It’s close to midnight on a November night at Miguel’s Pizza in the famous Red River Gorge (affectionately called “The Red”), one of the top class climbing destinations in the world. It’s a cold one and I’m wearing all my layers because it’s below freezing - around 27°F. But with the Red’s high humidity, it feels like momma earth is dumping a cold bucket of ice directly onto your bones.
The 2018 fall season has been unseasonally cold and wet. But to be honest, you really never know what you’re going to get when you come to the Red. The weather could call for a beautiful sunny and 55°F all day, but a surprise morning storm could ruin your climbing plans just like that.
In my past 5 years of coming to climb at the Red River Gorge, I’ve learned that you don’t make plans. Everything is tentative until you get up in the morning, grab your layers and puffy, and look up at the sky. Cloudy with a chance of storm? No problem. Grab your rain jacket and head to the overhanging walls for a full day of sandstone jug pulling where you’ll stay dry until you have to get back to your car and face the rain and mud once again. Looks sunny? Even better. Go wherever your heart takes you. Unless it’s July. You always chase shade in July. Not that it matters much with 1000% humidity. Even the rock sweats you off the wall.
But enough about the weather. This story is really all about the night my dog, Kyra, rolled in someone’s poop, and how she shared her excitement with me by rubbing her poop stained jacket and face all over my legs and chest. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good display of love from my baby girl as much as the next human. I mean, look at her, she’s the cutest...
But I would prefer my clothes be poop free 365 days a year. Especially when my home is a tent and it’s 27 freaking degrees outside.
So let’s backtrack a bit.
It’s close to midnight on a November night at Miguel’s Pizza. After doing some photo editing work in the restaurant’s basement (one of the two indoor spots to hang out at the campground), I’m ready to head to bed, so I put my laptop and hard drive away and head over to my tent. I keep Kyra on-leash at all times while I’m staying at Miguel’s (house rules) but since it’s almost midnight, virtually everyone is sleeping already, and kyra’s already done her business (leave no trace rules always apply at Miguel’s), I let her stretch her legs a bit while she follows me back to our tent for a good night’s sleep before a long day of climbing ahead.
Miguel’s Pizza is THE place to be if you’re staying at the Red for a night, a week, a month, the season. As far as I know, there’s no place like Miguel’s anywhere in the US. It’s a climbers only campground with a restaurant, climbing shop, and some of the best Pizza around. And at $3.00 a night, or $90 a month, you can’t go wrong. Rent is cheaper there than your next pair of shoes. Which is why you have so many people living there for the season every year. And the pizza is phenomenal. Miguel’s Pizza has been around for years and if you’re talking about the history of climbing at the Red, you cannot leave Miguel’s out of the conversation. I’m not going to go into its history here, but if you’re interested, here’s a story Climbing Magazine did a couple years ago of the famous pizzeria.
Miguel’s Pizza is also the place where I’ve made a ton of friendships over the years. There’s Sam, who has worked at Miguel’s every year since before I regularly started climbing there. I like to call him “fire mage” because he’s the one who diligently gets the fires going at the campground’s fire pit when it’s cold out - which is almost every night in November. There’s also Jimmy, self proclaimed bolter of piles of choss, whose stache, unassuming smile, and general positive swagger will lift your spirits on a gloomy, rainy day. RJ, who I met at the Red a few years ago and has met up with me at several crags around the US since then. Kyle, a viking-looking Michigan man, who I ended up going on a multiple month long climbing road trip with between crags in the US and Mexico. Mark, a guy from Florida I met this past season and whose main source of nutrition is six packs of La Croix. Oh yeah, he’s basically living at my house nowadays. And well, many many more.
As we walk back to our tent, I’m not really paying attention to Kyra. It’s dark, wet, and cold. I’m making sure my headlamp helps me stay away from stepping on mud, or worse… as I’ll learn later. I set up my tent back in the beginning of October, when life was simpler, and warmer. Whenever I stay somewhere for more than a couple of weeks, I make sure I have a comfortable abode. I have a queen air mattress that fits perfectly, with room to spare, inside my Mountain Smith Conifer 5+. That’s a cozy monster of a tent. Why would I need such a large tent for myself, you ask? Well, try sleeping for 2 months on a tiny sleeping pad with no space to stand or store 2 months’ worth of dog food, or a comfortable spot to hang out when you just need some quality me-time. Ok, yes, you could easily get a small 2 person tent and do it all lightweight and with minimal space usage. But I’m 34, all of me hurts, and I’ve got a 45lb baby pitbull lady princess who loves to sleep under my blankets with her nose touching my feet (don’t ask me about her weird habits, she rolls in poop for God’s sake... but she keeps me warm at night, I can’t complain). So I’d like to keep her, and my spine, happy. And life is just easier when you’ve got the extra real estate and a comfortable bed to sleep in after a long day of tough climbing.
What’s even more impressive is that this tent has survived downpours and high winds that have defeated other, less sturdy, ones. I once came back to my old tent having been flooded with rain, with all of my clothes and bed submerged in water after a downpour. Let’s just say that night wasn’t one of my best. After 2 months of living in it, the Conifer has happily exceeded all of my expectations.
My tent is about 150 or so feet away from the parking lot. The walk is not so bad, but i have to walk by the campground’s communal campfire, the basketball court, and The Pavilion - where everyone cooks and stores their stoves and food.
Let me tell you about the Miguel’s Pavilion, or The Church, or the People Port, as those who live/work at Miguel’s affectionately call it. It wasn’t there a few years ago. Back then, everyone would have to cook by their tents (hopefully on a picnic table), or carry their food and stoves every morning/night to the back of the restaurant, where Miguel had placed a bunch of tables for the climbers to use. Nowadays, thanks to Miguel’s generosity, we have The Pavilion.
Climbers can store their cooking utensils and food on the shelves resting against the walls. The large wooden tables act as great cooking/eating/chilling spots, as well as the occasional dance floor for a German climber named Charlotte in a sailor moon outfit at the Miguel’s halloween party of 2018 (a story for another time). I personally like to keep my food in stackable crates. That way, I can keep my heavier and less often used foods (like cans and replacement propane fuel tanks) in the lower crate while my everyday items, like cookies and candy, sit on the top crate, ready for easy access. The only downside to this system is the existence of raccoons. Since the crates don’t have lids, those little shits easily found my stash and ate all of my cookies and butterfingers on several occasions. Monsters.
For all of my cooking gadgets, I use my Mountain Smith Hotbox Hauler. Man, do I love this thing. If you’ve ever lived long-term in your van/car/truck/tent, you get how easy it is to lose something to what I call the dirtbag black hole. If I don’t make a strong effort to stay somewhat organized, I end up losing something that I’ll end up having to replace… just to find it months later under the passenger seat of my car. The Hotbox Hauler solves that problem for me. I can fit my Coleman 1 burner + grill in there with my cast iron skillet, all of my condiments, my Gerber knife + cutting board set, plates, silverware, and there’s still space for more.
The campground starts right behind the pavilion. I still have to walk past several tents before I hop onto some wood pallets that have been strategically placed to help us avoid sinking into the ever-wet mud that hasn’t disappeared since it started raining heavily a few weeks ago. I’ve lost track of Kyra. It’s ok, she likes to sniff all the things, and who am I to stop a girl from exercising her right to smell? I whistle for her and she comes running at me. Oh boy, she’s never this excited to get back in the tent. She gets to me and starts rubbing herself on my legs and jumping on my chest. I give her some pets and ask her to calm down. Then I smell it.
The last time Kyra rolled in human poop, I was belaying my partner at the New River Gorge. We were mostly alone at the crag and she’s a very well behaved crag dog. She usually sleeps or goes exploring, coming back every so often to check on dad. So I keep her off-leash unless there’s other dogs around inciting her to play. After disappearing for about 15 minutes, she came running at me and tried to share her brown “camouflage” with me. I was lucky that day. It was daytime so I was able to see my little black wrecking ball with legs covered in poop rapidly coming my way from afar. I had also been next to a river, which massively helped with the cleanup. At the Red, I didn’t have that luxury.
There are two main options for showering and doing laundry at the Red if you’re staying at Miguel’s. There’s the campground’s showers and laundry room. Miguel built a changing area right outside each of the shower stalls so you don’t have to get dressed in the open, but it’s not indoors, nor heated, and it’s below freezing, so onto the second option - Thrillsville.
Right down the road, not even a 5 minute drive away, lies Thrillsville Adventure Park. They also have an indoor/heated laundry room, bathroom and showers. Which is very important for those extra cold days. I know it’s close to midnight and I’m not sure whether Thrillsville is open still, but I know these clothes and my little turdface of a dog need to be washed asap. So I grab my dirty clothes, a set of new ones, and bolt to my car.
When I travel, I try to keep all my gear organized for moments like these. When moving fast is paramount. And it happens more often than not. I am a sucker for stuff that makes my life easier, so I own a couple of the Mountain Smith Zip Top Haulers with 3 Cubes each. The cubes help me separate my jackets, pants, t-shirts, underwear, dirty clothes… etc… so I can find what I need fast. In this case, I grabbed the dirty clothes cube, my 2nd set of long underwear, a pair of pants, a t-shirt and another poop/free puffy. When traveling long term it pays off to have a 2nd set of everything.
Once in my car I make sure Kyra isn’t rolling around in the back and head straight to Trhillsville. Surprise, it’s closed. Well, I guess I’m going to have to brave the cold and shower at Miguel’s. I quickly turn around and head back to the campground. I grab my clothes, towel, Kyra, and run to the showers. Crap, I remember these showers need shower tokens to be used. There’s a shower token machine that exchanges dollars for tokens. Each token gives you 4 minutes of warm water bliss. I run back to my car and look for cash, I have none.
At this point I’m freaking out. Kyra, of course, is overjoyed by the fact that I’m taking her for rides and running around the campground with her. Well, what now? I’m about to give up and resign myself to go back to my tent and do laundry in the morning when I can get some cash from the restaurant to purchase some shower tokens. Then I remember Sam. Fire Mage Sam. God, I really hope he’s making a fire tonight. I look at the fire pit are but don’t see light or smoke. I decide to check anyway. Sometimes, Sam makes small cardboard fires by himself. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen him go to bed before midnight. I was right!
Sam lent me enough cash to buy enough tokens to get enough time for a quick shower, a thorough Kyra wash, and to get quarters for a laundry run. What a hero. In the end, I didn’t go to bed until 2:30am. It was colder by then, but at least we were clean. I slid into my sleeping bag with Kyra, pulled my bed sheets over my face and passed out.
The Red River Gorge, and Miguel’s Pizza, is clearly a very special place for me. Rock Climbing can’t happen in a vacuum. You need partners, sometimes even a community, to make it work. Miguel’s Pizza has been that place that’s evolved right along with the climbing at the gorge. And without Miguel there wouldn’t be such an iconic place for all of us climbers to camp, eat, laugh, shower, dance, drink, party, or sleep. The rock is there, but it’s the people and the community who developed it. And without the people, I’m sure I would’ve had to go to bed covered in shit that night. Thanks Sam!