Into the Forest

I almost died at Red River Gorge when I was 17. My friend, Michutzel Roberto Giglio, and I crashed through a guard rail on a rainy night. Our car plunged 65 feet to the bottom of a ravine, splitting the boulder on which it landed. On the way down, I yell

Apr 15, 2009 at 2:06 pm

I almost died at Red River Gorge when I was 17. My friend, Michutzel Roberto Giglio, and I crashed through a guard rail on a rainy night.

Our car plunged 65 feet to the bottom of a ravine, splitting the boulder on which it landed. On the way down, I yelled, “Lord Jesus, have mercy!”

The car was totaled, of course. It took two tow trucks to pull it out of the ravine. Mike landed upside down in the back seat. He had a few scratches, but we were otherwise unharmed.

The man whose car we had borrowed was gracious about his loss, relieved that we’d survived.

In the mid-1970s I used to camp in the Gorge on retreats with a Catholic youth group. We’d spend long hours talking about faith and prayer. Later I went there to do acid with a completely different group of friends.

Later still I went there with my sons, and we still go camping at the Gorge. I make 15 Bean Soup for them, which we like because it gives us gas. The tent fills with the sounds of farting and stupid laughter.

A few years ago I camped at the Gorge with two cops, who treated my sons and me to weed they’d confiscated from juveniles after giving them a good scare and letting them go. I suppose that’s corruption of a sort, but I like smoking free weed and am a firm believer in giving kids a break.

Last year I started going to the Gorge with a friend for purposes of spiritual practice, completing a cycle that started 34 years ago. She’d never gone camping but took to it immediately, outhouse and all. She walks into the outhouse ass-first so she doesn’t have to see what lies beneath her, holding her breath until she exits.

After all these years, I still haven’t learned to erect a tent, but my friend has pitched ours in the dead of night. Twice we’ve twice gone on a whim, arriving well past midnight.

Red River Gorge is part of the Daniel Boone National Forest in Eastern Kentucky. Unlike national parks, it has no tourist attractions, no crowds.

The Gorge isn’t virgin forest by any means; it was logged decades ago. The trees are not nearly so tall or thick as those in the Pacific Northwest. But it’s the closest thing to wilderness within 150 miles of Cincinnati, which is why I keep going back.

During one retreat, a young woman in our group reached out the car window and pulled a twig off a tree. A ranger saw her and cited her to federal district court for damaging fauna in a national forest. I liked the principle involved, but the ranger could have served the same purpose by giving the girl a lecture.

By definition, a gorge has steep cliffs. Cincinnatians die at Red River Gorge with some frequency. The scenario often involves drinking or drugs, a stroll in the black night and a deadly fall.

Most of the cliffs at Red River Gorge have no fences, only warning signs at the trailheads. Nature can be perilous.

In the 1980s my friend Joebob and I convinced ourselves that nuclear war was imminent. This was during the Reagan administration, when a B-grade actor was commander in chief and the national script glorified confrontation. It was also during the time we did acid.

Joebob and I went to a military-surplus store and stocked up on survival gear: water-purification tablets, thermal blankets and the like. We kept the supplies in our cars and resolved to never let our gas tanks fall below half-full.

We almost hoped that the worst would happen, because in our early twenties we imagined we could turn catastrophe into adventure. Our plan was to meet up at Rock Bridge, which has a small waterfall.

Last year the manager of the campground warned my friend and me that copperhead snakes had been sighted near the shower house. He said the staff was spreading mothballs in the area to keep the snakes away. He said he didn’t know if that actually worked, but that’s what he’d heard.

The Gorge is adjacent to Natural Bridge State Park. My non-religious friends and I quickly learned that the state park has more thorough policing than the national forest, so we’ve always stayed away from it.

The policing at the Gorge, like its safety features, is minimalist, and we prefer it that way. We smoke some dope when we go camping, but we don’t bother anyone — and in return all we want is not to be bothered.

My spiritual friend and I like the privacy for different reasons. The quiet fosters contemplation.

The biggest demand we face is finding firewood. We gladly pay $10 for a wheelbarrow full of wood, available a few miles down the road.

The campground has been so thoroughly harvested that we otherwise have to hike a while, lugging downed tree branches through the woods to the campsite. It’s too much like work. We just want to pray, read and talk.

I’ve long toyed with the idea of camping alone at Red River Gorge but have never had the nerve. I think that it’s not the forest that scares me — not the darkness, not the wildlife, not the possibility of a madman amok.

What I think I fear is that which lies within, that which can be faced only in solitude. And, of course, that’s why I must someday do it.