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North to Red River Gorge

Daniel Boone guiding settlers through the Cumberland Gap.
This is depicted on the ceiling of the hallways in the US Capitol Building, Washington, D.C.

Monday November 26
1793: A guide named James McFarland was leading a group of 15 settlers along the Wilderness Road near an area called the hazel patch, when a Chickamauga war party attacks. All but 4 people are killed in the fighting. One of the girls was eventually rescued by frontiersmen. From Hazel Patch the Wilderness Road also ran to Danville, Harrodsburg, Bardstown, and Louisville.
(While writing this piece, I looked at a national map dated 1820 and was surprised to find Hazel Patch
listed as the only town in mid-eastern Kentucky.)

The skies are grey again this morning as we cross the tracks and leave the Hazel Patch, heading uphill through the woods on a dirt road. A sign informs us that here the Sheltowee parallells the old Wilderness Road. Sections of it can be seen cut into the slope of the ridge above us to the left. Part of the Wilderness Road was explored in 1750 by surveyor and physician Thomas Walker. Walker had been hired by the Loyal Land Company of Virginia. The entire length of the road was explored by Boone in 1769. Six years later Boone, with a gang of thirty axmen, cleared and marked the route for the Transylvania Company, a doomed real estate venture looking toward Kentucky.

The Wilderness Road, also called Boone's Trace, was the main route for about 200,000 settlers of Tennessee and Kentucky. Beginning in the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley, two routes branched off, one westward to the Cumberland River at Nashville and another northward to Louisville. The road was made passable for wagons in 1795. From Virginia, one trace went up the Holston River from Bristol Tennessee to Beans Station, then crossed the mountains over Clinch and Powell Rivers to Cumberland Gap where it joined the Wilderness Road, thence via Pineville, Barbourville, London, to Hazel Patch where a branch went to Boonesborough.

Further up the trail we came to the Camp Wildcat monument. The skies hold grey without raining, so here we unpack the stoves and have a nice long gritty breakfast while contemplating the sky and discussing the action which occured on October 21, 1861. The Confederate Army had marched up this hollow in an attempt to repulse the Union forces whom they suspected might want to move south. The Union thought the Confederates might want to use the pass to move north. It turns out nobody wanted the pass for anything important but it nevertheless provided a good excuse for a fight, resulting in the wounding of fifty and the death of fifteen men, most of whom were likely boys. When you hear these kinds of stats, remember that many counted as wounded would die within weeks of the battle or were permanently disabled. The organized violence at Camp Wildcat was the first Civil War action in Kentucky.

After breakfast a light rain began to fall, and we came upon two diminutive white marble stones marking the well-kept graves of young brothers in a small, fenced clearing to the left side of the trace. The first was only a week old, the other two years; they had died a week apart. Repeating the prayer for the Transference of Consciousness and considering the truth of our own impermanence before passing on. Intent on moving upward, we soon arrive high on a sandy ridgetop with many grey boulders and a misty view over the surrounding valleys. Like an old magic perch, a buzzard's roost, appropriately hidden on the rusty edge of the conventional world; a place teenagers would come to get away from their elders. Spray paint, broken glass, lots of beer cans and bottles. Far below, you could see the green of oxidized copper roofs on buildings quarried from the lower beds of the hill we presently walked upon. Rain begins falling a little heavier when a dirty little Luv pickup comes along. We get talking to the fellow about this and that. He was hunting squirrels, although he didn't seem to be trying too hard. He offered us a hit on his Wild Turkey and it being midday and all, we declined on the whiskey but accepted a ride down the hill through a neighborhood to the next section of trail. A sign shows us where to leave the road and head into the woods between groups of wooden houses in this  little neighborhood. We disboard and rain begins to fall steady as we descend into a slot of mini-jungle surrounding Denny Branch, hoping the thick branches of old conifers will somehow help keep us dry, but before we can find out, rain generously lets up.

Trailing along the water before we make a short climb up, over and down to Parker Branch where everyone removed boots and had lunch across the creek from some very expressive rocks, an iron drenched sandstone exposed along the bank of the stream in a zen-garden type setting. Came up sweating into a ghost community off Highway 490 with Robbie Robertson going through my head to fill the silence. Two lane blacktop snakes along the wooded hills and down to the river. One logging truck goes by, as if to verify that there are still humans in these parts and we cross the old style suspension bridge over Rockcastle Creek at Lamero. Feet seriously aching now, and we begin looking ahead for any good locations to make the evening's camp, rolling north, walking right down the middle of the double yellow line. Four-score and eight years previous to the Gettysburg Address, Boone's Wilderness Road crew had to cut their way through twenty miles of dead brush along the Rockcastle River. Now, only empty cornfields lay between us and the water.

No traffic passes. The asphalt winds along the edge between wooded hill and cleared bottom. One homesite dominates the landscape; a brightly painted trailer with a large collection of lawn ornaments and wind driven gadgets out front, all designed or so it seemed, to give the impression that someone friendly actually lives here. It draws the eye away from the plain greys and browns of the valley and focuses attention on this cluster of circus color and motion. Upon closer inspection, it is easily seen that for most of the year, no one lives here at all. The emptiness of the hollow deepens once you realize the deception. The fact that anyone could think people were so stupid that such a cheap trick would keep their home safe is an insult to the intelligence of the common man and made me want to teach this guy a lesson; so I went around the back, kicked in his door and used his toilet. Only kidding.(This is a relatively slow part of the narrative, so I'm trying to hold your attention.) Honestly, we spent the better part of our days simply walking; there is not much sense dwelling too long on that. Depend on the mind to be everywhere else. The road turns and moves closer to the river so we decide to make camp in a field on the west bank. Although only a few yards away, a steep slope of about twelve feet makes water relatively unavailable. To fetch it, open containers are lowered on a nylon cord and allowed to fill. An empty schoolbus goes as dinner is cooking and the sun is setting and then again early next morning heading the other way. There is no other traffic. A light rain falls. We huddle up for dinner and coffee in this quiet, lonely place and are naturally speaking in quieter tones.

The silence communicates something intangible and mystical about the spirit here; the poverty, the unyielding and secluded nature of these hills, the love of beauty in simple things,the flow and rhythms of life from another time. According to studies made by the Appalachian center at Kentucky University, in all but one of the counties we pass through on the Trace, the percentage of folks living below poverty level is 150% of the rates found in the rest of the nation. The same goes for unemployment. The average resident out here earns about two thirds of the US per capita income; most are classified as 'severely distressed'.

Tuesday November 27
1863: John Morgan escapes from the Ohio State Penitentiary at Columbus
1863: Sam Davis is hung in Pulaski
1868:  Washita River, Oklahoma. Shortly after midnight, Custer's 7th regiment silently took up a position near an Indian encampment their scouts had discovered at a bend in the river.
Walked a few miles in the morning mist along the road the school bus driver took to get home last night. The woods deepen, the fields disappear, a good exchange with Samten as we move down the road into the past. Porches sagging, chimneys overgrown, barns collapsed, rusting tin, rotten fence posts, a few little homes, long abandoned and falling apart. One residence is apparently occupied as a dog barks from a distant porch. We stop for breakfast at a raw little picnic area with a plywood shitter which seems like it was built by some really primitive baptists, at the confluence of Horselick and Rockcastle Creeks. Extremely funky out here, like a very itinerant breed of folk had tried to establish a community in these wild hollows and you could feel that we were passing through some of their favorite haunts. Follow the road that moves up Horselick along the edge of some picturesque valleys with hill out of a Lois Lenski book, and a few rustic cabins pretty close to the trail, one of which actualy looks occupied. We are moved to talk of Thomas Merton and his hermitage at Gethsemane, a mere 25 miles away. At day's end, trudge up the hill along Raccoon Creek to a park called S-Tree. No water there and we had neglected to draw any before rising above the headwaters of Raccoon but Marc kindly descends to the bottom of a nearby hollow and locates a spring. We speak with a ranger in a pickup who is surprised to see anyone out here and tells us that he lives in the cabin we had passed on the way up. After dinner we crawl into Rigdzin's little tent and chant the twelve syllable mantra like coyotes in tune. Later, we sing the Sikh mantra, Gobinday Mukunday. Big flakes of snow fall that night.

Wednesday November 28
1757: William Blake is born in London

For every thing that lives is holy, life delights in life.

-William Blake, America

Waking to the muffle of truck tires passing nearby in the snow. I had no idea we were this close to the blacktop. Breakfast as the white flakes fall, ridgerests spread around an open center where grits cook on little white gas stoves, here on a patch of gravel by the side of the road on some nameless ridgetop in Jackson County, Kentucky. We are all staying warm and feeling good about the snow. Very alive just being out here. Discussing the Lojong slogans connected with the ultimate bodhicitta over herb tea.
  • View all phenomena as dreams
  • Examine the nature of Unborn Awareness
  • Rest in the basis, the nature of all
  • Even the remedy is freed to subside naturally
  • Between sessions, be a child of illusion
  • These are essential instructions and even now, we must consider their meaning again and again.

    Flying at low altititude over the curving ridgetops in the snow, passing through good looking stands of second growth forest well established on these sinuous hills. Fallen leaves tell all. Chestnut oaks, White Oaks, Hickory, Tulip Poplars, the usual mix. Soon descended the north side of the same rise we'd climbed yesterday afternoon, and entered a shady green bottom of pine and rhododendron. A road runs along the edge of the Mill Creek Wildlife Area. A stream named Laurel Fork borders the southeast of this preserve which is home to a mussel know as the Cumberland Bean because of its dark brown coloring and cylindrical form. It is one of about three dozen Kentucky animals and plants on the U.S. Fish Wildlife Service's endangered species list. The survival of this little animal depends on running water and has become an issue in preventing the construction of a dam on Laurel Fork.

    Damming and other human activity have already extinguished as many as 19 species of mussel in Kentucky. The humble Cumberland Bean (Villosa trabalis) once thrived in the section of river that was dammed and became Lake Cumberland, but is currently known to exist in only a half dozen stretches along the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers and their tributaries. Since they are shut up in a shell without limbs, and their mobility is naturally restricted, mussels feed by filtering food from flowing water. Their method of spawning -- the male sends sperm downstream to the female -- doesn't work in a lake. They don't do well downstream of lakes either. Cold water discharges in the warmer seasons discourage spawning, toxic metals precipitated from standing lake water poison them, while silt and other sediments suffocate them. Obviously a mussel may not have the same mass appeal and or attract as much public support as whales, tigers and elephants, but awareness of their status is a critical factor in understanding sources of pollution and environmental degradation. Freshwater mussels are bottom dwellers which function as the canaries of stream life, early warning indicators of environmental stress. Their well being is not to be ignored or taken lightly.

    When we hit Hooten Branch, Samten was in the lead for the first time. Sometimes it can be very nice to walk out ahead alone, trailblazing for the rest of the crew. There is a special energy involved in being point man which everyone should experience occasionally. We decided to hang back and let Samten expand his lead and work his legs out a little. Well, for some reason, he was moved to go right instead of left at the bottom of the hill and the rest of us simply followed along as if everything were obvious. We walked a good ways down that path, having a great time talking about this and that, all the while moving out of the wildlife refuge and well into a suburban neighborhood before I caught up with the lead man to ask if he'd seen any signs recently. He actually hadn't been looking for any signs and just assumed we were on the right path; an all too common mistake. Of course the rest of us had just been mindlessly following in the belief that we were being led consciously, so we thought we'd better take a break and check the map. We pow-wowed in some pine woods and tried in vain to figure out our position, as a light rain fell. Wherever we might be. it was unanimously decided that we had already gone too far off trail to turn back, so we continued walking into the green neighborhoods of Hurley, and then still not sure of where we were, when we hit the highway, we took off walking down the wrong way for a mile or so, eventually realizing our error and turning around for the long walk back into Mckee. That slick ranger spotted us on the return trek, slowed his vehicle, rolled down the window and asked if we had slept well. He must have assumed we liked walking on the highway because he did not offer us a ride.

    As we trudged along, it was not difficult to change our mind, and realizing that we could use some hot food and a few supplies after all, we were able to transform our bewilderment into an opportunity. We quickly made our way into the the heart of town and relaxed at Opal's, a small diner which sports a surprisingly contemporary pink and green decor. Very likely they had originally designed it this way back in the '50's and the wave just came back around. Opal's sits below the abandoned brick school, a highly visible ruin on the steep hill overlooking town. We ate all of her corn, potatoes and green beans and drank lots of coffee and cocoa, as we analyzed the manner of our straying and all sorts of other things. It felt good to relax here for a few hours while a light rain fell outside. Having noticed the packs leaning against the building, an older couple from Switzerland was very excited to speak with us and confirmed the notion that hiking was very popular in their country. As a matter of fact, they said that so many people walk the hills over there that you don't have to load up on snacks because there is usually someone selling sausages, hot pretzels and beer on the way up the hill. Having made friends with some local Kentuckians when they were touring Europe, they were here returning the visit. They were delighted to run into us. Both spoke good English and expressed their love of the local hills before wishing us well.

    As night came on, we decide to pick up more grits and honey at the kwik sack while Samten checks out the transport company across the street and scored big. For five dollars, a young dude would give us a ride in an oversized maroon van. We load up our packs in the last light and hop in. As we roll across hilly backroads, the driver wondered why we werent more afraid of people. Like who? we wondered. Well, like colored folks. We looked at each other in the back seats and said we hadn't seen any black folks for a few weeks, a bit amused at the suggestion that black people were to be feared. Sensing our politics, he went on to say, Well, I'll tell you guys, it just seems that there's some folks who want us to be scared of each other but of course that never made no sense to him either, and he'd actually found that black folks was just the same as you and me, if you can imagine that! And then he went on to complain about how racist and narrow-minded the people around here are and how he'd leave if he could. Oh hell now dude, they've been pretty nice to us...

    He took us across six miles of back roads to Turkey's Foot Campground which, in keeping with the expanse of composite phenomena, was completely empty. Most of the year these places are virtually unoccuppied by anyone but wildlife. If you have the gear and energy, you can have some of the most beautiful places in the world all to yourself, for days or weeks at a time. Just be prepared for the weather. I still don't know if Turkey Foot is a reference to the local dendritic drainage pattern, a way of remembering an Ottowan chief who was killed at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, or something more sinister. It makes me think of those patterns I used to see in the sky on Orange Sunshine. It is a well-situated site in a cove of Hemlocks and hardwoods beside a wet season drainage called War Creek. It was here, where we were dropped off in the fog after dark, and it was here that we spent the night.

    Thursday November 29
    1862: Zollicoffers troops arrive at Mill Springs Kentucky on the south bank of the Cumberland.
    1864: Hood's infantry crossed the Duck River and converged on Spring Hill. Hood sleeps soundly in Spring Hill while Schofields Union army passes on to Franklin.
    1864: Sand Creek Massacre: slaughter of approximately 163 Cheyenne and Arapaho. Two-thirds of the dead were women, children and old men who camped under white and American flags along the creek where the army had sent them. The attack was led by Col. John Chivington, who later displayed some of his trophies including a female's scalped pubic region, on a stage in Denver.
    Hemlocks and hardwoods tower above us as we move along the slippery stones, working our way up the dry bed of War Fork between limestone cliffs. The river disappears into a stone sinkhole in drier weather and apparently, this is one of those times. This is actually the first waterway we have encountered which contributes to the Kentucky River Basin. Just mention river and three other folks will say dam. There was recently some controversy around the idea of putting another one downstream from here on Station Camp Creek, but environmentalists successfully argued that a big lake would have little economic value and ruin one of the most pristine valleys in the state.

    Large stands of mature Yellow Poplars, White and Red Oaks, as well as smooth-skinned, steel grey giants of American Beech, a slow-growing tree which may live to be 400 years old. Most large Beeches are hollow and provide excellent dens for a host of wildlife. A book I have says that the small, triangular beechnuts are relished by men and animals alike; although I have never tasted them and have never met anyone who makes relish out of them. The book also says that they may be dried, roasted, and ground to make a good coffee substitute, but since most folks who drink mud will actually say they like it, I won't go on about this. Early settlers used beech leaves to stuff their mattresses. Prior to WWII, the government was helping supply Tennesseans with mattress covers that could be stuffed with cotton. That means people from this area who are over sixty years old today may well have slept on rustic mattresses. And sometimes you can tell; they are a little less jaded on the comforts of modern life than other folks. The bedding that most of us are used to is a relatively recent luxury. W.C. Fields, who was homeless for much of his youth, said that as wealthy as he got, he never failed to appreciate the delicious feeling of slipping between clean sheets when he went to bed at night. Beech trees have a shallow root system and are some of the first to come down in a heavy wind, but they are found everywhere throughout the bottoms on the Cumberland Plateau and Highland Rim. Its present abundance may be an artifact of settlement; populations probably increased after logging began in the region, because Beech was neglected in early rounds in favor of Oak, Poplar and Hickory. Beech is important to many small mammals and birds, and probably the most important mast fruiting species in the eastern hardwood forest.

    The path winds along through a noisy carpet of leaves on an upper bench. There has been no one out here in quite a while. The trail sometimes heads down into the dry creek bed itself, where the stones are slick. After a good push through a section of new growth that is recovering from a wind storm, we break on the path, sitting on our packs in the angled rays of the late November sun, overlooking a valley to the west. Late afternoon we emerge onto a quiet country road which is marked on the map as the town of Arvel. Spoke with an old woman in a forest green sweater who was quite alone and ready to do business in a little green-roofed wooden store. Warmed ourselves standing by the rusty woodstove. This little establishment seems like most of its business comes from hikers or hunters. It is the last outpost located on the edge of the woods and so very quiet out this way, I am amazed that she even bothers. After we leave the premises and head up the road, Samten who had returned for one last Goo-Goo Cluster, was busy unwrapping it outside when he stepped into an 18" concrete gutter and fell right over, pack and all. Jenny bursts out laughing. We hurry back to check on him and fortunately, he is unhurt. Almost at the day's limit, we push on and make camp, yes , on the edge of a development well within sight of bulldozers. We are not too proud to stop here; the body needs food and rest. Early to bed, a few hours of good sleep before waking around two in the morning full of conversation. The only fragment I can recall was in reference to a note I had read the previous month in Astronomy magazine wherein a team of theorists proposed that mini-black holes, the type that formed shortly after the Big Bang, undergo a phase transition and can actually turn into elementary subatomic particles, such as quarks or electrons. Talk of cosmology and the nature of empty space while early morning stars pass overhead.

    There is that in me -- I do not know what it is -- but I know it is in me.
    Wrench'd and sweaty -- calm and cool then my body becomes,
    I sleep -- I sleep long.
    I do not know it -- it is without name -- it is a word unsaid,
    It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol.
    Something it swings on more than the earth I swing on,
    To it the creation is the friend whose embracing awakes me.
    Perhaps I might tell more. Outlines! I plead for my brothers and sisters.
    Do you see O my brothers and sisters?
    It is not chaos or death -- it is form, union, plan -- it is eternal life
    -- it is Happiness.

    Song of Myself: V.50
    -Walt Whitman

    Friday, November 30
    1864: At 4:00 Hood attacks Union forces at Franklin
    One cold November afternoon a few years previous, Billy and I had been hanging out on Winstead Hill, Hood's command post for the battle of Franklin. From the lookout shelter, we studied the iron map of the troop movements while the afternoon sun illumined the valley below us. The battlefield to the north has long since been overrun by roads, housing developments, telephone poles and commercial businesses. We had been discussing the tragic loss of life here and the ideals, heart and camraderie which motivated these men to hang in there for so long. He said, "I think I would have been really tempted to just skedaddle and head for the Rockies." I understood the sentiment, but after we considered it a little longer, he added, "Maybe I would have hung in here because I didn't want my buddies to have to go through this without me..." After a visit to the Carter House and museum, we were heading back to the car which was parked across the street. We stood waiting on the curb for rush-hour traffic to pass on Highway 31. Watched it going by, observing in silence over the space of a few minutes. The manic procession did not seem to end. Surrounded by the noise, gas fumes and crass commercialism of downtown Franklin, where pizza parlors, gas stations and split level homes cover ground where thousands of brave men gave up their lives, little around us reflects any awareness that a tremendous sacrifice had been made here one bright autumn afternoon in 1864. After a few minutes of waiting for a break in the traffic, Billy looked around and asked, "Hey man, do you really think that this is what they were fighting for?"

    In spite of the late night session, Marc and I left camp early, while it was still cold. When Marc stopped to take off his longjohns, I walked ahead, and as soon as I hit the asphalt, caught a short ride from an older fellow in a brand new pickup truck. A very gentle man, he has lived in this area his whole life. Recently retired, he loves to wander through the woods at this time of year, although he never kills anything. I just like to get out of the house and my wife doesn't mind that either. He motions toward the rifle and says he just carries it so he doesn't feel silly if anyone sees him. Feeling more and more like a low-budget Charles Kuralt, I thank him and get out not too much further along. I am not trying to lose my friends, just riding far enough along this dirt track to be out of the chilly woods and into the sun along a high ridge, on the edge of a field, overlooking a postcard valley. Throw down the pad in the roadside grass and start boiling water for grits. Marc shows up soon, having gotten a ride from the same generous man who had carried me. We all talk for a few minutes before he wishes us well and drives off again. Marc and I share breakfast and generally agree that life is incredible as we patiently sip tea and wait for our companions to catch up. They arrive almost an hour later, and before they can say, What the hell...., like clockwork, our white-haired friend reappears in his pickup. You all want a ride to the river? Just hop in the back. The day is warming up as we descend toward town. A few small farms, an old cabin, a trashy trailer or two, weedy trees growing right to the road in jungled sections between old dwellings. Finally, we hit bottom, cross the tracks and thank our nameless friend as he disappears back into the matrix, no doubt to reappear, angel-like in another else, offering assistance to wayfarers of all persuasions. A bridge crosses the river at Heidelberg. We pause to look at the flow and the pathetic remains of a dam. This end of town looks abandoned. Silence, stillness, no plastic hype demanding attention; a visually bearable, aesthetically acceptable poverty. A few old brick buildings with long windows by the railroad track, parallelling the river. One of them is the post office and it is open. I actually saw someone walk in and out. But from this perspective, the ceaseless flow of the Kentucky River is the most dynamic and loudest part of Heidelberg.

    The Kentucky River drains an area of about 7000 square miles. The basin is home to 115 native species. Second only to Tennessee and Alabama, 56% of the mussel species in Kentucky are found here. Over 710,000 folks draw their water from the Kentucky Watershed, with more than 90% taken from surface sources. In the headwater region, five of eight people get their water from wells. Half of these are contaminated with fecal coliform, which means shit is seeping in through inadequate filtration. Approximately half of the streams studied recently had pollutants from either natural or manmade sources. One gets a hint at the embedded nature of the problem considering that the state permits 684 hazardous waste producers and 460 effluent dumps in the Kentucky Basin. On the up side, the other half of the streams studied did not have significant pollutants and one often sees pristine water on the Trace. A herd of Elk, the amphibious wonder, River Otter, and Peregrine Falcoln have recently been reintroduced into the area. Several federally listed endangered species of bats occur in the Basin as well, including the Indiana Bat, Gray Bat, and the Virginia Big-Eared Bat.

    That funky old dam is depressing; again, I try to contemplate the mind that conceives of such things. Has anyone in my family ever thought of anything like this? We take an extended break for lunch in a field of mown grass, high on a ridge north of the river. A telephone company truck pulls onto the shoulder of the road and the driver walks over to talk with us about how lucky we are to be outdoors in the fresh air and sun, doing something like this while most folks had to work at some crummy indoor job. We could not agree more. After lunch, we move back into the woods for another push through the bush where we once again build up the kind of sweat that makes your eyes sting until finally, at day's end, rising up out of Spruce Fork Creek Gorge, we shuffle through a rural backyard into the parking lot of a little store with a tanning bed, The Daily Bread, east of Mt. Olive on KY 52. This is where we met some local boys who were icing their beer. The coolers were sitting in a boat on a trailer behind their truck. Time to go fishing on the Kentucky River for a few days. One tall skinny fellow with no teeth, one silent teddy bear of a dude in a black ball cap, who looked like Jerry Garcia, and the main man in the fishing hat who approached us with, Where y'all coming from? Y'all got a minute? Hell, ya'll gotta try some of our local shit. Hey Larry! Let's show these people what we do here in Kentucky! A few minutes later, a truck pulls up and out gets a local woman who is employed as a Park Ranger. Seeing the backpacks, she can't help herself and saunters over, walks around the boat, sincerely interested in hearing all about our journey to date, down to the level of what kind of water filters we're using, although she is making our hosts a little edgy, she could care less about anything except trail talk. She points us toward a good place to make camp and makes her exit. We hoof it for another half hour and spend the night there under the pines on a sandy rise, a mile north of whatever there was of 'town'. After dinner, Marc enthusiastically suggests,

    Hey, you know what we should do...
    No, what's that?
    When we finish this round, we should go home and make some more money,  uprgrade some of our equipment, dry some more food and get right back out here.
    Sounds good.
    Yeah, that sounds real good.
    But this it is not always possible, nor even desirable. Other things will naturally take precedence. The walk through these hills is an opening into the heart of the land as well as the land of the heart, and the moment must be embraced when the opportunity arises. Over the last three weeks, Marc and I have walked together over 200 miles. Nothing phenomenal there, but between school, work, and romance, he hasn't gone backpacking since.

    Saturday November 31

    As we know we are getting close to the end of this particular trip, we begin to savor every little bit of trail, slowing down to eat a long breakfast, breaking because it would be nice rather than that we're just too tired to take another step, lazing in the mid-morning sun as if we had no agendas. Appreciating this last segment of our time together for awhile, taking in funky scenes of old Appalachia. Drawing it all in, step by step, meditating with each breath. Rusty truck axles used to create makeshift oil pumps, dozens of small claims, hillbilly cabins recently abandoned, some looking like they are possibly still in use during part of the year. No trespassing signs recently posted. Small artificial lakes created by oil companies as reservoirs. Three miles through the Little Sinking Creek Gorge. Shuffling along sandy tracks on Big Bend Ridge, broad flat shoulders off both sides of the road covered in Oak trees. Many small installations within hurricane fences operated by Sun and other little oil drilling companies as we slowly make our way toward the massive arch which is also a bridge leading into the back door of Natural Bridges State Park. By evening, we made camp high on the southside of the arch. Not having come upon any water for many hours, I had managed to save a quart which Samten and I use to start rehydrating pea soup while Marc and Rigdzin descend a long steep slope to draw water at the creek in the gorge far below the arch.

    Sunday December 1

    We walk into Natural Bridges the back way. This land was donated to the State of Kentucky by the L&N Railroad in 1926. I don't know the specifics on this deal but often the way it happens is that when the corporation realizes it cannot make profitable use of the land, they will give it to the state in lieu of paying taxes on it. This one was quite a score. Natural Bridges State Park features more arches than anywhere in the world except for a little preserve of global renown in eastern Utah. The breezes pick up in that magic way that lets you know the local spirits are delighted and a female rain begins to fall. We reach a large Gazebo on the back side of the park and read the words of Padmasambhava from a terma discovered by Jamgon Kongtrul , published in Light of Wisdom Vol. I over breakfast and sacrament.


    the buddha is the ultimate reality of subjective awareness and objective phenomena;
    the dharma is the communication of that primordial suchness through the three gates;
    the sangha consists of those who are moved to further this understanding in the world;
    accomplishment in this respect is an ongoing effort.

    therefore, it is imperative to develop along the following lines-

    the six qualities of good student

    Since these six virtues embody all good qualities, a qualified master should accept a disciple endowed with them.
    -Jamgon Kongtrul
    After a while, a few day hikers make their way up to the nearby arch and then take shelter from the mist in the gazebo. Gathering up our things, we slowly make our way through this jewel of a park in silence as if we do not want to break the spell. We all share in a secret, nameless joy and will do nothing to compromise the moment. Stepping out of the park, we come upon a phone and a few of us call home. We were now only a few miles from where we had decided to meet our ride home. There is another seventy five miles or so of trail to the north, but we will save that section for another time.

    I don't know what happened in those telephone conversations, but somehow, it was already becoming too evident that the trip was over. We walked away from the booth and through one last pocket of wilderness, then a few miles along a service road bordering the Bluegrass Highway to the Koomer Ridge Campground on the southern rim of Red River Gorge. We make camp and do not wander. The skies drizzle and we huddle up in the tents.

    Monday December 2

    Rainy day. Tenkar comes up with Gyatso, Tsering and the kids. We drive and hike up to a few arches. Like so many other valleys across the plateau, a dam was authorized for the Red River Gorge by Congress in 1962. The Gorge is a rare haven for many varieties of northern plants, such as Canadian Yew and Canada Lily which survived glaciation by migrating south long ago. Besides, it is simply beautiful; why does the order to refrain from ruining a pristine environment need justification via proof of threatened or endangered species? Aren't beautiful hills, creeks, meadows and rock formations inherently valuable? By the grace of superior beings, the Gorge was designated as a unique geologic area in 1976. In '85, the southeastern sector was added as the Clifty Wilderness, together totalling somewhere around 38,000 acres. Over 200 arches, including almost 50 major ones are found in and around the Gorge.

     We took the kids up to a span on the ridge top and the sunshine was on us for a moment. Then we walked in a light rain down a very green path through a rhododendron-lined gorge on the Boone Hut Trail to a rockshelter which some thought may have been occupied by Sheltowee himself or a relative. Why did they think this? In 1967, a board was found at the site with D. Boon carved into it, although recent tests have determined it was not Daniel Boone's hut and that he knew how to spell his own name. There is also evidence of saltpeter mining here.

    We sit in a secluded green place, light incense and do part of the Vajrakilaya practice. At first it is very strong and harmonious, synchronous, unified and powerful. Having the ladies voices blend with our own in this way was truly inspiring, like a break in the clouds. Spines straighten, vertebrae pop. But this fusion was not to last long. The natural beauty and clarity of our shared energy soon fragments and deteriorates on the basis of the same old fears, desires and ego-clinging.


    Enough. It is finished.

    Tuesday December 3

    Samten rides with Gyatso. Rigdzin rides with his family. We make a stop by the Sinking Spring Farm, visit the well house where Nancy Hank's would sit and nurse her baby, and spent a few moments at Lincoln's boyhood home on Knob Creek which was located on what had been the main highway from Louisville to Nashville.


    Knob Creek settlers taking their corn to Hodgens Mill or riding to Elizabethtown to pay their taxes at the court or collect bounties on wolfskins at the county courthouse, talked a good deal about land-titles, landowners, landlords, land-laws, land lawyers, land-sharks. Tom Lincoln about that time was chopping down trees and cutting brush on the Knob Creek land so as to clear more ground, raise corn on it and make a farm out of it. And he wasn't satisfied; he was suspicious that even if he did get his thirty acres cleared and paid for, the land might be taken away from him.

    This was happening to other settlers; they had the wrong kind of papers. Pioneers and settlers who for years had been fighting Indians, wolves, foxes, mosquitoes, and malaria had seen their land taken away; they had the wrong kind of papers. Daniel Boone, the first man to break a path from civilization through and into the Kentucky wilderness, found himself one day with all his rich, bluegrass Kentucky lands gone, not an acre of his big farms left; he had the wrong kind of papers; that was why he moved from Kentucky to Missouri.

    - Carl Sandburg

    Part 2



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