James Maples, author of Rock Climbing in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge: An Oral History of Community, Resources, and Tourism (available now) emailed with Kentucky-based filmmaker and photographer Mike Wilkinson about the challenges of oral history, working with local communities, and the dream of making a documentary about the Red.
What’s your connection to the Red River Gorge? Are you a climber?
I am not a climber, but I am an outdoor recreation enthusiast. I grew up in the woods of rural East Tennessee. I spent my childhood in scouting and eventually earned my Eagle Scout rank. I understand the connection to outdoor areas. I feel it every day and I’m glad to have my life’s work centered around it.
Joining the faculty at Eastern Kentucky University back in 2014 put me in the right place to work with the climbing community in the Red. EKU is a strong supporter of regional research, so it was a great fit. Visiting the Red and the surrounding region reminds me somewhat of where I grew up, and it has become a surrogate hometown for me in recent years.
To follow that, I don’t often see people who aren’t rock climbers take such a personal interest in the culture, so what inspired you to write this oral history?
While working on the economic impact study of climbing in the Red, I started hearing and reading all these amazing stories about the community’s history. At some point, I realized that the history of the community really was only a few pages in the guidebooks, largely facts collected by John Bronaugh over the years. There was this sense of mystery in there, though. When did this community start, and who were these many names attributed to routes in the 1960s and 1970s? That search soon resulted in a realization that there was an entire untold history out there that deserved to be documented and shared.
Can you explain your rationale behind why you chose to approach this book as an oral history rather than a traditional written history?
Climbing is centered in stories. It is a sport shared around campfires, recalling adversity on the cliffs and overcoming obstacles to sending a route. Long before I’d ever heard of the Red, I was reading mountaineering books about expeditions to inhospitable destinations. Listening to climbers telling their fascinating stories really stuck with me. When I started writing this, I knew we needed it to be an oral history. We needed those stories firsthand. It couldn’t be adequately done any other way.
Were there times when someone’s story conflicted with another’s of the same event? Perhaps information lost to time, or retold too many different ways? What was your approach in handling these inconsistencies?
I’m not sure to what degree it is true, but there’s an old story about how our species has learned and lost the cure to scurvy several times in our naval history. I think that’s relevant here. Our brains have finite limits on remembering things that seem inconsequential at the time. Route names, locations, years, faces, and stories are data that are all diminished or lost because, at the time of living those moments, we often don’t realize they are monumental. And sometimes we lose those bits of data too early, such as in the sudden and unexpected passing of John Bronaugh, the Red’s de facto early climbing historian. In these cases, we do what we can to capture stories and perspectives then verify them with additional sources, triangulating on what likely occurred. There are a few spots in the book where I note that the exact details of an event are likely lost to history and some cases where there’s disagreement that can’t be resolved. However, hopefully reading about these gaps may jog someone’s memory and we can add to this story.
There are also times where perspective is key, such as the archeology dig at Military Wall. There, we have effectively three different groups—climbers, the Forest Service, and Kentucky Archeological Survey—who each had their own interpretation of the importance of the dig and what would come of it. In that instance, I did everything I could to tell the story from all sides because having that perspective is key to understanding the event in context. We need to be able to walk in another’s shoes to understand their motivations and decisions.
What do you think might surprise locals the most about climbing in the Red River Gorge?
We’ve had fifty years now of climbing in the Red. I think climbers are now on better terms with locals than perhaps ever before. The earliest moments for climbers and locals were founded in distrust because climbers inadvertently appeared right when the region was being considered for a dam that would address flooding that still impacts the area today. Locals needed that dam to prevent the epic floods destroying their lives and livelihoods. The Sierra Club led a national campaign against the proposed dam because it would have made the Red River Gorge into a recreational lake and water source for surrounding cities, destroying the existing ecology. Chris Chaney has talked about this in his work, how that moment set climbers as outsiders. And flooding continues even today, with Lee and Powell counties taking major damage earlier this year from a massive rain. But over time the tension between climbers and local communities has changed. We’ve seen climbers develop relationships with locals (as well as with the Forest Service, which is also part of this community).
I’m hoping that local residents can read this book and understand more about the climbing community and the climbers’ roots in Lexington and the region. I also hope the opposite is true: I hope climbers read this book and understand how amazing the Red’s families and communities really are. Without them, you don’t have the Red as you know it. The people are part of the Red’s story.
Besides the economic impact of climbing on the Red River Gorge, what was the biggest surprise that you uncovered during your interviews and research?
I think I’m still a little surprised that the Red was very nearly dammed in the 1960s and 1970s. When we look back at history, we can sometimes see how very small, seemingly inconsequential events created dramatic changes in history, and that’s the case with the dam. Remove a few players from the story—say, undo some of the national resistance against the dam—and the area is flooded and climbing wouldn’t exist in the Red today as we know it, full stop.
Do you think Covid affected the tourism in the area, and therefore economic activity? Do you think this will be a temporary thing, or will it have lasting impacts?
We’ll be studying the impacts of Covid for years, but anecdotal cases are indicating Covid may have created more economic activity in outdoor recreation. I think we’ve seen a major increase in folks coming to the woods for perspective and meaning. I think we’re going to see more faces in all our outdoor recreation areas. This is one reason it is important for climbers (and all persons) to be fully supportive of the Forest Service and our many other public land managers. We must do everything we can to reduce our impacts, regulate our communities to keep from damaging these important areas. Go sign the Climber’s Pact, update your Leave No Trace knowledge—especially if it has been a few years since you intentionally did that.
There’s a proposal for a new, large resort planned for right in the middle of the Red River Gorge area. What are your thoughts on that and how it will impact both the local economy, the community, and the amount of travelers to the area?
It’s too early to say much about the resort. I think if it does happen, we’ll see an increase in tourism to the area, possibly a less outdoor-focused tourist, but we’ll need to wait for more details and see if it goes through. I don’t expect it will impact climbing however, as the bulk of climbing is now outside of the Red River Gorge proper.
Any thoughts on developing a documentary film surrounding the same topics?
When I watched Valley Uprising about Yosemite I remember thinking how awesome it would be to see a documentary made on the history of the Red. We’ve got all the exciting elements of a compelling documentary, starting with the proposed dams, heading through an intense period of trad development in the wilderness, the advent of sport climbing and Porter Jarrard’s extensive work in the region, a 1990s bolting ban that proved to be a national test case for the Forest Service, the archeological dig at Military Wall, the first appearance (and growing pains) of local climbing organizations) in the region . . . It goes on from there.
I’ve developed a YouTube channel where I’ll be sharing some of the historical tidbits I’ve learned about the Red’s climbing history. My first video talking about which routes have claim to being the “first route in the Red” will be up this summer.
What do you have in mind for your next project?
Right now, I’m finishing up economic impact studies on climbing in Wyoming and Utah.
I’m debating on writing another book, possibly on the history of flooding in our region, or perhaps retelling the story of another climbing region. I look forward to deciding that soon.