Valley View to Paint Lick
Campsite at cave above Mary Baker Hollow. Photo by Danny Mayer.
We slide in boats well after dark. Snow flurries in our headlamp beams, and the rush of water over lock 9 gradually fades behind us as we settle in to the slight headwind, swirling upriver between Cedar Point Run to the south and the old YMCA Daniel Boone Camp to the north. In no less than a mile, the wind dies, snow breaks, and stars peek-a-boo through widening cloud-faults. Backlit by December twilight, the cleft of Mary Baker Hollow breaks the dark horizon of palisade downstream. The current’s slight, and we ease along the dark water’s surface trying not to disrupt the reflected depth of universe gathered around us.
In less than an hour, we’re beaching at the small, rocky mouth of Mary Baker Hollow. Danny flashes his headlamp up the steep bank. “Devil’s Pulpit is somewhere up there. We could camp in the cave if you’re willing to Billy Goat the gear.” The thought of pitching the bedrolls in a more temperate cave has definitive gravity on a 20° and, as of yet, moonless night.
“Well, it’s been a while, a solid decade, since I’ve womped the environs, so you point the way and I’ll birddog the trail.” Arms and shoulders strapped with bivouacking amenities, we trail off…and up. Our first attempt is more blunder than buss, Danny following my uphill stumble, bush honeysuckle thwacking his sides. I reach the base of the palisade, and the pronounced trail I’m chasing elides to a muttering swirl of oak leaves and buckberry bramble. “Wrong way,” I announce, and scan the slope below with my lamp. “We must’ve missed a junction.” I slide carefully down through the tangle, loop around a large ash, and find another more sensible looking path. “I think this is it.” Danny clambers down and finds the trail behind and below me.
“Up again,” he mutters. This redirection takes us on a level course, some 30 feet below the base of the cliff, and at last a spur trail ascends to a narrow rock shelter. From here, it’s all brutally vertical for the next 75 feet. The narrow deer trail gathers at the base of the cliff and opens up, angling around a scrolling edge of palisade and shooting straight up through a cut—a trail made by and intended for hooves, not boots, and certainly not boots on humans loaded with dry bags, cook stoves, and camp sundries. But we manage the climb, pausing halfway to catch our wind. The path cuts southeast, downriver, bumps over the base of a massive sugar maple, and then makes another short but acute rise. Drained but atop this last knoll, we see the loamy ground drop back toward the foot of the cliff, and down below, the cave. We descend sideways in short, low hops, our breath swirling and dissipating in the Cyclopes beams of our headlamps. We drop gear and stand in the cave-mouth, illuminating the utter darkness inside the earth. The cave extends back 50 feet or so, the ceiling and floor gradually deepening, and the rear recess runs cruciform to the mouth. Closer inspection of the rock above reveals a massive fissure sparking up through the palisade, a fracture I quickly relate to the significant faulting along this stretch of river.
“Jillson would blush at your keen powers of observation,” Danny mutters from the mouth as he unpacks his drybag and gleefully locates his flask of Svedka. “Here’s to Willard.” He slakes his thirst with three round glugs.
“Jillson would be glad to know his work’s still relevant to a 21st century river rat.” At the base of the rear wall, a narrow fissure, no more than three feet high, stretches back into the earth another 40 feet. I bend down and peer through. “Looks like this crevice opens up into another room.” Though I’m momentarily tempted to scamper in, the more immediate need for fire and sustenance persuades me back to mouth.
We’re both conscious of the fragility of cave habitats, and the downward spiral of so many bat species. According to the Nature Conservancy, the Kentucky River corridor, particularly the palisades region, is home to the only known breeding colony of endangered Gray bats in the Bluegrass. The Indiana and rare Keen’s bat, both also endangered, inhabit caves along this middle stretch of the Kentucky as well. Disrupting the nightly routine of leather-winged creatures certainly is not on our itinerary. This particular cave, while large at the entrance, appears to be vacant of bats, but this comes as little surprise. Sadly, spray-painted graffiti mars every smooth surface inside the cave, some of it dating back decades.
“’Martha Jean Murray, 1946.’ What makes people want to leave their names on nature?” Danny wonders aloud. “I mean, I can understand graffiti on a boxcar, beneath an overpass, or on the side of a building, but in a cave…?” He ponders the scrawl as he pulls his bedroll from the drybag.
“Permanent litter.” I say, kicking a plastic Mountain Dew bottle over into a small pile of cans by the cave mouth. In addition to empty containers, someone has left a ratty sleeping bag unfurled by the charcoal remains of an old campfire. “Bats must’ve given up on this place. As for humans, I suppose we all suffer from a sort of Gilgamesh complex from time to time, you know, wanting to stamp our names on the bricks, cheat death, live forever like the gods…’Mere man—his days are numbered; whatever he may do, he is but wind.’”
Danny passes the Svedka. “Well, maybe, I guess. But my money says Martha Jean Murray probably just got drunk, scrumped her beau, and wanted to commemorate her role in a night of youthful wantonness.”
“Plausible. We’re not all destined to ponder the brainy species’ futile vanities stacked against the terminal void—not all destined to look ‘over the wall’ and ‘see the bodies floating on the river.’ Some of us have to live our lives and do all the stupid shit so that others of us can ponder it, snicker, scoff, and make judgments, prophesize, correct?” I light the burner on the stove. We’re both momentarily drawn into the gas-blue gush of flame.
“Something like that…” Danny trails off. “What did I do with the chicken?” I pour a few cups of water into the pot and watch it hiss and steam, and when it starts to boil I throw in the seasoned pint of dry-mix: black-eyed peas and lentils. After ten minutes I add another couple cups of water and slice onion, garlic, and yellow fingerlings. Danny finally locates the chicken—leftover from the night before. We scrunch what’s left of the carcass into the pot. After a half-hour of heavy boiling, I throw in the kale, salt and pepper, and pronounce it all done—enough.
“Beans are a little al dente, but that just makes it fun to eat.” We heap our bowls, and while the soup cools, we forage for deadfall below the mouth of the cave and start a small fire in a stone ring left over from someone else’s bivouac. A thumbnail clipping of moon rises above the tree-line atop the palisade to our east. We eat in silence to the flickering firelight, turning occasionally to check our oversized shadows in the cave.
Free Willy, the jolly Stratigraphite
The Devil’s Pulpit nearby Mary Baker Hollow. Photo by Wesley Houp.
“Smells good, lads.”
“Did you say something?” Danny asks over a spoonful.
“No, but, yeah, it does smell mighty appetizing.”
“I didn’t say that.” He gives me a blank stare.
“Didn’t say what?” I look up from my bowl.
“I didn’t say, ‘Smells good lads.’”
“Back here, gentlemen. Put some light my way. I can’t see a damn thing.” Danny and I both jump to attention, backing away from the cave mouth to the edge of the steep slope.
“Who’s there?” Danny points his headlamp toward the rear of the cave. “Who’s there?” I set my bowl down in the dark bramble and fix my beam.
“I’m just a traveler, a mere mite a-scurry on the colossus.” Just as the voice tapers off, the brown, dimpled dome of a ranger’s hat rises out of the narrow crawl space in the back of the cave. “I can assure you that I mean no harm. I bear only good news: the earth wants you.” As he speaks, he slowly rises and stands up, fully illuminated in our combined beams. His brown overcoat is caked in light bluish lime; his dungarees are likewise filthy with the cuffs tucked into the top of knee-high leather boots.
“The earth wants us? What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Danny asks as we both squint through the swirling mist of our own heavy exhales.
“We’ll get to that in a minute. First, how about some of that soup and proper introductions?” He steps toward us then stops and raises his hand in recognition of our apprehension. “I know this must be terrific for you, to be enjoying a solitary moment with nature and suddenly have a complete stranger crawl out of the earth and startle you. Believe me, I understand. But there’s nothing to fear. I’m a peace-loving creature, an academic reborn. I’ve been…exploring the earth, and it just so happens that we all chose to be in this particular cave on this particular night. Pure serendipity.” Now standing in full exposure to our light, we observe him to be slight of stature, energetic enough but nonthreatening nonetheless. Together, we all move toward the soup, which is cooling in its pot on a slab of limestone just inside the cave mouth—the stranger stepping slowly out from the recess and Danny and I stepping slowly in from the mouth.
“Ah…I haven’t eaten river gourmet in years. Just dish me up a little; I don’t want to be an imposition on your provender.” Without taking his eyes of the stranger, Danny feels around and finds his mess kit and hands the extra bowl to me. I pour in one ladle-full, maintaining eye contact, and slowly hand the bowl in his direction. He extends a hand.
“Spoon?” He asks.
“Sorry.” We respond simultaneously.
“No matter. I’ve camped all up and down this river in my years and never once let lack of spoonage best my hunger.” He sits cross-legged on a large rock. “Please, dear hosts, take up your bowls and join me.” Danny and I hesitantly sit and join the stranger in quiet souping. I break the momentary silence.
“So, you’ve traveled the river before?”
“Oh, yes. Many times. Up and down its beautiful corridor. More than any other tributary of the mighty Ohio, the Kentucky exhibits the master plan of drainage modification through the yawning lapse of geologic time.” Reaching in the inside pocket of his overcoat, he produces a small leather folio, and flipping through its ratty leaves, fixes upon some penciled notes. “Tracing its origins to the great Appalachian crustal movements that marked the end of the Paleozoic era, the Kentucky River during the broad sweep of Mesozoic and Cenozoic time down to the present day has persistently pursued its course to the northwest into the central interior basin of the Middle West.” He puts the folio down beside him and raises his bowl to his nose, inhaling swirling tendrils of steam.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” Danny asks, pointing with his spoon.
“Don’t need to, lads. Figures such as myself have no use for food anymore. I just like to take in the aroma from time to time. It reminds me of my…former life.”
“Your former life?” I stop eating and try to focus on his eyes. Since he emerged from the earth, the wide brim of his ranger’s hat has obscured the upper half of his face with shadow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well…” He places his bowl on top of his folio beside him. “It’s a long, strange story. I’ll spare you the lecture on the physics of transubstantiation. Just suffice it to say, I once was a man with a passionate obsession, a livelihood, a wife, children, the whole kit and caboodle. But like all men, I died. It wasn’t tragic and sorrowful; I lived a good, full life, and passed on without regret. Having been a man of my age, maintaining an unshakable faith in the power of physical science to provide answers to fundamental questions of human life and the cosmos, and having inherited the Wesleyan tradition of my parents and preserved its peculiar rites and rituals for my children, I went to my death not knowing exactly what to expect, if anything. But what I discovered in the great beyond is simple and profound: the earth wasn’t done with me. For the last 36 years, I’ve been crawling around inside the stratigraphy, wedged inside fossil depths, swimming through the water-table, peeking through holes in the mantle, making schematic sketches of the earth’s inner movements, this great gearbox of stone. The last time I emerged was…oh…sometime in the late 80s, I think. I spent time with a young shepherd, Marouan, in his cave in the Atlas Mountains. If you know your paleogeography, you’ll recall that the Atlas Mountains of Morocco were at one time part of the Appalachians, so I felt right at home. He offered couscous and goat cheese, but I couldn’t eat that either.
“I can’t complain,” he continues. “My passionate obsession has always been stratigraphy, well, and drainage modification. I just happened to be near the surface when I heard the echo of your voices. I happened to overhear your conversation about faulting along the river and couldn’t help but introduce myself.”
We sit spellbound in the flickering firelight. “Well, then,” Danny interjects, “who…er…what are you, exactly?”
“The name’s…uh…you can call me Free Willy.” We both chuckle at the allusion.
“Like the orca in the movie. Great.” I laugh, meaning no offense.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” he retorts. “I’m free to do as I wish, to move about under the earth without fear of earth’s recriminations. I’m Willy because that’s what my friends called me when I was a surface-dweller. As to what I am, let’s just say I’m energy that follows through the inherited entrenchment of a human life. I guess you could call me a Stratigraphite, humble creeper from the loins of the earth.” Danny and I finish our soup, and unfurl sleeping bags nearer to the fire than to Free Willy. The thumbnail moon has risen and disappeared from our cave-mouth vantage point in the time since our strange guest arrived.
“Looks like you’re bedding down. How about a few more words of river history around the campfire?” He picks up his folio and rustles through the leaves. “First of all, a note on structure: the principal structural feature in the Kentucky river basin, as in the State, taken as a whole, is the Cincinnati Arch, an arrested uplift of mountain-making proportions. The origin of this great structural feature may be traced with ample evidence to the late Ordovician if not earlier. Though ancient in its beginnings, it has continued its upsurge intermittently through subsequent geologic time and there are some physiographic evidences available today, particularly the slightly superior attitude of surface ridges coinciding with the structural crest of the Arch, which tend to suggest that the last rise of this structure of about 1000 feet begun in the Pliocene and continued into the Pleistocene may not yet have been entirely complete.” He pauses to study our supine forms. “That is to say, lads, that the ancient movements beneath this stretch of earth are still turning. All this fissuring in the rock…it’s a work in progress.”
He turns back to the page. “The crest of the Lexington dome of the Cincinnati Arch at Camp Nelson, in the gorge of the Kentucky river, is marked by complex normal faulting of northeast-southwest strike. Down-throw, ranging from 250 or 350 feet as a maximum, is on the southeast side of this fault zone which traverses the central channel of the Dicks river a few miles east of Danville. Up stream from Camp Nelson this Kentucky river fault zone, as it is known somewhat generally in the literature, crosses and recrosses the main gorge of the river eight or nine times finally leaving the river near Boonesboro and passing to the northeast into Clark County in a somewhat broken course toward Mt. Sterling.” Again he pauses. “We are deep in fault here, boys. Deep in fault.
“The Kentucky River Fault Zone as a prominent structural feature dates from this time in the Cretaceous or early Eocene, though its origin probably stems from the Appalachian Revolution at the end of the Paleozoic era.
“As the northwestern wall of this fault rose steadily, the Kentucky river, its headwaters diverted and its volume of flow thereby reduced one-third or more, struggled to maintain its original course of N. 45° W. over that part of the inner Bluegrass region now marked by its famed tributary, Elkhorn Creek. As the barrier fault wall continued to rise the river gradually ponded back on itself in meandering pattern, as if tired of trying to maintain its northwestern course, turned to the southwest and slipped over a low divide or col into the valley of its principal southern tributary, the Dicks river. All along its new course to the Dicks it followed the barrier wall of the fault, which in time it was able to cut out in some measure and thus establish across it by the end of the period of Tertiary (late Miocene or Harrisburg) base leveling a restricted meandering pattern.
“And so,” he once again pauses to make sure we’re still awake, “the river never was able to resume its old pre-Cretaceous course directly to the northwest. Instead it found itself imprisoned in the early Tertiary more northerly directed lower valley of its tributary the Dicks river which it followed and enlarged past the present site of the Capitol at Frankfort until it regained its old Mesozoic course near the present day mouth of Elkhorn or Cedar Creeks. From this point it continued its course of ‘first intent’ to the northwest until it met the small ancestral Vevay river near where Carrollton now stands.”
To be continued. Part two will appear in the March issue.