The heat and humidity sulked over Kentucky like an unwelcome heavy blanket. In the Red River Gorge it lay so thick that the Kentucky bass could have risen from the water and thrived on the land by gulping down swallows of wet air. Horseflies the size of fingers sliced through the haze with their glittering wings and left welts on sticky skin from their careening flights and sharp bites.
At the campsite on the edge of Middle Fork Red River I melted. I slipped into the cool creek and watched crawdads dart from under polished stones.
“I don’t think there’s a breeze in all of Kentucky,” I groaned before hauling myself out of the creek to pull on hiking boots for our trip up to the natural bridge. I pumped cool water from the camp well and drank half of it immediately from my bottle and then pumped some more.
The hike up the one-way 0.75 mile “Original Trail” was miserable. I was dehydrated and hot, and McCrae and I picked up branches with crisp green leaves to swat bugs away from our faces. All the way up we climbed past pocked sandstone and patches of moss, aching for a breeze.
I had expected some sort of reprieve at the summit, but the air was just as stubbornly muggy and still as it was on the trail, and the biting flies were just as aggressive, so we pressed on into the haze, skirting the tourist skylift towards Lookout Point where we could see the natural bridge in profile.
350 million years ago - a time before the dinosaurs, before Pangaea, before even reptiles ruled the Earth - sediments were left from a swampy Carboniferous Period ecosystem and formed deposits that became shale and limestone. These softer carbon- and calcium-based deposits were buried under sturdier sediments that became sandstone. Later a fault between colliding tectonic plates pushed up the Appalachian Mountains - not once but twice - and the land shifted. Some features were uplifted and simultaneously eroded, sometimes in curious ways as water and wind forced through the softest layers. Nearby the Red River bore through rocks to form dramatic canyons. Now the escarpment between the soaring Cumberland Plateau and the Bluegrass region is dotted with cliffs and unique rock formations like the natural bridge.
And so, millions of years later, in the muggy afternoon surrounded by biting flies and haze, McCrae and I stood on the overlook facing the natural bridge and looked out over the Kentucky landscape. I lay on my stomach and buried my face in red dirt, hoping to escape the flies and let off some heat into the cool stone where tourists had carved initials and names and hearts. McCrae swatted at flies and passed me different lenses as I asked for them while I photographed the scenery.
“I bet this is incredible during autumn,” I said. “Not least because the flies are gone.” I chugged some water from my Nalgene before we picked up our branches and swished at the air as we hustled down the trail, back to the lower elevations and to the cool, lazy stream by our campsite. It was hotter than heck, sure, but gosh it was a great view.