Road Trip of the Southwest United States, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, Cincinnati, Ohio

By morning the rain had stopped, leaving cool damp weather in its wake. We stirred shortly after 08:30, all of us awake in a relatively short period of time. Our first surprise was to open the curtains and find that we were the only ones left in the entire campground. We didn’t know what time the others had left, but we had slept through all of them. It was fortuitous on our side — no waiting for showers, and it allowed Stefan to sneak into the women’s washroom with Rebecca.

Horse Cave was the only KOA office I didn’t go into. Thus the last postcards I had sent were from Memphis the day before. Stefan cleared up the charges with the KOA while we packed away our gear and prepared for the morning trip. Once we had the financial portions squared away, all we had to do was pull up to the pumping station and dump the grey water tank.

I must have been extremely irritating that morning, my incessant suggestions to go to Mammoth Cave must have severely worn away the levels of patience in my companions. But I won. Exiting the campground, we turned south on I-65 for about 12 miles until we reached the exit for Mammoth Cave National Park, for a lengthy drive westward.

I had this odd preconception that the cave entrance would be somewhere near the Interstate, or at least the road into the park would be a fairly major one. I came to the conclusion after driving for 15 minutes that spelunking wasn’t as high on most tourists’ lists as it was on mine. Impatience soon gave away to anticipation as we pulled into the large (and mostly deserted) parking lot.

We grabbed what gear we thought necessary, and changed into clothes more suitable for the environment we were to experience. If nothing else, our visit to the Cave of the Winds had taught us that caves are cool places, and sandals aren’t the most appropriate footwear. Oddly enough, our lessons were learned differently by each of us: I wore shoes, a long sleeved shirt, and shorts; Rebecca and Stefan wore jeans, t-shirts, and sandals; Dhar wore jeans, t-shirt, and shoes. Each of us would complain about our choice of clothes during our voyage beneath the surface of the Earth.

We walked across the parking lot to the Visitor’s Center to buy a tour ticket. Just outside the stone and wood building were a series of wood and plastic signs listing the tour options. There were four options available to us: a short 45-minute tour, two 2-hour tours, and a six hour extravaganza. We opted for one of the two tours, one that would give us the greatest view of the underground cave system.

Mammoth Cave is the largest cave in the world, with over 336 miles (560 kilometres) of charted passageways. The route we decided on barely scratched the surface of massive cavern, only a measly couple of miles. It was the longest distance covered in a two-hour tour. I had read a great deal about Mammoth Cave, mostly about the local stories about it and surrounding caves, such as Crystal Cave and Onyx Cave. But today’s tour would be about the largest, Mammoth Cave.

We walked in through the main entrance and walked over to the ticket booths. Only two of the half-dozen wickets were open, a sure sign of the pre-tourist season. We were two minutes too late, or so I thought. We very hastily bought our tickets, got very rudimentary instructions from the wicket clerk, then darted out the doors, hung a right, and charged down a path until we saw a large group of people with two National Park guides leading the way. We quietly joined at the end of the group.

We seemed to have not missed anything, the guide at the front of the group was starting to tell the story of how the cave was formed, pointing to the geological structure of the area (mostly limestone, almost a prerequisite for forming a cave), the type of climate in south-central Kentucky, and the cave’s location to larger bodies of water. The guide also introduced himself (alas, I cannot remember his name) and his partner whom I believe was named Bill.

Upon finding the group, we had started to walk into a ravine. The ravine had a path built in the middle of the floor for tour groups to gain easier access to the cave entrances. Our destination was called the Historic Entrance, and was the nearest to the Visitor’s Center. There were a few other entrances to the cave (probably because accessing those areas would require a several hour round-trip trek through the cave’s winding passages to get there), which appeared to be mostly elevators.

We arrived at a large depression in the ground (possibly a shallow sinkhole), with a staircase running down the edge of the depression to the floor. Just before we started to descend, our more talkative guide (in fact, he was the only one who spoke during the entire two hours — I think Bill was there only so our primary guide never had to stop talking to turn the lights on and off, or keep an eye on the people in the rear) told everyone to “give your tickets to the most responsible person in your group, and then have her give them to me”. Unlike others in the tour group, we already knew who the most responsible person was.

There were also a couple basic rules: stay with the group, and don’t remove anything from the cave. This included dirt, rocks, cave crickets, bats, fish, and retired Park Rangers. (Another dose of dry wit from our guide.)

And so we started down the stairs, slippery with wear and water, which continually dripped from the upper lip of the hole. At the bottom we encountered a large steel bar gate covering the entrance. This was assumedly to keep unguided visitors from getting hopelessly lost inside (which was not an impossibility). The floor inside was dirt, but very tightly packed from millions of feet walking over it. Along the right side of the passageway was a tube of some kind, buried partly in the floor. About halfway down the 300 foot hall was scientific equipment, measuring the speed of the wind and its temperature.

Like most large caves, Mammoth Cave “breathed” with the seasons. During the summer it exhaled and during the winter it inhaled. Winter having ended, the cave was beginning to exhale. The breeze was surprisingly stiff, about 10 km/h. It was also fairly cool. The inside of the cave was 54 degrees Fahrenheit (about 12 degrees Celsius), which almost immediately started my leg hairs to stand on end. I should have worn my jeans.

We arrived at the first room on the tour, which I believe was called Grand Central Station or The Rotunda. Either way, the room was huge: at least 500 feet in diametre and 50 feet tall. Small lights (compared to the rest of the structure) gave off a slight glow which illuminated enough of the cave to see without flashlights or other extra lighting. The room was almost circular, with two large hallways extending further into the rock. The ceiling was domed in steps, formed when parts of the ceiling collapsed. The floor of the room was mostly dirt, but had several holes dug into it, like those of an archeological site.

There was good reason for the holes. Our guide (I’ll leave Bill out of the picture, since he really didn’t do much) started into the history of the cave, covering the first few million years in about thirty seconds. The human history started with the Native Indians, who used to come into the cave to collect minerals such as gypsum. Then with the arrival of the Revolutionary War, the cave came into use again because it could provide the one thing the American colonies needed to defeat the British: salt peter.

Long, straight trees were cut down and bored out with a long drill to form tubes. One end of the tubes was tapered, then butted with the flat end of another tube. This process was repeated over and over again until a long wooden pipe ran from outside the Historic Entrance to the middle of the room we were standing in. (This was the tube that we saw walking into the cave, still preserved in its location even after 200 years.) The water was used to leech the sodium nitrate from the soil, which was then dried out, collected, and hauled by cart to the surface. The sodium nitrate was then converted to potassium nitrate, which when mixed with charcoal and sulfur, became gunpowder.

Our guide then told us that many historians believe that a huge amount of minerals were extracted from the cave during the Revolutionary War, something on the order of several thousand tons. I simply couldn’t fathom that amount of material being removed, and still seeing so much matter remaining. Our guide however, had his own theory — that amount was significantly lower.

He explained that the mine (as it was referred to) existed for seven years from 1776 to 1783. During that time, it was possible to have extract the amount of material that the historians claimed was removed. The guide’s theory was based on accounts of several cave-ins, and massive tremors that kept just about everyone out for nearly four years. The amount of nitrates that could have been removed was therefore significantly lower.

At that time, he indicated the holes in the floor of the room. The were remnants of the original mines left behind by the slaves and their overseers. The water tank that had once stood over them had since been destroyed. An iron railing around the holes kept people from walking into the pits.

Finishing his speech, the guide then led us down the left hallway. The tunnel was about 50 feet in diametre, and dimly lit. The geologic history of the cave was covered in substantially more detail, including the past three cave-ins. I suddenly wondered just how stable the cave was, not wanting to be crushed under 20 tons of falling rock. But I wasn’t too keen on frightening anyone and kept my thoughts to myself.

After a couple of stops and a long winding walk, we came to a small set of displays showing a few of the artifacts found in the cave. These included sandals and reed torches the Native Indians had used to explore the cave. Sadly, the original specimens were no longer available, due to theft which either led to the items being stolen or put away for safe keeping.

It was then to pass around the Giant’s Coffin and into the cave requisite Fat Man’s Misery / Tall Man’s Agony. A short, narrow passageway that only a kid could love. This was a long one too, winding around until we entered into a keyhole-shaped tunnel, eventually landing us in another largish room. We were told that the restrooms we would see were mirages. Either lack of funding or broken equipment led to the toilets being taken out of service.

This room was a crossroads for the cave. Here we could go up into the “upper” regions of that area of the cave, or go down to the lower areas where the cave fish and cave crickets lived. (Dhar had caught a brief glimpse of one in the dim light as we staggered through the previous passageway.) The room had been discovered about a century earlier by a black slave, who was a professional tour guide in the cave. He had entered the room from the same route as us, but the bottom of the keyhole had been filled in with rocks and debris at the time. The same slave had mapped most of the cave within an hour’s walk of the Historic Entrance.

Another requisite of cave visitation soon arrived upon us: the lights were turned off. Urban dwellers can never know the feeling of having two of your senses shut off completely. When the lights go out, there is total blackness. An unlit night sky in the middle of the densest forest doesn’t even come close to the darkness achieved at 300 feet below the surface. It’s chillingly silent too, no-one spoke … I don’t think many breathed. For a full minute we were left in the isolation, and it’s a feeling not soon forgotten.

With the lights back on a moment later, we continued into the upper regions of the cave. Up there it was much wetter than the other areas of the cave we had been in. Small streams flowed along the sides of the tunnels, heavy dripping echoed from all around, even the air felt damp.

After a while we found ourselves in one of the showcase areas of the cave. Here was Bottomless Pit (in reality only a couple hundred feet, but with the lights off you’d never know), which we walked over on a catwalk. It was a long way to the bottom, at which we could see a light green pool of water. I tried to take a picture, but didn’t leave the exposure on long enough.

We then entered Mammoth Dome, a room so tall it couldn’t have fit lengthwise in The Rotunda. Water fell constantly from the ceiling — everyone got a little wet regardless of where they stood. Flowstone coated the walls and created a few large formations at the rear of the room. From there we climbed a huge steel tower (erected when the cave came under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service), and exited through a tunnel at the top of the room.

From there we walked through a few passageways until we entered another large tunnel, about the same size as the one we had gone down near the beginning of the tour. To our left was intense darkness, and a sign warning visitors not to wander down the tunnel without a guide. The path was rigged with motion sensors, used either to turn on the lights or warn Security.

We headed right and continued along a long bend until we found ourselves in the right tunnel leading from The Rotunda. Here our guide thanked us for following the rules, and leaving the Park Rangers where we found them. We crossed the dirt floor of the immense room and went out through the entrance tunnel. I attempted to take an exposure picture of The Rotunda, but my lack of a tripod didn’t make for a clear picture.

As we reached the cave entrance, a small bat joined the exodus. No bigger than a baseball glove (wingspan and all), the little fledermaus couldn’t get out through the steel bars without veering away and into the exiting group. A few people yelped in fright and tried to back away. I tried to get a good look at it without interrupting its flight plan. But soon we were in the warmth of the sun, and heading back to the ravine path.

Once again our guide thanked us for the tour, we thanked him and Bill for their time. The guide suggested that he and Bill would be glad to share some stories of the cave if someone bought them lunch. I considered it for a moment, thinking of all the interesting information we could dig out of them. Instead the four of us returned to the Behemoth.

It was time for lunch, and we were starving. We were out of breakfast food, and were about to polish off the last of all the food we had. We circled around the parking lot until we found one of the park roadways, then drove along until we found an open picnic site. Only two other vehicles were in the vicinity: one other family having lunch, and a few workmen renovating the washrooms nearby.

It was lunch time. The barbeque came out to cook hot dogs, and the stove inside the van was turned on to cook the macaroni and cheese. It would be a fairly simple meal: President’s Choice White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese Dinner, and a few hot dogs to go along. It wasn’t quite as basic as Kraft Dinner and wieners, but came reasonably close to being typical student fare.

That was assuming of course, that one recognized it as such. But Dhar wasn’t a typical student. Dhar had never had anything like Kraft Dinner before. I stood there in silent awe. I had met a person who had never eaten something I would eat for weeks on end because it was the cheapest thing I knew of.

Our lunch was nothing special, and we treated it no different than any other. The pot of macaroni and cheese quickly vanished, and the last of the hot dogs were eaten. When we were finished, the last of our food was gone. From then on, we would have to buy the rest of our meals. We cleaned the area up, disposing of the waste, packed up the barbeque, cleaned the dishes, and hit the road.

Returning to the I-65, we entered the northbound lanes with Dhar behind the wheel. Next stop: we didn’t know. After Graceland, we had started to play the trip more by ear. Mammoth Cave had never been a suggestion until we had entered Mississippi State. Having left our last destination, we had no formal idea of where we were going, only that it was in the general direction of home.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 960502.145

Day 12

The KOA was deserted when we woke up this morning. We then ventured to Mammoth Cave. Much more “natural” than Cave of the Winds – where the floors were cement, you couldn’t tell. It was cold inside, only 54 degrees F at best.

Last night we had a long chat about a great many things, mostly about sex and relationships.

We’re currently on our way north towards home. Don’t know where we’re stopping next. Forgot to send Kathryn a postcard from Horse Cave / Mammoth Cave. Oh well…

Hard to believe this trip is ending so soon. I don’t want to go back to life. I want to stay here where I don’t have responsibility except for myself.

A sure sign of a good vacation is how much you don’t want to go home. None of us really wanted to. If we had the choice, I think we would’ve kept rolling as far as our credit limits would’ve allowed. Nevertheless, deep inside we were responsible and we knew that as much as we didn’t want to go, home was were we had to be. Maybe not so much with Dhar and I, but Eric and Thea were expecting their parents to return home from their trek across America.

Around 16:00 we arrived in the Louisville area. Here we had to switch Interstates so we could continue in the proper direction. This necessitated a shift from I-65 to I-265, then to I-71. We stayed on I-71 for almost another two hours before arriving at I-75, which took us due north into Cincinnati, Ohio at around 18:00.

I am a child of the 70’s — I grew up watching WKRP In Cincinnati. I remembered the opening theme, where the camera pans through the downtown core along one of the highways. It looked a little too urbanized, but it was my only impression of Cincinnati. I always had a desire to one day see the city, and try to spot the building that broadcasted Doctor Johnny Fever to the world (or at least the Greater Cincinnati area).

Alas, it was not to be. The I-75 crossed to what looked like the west side of the city, and revealed nothing. We continued up I-75 until we reached I-275. By this point we’d figured out that we needed to be on I-71 again, which took us in a more northeasterly direction, more appropriate for our triumphant return to the Great White North. We traveled east on I-275 for six miles until joining up with I-71 to head northeast.

About an hour after leaving the Greater Cincinnati area, our stomachs began to growl profusely again. It seemed time to feed the monsters within. Luckily for us, we were in a 30 mile stretch in the middle of southern Ohio that had no places to stop and buy dinner. We came across our salvation at a Shoney’s in Jeffersonville.

Americans seemed to be obsessed with restaurant chains that mimic home cooking. I’ve been to several, and for some strange reason they all have pluralized names. We pulled up, tried to make ourselves look as presentable as possible, then sauntered in for our repast. Just inside the door awaited luscious desserts all waiting to be sampled. But sugar wasn’t high on my priority list at the time, I was more interested in something solid.

We were led to a table by the hostess, and greeted by our waitress Christina a few moments later. It was now 19:30, and if nothing else the sounds emanating from our abdomens indicated that if we didn’t receive sustenance soon, we would start eating the table.

Dhar seemed to have his head stuck in New Orleans, he ordered the seafood trio to calm his nerves. Likewise with Rebecca, who didn’t seem to get enough blackened red fish at Cafï ¿ ½ Rue Bourbon, she opted for the blackened cod. Stefan went for the charbroiled chicken, and I for an eight ounce sirloin steak. All of us took the salad bar option, we knew that no matter what we would get our money’s worth there.

For the next 10 minutes we gorged ourselves on salads of all kinds. Then our entrees appeared. I couldn’t believe the speed at which our meals had arrived. I hadn’t had enough time to eat the second salad! I’ll tell you something: Shoney’s doesn’t sacrifice quality for their speed — our meals were delicious. (Mind you, if the last meal was macaroni and cheese, nearly anything from a restaurant will be delicious.)

It took less time to eat our entrees than it took us to park, make sure we weren’t disgusting, climb out of the van, and come into the restaurant. When Christina returned to ask what we thought of our meals, I caught the look of stifled astonishment to the speed our eating habits. Dessert went substantially slower, and only Rebecca and I indulged ourselves in that.

Rebecca wanted coffee. I don’t think she’d had coffee since the Perkins we went to in Kansas. She actually shook a little when she started drinking it, but soon the look of a devoted caffeine addict crossed her face and she slipped into her own little coffee coma. My kick at the cat came with an Oreo Cookie Sundae. This manifestation of evil was so loaded with sugar, I was wired until we reached Cleveland.

At 20:00, we were back on board the Behemoth and heading northeast towards New York State. We could’ve saved some time and money by taking I-75 through Toledo and around the west end of Lake Erie. That would have not only returned us to Canada (and ultimately, home) much sooner, but avoided the toll booths in New York. But Niagara Falls was now on the agenda, no matter what time we got there. And so we drove.

Sometime around 23:00 to 00:00 (and deep inside Ohio), we had to stop for gas … the Behemoth was running low. Wherever we were, it wasn’t heavily populated — we hadn’t seen much other than tree silhouettes for the past hour. We pulled into the cheapest station on the off-ramp and promptly set about refilling our tanks. I made a quick escape into the station to get some snack foods.

Dhar was having a conversation with some of the local teens when I returned, two men and a slightly younger woman. They were at least 16 years old (looked closer to 18), as they were driving a Jeep pickup truck. I ignored the initial banter and climbed in through the side door to put my loot in the fridge to keep cool.

The two men disappeared into the station store a moment later, and the woman came over to view the Behemoth. I quickly became interested in the conversation again. We invited her in, and asked her to excuse the general mess we had inside. She was just short of amazed at the vehicle we had in our possession. She was even more amazed when she found out whereabouts we had been in the last 11 days. She commented that she and her friends had similar aspirations, but didn’t know how they were going to go about doing it.

Soon the two men returned to the truck, and the woman bounced out after them. Almost immediately Stefan and Rebecca jumped into the back, declaring that it was someone else’s turn to drive. Still wired from the Oreo Sundae, I volunteered and climbed behind the wheel. A moment later we were back on the I-71 heading for home.

We had come to the realization that we were only five hours from home, and there wasn’t really anything along the way that we just had to see. It was a quick decision to make a last push for home. Even then, we still wouldn’t arrive until almost daybreak.

About 30 miles outside Cleveland we broke from I-71 to I-271 to skirt around the outer edges of the city, eventually picking up I-90 on the eastern side. This took us along the south shore of Lake Erie through the rest of Ohio, into the 47 mile stretch of I-90 as it went through Pennsylvania, finally turning into the New York State Thruway once we crossed the state line.

Despite the short distance we had to cover, Pennsylvania was a long state, due entirely to the conversation I had with Rebecca. I have no recollection how we got onto the topic, but we entered into a heated debate about definition. For those of you just joining us, Rebecca is an educated expert in women’s studies and sexuality. I’m an English major. Differences were bound to exist.

We got onto a discussion of Freud (as in Dr. Sigmund, obsessed with possessing his mother). I personally don’t think very highly of Freud, I think he spent too much time relating everything to sex. (I don’t think he got laid very often.) Rebecca told me of one of Freud’s theories that said children are very sexual beings. At first I thought she said “sensual”, which I partly agreed to. “Sexual” on the other hand, I completely objected to that.

Again, I repeat that I’m an English major. Hence, I know and follow dictionary meanings. I have this kooky perception that keeps me from inventing new definitions for words — otherwise our language gets too unwieldy and difficult to use (as if it already isn’t). “Sensual” I can understand because the word applies to the senses: kids touch and eat everything in sight, regardless of what it is. “Sexual” I disagree with because according to my dictionaries (mental and Random House) give no indication of definition outside of that pertaining to sex. In my opinion, children do not have, nor should participate in, sex.

But I remind you, this is solely my opinion. Rebecca was all for using “sexual” as an adjective for children, comparing it with “sensual”. This she got from Freud. Again, I don’t think too highly of Freud. I think he needed to use a dictionary more often.

New York was long and boring. The I-90 through New York is much like several Interstates that run through the middle of other states: there’s nothing on either side but trees. A little over an hour after entering the state, the Buffalo city limits sign whipped by our windows. What little exhaustion had started to creep into my system suddenly fled as the goal of our day rapidly appeared. It was after 03:00 and I’d been driving for over seven hours … the sight of home only made me want to drive all the more.

We hit our first toll just after seeing the city limits sign. I griped about it silently, tossed in the toll, then sped on to the interchange for the I-190. Less than a quarter-mile into the I-190, another toll and another gripe. We headed due west until the I-190 curved north again to the Peace Bridge off-ramp. We entered the bridge toll area and drove up to one of the non-truck gates. All but the truck gate were closed for the night. We hastily backed up, crossed a few lanes, and scooted up to the truck booth. We paid our toll, and crossed the bridge to freedom.

Upon entering New York State, we had taken the precaution of figuring out exactly how much stuff we had bought while on the trip. Dhar had won by a landslide, easily bringing back more stuff than the rest of us combined. But we were all under our personal limits. When we reached customs on the Canada side of the bridge, we were ready for any question.

“Good evening,” said the Customs clerk. He was a man in his 30’s, with a black mustache and hair.

“‘Evening!” I replied, a little too cheerily.

“Where are you folks coming from?” he asked.

“All over the United States. Just finishing a 12 day tour.”

“I see. Everyone in there Canadian?”

“Yessir!”

“Who’s all in there?”

“Uh, me, her, him, and him!”

(Okay, so we were ready for all the questions except who we were. Let’s face it, after that long together, I think just about anyone would have a tough time figuring out who they were.)

“Names?” The clerk wasn’t amused at my blunder. We quickly dug out our birth certificates and drivers licenses.

“Anything to declare?”

“Nope!”

“Welcome home.”

We were home. Almost immediately I felt like someone had just put a warm wool Hudson’s Bay blanket around me and handed me a cup of hot maple syrup. We drove onto the QEW and started towards Oakville. We drove to Highway 420, which we then took to downtown Niagara Falls so we could get a look at the Falls, even though it was 04:00 in the morning. Along the way we stopped at a Country Time donut shop to grab a quick snack. It was such a relief to taste a Canadian donut again (even if it wasn’t from Tim Horton’s).

Downtown Niagara Falls was utterly dead. The entire time we were there, I only saw one other car on the road (not counting the two cop cars, those were expected). The night lights on the Falls were off, I had assumed they stayed on all night. Much to my disappointment, they didn’t. All we could see was a dark wall, the mist in the air, and water on the road where the mist fell. We made two passes and headed back out to the QEW.

This part I could nearly do in my sleep. I hadn’t driven it too many times, but the route was very familiar to me. We passed over the Welland Canal, through St. Catherines, through Grimsby (which many of my friends testify that it’s a gateway to another dimension), past Hamilton, over the Burlington Skyway, through Burlington, and into Oakville.

As we neared the off-ramp for Trafalgar Road, I suddenly came to the shocking realization that I didn’t have a house key. We would have to sleep in the Behemoth one more night. I pulled onto Trafalgar Road, and headed south to Cornwall Road. I took this east to Maplegrove Road, then south again to Devon Road. East briefly to Pinehurst Road, south to Gatestone Avenue, and parked right behind my father’s van at 05:45. We quickly unpacked the sleeping bags and passed out.

Observer’s Log: Supplementary

Arriving at a quarter to five in the morning, we have finally ended our tour around the continent. Unfortunately we must still camp a night as I do not have the house keys.The border crossing was interesting – when asked who was in the van, I replied: “Me, her, him, and him.” But we had no other problems. We even saw some of the Falls. It’s good to be home.

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