Travel and Kulture:
Spring Break 2017 finds us heading north to south central Kentucky, destination Mammoth Cave National Park. For the record, anyone who doubts the earth is overpopulated has never driven I-75 to I-24 through Chattanooga. The upside: Nashville’s skyline is pretty cool. God knows we’ve had enough time to stare at it.
But we make it!
Nearly two hours past our original ETA, we arrive and check in to our hotel. Admittedly, the “Go-Kart” track next door gets a raised eyebrow from all three of us. It seems deserted, though, like many other tourist bait establishments dotting the hillside west of us, all of them diminutive under the imposing shadow of Dinosaur World. (Yes, there is such a place. No, the fading fiberglass specimens did not entice us away from our itinerary.)
Not ones to tarry, we head to the park to explore the Visitor Center, where we meet a cheerful park ranger. I stump her with my first question: Where is Stephen Bishop’s grave?
I should probably stop and explain a couple of things:
- I’m a history nerd.
- Stephen Bishop was a slave who served as both tour guide and explorer in the 1840s and 50s. Self-educated and witty, Bishop was a favorite guide among the well-to-do visitors he shepherded through the tunnels and shafts by candlelight. He loved exploring the cave, which he often referred to as “grand, gloomy, and peculiar.” Among his many expeditionary accomplishments (all done while he was a slave), he was the first person to cross the Bottomless Pit portion of the cave.
Turns out the ranger is new to Mammoth Cave herself, so after she asks another ranger, we both learn where Stephen Bishop is buried: In the Old Guides Cemetery on the Heritage Trail behind the Visitor Center. Check that one off my list!
It’s getting late and the Visitor Center is about to close, so we head back out of the park in search of local fare. But not before taking a double-take at the name of this cemetery:
The guys indulge me in a little game of “Find the Oldest In Residence” and they, of course, beat me to it. The winner is Mr. James Robinson, born in 1777. Sorry dude, you JUST missed the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Dinner is at Bucky Bee’s BBQ (when in Rome, right??) where the lack of macaroni-and-cheese as a side item is forgiven only because of their superior sweet tea.
Not wanting to miss out on the local culture, we wander over to a nearby store – an eclectic assortment of junk, geodes, homemade jams, and other inexplicable oddities. I mean, where else in Cave City, Kentucky, can you pick up a raccoon head, a cast iron skillet older (and arguably more seasoned) than me, and a confederate flag all in one stop? Clearly, it’s not for the faint of heart or the easily offended.
I stand in the doorway, taking in the scene. Behind me, I hear my husband whisper, “Don’t touch anything.” He’s being ridiculous, of course. I’m sure the yellowed, not-so-gently used ball caps were washed thoroughly before being placed on the sale rack.
My son points to a pyramid of tiny cans containing Vienna sausages. “What is that stuff?” he asks. I explain that Vienna sausages are merely the spines of the Spam animal.
Before I can slink away and laugh, the proprietor catches my eye and smiles. “Where y’all from?” she asks.
Her eyes grow big. “Oh, were y’all ‘round that interstate when it fell?”
I explain that, no, we were fortunate enough not to have been anywhere near it. She thanks God on our behalf, pops a pork rind into her mouth, then launches into what I’m sure must be her one and only Atlanta story:
I was headin’ back from Florida when my radiator started bubbling over in, wouldn’t you know it, Bolingbroke, Georgia! I kept hoping some good ole boys would drive by and come help me out, but nobody stopped. I walked to the next exit – because I didn’t want to get any closer to Atlanta, ya know – and lo and behold I found me some good ole boys. They had me up and out on the road in no time.
“Whew! That was lucky,” I concede, still silently debating the merits of seeking any type of stranger for help.
That’s when I see them. The collection of old presidential campaign buttons, ranging from Roosevelt (Theodore, that is) to Nixon. I float over, barely containing my glee. (I did mention I’m a history nerd, right?) The proprietor breaks my rapt attention. “Just a dollar a piece,” she says. I want to clap my hands together and do my Snoopy dance, but I refrain. Better to keep calm in these situations.
“Really? I’ll give it some thought,” I say nonchalantly. Moving to the next row, I start deliberating which buttons I want most. I can’t decide, so I move in for a second gander.
She watches me scan the collection for a few long moments. “A dollar a piece, you said?” I ask.
Dangling a pork rind over her mouth, she shakes her head. “No, five bucks a piece – crunch, crunch, crunch – or $40 for the whole thing.”
Never trust a woman chain-chomping pork rinds.
Long story, short, I got the whole thing for significantly less than $40. Not exactly a steal, but apparently witnessing my negotiating skills was priceless. So says my dear husband.
Mammoth Cave Tour: Domes and Dripstones (or, Drones and Dipsticks, as we like to call it)
We arrive bright and early for our tour with Rangers Autumn and Eric and two busloads of what will prove to be our “closest” friends for the next two hours. I do not mean closest in a congenial sense.
To give a bit of perspective, Mammoth Cave is 405 miles worth of cave tunnels compacted into seven square miles. On our two-hour tour today, we will be covering less than two of them.
The tour starts at the “New Entrance,” which was blasted into existence in 1921. It’s a little eerie approaching the door to the netherworld…
…and a whole lotta NOPE when the official, hand-sized greeter does its thing (read: moves).
But, as you may recall from past posts, I am a badass. So I entered the cave. I may or may not have shuddered a little when the door slammed shut behind me.
280 steps down, we start to see some cool stuff:
President Lincoln’s Birthplace (with the Big Oops Inside) and Boyhood Home:
After the cave tour, we head north to Hodgenville, Kentucky, to see where Honest Abe made his grand debut into the world.
Abraham’s mom, Nancy, was pregnant with him when she and his father, Thomas, bought the Sinking Spring Farm in December of 1808. It seemed like such a bargain, buying 300 acres for $200. But, as was quite common at the time, a title dispute forced the Lincolns to move ten miles northeast to Knob Creek in 1811.
Housed inside, is a one-room log cabin that was originally believed to have belonged to the Lincolns. The inscription at the top of the monument reads: Here – Over the log cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born destined to preserve the union and free the slave, a grateful people have dedicated this memorial to unity, peace, and brotherhood among these states.
Unfortunately, forty years after the memorial was dedicated by President Taft, it was discovered that the logs used to reconstruct the cabin could not, in fact, have been those belonging to the Lincolns. Since that time, it has been considered a cabin symbolic of that of Abraham Lincoln.
Much to my delight (again with the history nerd stuff), Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of the memorial on what would have been Lincoln’s 100th birthday. So yeah, I got to touch something that Theodore Roosevelt touched. (Although I have toured the White House, I don’t count that because I didn’t touch anything there – it’s generally frowned upon by the Secret Service.)
The Sinking Spring Farm got its name from this sinking spring, where President Lincoln most likely had his first sip of cool, clean water.
Lincoln’s first memories, however, are from his family home at Knob Creek, just ten miles away. Unfortunately, one of those memories was of his baby brother, Thomas, dying from an unknown illness.
While living at Knob Creek, a very young Abraham fell into the raging waters of the nearby creek. Thankfully for all of us, his friend Austin Gollaher pulled him to safety. The cabin on the grounds is reconstructed using logs from the old Gollaher cabin.
Returning to the Mammoth Cave National Park, we did a little early-evening exploring of our own:
Mammoth Cave Tour: Grand Avenue
This morning we’re doing the four-hour/four-mile Grand Avenue Tour. Oorah!
A short bus ride takes us to the Carmichael Entrance.
We descend into darkness once again, making our way down the mile stretch of Cleaveland Avenue (named for some dude named Cleaveland who never actually visited this area).
While on Cleaveland Avenue, we find a magnificent gypsum formation referred to as Last Rose of Summer.
Check out some of the old-school graffiti!
Honestly, there are just so many photos one can take in a cave without them all sort of running together. So, rather than bore you to tears, I leave you with one final cave creature. We found it waiting patiently for us at the Frozen Niagara exit, waving a long, gossamer antenna as if to say, “Y’all come back now, ya hear!”