Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Mammoth undertaking

My West Virginia adventures left me at a Motel 6 in Charleston for the night. I pulled out early the next morning for Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky -- about 350 miles away. My path took me through Huntington and across the Ohio River at Ironton and then followed the river bank west toward Cincinnati.

Mail Pouch barns appeared about every 20 miles along the Ohio side of the river.

At Aberdeen, Ohio I cross the Ohio again and entered Kentucky at Maysville, travelling south toward Lexington. Soon, I was in the lush bluegrass country. In Paris, Ky. horse farms bordered by board fences and topped by gracious mansions lined the road.

A modest horse farm near Paris, Ky.

South of Paris, however, things became more mundane. This sign caught my eye:

Yum! nothing like a wig from Papa John. Is that a hair in your pizza?

Eventually, I arrived across the rolling hills in Cave City, a city that has been determined to extract dollars from tourists since they arrived in stage coaches and river boats. The miniature golf courses, gift shops selling geodes and cave souvenirs, the billboards and come-ons along the streets leading toward the National Park were discouraging. Had I come all this way to end up in a seedy tourist trap?

You can sleep in a concrete wigwam in Cave City, Kentucky.

The Sleep in a Wigwam tourist cabins are a delightful leftover from an earlier day when concrete tepees, though culturally insensitive, were still considered innocent fun.

I finally got to set up camp at Mammoth Cave National Park.

I was determined to check out the park itself -- if it was as discouragingly tasteless as Cave City, I'd just keep going to my brother's house, which was two hours away in Tennessee. What I found was just about what you'd expect of a National Park: clean, tasteful, non-commercial, well-equipped and maintained.

Camping for me -- with the new Golden Age Card a ranger thoughtfully issued to me when I entered Shenandoah National Park's Skyline Drive -- was $8.50 a night or half the regular fee. After three nights in motels so far this trip in Albany, Lancaster and Charleston, camping was economical and, as it turned out, restful. I ate dinner and breakfast the next morning at the Mammoth Cave Hotel next to the visitor center and then signed up for a tour.

Our tour group descends into Mammoth Cave.

As we walked down to the cave entrance I chatted with Ranger Dave, our guide. I told him I'd seen Ken Burns' series on the National Parks. "Yes, he did some filming here at Mammoth," Dave said. "But it was all cut out of the final show."

Did they transfer rangers from park to park, I asked. No, Dave said. Most rangers stay in one spot, but they can apply for jobs at other parks if they want a change. He'd been at Mammoth his entire 13 years with the Forest Service.

Chris told me on the phone the night before that when he and his family visited Mammoth years ago, they heard a crash in a nearby chamber of the cave and when they were allowed in, they saw a large rock, a piece of the ceiling, had fallen and crushed a bench used by visitors. I asked Dave if they had rock falls very often.

"Hardly ever," he said. I told him what Chris told me. "Was that in 2000?" Dave asked. Could be. "I led that tour group," he said. I checked with Chris later and it indeed had been in 2000.

Floodlights illuminate the ancient cavern walls.
At the entrance to the cave, Dave briefed us on safety, told us to be sure to take out of the cave anything we brought in and answered questions. Then we went down the stairs to begin our two-hour, two-mile tour.

Some 300 miles of corridors connect big rooms like these.

During the War of 1812, nitrate was mined by slaves inside Mammoth Cave and the salt petre was shipped over the Alleghenies to Wilmington, Del. where E.I. DuPont used it to make gunpowder. After the war ended the British blockade, DuPont again purchased the nitrate for his explosives from overseas and the mining operation at Mammoth ended.
Railings and paved paths made our tour an easy walk.

The Cave became a National Park in the 1940s, but the State of Kentucky Park Commission had acquired the land decades earlier.

For hundreds of years, visitors wrote their names on the ceiling with soot from candles and grease lanterns.

Visitors climb stairs up more than 100 feet up an underground tower.

Ranger Dave stands on a rock that fell in 2000 when my brother Chris was touring the cave.

Ranger Dave, our leader, has been stationed at Mammoth Cave for 13 years.

Visitors re-emerge from the great cavern.
After the tour, I broke camp and rode to Murfreesboro, Tenn. to join Chris. As luck would have it, he has the next five days off and can ride with me to Hot Springs, Ark., my next destination.
Road trip!

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