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Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky and the road to Nashville

Monday, September 26th, 2011

September 7th

We woke up to the same bad weather- gray and rainy. We dried off a table in front of our cabin to set up the stove to make coffee and toast our bagels. Then we ate inside sitting on the bed.  It really felt like autumn weather when just a few days before we had been in stifling heat in the middle of the Great Plains. Fortunately, the main attraction in the park was inside- the cave.

As the name suggests, Mammoth Caves are enormous. It is the largest cave system in the world with more than 1000km of explored passages. We took a guided tour with a park ranger. When we entered the cave, we were surprised to find out that it’s a dry cave. There were no stalactites or stalagmites because there’s no water to create them. The cave was kept dry by a layer of rocks above our heads.  We learned about the history of the caves and saw some of the enormous caverns. The cave’s first guide and expert was a self-taught slave. During the American Civil War, they mined saltpeter in the cave to make gunpowder. The structures from the saltpeter operation are still visible. Artifacts from Native American habitation have also been found in the cave.

By the time we had finished our visit the rain had stopped and we were able to picnic outside.  We had time to do a nice hike through the woods above the cave system. We saw several deer along the path and also had some pretty views of the Green River, popular with kayakers. It was the Green River that carved the vast cave system.

From the park, we picked up the road towards Nashville, Tennessee. We were planning to spend a couple of days exploring the Country Music Capital but we hadn’t reserved a hotel. We found a motel on the outskirts of town run by Indians.  We were tired after the long day so we made dinner in our room and spent the evening watching tennis.

Crossing Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky

Monday, September 26th, 2011

September 6th

We left St. Louis heading east towards Kentucky.  The temperature dropped about 20 degrees from the previous days, a welcome relief from the stifling heat. Our first stop was at the Cahokia Mounds Site to visit the most sophisticated prehistoric city uncovered north of Mexico. The site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has an extremely informative museum.  Cahokia was inhabited between AD 700 and AD 1400 by the Mississippians.  Today, we can only see the grassy mounds that remain. It takes a vivid imagination to picture the once thriving city that existed here, but knowing that the mounds themselves were built by human hands without the use of machinery is impressive enough.  From the top of the largest mound, we can see the skyline of St. Louis in the distance.

From the Cahokia site, we headed dead east across Illinois. There wasn’t much to see along the route so made a quick stop to get the oil changed in Mt. Vernon.  Next we crossed the border into Indiana.  Our schedule didn’t leave us much time to visit these states in depth, but we did stop at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial.  Abraham Lincoln, one of the most revered presidents of the United States, was born into a pioneer family.  His family immigrated to Indiana from Kentucky because of confusing property laws in Kentucky. Sadly, his mother caught “milk sickness,” a disease passed through the cow’s milk to humans and died shortly after. This site is as much a memorial to his mother as it is to the former president. There is a reconstructed working pioneer-era farm at the site and some nice trails where we took the opportunity to stretch our legs.

We were back on the road headed toward our destination, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. The weather started to deteriorate and the rain went from a depressing drizzle to a downpour. We crossed the border into Kentucky and left the highway for some slow and windy country roads.  The leaves had already started to turn to autumn oranges and reds. It also started getting dark very early. We hadn’t taken in to account how far east we had traveled in the previous days – we were close to the eastern border of the central time zone and by 7pm it was pitch dark. We started to question our plan of camping in the national park- it was cold, raining and dark. We also realized that would arrive on the non-developed side of the park so there weren’t any hotels.  We were both tired and frustrated so we found a little restaurant, had a fried catfish dinner (farm-raised catfish is a specialty of the region) and rethought our plan. I searched our GPS for hotels nearby in our budget. I found one that advertised camping and motel. I called and the hospitable owner told us he would put the lights on for us- apparently we were the only guests. When we arrived, he gave us a tiny, little cottage- what they refer to as a “rock cabin.” The site, built in the 1920’s was partially run down, but had a rustic charm. We had a warm, dry bed for the evening, our own bathroom and were only a few miles from the park visitor center.