Discover more from Edification
Encounters with a winter tornado
Tangling with my Kentucky wilderness and more adventures with moss.
Edification – Newsletter #100 – December 12, 2021
Happy Sunday night!
This week a sweep of unseasonably warm weather offered, for the last time this year, the promise of outdoor activities. So we drove a couple of hours to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, to hike and take in the rainy views. I thought I would celebrate my one-hundredth newsletter by sharing some photos.
As it turns out, the front brought historic storms and human catastrophe to the region. We are fine. We were not in the path of the tornado that killed perhaps one hundred people and ravaged several towns in Kentucky. We had a cabin on a hillside in a remote area and simply had no cell service or internet. There was no way of letting anyone know that we were safe (or send out my newsletter, obviously).
The Red River Gorge is an amazing geological phenomenon in the south central area of the state. It is a place I spent a lot of time as a teen but to which I hadn’t returned for a good two decades, and I had long wanted my husband and kids to see with me. So on Friday afternoon we finally took the trip two hours west from where we live on the Kentucky-West Virginia border.
We took the southerly route down through Louisa and Prestonsburg, past West Liberty – a town that was nearly wiped off the map a decade ago by a tornado that left the emergency room in my hometown overwhelmed with patients. I remember talking on the phone to my brothers and friends at the time. One thing I heard over and over was disbelief that a tornado could occur in this mountainous area. “I thought tornados only happened in flat areas.” None of the housing stock here is prepared for storms like that, anymore than we could have withstood a hurricane. It knocked the whole region down and West Liberty never really recovered.
As we drove, my husband and I talked about that storm and other disasters. Every year now, the place suffers flash flooding and wildfires. The trees along some stretches of road were amputated and, frankly, wretched looking. What was the climate doing to my home?
We exited the Mountain Parkway at Slade, a tiny junction town pinned in place by a quadrant of gas stations. Chicken and pizza and other one-stop essentials were served right beside the registers. Locals strode in and out maskless, filling their 4x4s and roaring away. I wondered how they liked their out-of-staters coming to hike the sandstone cliffs around their homes.
The entrance to the park was right there past the interchange. The roads went hairpin almost immediately into pine-dominant mountains. The sandy soil and needle-bed floor was the soft color of rust, a beautiful contrast to the evergreen foliage. Here and there logs gone almost fluorescent green with moss laid vertical up the hillsides. I loved the abstraction of this scenery, even though my window-snapped pictures look like nothing to write home about. The sky was already cloud-laden, periwinkle and slate. It was all such a striking winter color palette.
Whenever I get out into nature I feel the urge to paint or draw, to document what I see and share the appreciation somehow. The air smelled good out here, too, as you can imagine. Pine, woodsmoke. The kids stopped fussing and looked up at the mossy boulders leaning over the road.
With only a couple hours of light left, we decided to hike up to Natural Bridge before checking into our cabin. Narrow and windy, the original trail is a switchback-style trail with mostly natural rock steps. No railings on the path, let alone on top of the massive sandstone arch, just open cliff-face.
“Forty people fall off cliffs in this area every year,” a sign warned us. “Recovery takes hours.” I watched our two toddlers clamoring up the hillside and my knees jellied. When my four brothers and I first climbed to Natural Bridge back in about 1991, my mother had a full-on panic attack. Now I understand why.
It was about 4:30 by the time we reached the top; we took in the view, posed for pictures, and hurried back down carrying our boys. We made it back to the car just as it was getting dark. It felt like a close call even without any incident.
At 5:15 in the morning, my cell phone started buzzing. I had no service out here but received a weather alert anyway. “Emergency: Extreme” it said. I opened the message to learn we were to immediately take cover in the center of our dwelling. The cabin was tiny. Where could we go? I climbed back into bed and huddled with my family and listened to the sky.
There was no sound at all. It was stunningly quiet outside. No rain, no wind. After half an hour, my phone buzzed again with an even more urgent warning. A tornado had been reported. My husband and I laid awake watching the dark rectangles of window. The rain never came.
In the morning we woke to the news that a tornado had torn over 200 miles through the western half of the state, dissipating just west of us. Maybe the mountains had blocked its further rampage. Maybe the cliffs had saved us.
Another line of storms was coming. We went out hiking again, taking our chances on a continued break in the rain. This time we took an unmarked trail near a landmark gap called Pinch-Em Tight where the view of Chimney Rock was supposed to be most breathtaking.
I took a lot of pictures out here. The woods was wet and many of the tree trunks were rich with beards of moss and lichens. My husband always gives me grief over my moss-obsession – “Who takes pictures of moss?” – but today even he was pointing out especially magnificent crops along the path.
The walk was easy-going over the ridgetop, except for a stream of puddles along the path. But after a couple of miles out this way, the wind picked up again. Bedraggled pines bowed in the gusts and we decided to turn back before we reached the overlook. My husband and I picked up the toddlers along the trail to make better time when the howling of the wind made it clear this was a bad place to be. The trees started popping. One huge tree ahead of us cracked, cracked, and smashed down through the woods over the path.
Debris flew and something sharp lodged in my eye. When we got back to the car I was able to get it out: a perfectly thorn-shaped splinter of bark.
We headed back to the cabin. On the access road we encountered a sedan stopped, driver’s side door blocking the lane. A man was crouched at the shoulder, face hidden in brush. My husband rolled down his window. “Hey buddy, you all right?”
The man jumped up as though embarrassed. He laughed. “Yeah buddy, I’m just taking some pictures of this moss.”
I hope you are all all right out there. I hope you’re just taking pictures of moss.