MISSION: To visit every state and territory in the U.S. For my mission a visit is greater than a stop over; I wish to explore the natural and cultural environments of these areas. Each of these locations has a story to tell, and I want to find it.

As of February 2018 I have visited all 50 states (and Puerto Rico and 2 island in the US Virgin Islands) at least once.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Caves, Trails, History and Muscle Cars

I am back from Kentucky... it was a trip of national parks full of caves and history, some interesting oddities and the National Corvette Museum.  Science, History, and America's Great Sports Car, its an eclectic mix for sure.  I can't say I got bored.  It was a feast for the mind; geology lessons were everywhere (even in the Corvette Museum) and Lincoln's past was part of the area's identity.  It was a feast for the eyes; the topography is gorgeous, filled with rolling green lush mountains and interesting rock formations.  And it was a challenge for the ears; cave sounds are faint, but present and walks through the woods were filled with wind blown leaves and scurrying creatures busying themselves for the cold months ahead.  Not once did I lack for something to see or do. 

I have wanted to return to Kentucky for at least 10 years... it is such a pretty area.  As I make my way through the National Parks, Cave Country was a necessity.  Mammoth Caves is a behemoth ... its gigantic and its still being explored.  Already, it stands (expands) as the largest cave system in the world.  There are over 400 miles of explored cave in the park; the park service estimates that over 600 miles still exist unexplored (by man) still to come.  While you do not need to be a spelunker to see the caves today, you can sign up and help map new areas with special outings in the park service (experienced spelunkers only - this is not the cave to get your feet wet, literally).    Me?  I am not a cave crawler... now, I have bobbled my way through some caves through the years, but those were always pre-explored trails... maybe one day before my old dancer knees completely go out I will have to get down and grimy.  For now, I hike!  And hike I did!

I came here for the Caves and I was going to see them.  So, I signed up for the longest hike they offered through the system - a 4 mile trek that the parks called extremely strenuous!  Yikes! And only 4 miles - how was that a possible designation?  I have been on hikes that that parks called strenuous before and survived them all (some better than others), but "extremely strenuous"?  What was that?  And earlier this year, I was on a hike in Cornado that was painful, and yet that was marked moderate (realized much later that I was at elevation - oops).  I worked myself up about this hike.  And once I arrived to sign in, I had a ranger suggest that I sign up for another limited opportunity at Great Oynx Cave (within the park).  "I was here for the caves"... I kept repeating that mantra in my head as the pre-cave lecture told us over and over again that we could die in the cave.  Again, just what as I doing?  The ranger spoke of over 700 stairs and steep incline, of tight passages and no way out after mile 1.  AGHHHH.  And then we got in there and going... and it was fine.  I was fine.  It was not a killer trail.  It was just one NOT for people that do not get outside.  It was not for people that do not move.  It was not for people with claustrophobia.  Yes, there were lots of stairs and plenty of switchbacks, but we rested after each steep assent.  No big deal... but I could see how it would be, because if you got hurt or overestimated your abilities, it would take you hours to get help.  And that is a YIKES!

Gypsum Flowers
Cave Cricket!
Inside the cave, I will be honest, is not the prettiest cave system you have seen.  This is not famous for its formations (there are some)... it is famous for its size.  We stood in one cavern that was over 900 feet tall.  We saw a few great formations... but for me, the coolest cave feature was the gypsum formations.  Sadly, the overwhelming majority of them had been poached from the cave walls well before the site became a national park, but there were a few around to see.  Many formations looked like delicate flowers, some more like spindly flowers and there was one room with a popcorn ceiling full of the element.  You would think museums all over would have specimens of this cool formation - NOPE!  Gypsum is highly sensitive.  The cave environment is stagnant... once outside, changes in temperature and humidity could lead to them to "melt".  Just leave the cool stuff in the cave people!  And that goes for the amazing cave creatures that evolved to live in this completely dark environment.  On our tour, we learned we could not go down to the river since there were species unique to the cave (i.e. the only ones anywhere); eyeless shrimp and fish that were also translucent.  On the trails, we saw some cave crickets that looks like something out of a scifi movie when then mated with daddy-long-legs, and some spiders.  No bats!  The bat population at Mammoth has been decimated from White Nose Fungus... Don't carry those spores around people - wash your shoes.  And the park made sure we did after each cave entry - walking us down a Woolite filled pathway.  White Nose is nasty; it suffocated the bats, covering their airways with a fungus. And while there are reports on successful ways to cure infected bats, the question remains in just "how to administer to them" in the wild; you could take at more than the fungus.  It's a sad conundrum. 

I needed clean shoes for the rest of my trip... because although White Nose is present in Mammoth Cave - it is not in other locations, so you have to be diligent.  After my day hiking above and below ground at Mammoth, I was faced with the wrath of Mother Nature... she rained out my evening Ranger talk... and she wasn't done because her storms the night before did not die down; I woke up looking at a massive thunderstorm.  Ugh - it always rains on my trips, without fail.  I had planned my history excursion to go according to Lincoln's timeline... but "best laid plans."  A quick look on my weather apps told me I had a half day window to get up to Indiana and explore Lincoln's birthplace ... and off I went to see the place Lincoln grew up in. 

For those that know their Lincoln history, or just read Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, you know  that his family left Kentucky for Indiana as a young boy in the dead of winter and arrived to a 3 sided "hunter's shelter" in December.  This was not fiction - at a time of homesteading, you needed to make an improvement to the land to claim it... and this was Tom Lincoln's improvement before he went to get his family.  He was a master carpenter, and after that first winter, they had a cabin, but just imagining that first winter makes me shutter.  Lincoln spent 14 years here, and buried his mom and sister in this village.  I was able to spend time with the interpretative rangers, in period pieces to talk about live in the village, learn what home was like, and learn a bit about the Lincoln's lived.  This was more fun than just reading in a museum (though you can do that too if you want).  And, you can walk through the woods, and visit the watering hole... walking the very area and trails Lincoln would have as a boy.  And here, you learned how his work ethic was fortified.  His quest for knowledge, for bettering people's lives, for ending slavery, for community... traits that made him the most noteworthy president our country has ever seen. 

Leaving the village, that experience would be hard to top, those rangers were amazing.  I swear one must have a past life there because they not only knew the fact, but could talk about the lifestyle, the farming, the food, the experience in such detail - it was perfect.  So, how do I top off that Lincoln experience?  Well, I head to the town of Santa Claus... yep, you read that correctly - Santa Claus.  I had no idea that such a place existed...that Holiday World (amusement park) existed - how did the Griswold's not do a movie there?  I ended up at Santa's candy Castle, home to the Santa Claus Hall of Fame (and where you could get Naughty/Nice certificates), and ate lunch at St Nick's, right next to Frosty's Grill.  I swear, you can't make this stuff up.

I left Indiana just as the rain began and headed back to Kentucky.  My journey - an hour and a half, the Lincoln's journey several weeks!  Oh, what a difference roads and automobiles make!  (the Lincoln's had to hack their way into and thru Indiana's dense forest)  Me?  I rushed back to Bowling Green in time to make the last boat tour in the Lost River Cave.... the only water you could get on in this cavernous system. There was not that much to talk about after the full day at the national park - the caves look similar - big rooms with little by way of features.  Here, the draw was the cave mouth, where you have to practically lay down in the boat to clear the low hanging limestone before you enter.  The trip was quick... and if you want a quick and easy way to see the area's underground, this might be your ticket.

The following day, I was able to visit Lincoln's birthplace and his first boyhood home.  After the experience in Indiana, I had high hopes.  This park site was not as big as the others - it is really a memorial, a spot to preserve the original cabin! After the small museum and video, I headed up the 56 steps (one for every year of his life) to the mausoleum that protects THE CABIN.   And here I learned that the cabin was so original that the clay between the logs was original as well (it is taken out, rewetted and put back once it starts to crack).  Honestly, I can't say wonderful things about the Rangers here at the Birthplace - they could not be bothered to answer my questions.  So me asking - Is that a chimney or a fireplace cooking area, I got "chimney" and when I asked about a loft like I saw in Indiana, I got "Yes"... not kidding, one word answers.  Color me disappointed.  No stories, and this is THE CABIN. 

Off this insanely sad visit, I was very hesitant to visit the other part of this Historic Park, Lincoln's first Boyhood home... it was about 10 miles away and close to nothing.  But I was here, and I doubted I ever would be in the area again, so off I went through Hodgensville, and I was glad I did because the rangers there were fantastic.  Embarrassed by the lack of answers at the Monument, they answered all the questions I had... it was here I learned of the clay!  The Knob Creek Farm site is where Lincoln almost drowned as a child... did you know he almost died in a creek?  I did not; I didn't know he could not swim.  I guess from all the stories of him on the Mississippi, I assumed he could.  I was wrong.  Our 16th President was saved by a neighborhood friend that pulled him out with a tree limb.   You could walk to the creek, But I imagine it was much fuller than what I saw! 

After the Ranger at Knob Creek gifted me with a cool park patch (that I will add to my collection of magnets), I headed back to Hodgenville to get a closer look at the Lincoln statues in the center of town, and stop by the local Lincoln Museum.  Why not, right?  The only draw people have to this town is Lincoln... and what I learned was that there is a whole Lincoln festival.  How did I not know this?  This would have been hysterical with tree splitting, log rolling and other "rustic" events.  Another highlight of the festival, that the museum sponsors, is the annual Lincoln Fine Art Contest!  And the museum's second floor is filled with some fantastic submissions.  There were wood carvings, oils, pencils, pen/inks, sculptures, quilting, printmaking... some people have been truly inspired.  Downstairs, you could put your pennies to good use and donate them to a new penny piece - they were looking for pennies of all shades.  The museum itself was a pleasant surprise filled with wax diorama depictions of Lincoln's life, newspaper clippings, correspondence and general history.  It was a cluttered glorious treasure-trove.  There was no way you did not get your $3 worth of entertainment and knowledge. 

After a day of Lincoln history, I headed back towards Bowling Green to visit The National Corvette Museum.  You may remember stories of the Corvette Museum when Mother Nature decided to open up and eat a few of the classic cars... that sinkhole ate 8 one of a kind (or super rare), corvettes.  The footage was unbelievable, so after you walked through the museum, taking the in the curves and lines of America's sports car, you made your way towards the Sky Room, the site of the geological-meet-automotive disaster.  Because this is a karst filled area, anywhere you stand could be above a cave system.  When the museum was first placed, the engineers did a core sample up to 30 feet down... well, the cave under the museum was 60 feet under, so they didn't know... and Mother Nature ate some cars.  The aftermath was mapped out for you to see - they had video of the collapse, of the car "rescue", or the actions to fortify and fill in the cave; there were geology lessons, and floor markings to show the extent of the cave and the sinkhole.  And inside the skyroom, they had the cars, or what was left of most of them.  Of the 8 cars that fell into and down that hole, only 3 were recoverable.  Some of them don't look like anything but a pile of metal now.  They fell over 60 feet down, crashed and had stone and other cars fall on top of them.  Needless to say, those at the bottom of the pile fared the worst.  The SkyRoom is now the most secure spot anywhere in the area (its all filled in and fortified), and the museum still hosts some of the most rare and spectacular cars where, to bask in the sun and shine.  There is plenty of info available on all the cars talking about what is under the hood or what changed since the previous model... me, I just liked looking at the gorgeous cars and taking some time to try and find the one that I drove in as a child in the 80's, and to pick my favorite classic just in case I win the lotto, since it seems I did not win the corvette lotto (that you can enter for $10)! 

After all of this, I hopped in my Nissan Versa rental (huge let down), and traveled back to Nashville to ready for my trip home.  And there I sat in a good ole' 70's gas line.  While I was out having fun, a pipeline break was discovered in Alabama, and the people in Nashville freaked out... so it took me over an hour, in line, to fill up my rental. Of the 4 stations around my airport hotel, only 1 had gas; I don't think I have seen that many gas stations out of fuel.  It was crazy.  I was glad I headed back when I did, because it only got worse as the evening went on, and my the time I was home, gas in Nashville shot up to over $4/gallon (I was paying $2 in Kentucky).  And in a few days, the pipeline work around was in place... all is well people!  Calm down! 


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