Eastern Kentucky University associate professor of Sociology Dr. James Maples has a new book out this week that covers the history of rock climbing in the Red River Gorge. “Rock Climbing in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge” documents the history of climbing in the Red as it became a sought-after destination for climbers all over the world.
“History has always been one of my loves and it certainly works into my training as a political economist and sociologist. Getting to write a history book was definitely one of my life dreams. I’m glad the book was about Kentucky, too,” Maples said. “The Red (River Gorge), Jackson County, Rockcastle County, these places all remind me of home (east Tennessee). I’m really lucky to have the chance to write this book here and to be part of eastern Kentucky’s community.”
The book started as a kernel of thought while flipping through Ray Ellington’s 3rd edition guidebook on climbing in the Red more than a decade before, Maples recounted. Then a grant to study the economic impact of climbing came along. “When I was offered the job at EKU two years later, I knew I wanted to revisit that story. Tiffany Hamblin offered this outstanding grant application training program my first semester here, so I used that time to design an economic impact study of the Red’s climbing community,” Maples said.
While working on climbing impact studies in the Red River Gorge, West Virginia and North Carolina, Maples came to better know the climbing community, and started to learn about the history and the community of climbers in the area. He knew the stories he heard were worth telling to a broader audience. “Along the way I began hearing all these amazing stories about the Red’s climbing community while also learning about the region’s history. I was astounded to learn about the proposed Red River Dam, the 1994 bolting ban on the Daniel Boone National Forest, the story of the white-haired goldenrod, too many famous first ascent stories to keep track of, just all these amazing stories centered right here in Kentucky that could only happen in Kentucky,” Maples said.
Not a climber himself, but a professed outdoor enthusiast, Maples’ book idea became a reality in a chance encounter with a person connected to the book industry. “I remember I was giving a talk on the economic impact study after its release. In answering an attendee’s question, I went into a short history detour about the Red, and at the end I said, ‘wouldn’t it be great if someone wrote a book on this?’ By chance, an editor at West Virginia University Press took interest in one of my climbing presentations at a conference in Atlanta, so we began conversations about the book from there.”
Turning a book idea into a book isn’t easy, but Maples had an additional challenge: most of the stories from the area had never been written down. “The greatest problem was that so little of the community’s history had been written down. Most climbing guidebooks on the Red included a few pages on the community’s basic history. However, the community’s full story was still there in the stories of the people who had lived this history,” he said.
The book explores the lost history of the Red’s early climbing days, as well as exploring the controversies of route expansion in the 80s and an archeological dig at Military Wall which pushed climbers to develop private climbing preserves in Wolfe and Lee County. The book concludes in describing what the climbing and outdoor recreation economy could do for transitional rural economies over the next fifty years as outdoor recreation jobs steadily outpace extractive industries in central Appalachia.
“The book presents the idea of sustainable tourism through outdoor recreation. It’s much easier for us to control the environmental impacts of outdoor recreation in rural areas like the Red than, say, timbering, and we’re seeing evidence that outdoor recreation jobs are now outpacing things like coal extraction across the nation,” Maples said. “But to build that argument, that outdoor recreation can be a sustainable economic force, we need more case studies like this book to put all the pieces together in this complex puzzle. As such, this is a starting point, not a finish line.”
The economic impact of climbing in the area is a big part of the book. Maples said climbers have been here in the Red for 52 years now. “In the last 20 years, their population has really grown and the Red has become internationally known. Now we have climbers coming here from around the globe amid some of Kentucky’s (and even the nation’s) poorest counties. It raises an important question: how can our region utilize the economic expenditures of climbers to benefit the region without dramatically changing the region for its residents? The final chapter of the book examines this very issue in thinking about how eastern Kentucky’s transitional economy could utilize climbing and outdoor recreation in general while it finds its economic footing amid the decline of coal.”
The book is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Rock-Climbing-Kentuckys-River-Gorge/dp/1952271150.