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.

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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.

Dalton Gang and The Jesus Christ Show

Dalton Gang house, southern Kansas: Double-click to enlarge.

Dalton Gang house, southern Kansas: Double-click to enlarge.

I embarked on my first trip to the Deep South via Kansas and Oklahoma.  My first stop was the Dalton Gang’s old house in southern Kansas.  They were infamous bank robbers and murderers in the old west days.  An escape tunnel runs from the house a few hundred yards down the hill, and it’s end is now surrounded by touristy mockups of old west structures supposedly on the Daltons’ property during their heyday.  The attraction was closed by the time I arrived, which simply meant that I could explore the grounds and buildings without any interference.  No gated areas here.

As I sped through Oklahoma’s vast uninhabited grasslands the following Sunday, my radio found the Jesus Christ Show.  The premise is that listeners call and present their dilemmas to the host, Jesus Christ himself.   I anticipated absurd dialogue, but the host (whoever his true identity) was quite reasonable and sensible in his demeanor and advice.  The callers greeted him with “Hi, Jesus” or something similar, with a degree of sincerity

Trailer Church, Northern Louisiana: Double-click to enlarge.

Trailer Church, Northern Louisiana: Double-click to enlarge.

suggesting they believed he was The One.  The first call was to settle a bible study argument over whether wine or grape juice was served at of the key events shortly before crucifixion.  Jesus assured the caller that it was wine, and explained that grape juice would make no sense given the circumstances.  He spoke in first person, authoritatively recounting his experiences from 2000 years ago.  The next caller wanted to know if eating meat was immoral.  Jesus advised that vegetarians are not morally superior to meat eaters, and if the animals in question are raised and slaughtered humanely that is acceptable.  He suggested the caller follow her diet of choice, as long as it was nutritious.  Next, a young woman wanted to know, in order to explain to a prolific “friend,” why the church frowned on sexual promiscuity.  Jesus discussed how this and similar stands by the church are practically relevant and in one’s best interest in the modern day; and that they are not just relics from archaic times.  And so it went for 45 minutes of radio reception.  The host maintained a kind and patient tone with each caller, and was interesting to hear.  Who do you suppose was truly taking the calls?

Trailer Church, Northern Louisiana: Double-click to enlarge.

Trailer Church, Northern Louisiana: Double-click to enlarge.

The Jesus Christ show was a light warm-up to the strong religious culture throughout Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kentucky.  I have never seen so many churches.  The majority were in double-wide trailers, with a few having pillar-style fancy structures and large cemeteries.

Church in rural Kentucky: Double-click to enlarge.

Church in rural Kentucky: Double-click to enlarge.