Dinner to go (to)

August 31, 2010

August 10

Pippa Passes--the first, and easiest of the day's 5 climbs

Last night’s restlessness was caused, in part, by anxiety about my task today–to climb over 5 high ridges. In the West, these might be called passes. Some out here are termed Gaps, but most of the ones I was to cross today had no name, just a steep profile on my map. Ironically, my first climb, which had a name–Pippa Passes–was to be the easiest of the set.

The day took me deeper into western Appalachia. I began seeing more sand, gravel and coal mining, which in these parts was done by strip mining. These efforts opened and widened the valleys. The houses were often in need of maintenance, and many yards were full of junk cars, trucks and machinery. I continued to be unscathed by dogs. In the first case I just out pedaled a little one. His short legs couldn’t match the distance per foot my large wheels could travel. In the second case I think I just befuddled the pooch. I yelled at it to go home, and it simply stopped in its tracks–confused at being put on the defensive, I guess.

Kentucky candidates gave voters a multi-dimensional view of themselves

Personality can play a significant role in the electability of a political candidate. Given the frequency that eastern Kentucky candidates made note of their nicknames, it seemed to be a necessity to win office here. Campaign posters urging a vote for the likes of “Snoopy” Williams or “Buddy Boy” Bates frequented the roadside trees.

I had settled into a pleasure-and-pain cycle on the roads. There would be long stretches where I would follow the flat, curvy path of a river. I’d then turn, enter a town and begin a gradual climb uphill through the other end of the settlement. Then the road would jut abruptly upwards for a mile or more, peak, and send me hurtling downwards into the next town’s corridor. Many of these towns were just settlements, having no sign announcing the town limit or population count. The narrow valleys often restricted homes to a single strung-out strip on one side of the road. I began to wonder if the physical confines of these steep, narrow valleys played any role in confining the aspirations of its residents.

The narrow corridor of an Appalachian community

As the day wore on, the climbs wore more on me. Climbs 2, 3, and 4 got progressively harder. The first two-thirds of these climbs were excruciatingly steep (on one climb reaching a 10% grade), then got mercifully less so near the top. By climb 4 I needed more frequent breaks every half to three-quarter mile, as my legs ached and my heart rate had to be nearing my maximum.

By late afternoon I finally entered Elkhorn City, the outpost at the Kentucky/Virginia border. I spotted a full-blown grocery store–a rarity lately, and a welcome alternative to the canned/processed/packaged foods of the convenience stores.

Absent any parks, the convenience store sidewalk was the typical setting for the canned/packaged/processed lunch

I had made my purchases and was consuming some outside the building when a man approached me. He said he had spotted me several times in the mountains and was impressed at the apparent effort I had made to arrive here. He had recently gotten more serious about cycling and asked to take my picture and for the opportunity to ask a few questions. When he learned I would end my trip in Yorktown, Virginia, he brightened and said, “I live just across the river from there. When you finish your trip, give me a call and I’ll take you out to dinner!”

I was taken by surprise by this offer, unsure at first on how to respond. But when he handed me his name and phone number on a piece of paper, I quickly categorized this as another one of the amazing acts of kindness I had been experiencing all throughout my trip, and promised to call Wayde upon my arrival.

Entering the 10th of 11 states on my journey

From Elkhorn City it was an uphill 4 miles to the Virginia border and the motel just across the state line. I was tired, but contentedly made the climb, feeling triumphant about this latest challenge, renewed over a state border crossing, delighted with my new end-of-trip plans, and looking forward to a weekend gathering in West Virginia where I would see my family for the first time in ten weeks.


No option but to be alone

August 31, 2010

August 9

A hard-earned morning mountain top vista

Last night I had camped along a Kentucky River reservoir. Consequently, it was major work getting up from river level. After two hard climbs, I plateaud near some communication towers, signal enough that I was up pretty high. I couldn’t tell whether it was too soon in the day, or just plain steep, but my leg muscles weren’t quite ready for such effort so early. However, climbs usually have their rewards, and in this case it was distant views across layers and layers of increasingly muted ridge tops. Also, traffic was pretty minimal on these back roads, allowing me to command the lane during the long, curvy downhills.

Kentucky drivers continued to be as courteous to me as those in previous states. They gave me wide berth when passing, and were very patient in waiting for an opening to pass. Sometimes their opportunity would take a few minutes as I labored up a winding hill at 4.5 miles per hour–not much beyond walking speed. The steady sound of their straining engines was a bit unnerving and made me anxious to have them move on by.

The peacefulness of the early morning evaporated as I made my way into Hazard, one of the centers of Kentucky coal mining. I was on a wide, four-lane road, being passed by loud trucks, and needing to become extra cautious of where I rode because of all the debris on the shoulder. However, my keen attention to the road surface netted me an easily transportable souvenir–a lump of Kentucky coal.

The steep ups and downs around Hazard disappeared as I once again rode back roads along Troublesome Creek into Hindman. Today’s lodging was to be at the county historical society. Directed onto a side street in town, the sign for the historical society then pointed forward, which in this case meant forward and up. It was on top of an incredibly steep hill, which I had no desire to climb. After the even challenging push upwards, the sign at the society gate informed me it was closed due to family illness. There was no sign of the motel listed on the map, so my mind quickly shot back to the Harrodsburg dilemma. But I now knew any option did not include long, graded downhills.

An Appalachian Arts Center was around the corner on Main Street, so I stepped in there in hopes of an unknown solution. The staff person reported that the closest motels were back in Hazard. That was a journey I had no intention of repeating. Hearing my reluctance over that suggestion, she thought further and said I should try the Hindman Settlement School across the road. They had just finished hosting a conference last week, and might still be willing to accommodate me. Established in 1902, Hindman was the first rural settlement school in the United States. Its founders modeled it after Jane Addams’ Hull House. It was established before the public school system was set up in this region and introduced kindergarten and industrial education to the area.

I wandered into their unlocked main building but found no one inside. However, there was a school brochure with a phone number, so I called it and ended up speaking to some who was just one building away from mine. She suggested I come over and talk to the Director.

He was not overly friendly but courteous and granted me use of the lawn under a big maple tree and a one-time use of the shower. Having taken advantage of this, I phoned back to Minnesota to reconnect with the suburban news reporter interested in writing about my trip. It felt quite odd being interviewed while sitting on a lawn 1000 miles away from home.

I wandered back to the Arts Center to have lunch at their café and take advantage of free Wi-Fi. I reported back on my successful arrangement at the school, and the rather indifferent support from the director. They weren’t surprised at either my success or his attitude, saying that underneath that hard shell he was a softie at heart.

The café closed at 6, so I had to head back onto the street, feeling, I now realize, somewhat like a homeless person. I had no access to indoor shelter or plumbing and had no one to talk to. Deep down I had this restless urge to pick up and continue biking for a few hours in the remaining daylight. But I knew that would place me in a worse situation than I was currently in. So I wandered the streets for a bit, trekking down to a convenience store to pass the time before finally settling in to a humid tent for the night.

Into Appalachia

August 31, 2010

August 8

Knowing that more challenging terrain soon lay ahead, I gave my bike a mechanically-minded once over before leaving town. That turned out to be a wise move, since the tread on my rear tire had worn down past the outer layer in numerous spots. To be safe, I replaced both tires, which had served me well over 3800 miles.

Coal seams on the Big Hill climb

Once on the road, I quickly knew I was entering Appalachia. The first town east of Berea was named Big Hill. To get there I did a long, steady climb, passing some exposed coal seams near the top. Once I reached this higher point much of my riding was in corridors. I often traveled on level ground following creeks and rivers, only to encounter steep climbs when crossing ridges between waterways. The river and creek valleys were tall and narrow, offering little view from side to side. Tobacco fields became more numerous. I began to see more mobile homes and more homes in ramshackle condition. By the end of the day I began to feel peculiarly lonely, perhaps sensing I was entering a region more physically, economically and culturally different than any other I had been in.

Just a simple question

August 30, 2010

Aug 7

The one saving grace about yesterday’s marathon was that it changed today’s trip into Berea from a 40 to a 15-mile journey. That seemed to be all my legs cared to do today, because even though the road into town was flat, they began to ache during the final distances.

Berea's Boone Tavern Hotel

Nervous about what might be going on in Berea this weekend, I had made advance lodging reservations last night from Mt. Vernon. I had chosen the Boone Tavern Hotel, located in the middle of town next to Berea College. Its tall-columned porticos expressed quiet grandeur. My bicycling garb was out-of-place among the formally suit-coated staff, but they were well-trained enough not to cringe at my sight. It was the fanciest place I had stayed at the entire trip.

Despite its name, Boone Tavern seemed to have no connection to Daniel Boone. It is part of Berea College, and was the vision of a former college president’s wife, who felt the community lacked a suitable place to host visitors to the college.

The college has and continues to set a noble and impressive tone for the community. In 1855 John Fee, a Kentucky abolitionist, founded Berea with the intent of offering Appalachian students with high potential, but little means, an opportunity to receive higher education. Today nearly three-quarters of students come from Kentucky or the Appalachian region.

Berea was the first interracial and co-educational college in the South. Since its beginning students have paid no tuition. Today, every student gets a $102,000 scholarship and must meet the remainder of his or her tuition obligation by working jobs in the college or community. The College turns away academically qualified students if they don’t have financial need. Students’ community jobs help residents meet local food, health care and building needs. Community service programs help students fulfill the college’s mission of service to the community and supports protection of natural resources and preservation of regional culture and traditions.

An important part of the College’s commitment to Appalachia is its student crafts program. In it, students learn traditional weaving, woodworking and metal working crafts. This program has created an environment that has enticed professional artists to live and work in Berea, where some uphold the college‘s educational mission by opening their studios to the community. It was with this opportunity to meet Appalachian artists at work that I planned the rest of my day in town.

Master dulcimer maker Warren May demonstrating one of his instruments to a visitor

Around the corner in the same block as Boone Tavern was the workshop of woodworker Warren E. May. Warren had been a teacher who had gotten interested in Appalachian dulcimers through his students. After hearing them talk about the instruments their families owned Warren decided to learn more about them and began learning how to build them. He got started emulating the designs of a local master, then developed his own versions. Eventually he gave up teaching for woodworking, moving to Berea to concentrate on the craft full-time. To date he has made over 13,000 dulcimers. The Smithsonian Institution once purchased a quantity of his dulcimers to sell through their catalog. He was invited to the signing of the bill designating the dulcimer as Kentucky’s state instrument.

One of the more sophisticated designs displayed at the Berea quilt show

A striking quilt pattern

Viewers gave white glove respect to the quilts

His shop was simple, and rather sparse. Some of his non-musical creations lined the window bays, but the center of the store was the dulcimer workshop. He was demonstrating a dulcimer to another visitor as I walked in, crisply segueing through a medley of traditional and popular songs. When I got to talk to him he emphasized how much easier the dulcimer is to play compared to the guitar. There are only four strings, versus the guitar’s six, and two of those are mostly used for rhythm and chords. All of the melody notes are played in a straight line across the remaining two strings, which in his designs at least, are placed close together for “brightness.” Ultimately, he was hoping I would buy one. But the combined factors of a $375 price tag, transportation on a bike and limited success learning to play the guitar prompted me to defer the decision until some more consideration back in Saint Paul.

There was a juried quilt show going on around town during my stay. While I admittedly have not had a great interest in quilting, I was curious to see more of what is one of the representational Appalachian arts.

The work of community quilters was being shown at the local school. Some chose to create quilts based on themes chosen by the show committee. Others just displayed their best works. The quilts ranged from kitschy to interesting designs, with some seemingly technically difficult sewing work.

Having been to model train shows and bike swaps, I have learned that each has its own protocol of how you handle the goods. So I stepped back to watch the quilters‘ approach. It is with kid, or more accurately, white gloves. Since quilting is both a visual and tactile art, people like to feel as well as see the work. If you wished to touch the quilts, you were issued a set of white cotton gloves. Besides being a practical response to this desire, I thought it was a nice symbolic gesture of respect.

After only looking, not touching, the quilts, I headed down to the Old Town Artisans’ Village to watch more artists at work. I stepped into Jimmie Lou Jackson’s Hot Flash Beads store just in time to see the end of her demonstration of lampworking, a means of shaping glass without blowing air. The process involved heating colored glass rods to 2000 degrees to make them pliable. She then molded the viscous glass around a clay-coated welding rod–the coating enabling her to easily remove the bead later on. Next, she selected a different colored rod, heated it, and pulled it like taffy to make a thin strand of glass. This was the artistic part, swirling one color upon the other to make an organic design. The creation was then flattened with metal tongs and placed in a kiln to be heated at progressively lower temperatures to stabilize the glass.

Artist Jimmie Lou Jackson demonstrating the first step in lampworking: heating the base glass rod to 2000 degrees F.

Step 2 involved pulling a second glass rod into a thin strand and "painting" a design on the base

A completed lampwork bead, ready to be finished as an earring or pendant

Impressively equal to her design abilities was her grasp of physics and the physical properties of the glass and metals. She knew the coefficients of expansion of the various glasses, along with what metal additives gave the various rods their colors. This information, combined with her experience taught her, for example, never to marry Chinese glass with Oregon glass. I commented that she was a Renaissance artist, effectively combining her art and science knowledge to produce her work.

I asked for one more demonstration so that I could photograph the process for the kids I work with in Landfall and Cimarron. Hearing this, she shared an upcoming project with the local university which would tie her and other local artists’ work into the middle school curriculum. Students would come to observe, integrating art, science and writing reports into their experiences. She was delighted that she finally would be getting paid for these educational efforts she had been doing a long time for free. I wish I could have transported her and her passions to Minnesota.

I left Jimmie Lou and started wandering down the street toward the end of the artists’ workshops. On both sides of the street were chocolate and candy shops–there’s art in candy making, isn’t there? That thought didn’t cross my mind. What did was the opportunity to get some dark chocolate that had been missing in local grocery stores.

The Chocolate Factory seemed to be the logical place to go. It was small with only a couple of glass display cases full of treats. A man with a Hershey’s Chocolate cap sat behind the counter. I asked about the milk content of the chocolate, since I am lactose intolerant. He stepped into the back room to check on the ingredients, which, once informed, I declared fair game to eat. I queried him about how much time he spent making candy and the length of the various processes. He seemed very knowledgeable, so I asked the simple question “When did you start making candy?” expecting some typical answer of age 18 or 20. “When I was twelve,” he replied.

At that time he was selected to come to the Hershey Industrial School. It was a school founded and entirely financed by company founder Milton Hershey “for orphan boys” he explained, but not offering the circumstances around his selection. Boys were fully supported by Hershey and expected to learn a trade. He chose candy making. Perched on one of his display shelves was his diploma from the Hershey School. I was so taken with this artifact that I didn’t think to observe his name. “I’ve done well,” he stated, “but obviously not as well as Hershey.”

Despite the rift in financial success between him and his benefactor, his sense of indebtedness to Hershey was evident. In the not too recent past, there was talk of Hershey being sold to another company. This man got word of the prospect and informed some of his Hershey classmates about it. Together they approached the state attorney general asking for help to kill the deal. “I’m going to go talk to the Hershey Board of Directors,” the lawyer said, “why don’t you come with me?” The Hershey Company was never sold. Although he told the story in an understated way, I could tell he was proud of his part in keeping “his” company true to its roots.

Over a hundred years later, the now-named Milton Hershey School still provides a supportive environment and education for 1700 boys and girls whose families are in social or financial need. The school is entirely funded by the profits from the Hershey Company and its entertainment arm. So indulge in a Hershey’s bar with a good conscience.

The worst yard sale ever

August 26, 2010

Aug 6

A misty Kentucky morning

The house & grounds where Stephen Foster wrote "My Old Kentucky Home"

Today’s route continued to connect the dots of Kentucky history. In Bardstown I visited the home of Senator John Rowan. While well known and influential in his day, this site is not notable because of him, but because of his cousin, Stephen Foster. While visiting Rowan, Foster was inspired to write the song “My Old Kentucky Home.” It is now Kentucky’s state song. The song speaks nostalgically about cabins and hunting ‘coon, yet Rowan‘s house is a stately Federal-style home set in gardens and paths that flow down from the house. Perhaps the views and activities that then surrounded the home were his inspiration. It was hard to imagine that today, given the home is now surrounded by the commerce of Bardstown.

I next traveled to the Lincoln Homestead State Park. It was here that Abe Lincoln’s father lived for nearly twenty years as a child and young adult. What made this place interesting was not the buildings–they are either reconstructions or structures transported from other sites–but fate and the circumstances the brought the Lincoln family here.

The homesite of Abe's father, Thomas Lincoln

Lincoln’s family had roots in England. The family lineage has been traced back 10 generations from Abe. Two notable twists of fate helped make Lincoln our 16th president. After one of Abe’s ancestors, gentry landowner Richard Lincoln died, his eldest son Edward was poised to inherit the estate. But one of Richard’s wives contested the inheritance and won the land for herself. Deprived of his inheritance, Edward was unable to pass land onto his children. Thus his son Samuel found the need to seek better opportunities in America, giving the Lincoln family some American roots.

Lincoln’s American ancestors gradually moved from Massachusetts to New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia, where Abe’s father Thomas was born. After the Revolutionary War Thomas’s dad moved his family through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. One day when Thomas was 8, he and his two brothers were out in a field helping their father plant crops. A band of Indians attacked them, shooting and killing the father. It is said that Thomas stayed by his father’s side as a brother ran to get a gun. When the Indian returned to scalp the dead man, his brother shot him, thus likely saving Thomas’ life and eventually enabling Abraham to be born.

Infused with all this history, I was looking forward to an mid-afternoon arrival in Harrodsburg, and inspired blog writing. As I pedaled into town past grand old homes, traffic coming in the opposite direction was slowly moving bumper to bumper as if they were waiting for or looking for something. I made my choice of motels and stepped in to register. “Do you have a reservation?” Those dreaded words again. I reasoned I would now have to move down the street to a less desirable place. “There are no rooms available at all in the area,” the clerk informed me. “It’s because of the 127 Yard Sale.”

The 127 Yard Sale was an admittedly great idea, under other people’s circumstances. Residents and businesses living in string of communities along a 50-mile stretch of Route 127 were simultaneously holding yard sales throughout this weekend. I pulled out my route map and asked the clerk to check on the camping options that were listed. Nothing available. “There are rooms available in Mt. Vernon,” she offered. “It’s about 45 minutes away–50 miles.” “That’s by car,” I responded. “I’m traveling on a bike.”

I didn’t have a lot of time to explore other options. It was now 4 p.m. I had already ridden 65 miles. At the rate I had been traveling, I would make it to Mt. Vernon in 4-5 hours–perhaps by dark. The larger question was: Did my legs have the equivalent of another full day of riding in them?

I asked to speak to the hotel person in Mt. Vernon so I could query him about the route. It was mostly flat and downhill, he said. Although I’ve become ever skeptical about any terrain descriptions I got from non-bicyclists, I realized I had no choice. I reserved a room and nervously headed on my way.

There was never a better time for a route assessment to be accurate. And it was–for the most part. Once I left Harrodsburg, Route 127 turned into a wide, 4-lane road with ample shoulders. And it was headed downhill. I arrived in the first of three towns I would pass through by 6 p.m. I had been traveling 16-17 miles per hour on downhills and 10-12 miles on the hills. This was possible because while the back roads I typically traveled on followed the lay of the land, Route 127 was artificially graded. Engineers had filled in the low spots between the hills. If I continued at this pace, I would easily make Mt. Vernon before nightfall.

Now feeling a little less pressure, I thought it prudent to take time to refuel my body for the final miles. The need for ample energy had altered my choices of things to eat. Orange juice was a logical, and typical, choice because it is a good source of potassium, which is needed for muscle contraction. But I also bought a Little Debbie Fudge Brownie. At home I would be aghast at reading its nutritional label: 23 grams of fat, equal to a third of the typical daily recommended intake. But it offered over 500 calories of energy. I would not stop anymore until Mt. Vernon, and Little Debbie would make that possible.

My smooth and speedy sailing continue until the next town, Crab Orchard. The four-lane ended and I was diverted onto a two-lane that ran through the center of town. The road was hilly and without a shoulder, slowing my pace and forcing me to be concerned about the Friday night traffic passing me by. Just past the town limits the four-lane highway returned–until the third and final town.

The same constricting conditions returned, plus some. Here the edge of the road was periodically broken, forcing me toward the center of the road to avoid the holes. Also, tonight was the first night of the town’s “Little World’s Fair” which was bringing traffic in from all directions. Through my tiny helmet mirror I could see the line of cars building up behind me. It took me a quarter mile to find a place to pull off the road to let traffic by. Once stopped I counted nearly 20 cars that had been slowed by my presence on the road. What had seemed like a breeze now had me cursing yard sales, hills, cars and bad roads over the next 5 miles.

A day for the records

The sun was nearing the horizon when I finally turned onto the last road segment before the motel. I had biked 50 miles in under 4 hours and had ridden a total of 115 miles. I had never cycled so far in one day in my life, with or without gear.

Back when the Harrodsburg clerk called the clerk in Mt. Vernon to help me get a reservation, their conversation sounded as if they knew each other well. I had some suspicions that one was directing business to the other. But the Mt. Vernon motel was also packed with people and cars, allowing me to discount the possibility that I had been manipulated, and instead feel content that I had a roof over me tonight.

History seeps in

August 23, 2010

Aug 5

Today I would complete the back leg of the Mammoth Cave loop and return back onto the main TransAm route. Another high heat day was predicted for the area, so I was the first breakfast customer in the hotel restaurant in order to begin cycling in more tolerable temperatures.

I was confused about the elevation profile for this area. My map had indicated that the Green River ferry crossing was at a peak elevation. If that was true, I would still have some major climbing to do early today. Geographically and experientially, that didn’t make sense–rivers were at the lowest elevations. To be sure, I checked in with a park ranger. She was befuddled as well, and decided to have me consult with the resident bicyclist on staff, as if the geography would be different from in a car. Nonetheless, it was good to talk to someone who understood my perspective/concern. He agreed that the maps were incorrect. I had done the major climbing yesterday afternoon, and today’s route would be less demanding.

It was a peaceful trip down out of the park. I made a quick stop at Sand Cave, which was the site of a national news story in the 1920’s. At that time, all the caves in the area, including Mammoth, were privately owned. There was fierce competition to attract tourists. Floyd Collins was a well-known local cave explorer trying to discover new caves. While exploring Sand Cave, a rock wedged against his foot and he became trapped underground. His accident and the resulting rescue efforts became a media event. Ultimately, rescuers could not reach him until seventeen days later. By that time he had died of exposure and starvation. This tragedy was said to have started the effort to establish Mammoth Cave National Park.

Wigwam Motel in Cave City. Built in 1937, these concrete teepees are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can still spend the night in one, roughing it without a phone or Internet access.

From the beauty and serenity of the park, I dropped down into Cave City, a tourist trap of gift shops, go-kart tracks and other money-seeking ventures. After a premature turn confused me, I got rerouted by some local folks and headed out on the bucolic side of town. True to prediction, the climbing was mellow and the cycling pleasant as the leading edge of a cold front moved through, bringing a cooling wind and lower temperatures.

Efforts by Mark Twain, William Jennings Bryan and others began the preservation effort of Lincoln's birthplace and the erection of this memorial on the spot where the Lincoln cabin is believed to have stood. Inside the memorial is a cabin symbolic of the one Lincoln was born in.

Returning back onto the TransAm trail, I stopped in at Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, near Hodgenville.  Two months before Lincoln’s birth, his parents purchased this property, known as Sinking Spring Farm. It is a national historic park with both grandeur and simplicity. On a knoll stands a marble and granite memorial building, marking the spot where it is believed the Lincoln cabin stood. The building encases a “symbolic cabin” typical of the time and area, but not the actual Lincoln cabin. A “Closed for Renovations” sign prevented me from viewing this relic, so I wandered about the grounds to see what did remain from Lincoln’s time.

At the base of the knoll was the Sinking Spring, where Lincoln likely toddled to drink water. To travel across the same ground as a person of his stature did is a thought-provoking, and inexplicably exciting experience. Often, with these opportunities, I think about what the famous person thought about or did while on this same spot. Lincoln and his family only lived there two years before moving further north.
So Abe, no doubt, merely crawled and cried along my footsteps. But perhaps that physical connection to his life was a tangible intangible that we try to tap into to extrude some of his greatness.

Sinking Spring--the water source for the Lincoln homestead

At a few other points in the day, I could sense our nation’s early history begin to ooze out of the land. At one point a historical marker noted the cemetery where George Washington’s bodyguard lay. Later, another cemetery held the body of one of Lincoln’s boyhood friend, who is credited with saving Abe from drowning.

My day ended winding through a broad river valley, surrounded by the Knobs, conical hills that border Kentucky’s bluegrass region. I pulled into New Haven and headed for the Sherwood Inn–the only indoor lodging listed for miles around. My map listed it as a bed and breakfast, but when I called yesterday to confirm its existence and a reservation, I was told I could arrive after 4 “when the bar opens.” The pairing of a bar with a bed and breakfast was new to me, and made me downgrade my visions of some charming old residence in town.

The Kentucky Knobs--conical hills that surround the bluegrass region

Much like similar hotels I had stayed at in Colorado, the Sherwood had faded elegance. After getting my key at the noisy bar, I unlocked the front door to the inn and showed myself in. A carved wooden staircase led me upstairs to my room. Lace draperies filtered the late afternoon light. It looked perfectly like a late 19th century sitting room. My tent, sleeping bag and panniers were out-of-place props in this scene. For awhile, I thought the air management system matched the era of the décor–I could only find a switch for the ceiling fan. But from my vantage point in the old wooden sitting chair I spotted the modern convenience–a thermostat. I moved the lever to Cool and switched from soaking in the heat to soaking in the ambiance.

My elegant room at the Sherwood Inn in New Haven

Aug 4

Yesterday evening I had made reservations to take a morning cave tour before heading back on the road. But after looking at the today’s weather forecast, I backtracked and arranged to stay a second day at the park. It was forecast to be 100 degrees here today, with high humidity. The park rangers were kiddlingly making a point of the temperatures below ground (54 degrees) and on the surface. I was concerned about repeating yesterday’s effort in today’s heat.

Pleased that a room was still available and that I had more opportunity to enjoy the park, I queued up for the New Entrance tour at 9 a.m. The “new entrance” to Mammoth Cave was discovered, or rather created, by an entrepreneur in the early 20th century who had felt the cool cave air at the bottom of a sinkhole and blasted holes into the earth until he hit a cave shaft.

The region’s 10,000 sinkholes are a key component in Mammoth Cave’s formation. There is very little surface water in this region. The limestone in which the caves have formed are covered with a cap of sandstone and shale, which is not very water-permeable. Sinkholes formed when surface water hit cracks in exposed limestone, allowing water to seep downwards. As the water passed through the soil, it picked up carbon dioxide, which turned into carbonic acid. This acid then dissolved the limestone, creating vertical shafts, which the carried the water down to underground rivers. These rivers then moved the water horizontally, carving out tunnels and tubes.  Meanwhile, as the underground rivers were cutting through the earth horizontally, the Green River was eroding the land vertically. As the Green cut down past where an underground river once emptied into it, that river dried out, and the riverbeds became dry cave passages. Today, nearly 400 miles of cave passages have been documented.

The descent down the New Entrance shaft

Upon entering the New Entrance, we immediately headed down one of those tall vertical shafts. It was a 250-step descent to the first underground tunnel. After the underground rivers dried up, so did the tunnels, essentially dehydrating the rock. Some of the rock got very brittle and collapsed, creating wider passages and leaving the surrounding walls very stable. Our ranger guide spoke of the time he was leading a tour and an earthquake occurred. He did not know it had happened until queried about it once he came above ground.

We pay to take these cave tours, so we expect to see things. But at one point in the tour, the ranger asked us to be still and quiet. He then turned off all the lights. It became pitch black. I could not see my hand 6 inches in front of me. There was absolutely no sound, either. As with the Flint Hills prairie walk, this was another rare, pure natural experience.

New Entrance cave panorama

After lunch I took a short hike to the Mammoth Dome sinkhole, which capped a nearly 200 foot underground shaft. It was not obvious where the water entered the sinkhole, but water’s path down the slope into the depression was. Later in the afternoon, on another cave tour, I would be walking up the Mammoth Dome, and learning that only 15 feet of earth separated sky from shaft.

Knowing of, and feeling the heat, I was not hiking at a fast pace. Nonetheless, as I hiked down and back up the hills, I became soaked with sweat from the high humidity and absence of a breeze. I must have looked as if I had taken a swim in the Green River as I reached the top of the plateau.

At the end of the afternoon I took a second cave tour, this one beginning at the Historic Entrance I came upon last night. After being used by Native Americans thousands of years ago, and rediscovered by white explorers in the late 1700’s, Mammoth Cave has had varying value to humans ever since. By 1812 men had already begun to explore the cave, but when the war with Britain broke out, the nitrate-rich soil (from bat guano) became a prime source of the raw ingredients needed to produce gunpowder. The Cave was privately owned at that point, and slaves were employed to do the nitrate mining. Because of the cave’s constant temperature and humidity, the mining equipment, including the wood, remains in excellent condition today.

We had reached the mining area, now called the Rotunda, after walking down 30 feet from the surface, then 500-600 yards underground in a channel only about 7 feet tall. The Rotunda encompassed about a half acre. It was not the largest underground cavern in the Mammoth Cave system.

Fat Man's Misery

After the War of 1812 the demand for saltpeter lessened, so mining was halted. In 1816 the Cave’s owners decided to begin offering cave tours, making Mammoth Cave the 2nd oldest tourist attraction in the U.S., behind Niagara Falls. Twenty years later, the Cave property was resold, and the new owner employed his slaves as tour guides. One, Steven Bishop, became well-known for his flamboyant tours, but more importantly for his cave exploration efforts. Bishop taught himself to read and write, then absorbed cave geology information from the era’s scientists. He explored further and further into the cave system, creating an excellent map of the cave and discovering passages not re-explored until nearly 100 years later.

From the enormous Rotunda hall, we passed through dimensionally-different passageways. Fat Man’s Misery was a width-narrow labyrinth flanked by polished rocks worn smooth from all the passing hips. Tall Man’s Misery forced me to double over to pass under a 3 ½ foot ceiling.

The 192 foot tall Mammoth Dome shaft

After these negotiations we entered River Hall. This past spring, the Mammoth Cave area had experienced 11 inches of rain in two days. These rains had caused the Green River to rise 49 feet in its narrow canyon. Some river water backed up into this cave passage and nearly completely flooded River Hall–even though it is located 310 feet below ground. Our tour ended with a climb up Mammoth Dome. Surface water dripped down on me as I climbed a staircase in the middle of beautifully carved walls.

At the end of the day, the ranger reported today’s heat index had been 118. I had spent the day with Minnesota spirit, going from the chill of the cave to the sauna of the surface, back to the chill of the cave. But I had also been in awe at the power and beauty of natural processes, and glad for the opportunity to not only hear, but experience the connections between the surface and the netherworld.

The long exit from the Historic Entrance