Louisville travel writer and poet Sean Patrick Hill explores and expounds upon the beauty of Kentucky’s trails in his latest book, “Hiking Kentucky’s Red River Gorge: Your Definitive Guide to the Jewel of the Southeast” which is available now from Menasha Ridge Press. WFPL’s Ashlie Stevens discussed writing process, trails and Kentucky’s natural beauty with the author.
In addition to writing about travel and hiking, you also write poetry, which is really evident in some of the description of Red River Gorge in your introduction. Do you think having a background as a poet gives you a different experience of an area than other travel writers?
I think having my own background in poetry certainly has helped my own travel writing. For one thing, I love what could be loosely construed as nature poetry, whether it’s the lovely old Chinese poems or the ecological poems of Gary Snyder. Such poetry has taught me to pay attention not just to the place I’m in – in this case, the Gorge – but to focus on the words that evoke the place, especially the names of trees like “poplar” or “rhododendron,” or landforms like “sandstone cliffs” and “limestone.” As a poet just looking at a place, as well as writing about it, I’m trying to evoke it, to make it palpable and magical.
You say in the preface that the offer of writing this book provided you with both the chance to write and the chance for adventure; how many trips did you have to take to the Gorge to feel you had adequately explored enough to write this guide?
I don’t remember the exact number, but it was enough to hike every trail I detailed. Sometimes I’d go out for a day, do a hike or two. Other times Id camp for a weekend and walk 25 miles in the course of a few days. It took me about six months to get all the hikes and writing and mapping and photography done. Of course, many trails I hiked numerous times because I fell in love with them – or because I goofed up the GPS mapping.
If you could recommend one trail to an experienced hiker what would it be? What about to a hiking novice?
An experienced hiker should certainly do the Rough Trail. It’s very challenging terrain, and though it’s only 8 miles it can feel like far more. But along that route are Gray’s Arch, Chimney Top Creek, Signature Rock, and many amazing rock shelters. If they really wanted to go for it, they could continue onto the Swift Camp Creek Trail, which goes another 7 miles or so between the Rough Trail’s eastern end and Rock Bridge Arch. You top numerous ridges, and because of that you see the lowland, shady woods of rhododendrons and poplars and the higher, drier ridges of mountain laurel, oak and pine.
A beginner can see a lot by hiking some of the loops around Natural Bridge. Balanced Rock, the Rock Garden, and Lover’s Leap can all be seen in the space of a few hours. And though I hesitate to say it, because the trail can be quite crowded, Gray’s Arch is really a pilgrimage point. I’d suggest going midweek, when the crowds would be far slimmer.
Do you have any favorite personal memories of Red River Gorge?
I spent two weekend trips there with my brother, Michael, who’d driven down both times from Cleveland. Both trips were in October, when the Gorge was multifariously colored with changing leaves and the weather was perfect, sunny and warm but dry. The first time he came down it was to help me shuttle some long trails I had to map for the book: namely, the Sheltowee Trace and the Rough Trail. In fact, our first day out he immediately spotted a pawpaw tree, which I’d never seen.
This past January, a friend I’d known when he was a mentee and student of mine back in Oregon got a cabin in the Gorge and invited me out. We hiked up to Indian Arch, up a particularly sketchy section that was covered in ice. Of course, it’s all cliffs up there. But we had such wonderful, spiritual conversations, and we really got high off being in the chilled air, walking and talking.
Also, one of my daughter’s first hikes – she was 3 then – was to Gray’s Arch. She loves to climb, and all the bouldering in the big rock shelter was too good for her to pass up.