our expedition, and it was very dark in the gully. I felt my way like a blind man, conscious of the fact that we would be in serious trouble if I fell and broke my ankle. I made it to the bridge with my heart pounding in my chest and belayed the others up much relieved.
 
Once we were all back on top we still had to retrieve our gear from the ledge where we had stashed it near the rappel tree. None of us were willing to go over the side back to that ledge without some sort of light. Dave volunteered that he had two flashlights in the trunk of his car so he and I set out in the dark to get them while the others hung out in the trail near our cache.
 
We met them on our way back, they had decided to walk on out as we had, and we passed them one light. We kept the other. I found the side trail that led to the rappel tree easily and took the lead with Dave behind holding the light.
 
When I came to a short step down to the ledge I slid over the rounded lip without giving the action a second thought. Dave began to scream. I turned in time to see his light retreating back up toward the main trail leaving me in complete darkness. Was he trying to kill me again?
 
“Dave! What’s going on?” I said.
 
“Snake!” he screamed.
 
Dave is absolutely terrified of snakes. I once watched him pound a small copperhead into oblivion with a large rock. He kept pounding on it long after the snake was rendered harmless. I looked back the way I had come and sure enough there was a copperhead, slithering up the trail toward Dave.
“It’s coming at me!” he screeched.
 
“Well, get out of its way.” I calmly advised.
 
He was frantic until it left the trail and moved off into the dark where it could find some peace and quiet. He had joined me on the ledge and then told me that I had slid right over the snake; it had passed between my hands and feet. We retrieved the gear and headed back to the parking area.
Once there we parted gear and then parted ways, all of us heading back to our respective homes…one more route under our harness belts. I'd survived another climbing adventure with Dave, so I was getting a bit complacent. He made one (hopefully) final attempt to kill me a few months later as we were heading back to the car at dusk after a day of climbing at Dip Wall.
 
I was walking under a dead tree, a widowmaker as they're called, and Dave grabbed the tree and gave it a good shake. The top three feet broke off and penciled straight down into my head, gouging out a chunk of skin at my hairline.
 
"I'm okay," I said, somewhat stunned.
 
Dave walked over, and in the dim light looked at my head, which at the time was covered in shoulder-length hair.
 
"It looks okay," he said, feigning concern.
 
Then I looked down to see what had actually hit me. I felt something warm slide down my forehead and Dave began screeching like a murder victim. I was bleeding like a stuck pig. I survived another attempt, but I've been more wary of Dave ever since; even when he officiated my wedding. I kept one eye on him the whole time, just in case he tried to finish the job.
 
  
DIRECTISSMA TO DOOM
 
I climbed Tunnel Route at least one other time. The last time I climbed it was in a drought year, and the helpful tree had become a dangerous obstacle. It was no longer safe to use as a climbing aid, nor for protection.
 
I found out soon after that the route was part of the blanket closure of the area. It seemed unfair and unnecessary. Despite the route's historic, and classic, nature few people ventured out to do the climb on any given weekend.
 
Prior to the blanket closure I climbed a third route on the formation with friends Chris and Alexis. Chris was a big guy, I think an ex-football-player, and Alexis was a slight, but scrappy, creature with a shocking mane of red hair. There was a route on the north side of the ridge I wanted to do called Chimney Direct. I'd scouted it from the base, and it joined Tunnel Route for the latter climb's last pitch. The route was a direct line from the ground up to the tourist bridge; hence the name. It was also listed as 5.7 in the guidebook.
 
When Chris, Alexis and I stood under that wide crack looking summitward I was a solid 5.9 climber with many routes under my belt. I was confident the route would go easily, and I was looking forward to ticking off another Red River Gorge classic. In the back of my mind two little flies buzzed. First, I had enough mileage, and had talked to enough local climbers, to understand that a route that was first climbed prior to 1980 and graded under 5.10 was probably sandbagged; that meant that the 5.7 listing in the guidebook could be off as far as two letter grades. The other annoying fly was in regards to the width of the crack on the first pitch. It was wide. Really wide. To this day my weakness is wide cracks. And steep sport climbs.
 
Interestingly enough, my choice of partners for a climb was often directly related to the composition of said partner(s)' rack of gear. Chris and Alexis had a lot of big gear for protecting wide cracks. I figured it was an even trade. I knew how to get in and out to the base of Chimney, and few people had that first hand knowledge. Chris and Alexis were suffer-mongers like myself, so it was a good partnership. I roped up and Chris put me on belay. I was laden with all of the duo's large gear. I probably had thirty pounds of aluminum hanging off my harness as I chalked up and then gazed into the sky, half obscured by Chimney Top.
 
It might seem counter-intuitive that climbers will weigh themselves down with a lot of hardware before beginning a climb, but in an ideal situation the climber will only take exactly what he or she needs and leave it behind, piece by piece, as they climb upward. While the leader bears the mental brunt of the load, the second climber ends the climb with the most weight gained.
 
Wide cracks put a quiver in my heart. I preferred hand sized cracks, or fingercracks, or better yet, low-angled faces with large holds. The wide crack of the first pitch of Chimney Direct was located in a dihedral, an inside corner, so my intended strategy was to stay out of the crack and stem my legs between the two walls that were 90ยบ apart. The faces looked well-featured, and the crux, the business, the maw of the beast, seemed to be halfway up the initial seventy foot pitch where the faces weren't as well featured. Piece of cake.
 
I made three good, solid moves upward and stopped at a rest stance to put in my first piece of protection. The only piece of gear that would fit was the largest piece of gear we'd brought. I placed it, put a shoulder-length runner on it so the rope wouldn't get sucked deep into the crack and looked up. The crack only got wider. I looked down. With the two foot sling attached to the camming device I could only climb about a body length above it before I would be facing a ground fall. Any fall from higher would result in the same. Chris and Alexis both laughed nervously when I shared my observations. They'd seen my predicament as well. But I felt good. I was in good shape. I felt strong that day, and the promise of the summit above beckoned me upward.
 
My conclusion was that perhaps as I climbed upward, possibilities for smaller protection would reveal themselves. My partners agreed, but didn't sound convinced. I moved a foot up. Cake. I moved the opposite foot up. Chocolate cake. Rinse and repeat.
 
The walls leaned out a little, but the smaller surface features kept appearing as needed, sucking me upward. I kept three points of contact, moving only one limb at a time; getting higher and higher up the route. No one said anything about the lack of protection. Within only a couple of moves after setting the single camming device I was effectively off belay. The only thing Chris could have done for me if I'd fallen was try to catch me in his arms. I think we all believed he could do it, too.
 
Memory fades, and I apologize, but I believe I managed to place another piece of gear between the ground and the crux moves I had purposely avoided thinking about. If I did, I am certain it was junk, and wouldn't have held a falling butterfly, much less a stubby hunk of climber like myself. Regardless, I went into the crux moves facing a long fall onto a rocky patch of sand, guarded only by a burly dude that, from thirty-five feet, appeared about as big as a golf ball to me.
 
The positive rock features ran out. My feet were pasted to the gritty rock only by the sticky nature of my climbing shoes. I pushed hard to maintain counter-pressure between the two walls of the dihedral. I searched in vain for some kind of handhold in the crack or on the faces in front of me. The clock was ticking. Lactic acid crept into my calves. Terror tickled the back of my brain. Sweat slimed up my hands and face. It didn't matter how many times I checked the gear loops on my harness, I could not find that magical piece of gear that would span the wide crack and give me something to clip the rope into. The nature of the climbing to that point was such that I couldn't easily employ my master downclimbing skills. I was quickly running out of options.
 
The silence was deafening. My calves burned as if on fire. My feet vibrated like guitar strings wound beyond their breaking points. A fall...from that high...hurt bad...rescue difficult...wouldn't be able to climb...long time.
 
"Can you try getting into the crack?" Alexis called up.
 
#@$& NO! I thought. Reaching my mental breaking point, but not crossing it, I explored that possibility. I knew I sucked at climbing offwidths (wide cracks), but if I could get in the crack I might just gain a much needed rest and the feeling of security being wedged in a crack can offer. But from my wide stemming stance I couldn't get enough of my body into the crack to hold myself in place before losing too much oppositional force and falling out of the dihedral.
 
In frustration I planted myself firmly back into the body-splitting stem I'd left. I had only a few seconds til doom. I think both of my friends were trying to give me counsel, positive reinforcement, advice, last rites...when I decided up was the only way out of my predicament.
 
It mattered little if I fell from thirty-five feet or forty or forty-five. Just a couple of body lengths above me the dihedral relaxed and there seemed to be a "thank-god" ledge not too far over my head. Upward I climbed. With movement came relief from the pumped feeling in my legs. With movement came confidence through action. With movement came the predicted "thank-god" ledge. The cry went up: a three-part harmony celebrating my deliverance from certain maim-ment.
 
A short, easy romp led me to a flat belay stance where I built an overzealous belay anchor. I belayed my friends up and let them lead the way to the top, having expended my poke full of fairy dust that day. My close call should have been enough to convince me I needed to learn to be comfortable climbing offwidths. And to invest in some wide gear of my own. I must admit, it did not. I think I both amazed and frightened my friends. They watched me basically free-solo what amounted to a 5.10 climb. But I didn't do it with style, or grace, or intelligence, or intent. Some people only learn lessons the hard way. I might be one of those people.
 
Chris and Alexis after topping out