The best and most plentiful rock climbing east of the Mississippi River is located right in one of the country's poorest states. A staggering 40,000 climbers from all around the world blow in and out of Slade, Kentucky, every year. They arrive, they climb, they leave, and they hardly take the time to consider the people who actually live there.
Many climbers drive by rundown trailers and make jokes about who lives inside, dismissing the locals without considering the ruthless poverty cycle that has likely made it nearly impossible for them to leave the gorges of Kentucky. Despite their proximity, the climbers have few opportunities for contact with the people who live there, which means neither party gets a chance to understand the other — a lack of empathy that seems to be echoed in 2016's divisive, bitter election.
I make it to Kentucky's Red River Gorge a few weekends out of every year for the world-class climbing, but the most memorable part of my experience is often due to the diversity of the climbers I have met. I’ve sat at Miguel’s Pizza (the Red’s iconic campground) with people from Czechoslovakia, New Zealand, Turkey, France, Canada, Australia, Spain and more — all decked out in vibrant athletic apparel.
We share stories of the day’s climb, and they talk about what country they are flying out to on Monday to keep the adventure going. Unlike many of the people who call Slade home, the climbers who visit have the option and the funds to leave when they want to.
To many who come for the climbing alone, Slade is nothing more than a destination to check on a weather app, keeping fingers crossed for a dry weekend, but in reality it is much more. It is a place where people live year-round — 303 people to be exact. Slade is what is known as an “unincorporated” community, which means that it exists outside of any municipality. With no post office and no police department, Slade is more of a loose concept rather than an actual township.
Slade is located in Powell County, where the median annual income per household is $29,736, with 26% of its citizens living below the poverty line. That is almost double the national average of 13.5%.
Take a drive through the gorge in late October. The overwhelming beauty of reds, orange and yellows smeared across sweeping canyon vistas is enough to bring tears to your eyes. Juxtapose that with boarded-up homes and overgrown front yards smattered throughout the countryside, and it is easy to jump to conclusions about these places, as many do.
A climbing guidebook that specializes in this area jumps to just such conclusions, labeling one home in particular as "one of the main meth hubs in Kentucky." It describes the scene as "a dilapidated trailer of sorts, its doors wide open, with a living space that seems to spill out into the yard ... Loads of junk strewn all over the yard, almost like the trailer had exploded ... A skinny, shirtless man resembling a young Charles Manson is standing in the yard." The guidebook reads that some climbers were "too afraid to ever go there unarmed."
I’ve seen this home — I don't know who lives there or what goes on inside. What I do know, that the guidebook does not acknowledge, is that the house is somebody’s home. The "junk" that is strewn all over the yard is mostly kids’ toys. A family lives there.
Poverty is a cycle — and it's one that's hard to break. A 2013 study estimated that 70% of those born into lower-income households will remain there their whole lives. Nobody gets to choose where they’re born and what fiscal bracket they are born into. It’s a roll of the dice every time. Some will inherit a fortune, others will inherit nothing. Instead of assumptions about who might live in the homes in Slade, let us try to actually learn about the residents.
The poverty in Slade stands in sharp contrast to the visiting climbers, who flood the area for months every year, flying in from all corners of the earth. Climbing is an expensive sport. For a standard setup you’re likely looking at:
Rope and Rope Bag — around $300
Climbing Shoes — around $170
Quickdraws — around $90
Helmet — around $60
Harness — around $60
Slings and Carabiners — around $50
Chalk and Chalk Bag — $35
Belay Device — around $25
That’s a grand total of around $790 for the bare basics for sport climbing. This doesn’t even begin to touch on the more complex traditional-style climbing, where the cost of gear quickly skyrockets into the thousands of dollars. This number also does not consider climbing apparel, camping gear and travel costs. The price tag rings up quickly — climbing is often a lavish sport. It isn’t difficult to distinguish who is and who is not a climber in Slade just by the gear they're likely packing.
We have a way of dehumanizing people that we are distant from. The author of that climbing guidebook likely didn't consider the actual humanity of the young man resembling "Charles Manson," and that he probably wouldn't appreciate being compared to Charlie Manson.
It isn’t fair to jump to conclusions so quickly, because we may not know the history and hardships of those we judge. Climbers in Slade are a micro-example of a problem I believe to we are facing on a national level: a lack of understanding and empathy between people that could, but rarely do, come in contact.
Travel is always an opportunity to empathize with a different group of people, but you don’t have to fly across the world to find such an opportunity. There are plenty of places right here in the U.S. that will challenge your worldview and force you to consider another’s living situation in comparison to your own — that is, if you actually take the time to engage with the people you meet.
I am fortunate enough to have put together a decent climbing setup over the years, and am fortunate enough to afford the drive to Slade a couple times a year to climb. As I drive to the crags and pass the homes some may think look like "meth hubs," I’ll try to consider the people that are born there, whose home I am visiting, and remember that their situation, like that of many people in this country, is more complicated than what we see at first glance.
About the Author: Bennett Slavsky has worked throughout Michigan as a freelance writer and has been featured in such publications as the Grand Haven Tribune and the Detroit Free Press. He has a background in sustainability and is now working on writing and digital marketing at Keteka.