Monday, April 28, 2008

Natural Bridge

I am Rock.
I am an Island in the River of Time
I carry the history of earth
I watch changes through the ages,
I change slowly myself, unnoticed by the Present
I will be here when the Future turns old.

The Red River Gorge in eastern Kentucky is now officially designated the Red River Gorge Geological Area and is a National Natural Landmark within the Daniel Boone National Forest. Natural Bridge is one of the most well-known and accessible of over 100 sandstone arches in the Gorge. Only Arches National Park in Utah has more arches than the Gorge. In addition to the arches, adventurous hikers find rock overhangs and shelters, caves, and gardens of boulders fallen from the cliffs above. Some of the boulders look honey combed, as if they were made by giant prehistoric rock bees. I wonder what the early explorers thought when these found these huge rocks. It must have been in winter, since they are fairly well covered by trees in the summer. I suppose these explorers climbed them for the same reason we do - to see what it looks like from the top. No one would have planned on taking a wagon across them for settling.

Given my geology training from the Falls of the Ohio, I am very interested in the formation of geologic wonders. The sandstone in these formations was laid down about 300 million years ago in the Pennsylvanian Era, by a river draining an area about the size of the Amazon basin today. As the silt and sand washed into the delta of the river, the layers which became sandstone built up. Some areas even have quartz pebbles embedded, which were picked up elsewhere and washed down. Did water make these bridges? No, only to the extent of seeping into cracks and expanding when frozen, thus causing boulders of softer layers to separate from the harder layers of sandstone on top.

The cliff side trails have no guardrails or other protection. From the top, one clearly sees the area is a plateau, and the valleys are all carved down from the once level top. One spot descended so steeply that I refused to go down and walked back the way we had come to avoid it. People fall and get hurt or killed every year. Even driving on the gravel road to reach the trailhead can produce acrophobia to anyone who looks out the car window. The Nada Tunnel, on the other hand, produces claustrophobia. This tunnel is 12 feet wide by 12 feet high, and runs about 900 unlit feet for one way traffic under a ridge. We had to wait some time while two other cars in the tunnel bluffed each other until one gave up and backed out.

Natural Bridge State Resort Park is one of the four oldest state parks in Kentucky. Although we visited many state parks in the early years of our marriage, Dick and I have not been back to Natural Bridge since BC, "before children" that is. I found the park to be little changed from what I remember in those days. The lodge is built into the hillside, halfway between the lake in the valley's bottom and the actual Arch above it. The dining room looks directly into the tree tops. From any point, you are standing on a cliff which hides the drop off to the next level down. You can really get away from it all, since cell phones don't work in these gorges.

Trails lead up to the Arch and other natural attractions from the lodge area. Trails always list their mileage, and look deceptively short. The main trail, for example, is only .75 miles long. "Easy enough," you say, and start up the path. Soon, however, puffing and panting, you realize that the altitude change must be much more than this by itself! Small roofed rest areas are strategically placed to prevent heart attacks. "Imagine what it must have been like," I gasped, "trying to climb this in long skirts and a corset!" One spot in particular should be marked "Wide Loads Prohibited" since even the skinny people have to turn sideways to ascend this natural crevice in the sandstone on the way to the top of the Bridge. We climbed to the top on Saturday morning, and I still wince when trying to cross my legs, since my thighs are incredibly sore two days later.

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