When we celebrate birthdays we are celebrating the joys of life. The whole point of any kind of birthday ritual is the act of acknowledging the value of life and the direct impact that life has on others who share your values. Usually, this comes from family, who are attuned to the peculiarities of an individual’s value. This was exactly the situation when my family elected to celebrate my 45th birthday in the rugged mountains of Red River Gorge. My wife organized a day when my two daughters and their husbands could free themselves up at the same time to go rappelling with us on a journey to one of my favorite lands of adventure. Before leaving, my wife stayed up late well after I had gone to bed and finished prior to my 4 AM wake up baking me a cake which she presented to me at the peak of Chimney Rock. The road to Chimney Rock was rugged, featuring a 5 mile dirt road after a 4 mile paved stretch located at the entrance. It is the only way to arrive at Chimney Rock unless of course a climber scaled up the side. The presentation of the cake in such a place was unique and a nice touch by my family, which can be seen in the video below.
Among the many adventures and miles of hiking we did on this trip, it was my daughter and her husband who coaxed me into visiting Miguel’s pizza joint just down the road from the entrance to Natural Bridge. As they suggested the meal I found myself between a rock and a hard place. They were very adamant about wanting to take me there because they figured I would appreciate the style of the pizza place. However, my wife had worked very hard to pack a wonderful meal that we planned to eat in picnic fashion. The Miguel’s idea was something that my kids came up with spontaneously and upon hearing it, I was skeptical. I was very concerned that I would not like the experience because Miguel’s pizza place looks like the dream of a deranged hippie. The building is way too small, it’s bright yellow, only has one bathroom, and most of the dining room is outside the building scattered among beat up picnic tables and well-worn dirt void of any grass. But most noticeable of all is the bizarre artwork that is displayed all over the building which looks like it belongs to an old “flower child.” But after some urging, my daughter had talked me into it, so after celebrating my birthday on top of Chimney Rock, we headed to Miguel’s across the valley nearly an hour away.
Rock climbers from all over the world come to Red River Gorge, and their absolutely favorite place to dine is Miguel’s. There isn’t even a close second. Miguel’s in the rock climbing world is a Holy Place. The owner of Miguel’s is Miguel Ventura from Portugal. He describes himself as a pizza maker, an artist, a family man, and social servant. Ventura, now aged 56 bought himself a slice of backwoods real estate in 1984, opening the Rainbow Door, an ice-cream shop the next year catering to the handful of climbers in the area. Now, 24 years later he slings pizza and climbing gear instead which is sold in the store with the pizzas. On a busy spring or fall weekend there are upwards of 80 tents in his campground out back. (Miguel’s wife, Susan, and three kids, Dario, Sarah, and Mark, help run the bustling business.) Miguel makes large wood carvings, also, and if you’ve eaten his pizza, you’ve eaten from his garden.
The Red River Gorge area is not a heavily populated area. In fact, the area of Slade, Kentucky is considered remote. So I was slightly stunned to see that the parking lot to Miguel’s was so large for such a small building, and it was full with cars belonging to adventurers from all over the world. Naturally, the small restaurant never planned to hold every customer inside the little yellow shack, so there are tables set up haphazardly all around the building. Behind the structure a basement was discovered which had additional seating and a small game room. Directly behind Miguel’s was a large patio area for additional seating. At these picnic tables were a wild array of climbers and campers cooking food of their own on Colman stoves and other propane driven portable units.
While we waited in line, I watched the employees rush around attempting to serve everyone. There was a sense of urgency that was strangely calm. In many ways, the place reminded me of all the reasons I love Key West, which I spoke about in a recent article. CLICK HERE FOR REVIEW. After the climate of the place sunk in for me, the kitchen reported that everyone in line, which went out the door, were out of luck. They had run out of food. They couldn’t make one more pizza. All they had left in the kitchen were three sandwiches. Once we elected to leave and return some other day, the people behind us bought up the remainder of the kitchen’s offerings. Looking into the kitchen one name came to my mind, Hugh Akston from the novel Atlas Shrugged. Miguel’s Pizza restaurant nestled in the mountains of Kentucky reminded me of the small café where Hugh Akston worked as a cook in that famous fictional novel. Akston was the college philosophy instructor of the three main characters in Atlas Shrugged and it was clear that Miguel Ventura had a quality of mind that has only been attempted in any novel the human mind has ever produced but Atlas Shrugged, and maybe The Fountainhead.
It was for this reason that my kids wanted to take me to Miguel’s Pizza. Even though many of the visitors to the restaurant might find themselves repulsed through social conditioning to the concepts of Atlas Shrugged and Miguel himself clearly sees himself as a public servant, which is not how characters from the novel see themselves, there was a quality to the food and the place in general that was so exceptional that it has become a thriving world-wide business. My kids wanted me to see first hand the thriving success of such a national treasure. Miguel’s is the perfect example of how magical capitalism is. Miguel from another country was able to move to the mountains of Kentucky where consumer traffic is about as poor as anywhere in the world, and build a thriving business because his product was superior. In such a place if everyone had the ability to open a pizza place near Natural Bridge State Park and generate the kind of business Miguel does, they would. Many have tried, and many have failed. The fact that Miguel has succeed where others have fallen short speaks specifically to the kind of definitions attributed to the classic novel Atlas Shrugged–such examples that are so clear to the human eye and obvious no matter what their political affiliation is are not easy to find. This was the gift my children wanted to give me for my birthday—an example of quality and capitalism that is unique and obvious defying confusing ideologies.
Because Miguel’s ran out of pizza, we packed up and left, going down the road to Natural Bridge State Park to have the fabulous meal that my wife prepared for us after. We had the picnic area to ourselves which is how I like it, so we were able to enjoy a wonderful spring evening in the mountains discussing the philosophic reason that Miguel’s was such a successful enterprise. We had hiked a lot, repelled a lot, climbed a lot, drove a lot and we were so hungry that the food my wife packed tasted like it came from a 5 star restaurant. The cake on the mountaintop was something that I will never forget. But intellectually, my trip to Miguel’s for some of their famously fresh pizza was the best event of the day. Even though all I was able to do was smell their pizza from the kitchen, witnessing their success in the deep mountains of Kentucky was the best present I could have received, because it was an example of my foundation beliefs which I constantly preach about to my family. This was why my kids were so obsessed with their desire to take me to a small yellow shack covered with hippie imagery, featuring a small unisex bathroom that was so small I had to duck my head to enter, a dining room stuffed with dirty, sweaty visitors and a sea of dust-covered cars parked outside with clientele that would look more at home at a Grateful Dead concert. My children’s present to me was in showing how the heartbeat of capitalism beats hardest and fastest where government is GONE, and the rules are kept to a bare minimum. If Miguel’s had tried to locate in any city, or township filled with looting politicians, they would have been put out of business years ago. Yet, because of where it is, Miguel’s is one of the greatest, and most pure examples of lassie fair capitalism that could have been presented to me, and that is the kind of birthday present my children know to give me when the years become filled with wisdom, and the spontaneity of youth becomes more of an inconvenience. Seeing Miguel’s run out of food due to too much business when the world outside of the Red River Gorge area is struggling under the red tape of government regulation made my dinner at Miguel’s Pizza the best pizza that I have never had the opportunity to eat.