|‘Grand Canyon of the South’ is a predictable comparison - Tuesday, June 30
Monday we kicked back in our campsite and worked on this journal, then on Tuesday we disconnected and went exploring.
Our first stop was at The Lodge to pick up our two day old receipt for the campground charges. The poor guy who rents out the sites is busier than the proverbial ‘one armed paper hanger’ and to make his job just a little worse he doesn’t have a credit card reader. This means no matter how swamped he is, he has to phone in the info for every credit sale to get an authorization. Then the customer has to drive several miles in the opposite direction from the campground to pick up their receipt at The Lodge. Not being in the mood to do that on Sunday we’d let ours age a bit.
The Lodge was quiet on a weekday and their lunchtime dining room consisted of mostly empty tables. We were hungry and the dining room has a magnificent view, so we decided to fill one of those empty tables. The dining room windows overlook the Breaks Gorge and a unique geological feature called The Towers, and while the claim that Breaks Gorge is the Grand Canyon of the South may be a little exaggerated, it is nevertheless a canyon that deserves respect.
Formed by the Russell Fork River, the gorge is approximately five miles long and measures (depending on where you’re standing) 1,600 feet deep. The feature known as The Towers is a half mile long pyramid of rock that rises out of the canyon right in front of the lodge. It is estimated to be 250 million years old and it is apparently made of hard enough rock that it forced the river to flow around it all these years. Standing on the lodge deck you can see the river far below, and the views of the canyon, the Towers and the surrounding mountain peaks are awesome enough for any gorge lover.
This is at least the third river gorge we’ve been to that calls itself ‘the deepest gorge east of the Mississippi’. Like the controversy over which is the tallest building in the world, the accuracy of the claim depends on where and what you’re measuring. If you measure from the river to the top of the cliffs it’s one thing. If you measure from the river to the top of the nearest mountain range it’s quite another, and locals can get pretty creative when vying for those titles of deepest, tallest or widest.
Likewise there are canyons all over the country that compare themselves in some way to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. All it takes to claim this distinction is to be the deepest something-or-other in your local area. Hence a lowly drainage ditch in Doofus County, Mississippi may become The Grand Canyon of Doofus County if there’s nothing else in Doofus County that measures any deeper.
Local hyperbole notwithstanding all these canyons are spectacular, and when something is a hundred stories deep you don’t want to fall into it, even if it’s not the real Grand Canyon. From The Lodge we drove to the end of the road and descended a stairway to the Clinchfield Overlook. From this rock you can look out and down to the river a thousand feet below, or you can look straight down at rocks that are at least five hundred feet below you. At this point the real Grand Canyon couldn't look any more intimidating.
Following the river, and on a natural bench above it, are the tracks of the Clinchfield Railroad. At a promontory downstream the river turns and flows on out of sight, and at that point the railroad enters a tunnel called the State Line Tunnel. As it’s name implies, when the train emerges from the tunnel it is at the state line, and there it crosses into the State of Kentucky. It is still inside the park boundaries at that point, and it remains within the park for several more miles.
Breaks is an Interstate Park, created in 1954 by joint action of the Virginia and Kentucky state legislatures. It straddles the state line, and it encompasses 4,500 acres (a little over 7 square miles) of green woodlands and mountains. The gorge is not without it’s history. Daniel Boone came through here on his way to Kentucky, and the gorge was used as a thoroughfare by both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. Before that Englishman John Swift is said to have buried a fortune in silver treasure somewhere near The Towers. Shawnee tribes inhabited the region, and on the Kentucky side the Hatfield and McCoy feud raged in Pike County.
Today the Breaks are inhabited by black bears and squirrels, and by vultures and tourists such as us. All coexist peacefully (as long as you don’t feed the bears or the vultures) and we do it a lot more harmoniously than the settlers and the Shawnees, or the Hatfields and the McCoys. So who says we haven’t made progress this last hundred years?