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Miguel’s Pizza, Hub of Red River Gorge Climbing, Locks Down

Community gathering place hosts area’s largest campground, gear shop, food.

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An eggplant-colored Chrysler, people and gear crammed within and yet more gear strapped on a roof rack, pulled up at Miguel’s Pizza in the Red River Gorge. A handful of what looked like college kids piled out and clustered by the door of a cheerful yellow building flanked by long picnic tables.

A sign on the closed door read: “Sorry, folks! Miguel’s will be closed until further notice. That includes the restaurant, gear shop and campground.”

“Spring breakers,” says Dario Ventura, owner of Miguel’s Pizza, the community center of this world-renowned climbing area in Kentucky, of the disappointed crew. “They just kind of pondered for a while, looked around.” Fifteen or 20 minutes later, the car, which bore Georgia plates, left.

[Also Read Moab Is Closed To Non-Locals – That Means Climbers, Too]

As of Monday, March 16, per the state governor’s order to all restaurants and bars in response to the coronavirus crisis, Miguel’s closed off its sit-down dining. Yesterday, as permitted, the place tried to serve takeout orders, but it is too relied-upon for eating and meeting for that to work.

“We tried that for one night,” Ventura says. “The lines were 200 deep at peak. It kind of defeated the purpose.”

A long tradition. These bumper stickers are seen across the land. Photo: Heather Ardley

Ventura, son of Miguel Ventura, who started the place 35 years ago and instilled its friendly vibe, posted this notice on Facebook on Tuesday, March 17:

“[W]e have realized that the goal of social distancing is not working. We as a family got a lot at risk right now with a pregnancy, two elderly people, an immune compromised child and two healthcare workers. Plus on top of that we have a whole staff that we must safeguard. With that said, MIGUELS WILL BE CLOSING all operations. This includes gear shop and campground till further notice! Our staff will have paid leave till end of pay period and then we hope unemployment will kick in. … Don’t forget about us. We will be back stronger, healthier, and hopefully very soon.”

Ventura is staying at home with his young daughter for two or more weeks. Earlier in the day, he addressed his staff, which numbers 35, over Facetime, and the restaurant divided up most of the food among workers.

He had been quickly picking up some food at the restaurant later when he saw the college kids as they pulled away from a campground that normally holds 300 tents at this time of year and now is down to a dozen, mostly his staff, whom he has allowed to stay for free. The staff members have arrived from all over for the climbing season, and some had, for example, given up apartments or other living arrangements to move there. A few other visitors are finishing out their existing reservations, but no more will be accepted.

[Also Read The Power of Close-to-Home Nature In The Time of Coronavirus]

The closure is occurring during the second-most popular month of the year; October is the top.

A mid-March fundraiser, the Red River Reunion (to benefit the Red River Gorge Coalition), was already canceled and put off until fall.

Climbers who still come to the area can find takeout food at other establishments, but grocery-store shelves are largely bare.

Tourism in Kentucky has been booming in recent years, but will halt for now. The climbing industry and many climbers are encouraging people to stay home at present.

The Access Fund climber-advocacy group wrote in a statement: “We encourage our community of climbers to get outside in nature, but to do so responsibly. That doesn’t mean road trips to climbing areas or cragging with a group of friends. Take this time to explore your backyard public lands, county open spaces, and local parks while maintaining distance and exercising caution.”

Until the coronavirus threat recedes, no entry, no camping. Photo: Emily Wren Harrell.

Be “mindful,” the press release said, not to “endanger” other people and communities. “Many public lands and climbing areas are closed, so check site-specific restrictions. Gateway communities—like Bishop, CA; Moab, UT; and Estes Park, CO—are urging visitors to stay away.”

The American Alpine Club in concert posted, “These remote towns often have limited acces to medical facilities … Please keep places like Bishop, Fayetteville, Moab, Springdale, and Slade as safe as possible by limiting recreation-based travel at this time.”

Dave McAllister, longtime climbing writer, took to his blog and interviewed locals and officials expressing concern over crowds in Bishop, writing: “[T]he town is struggling to limit visiting climbers; so far, unsuccessfully, putting the local population at risk for infection, a bleak prospect for a tiny community hours from the nearest metropolis.”

The Southeast Utah Health Department has banned camping and closed hotels in the town of Moab in an attempt to limit visitors and spread of the virus.

Ventura says facilities near the Red are also at risk of being overloaded. “I’ve talked to nurses around here. You add a few thousand people around here, people get sick, that would overwhelm the hospitals.”

Ventura hopes to reopen in three or four weeks, but that is a guess. His closure announcement on Facebook met with some 50 supportive comments the same day, many with the words, “We’ll be back.” This one came from a Sean Brady: “Yo, how about selling some T-shirts online? Nothing says ‘real climber’ (lmao) like a Miguel’s Pizza shirt. I’d be happy to get one from ya, and consider it a ‘souvenir from a future visit.’”


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