Devil’s Tower: Not Enough to Move the Needle

Devil's Tower, WY Sept. 2013: Click to enlarge

Devil’s Tower, WY Sept. 2013: Click to enlarge

I drove to Devil’s Tower, the famous Wyoming monolith so popular with Sturgis bikers, on my way to Michigan.  I could see the Tower from just outside the entrance and, unimpressed, did not see fit to enter the park.  Never before have I been so disinterested in a destination as to strike it from the itinerary upon arrival.  Perhaps this is what happens when one sees the number of special places that I have, and has the brain wiring of an adrenaline junkie as I do.  The neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky has noted that when the brain is conditioned to respond to thrills, an ever-increasing level of excitement is required to move the proverbial needle.

I once studied with a talented Spanish professor who said, “To the poor man, a loaf of bread is a banquet.  To the rich man, a banquet is nothing.  In this way, the poor man is richer than the rich man.”

To my observation this statement holds true often in life.  I was unimpressed with a destination that many people will rave about forever.  Elsewhere in life others may take for granted the valuable things they have, unaware of how much others would want the same.  I can’t change the way I felt at Devil’s Tower, but I am more conscious of the things I have to be thankful for.

Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

I drove into the Mammoth Cave visitor center ten minutes before closing time.  The staff, typical of Southern park rangers, was highly motivated and professional.  They were happy to help me plan cave tours despite the late hour.  I learned to great disappointment that the Wild Tour through the backcountry of the cave was sold out for the next week.  The more I heard about this tour over the next two days, the more thankful I was to be turned away.  People related stories of aches and pains, as well as a few other visitors suffering a sprained ankle or injured shoulder from trouble navigating the tiny passageways.  If a person gets stuck in a passageway, he is pulled out by force with little regard for potential injuries.

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

Instead I took three other cave tours inside of a day, which kept me underground for a total of six hours.  Wild tour conditions notwithstanding, Mammoth cave is named for its high ceilings, wide passageways, and immense overall size.  The typical cave setting on my three tours involved ceilings of rock three to seven stories high and walkways ten to fifty yards wide.  So far over 1300 miles of cave have been mapped.  The rangers assured us that far more awaited exploration.  Although Mammoth is not officially recognized as the world’s largest cave, the rangers were adamant that it should be.  Further exploration of the cave is very difficult and time-consuming, requiring multiple days of camping in the cave’s outer reaches.  Few people want to do it, and exploration rarely occurs anymore.

My first tour guide was a pleasant, knowledgeable young man and one of the few explorers who had recently mapped new sections in the cave.  His assistant was a nag who kept asking the group to slow its walking pace.  I did my best to ignore her and stuck near the front of the line.  While I contemplated the uselessness of her presence, she seemed to think that she was executing a critical duty in handsome fashion.

Green River above Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

Green River near Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

The remaining cave tours were guided by a two-man team of rangers.  One was a middle-aged, heavy-set man who proudly declared that he was a “native hillbilly from Western Kentucky.”  The other was an athletic gentleman who retired from a career as an officer on nuclear submarines.  Both were fun and interesting guides.

The cave entrances are reached by roads inaccessible to the public, on which tourists are transported by bus.  On one such ride the former Navy man noticed a Range Rover following our bus.  Upon arrival at the cave two tan, lanky young men, each well over 6 feet tall, approached our group and told the rangers they missed our bus “by about 8 seconds.”

“The tour leaves at 3, not 3 and 8 seconds,” replied the Navy man.  Calling the visitor center from the phone in the cave’s doorway, he coordinated approval for the smiling young men to join our tour.  I chatted with them while the ranger worked, and they told me about their recent trip to South Africa.  The ranger was ready to get underway and again addressed the two latecomers.  “I need you boys to lock the door for me after everybody’s inside,” he said.  “Yes, sir,” the men replied simultaneously.  With that were off on the day’s final cave tour.  Given the way our ranger led tours, I could easily see him commanding a nuclear submarine.

Sink above Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

Sink near Mammoth Cave, Kentucky: Click to enlarge.

The park is almost as proud of its above-ground hiking trails as it is the cave.  Hikers walk through dense, tall deciduous forests set on steep, rocky slopes.  The woods teem with deer, squirrels, and turkeys.  Geological features known as sinks are a distinctive characteristic of the park and the surrounding region.  A sink is a circular depression in the ground, typically 30-80 yards in diameter and 100+ feet deep.  Runoff flows through these porous sinks into underground rivers and streams, some of which flow through Mammoth Cave.

The Green River flows above through the park and is accessible by boat or trail.  The muddy flow seemed strong and rose fairly high up the banks.  Still, one could hardly hear the water.  The Green was the quietest river I had ever visited, and its stealth added to the peacefulness of the forest setting.

Nashville, TN: Dukes of Hazzard Museum and Grand Ole Opry

Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, TN: Click to enlarge.

Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, TN: Click to enlarge.

Passing through the northern terminus of the Natchez Trace brought me to Nashville, TN, the world’s country music capital.  I could spare no more than a few hours here if I wanted to arrive on time at my next destination, Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave.  Nashville has no shortage of attractions, but aside from the Trace they seem to be artsy and indoors.

Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, TN: Click to enlarge.

Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, TN: Click to enlarge.

I put the Grand Ole Opry at the top of my list.  Being a Luddite without a navigation system, I relied on an 11-year old road atlas to get me there.  The map wasn’t detailed, so I stopped at a Waffle House to confirm my course.  Waffle House is as ubiquitous in the South as Starbucks is in the West.  Here, I walked into one for the first time.

I laid my atlas down at the bar and asked the waitress if I had the right exit for the Opry.  She referred me to a senior gentleman who knew the area well.  The waitress was also a local and one might expect her to know the way to the city’s major attraction.  This was one of many examples I’ve seen around the country of locals being unsure of how to navigate their hometowns.  I wonder how well I would do if a random tourist asked me for directions in Denver.

The man at the bar was very friendly and showed me the way to the Opry.  “Enjoy yourself,” he said in the warm and aristocratic tone typical of older southerners.

General Lee, Dukes of Hazzard Museum, Nashville, TN: Click to enlarge.

General Lee, Dukes of Hazzard Museum, Nashville, TN: Click to enlarge.

Cooter's Towtruck, Dukes of Hazzard Museum, Nashville, TN: Click to enlarge.

Cooter’s Towtruck, Dukes of Hazzard Museum, Nashville, TN: Click to enlarge.

On the way to the Opry I ran into Willie Nelson’s Dukes of Hazzard museum and store.  I was devoted to the Dukes of Hazzard TV series as a kid and felt compelled to stop.  My parents couldn’t stand it, however, so I was sent to the small TV upstairs every Wednesday night.  The show was based on the exploits of an actual moonshiner in North Carolina and ran from 1979 to 1985.  The museum is free and features the key vehicles used in the show: The General Lee muscle car, Daisy’s Jeep, and Cooter’s tow truck.  I understand that many “General” cars were required to film the episodes so I’m not sure of the display model’s authenticity.  The walls are filled with newspaper articles and photos covering the show and its cast over the years.  Story boards discuss the show’s unexpected, huge, and long-running popularity.  Episodes played on a 1980’s vintage television in set in one corner, with orange and yellow plastic chairs provided for viewing comfort.  I sat down but the show did not hold my attention for more than a few minutes.

I found the Opry’s architecture and ambience to be unremarkable and typical of a major concert venue.  It’s flanked by a large, new-looking shopping mall.  After a walk around the mall to bask in the air conditioning, I headed for Kentucky.

Meriwether Lewis Death Site, TN

Meriwether Lewis Grave, Natchez Trace Parkway, TN

Meriwether Lewis Grave, Natchez Trace Parkway, TN: Click to enlarge.

I visited the site where Meriwether Lewis of the historic Lewis and Clark Expedition was killed.  Lewis was traveling the Trace on his way to Washington, DC to present the expedition journals when he died here on October 11, 1809.  The cause of his death remains unknown.  Lewis’ grave lies within 100 yards of the pictured Grinder House in which he died.  The site is located near the Trace’s northern terminus in Tennessee.  As in many parts of the Trace I had it to myself.

Historical information provided by the National Park Service and the Tennessee Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Grinder House in which Meriwether Lewis died, Natchez Trace Parkway, TN

Grinder House in which Meriwether Lewis died, Natchez Trace Parkway, TN:  Click to enlarge.

Meriwether Lewis Gravesite, Natchez Trace Parkway, TN

Meriwether Lewis Gravesite, Natchez Trace Parkway, TN:  Click to enlarge.

Meriwether Lewis Grave, Natchez Trace Parkway, TN

Meriwether Lewis Grave, Natchez Trace Parkway, TN:  Click to enlarge.


The Old Trace near its northern terminus outside Nashville, TN: Click to enlarge.

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL Part 2

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL: Click to enlarge.

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL: Click to enlarge.

It was getting late, so I headed to the coon dog cemetery while there was still daylight.  Only bona fide coon hounds are eligible to be buried there and approval is needed from a local authority.  I found rows of well kept gravestones, with the customary profusion of US and Confederate flags.  If not for the signs and inscriptions, the setting could pass for a human cemetery.

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL: Click to enlarge.

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL: Click to enlarge.

As I drove back from the cemetery, Junior flagged me down on the shoulder in front of his ranch.  He wanted to show me a raccoon he’d live-trapped in a shed, the latest of many awaiting relocation a few miles away.  The animal was the size of an average cat, with charcoal gray fur.  It hunkered in one corner of the wire cage looking sad.

By this time a local friend had also stopped to chat, though I never caught his name.  He drove a blue-green Chevy pickup that was perhaps 10 years old.  Dressed in a collared Airgas shirt and jeans, the man was heading home from work.  He had an athletic build and spoke with a thick accent that was distinct from Junior’s.  The three of us passed guns around as Junior showed us his vast personal collection out the back of his truck.  After 20 minutes I made my goodbyes and headed back to the Trace to find a campsite for the night.  “You enjoy your time here,” Junior said as I headed out.

Near my highway exit I noticed the other gentleman driving behind me.  He waved and exited to the Trace in front of me, pulling into the first Park Service turnout.  I parked near him and walked over, thinking I had left something behind.  I didn’t know why else he would have followed me.  “You interested in some fun?” he asked.  “No, I don’t get into that,” I said.  “Are you straight?” he asked.  “I’m as straight as they come,” I replied.  The man immediately appeared very embarrassed and apologized profusely.  As he answered texts from his wife inquiring on his whereabouts, he told me in effect that he was new to being gay.  “I don’t know how to read guys,” he said.  What gave him the wrong idea about me was that I looked at him twice while talking with Junior, which apparently is “the signal.”  “Don’t think nothin’ about it,” he reassured me.  With that he drove home to his wife.  I was not upset, but as I drove up the Trace I began to feel sick to my stomach, and that feeling persisted until I fell asleep.

Junior owns what sounds like a burlesque operation, his Buzzard’s Roost Massage business.  As he describes it, groups of older women come to the ranch for a “girls’ getaway.”  Junior performs massages on them.  With a twinkle in his eye, Junior told me that he keeps KY Warming Jelly on hand.  It is customary for customers to hang their bras on a rack of antlers when they leave.  I did not pursue this topic, as what Junior told me in passing was disturbing enough.

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL Part 1

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL:  Click to enlarge.

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL: Click to enlarge.

For ten years I saved a 50-word magazine article describing a coon dog cemetery in Cherokee, AL.  Now that I was driving the Trace, I could finally see it.  The cemetery happened to be 35 minutes away from the Trace, and so in the scheme of things I could not have been much luckier.  That assumes one knows the way.  Once you exit the interstate in Cherokee, the roads are poorly marked and intersect at odd angles.

After driving through a neighborhood of ranch style homes, I headed down a rural two-lane road flanked by tall grass and tall trees on both sides.  Seeing a cemetery coming up on the left, I parked in a turnout across the road to see if that was it.  This was the town’s human cemetery, so I crossed back to the truck.  I heard a rumbling around a curve in the road, and soon a large bearded man pulled up in his ATV.  “Whatta ya know well?” he asked in a friendly tone.  His ATV emanated a strong smell of two-cycle engine exhaust, and a large, black, aging dog rode unrestrained in the back.  The man wore a white short-sleeve T-shirt under full-length denim overalls.  The man’s frame was so large that his Timex Ironman watch could not encircle his wrist without digging into his skin and creating a prominent scab.  I told him I was looking for the coon dog cemetery, and he confirmed it was down the road.  His name was Junior Williams, owner of a ranch and massage parlor nearby.

Junior was an infantry soldier in the Vietnam War and made an agreement with God that if he survived the war intact, he would go back home to Cherokee and spend the rest of his life there.  He got through the war in one piece and kept his end of the bargain.  Junior related a recent dispute involving the coon dog cemetery.  Each year the local military veterans hold a picnic at the cemetery and play Taps at the event’s close.  For the most recent event a town council official threatened to retaliate if Taps were played.  Her reasoning was that playing taps for dogs diminished her son’s military service.  The son was killed in action.  Junior explained that they played Taps to celebrate the freedom in our country, not to honor the dogs.  The official was persuaded and the picnic went off as planned.

Junior told me about his run-ins with trespassers.  Two “Yankees” from Illinois parked their sedan off the road to hide their presence.  They were there to pick ginseng and other herbs.  Junior confronted them.  “Have you seen the movie Deliverance?  When they saw me, I think they heard the banjos in their heads.”  The Yankees nervously assured Junior that they would never come back and left in a hurry.

We laughed and Junior became pensive for a moment.  “I got a son that’s a Yankee,” he said in a soft, sad voice as if he were confiding a serious problem.  “I don’t know, you might be a Yankee, too,” he said.  Unaffected, I told him I wasn’t sure how Colorado was categorized.  Cheering up, he told me Colorado was never on one side or the other of the Mason-Dixon Line so I was in the clear.  Roughly a year before, Junior fired a warning shot close over the head of his aforementioned son when the man drove onto his ranch without prior notice.  Despite Junior’s assurance that his son was welcome as long as he called ahead, the man has not returned for a visit.  Junior has had several problems with poachers and other trespassers over the years with little action from the police.  In frustration Junior told the sheriff that the next time Junior reports a trespasser, the sheriff should send the coroner instead of a deputy.  “What I have is mine.  I paid for it,” he said.  “I worked for a company for 37 years – one company.”

Elvis’ Childhood Home, Tupelo, MS

Safety bracelet and good luck charm from a new friend outside Tupelo, MS.

Safety bracelet and good luck charm from a new friend outside Tupelo, MS: Click to enlarge.

Where it passes through Jackson and Tupelo, the Natchez Trace Parkway is used by residents as a convenient local park.  One afternoon, after a fruitless hour on the phone arguing with a vendor, I continued north on the Trace and stopped at the Chickasaw Council House exhibit near Tupelo.  I ran into a nurse, perhaps in her 20’s, making a quick visit to nature on her way home from a tough day.  She was interested to see someone with Colorado plates and had gone to school in Denver.

My new friend told me about Elvis’ boyhood home in Tupelo just a few miles away, of which I was unaware.  We chatted about, among other things, the culture of the South vs. elsewhere.  “We’re behind,” she said. “I don’t mean in a bad way.”  I agreed.  The Southern culture of friendliness, hospitality, and manners was utterly foreign to me prior to this immersion.  People are polite and helpful almost everywhere, but  the South retains a valuable cultural aspect lost and forgotten elsewhere in the country.

My friend had to get home, but she left me with a parting gift.  “My Daddy teaches water safety,” she said, and handed me the rubber bracelet in the photo.  It reads “Be Water Safe.”  The bracelet fit too tightly on my wrist so I slipped it over my truck’s gear shift, where it remains to this day.  It adds a nice touch of color to the black interior.  She gave me a Sharpie pen, “courtesy of North Mississippi Medical Center” as she put it, to aid in my navigation.  I find my way using paper maps and do not own a navigation system.  I still have the Sharpie too.

I found my way through Tupelo to Elvis’ childhood home.  It resembled a small trailer, perhaps 8 feet wide and 16 feet long with an 8-foot high roof and a fenced-in front porch barely large enough to hold 2 chairs.  It was difficult to imagine a family of 3 living inside. The home was relocated here from its original location a few blocks away.  Adjacent to the old home is a bronze, life-size statue of Elvis at age 12 holding a guitar.  A 10-foot high, semi-circular stone and concrete wall features short stories about Elvis’ early life.  Well manicured flowers and trees round out the setting.

At age 7 Elvis’ mother took him shopping at the general store to buy his birthday present.  His first choice was a .22 rifle, and his second choice was a bicycle.  Upon speaking with the salesman, Mom judged both items to be too dangerous and vetoed their purchase.  A guitar was the only remaining option.  Elvis responded petulantly but chose the guitar as better than nothing.  The instrument remained largely a hobby until his 20’s when he achieved great fame.