Cutting across Yards: Flitting through the South, and a Quick Tour through Mammoth Caves

*Photo taken at the mouth of the Historic Entrance to Mammoth Caves

Hello, friend. I hope you are doing something lovely like curling up in your favorite spot to read, or enjoying a delicious cup of tea, or perhaps lying on a hammock in the sun somewhere gorgeous. If you are sitting on a train ride to work and passing the time, waiting for a bus, or anxiously awaiting your plane, maybe your travel time can be made more interesting while we commiserate about our mild misfortunes. I write to you now from the comfort of the home we left behind in Olean, New York, and it feels strange to be here again. The expanse of the home almost overwhelms me with the amount of work to be done to prep it for sale: stuff to be sold, walls to be painted, surfaces to be cleaned, items to be repaired. Also, unloading the Falcon of all our belongings (you would be amazed at how much we fit into a 34 foot trailer!) before we begin tearing out all the guts to remodel it. Truly, I am exhausted. But let me go back a little to explain better how we arrived here….

Our drive back to New York State from Nevada could have been more harrowing, but our travel was not easy. The Aluminum Falcon seems to have responded to our discussion about remodeling by deciding to start falling apart in earnest. With almost every stop we made along the route home it seemed as if we discovered another broken part on the trailer. Coupled with the breaking parts, we also found ourselves troubled by the weather the entire trip. The weather across the country seemed conspired against us, beginning with the high winds in Nevada, then snow in Northern Arizona, ice storms in New Mexico and Texas, flooding in Mississippi (and soooo much mud!) and Tennessee, then finally severe thunderstorms in Kentucky.

Let me pick up where I left off last week. My last post related the ice storms in Texas, which ground our travel to a halt for a couple of days and forced us to go without water and sewer. This was not the end of the world, but it’s an added annoyance when things like stressful weather conditions slow down the drive time, you miss out on fun parts of the trip because you have to stop too often, and stuff keeps breaking. Compared to problems other people are having in the world right now, I thank my lucky stars that my problems are only annoying. Nevertheless, the Falcon is our home and we didn’t want our home to fall apart. Once the yucky ice and snow stopped falling from the sky, we got ourselves back on the road. Our plans had to be altered due to the time we wasted with weather, so we once again changed our route, and instead of going to visit Michael’s family in North Carolina we took the more direct route through Tennessee and Kentucky going north. Leaving Texas, we finally saw some nicer weather in Louisiana.

As we drove through Louisiana, I began to feel my entire body respond to the sight of sunlight after days of dreary weather, and the green grass and trees cheered me up, too. Leaving the cold, ice, and snow behind us made me almost buoyant with hope that perhaps we might finally catch a break in the insane inclement weather plague. And we did catch a break for the day as we drove through the green, tree-filled regions of Louisiana and then into Mississippi. Little did we know that when we decided to stop for the night at an RV park in Mississippi (a spot called Frog Hollow, very conveniently located right off route 55—the owner was delightfully friendly) we would encounter seriously saturated mud pits. The midsection of the country has been getting hammered with a lot more rain than usual this time of year, a fact which became more prevalent as we drove through Tennessee, too. Water stretched across incredibly wide swaths of countryside. When we spoke with someone at the RV park in Kentucky where we planned to stay for the night, we were told that severe weather would be sweeping through the region yet again, but that we would be close to the bathroom in case of an emergency need to take shelter. Yikes.

Our drive through Tennessee showed signs of spring, which should be a happy thing. Yet it’s not time for cherry and crab apple blossoms to come into full bloom. It’s too early. Too early for the bushes to be green with leaves and the trees to be budding already, even in the warmer Southern climate. This early spring growth is bad for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is how it affects migrating animals which depend on the plant life developing at this time of year, but which have yet to arrive. The cycles of migrating animals and plants which pollinate or blossom at certain times of year are often delicately balanced, and now the cycles are disrupted year after year. Hard freezes in the North are becoming less frequent or shorter in time, causing other types of disruption. Warmer ocean water feeds the heavier rain and storm systems which dump more water on already saturated areas, and hotter summers are then drying out already dry areas to create record-breaking droughts. Anyone who says climate change isn’t real isn’t paying attention. The signs are everywhere. Ask Louisville, KY how they feel about rafting down streets instead of driving, or how Miami likes high tide these days.

While I watched the water from my front seat, I looked up a place for dinner in the Nashville area. As much as I wanted to stop for music there, we had time only for a meal. Thankfully, I found a special spot to refresh ourselves. If you ever find yourself in the Nashville, TN area, do yourself a favor and go to the Loveless Café. You will be treated to one of the best Southern meals you’ve ever had (except for maybe your grandmother’s cooking, of course). Every single bite of my meal was melt-in-your-mouth delectable. I had the fabulous fried catfish with turnip greens and fried green tomatoes—a meal fit for a king. Michael had the smoked turkey with cranberry sauce and hoecakes, and both of us were stuffed to the gills after eating the whole plate of biscuits they brought warm and which we slathered with their yummy fruit preserves. The food at Loveless is all scratch cooking, and the café is a gingham-draped cottage style dining room which is clean as a whistle. All the staff were delightful and friendly, and the food came fast, a surprise in a full dining room. A wedding was taking place in the event center behind the restaurant complex, and as we left Michael and I laughed over the flower girls romping in the yard attached to the barn-like structure. If you have a meal here, you may as well prepare to go shopping, too. This place is a rabbit warren of fun little shops, including a gift shop and country market. Of course, you could just stay in the motel on the property and really go crazy. I imagine it would be a lovely romantic getaway weekend if you like quaint country spots. Either way, stop for the food. It’s divine.

Our last night in the broken-down Falcon was spent at Jellystone RV Park in Kentucky, near Mammoth Caves National Park. After all our difficulties over the week, we decided to make at least one stop at a National Park, since we missed our chance to see the petrified forest in New Mexico. We pulled into the nearly empty park after dark, but not terribly late. Still, the office was closed so we grabbed the info packet left for us by the park personnel and proceeded to get lost on the winding roads. Once we found the space and got settled, rain began to gently fall. We pulled up our hoods and happily hooked up the water (yay, water!), though the trailer wasn’t level and we found ourselves goofed up from the slight tilt once inside. Funny how even just an inch or two will make the inside of an RV seem like a fun house, and it will throw off your body’s muscle memory of where things are supposed to be. We could have fixed it, but we both felt too tired to care. Instead, it offered us moments of comedic laughter when crashing into things or falling over in response to the off-kilter floors and walls.

We got settled in for the night and finally had a moment to relax, but then as the rain fell more heavily I checked the weather. Tornado warnings had been issued for most of the state of Kentucky, and the storm heading our way had already dropped at least one tornado, possibly two or three. As I scanned the news stories, Twitter feeds lit up like a Christmas tree with urgent messages to seek shelter or find higher ground due to the severe and dangerous flooding. News in the Louisville area during the storm was of water rescues for people trapped in cars and homes with flash flooding. We knew flooding would not be an issue where we were parked, but I worried that we would see the destructive wind. Fortunately, the worst part of the storm passed over us without too much more than a bit of leaking (that stupid AC unit is definitely getting replaced). Winds howled, but it wasn’t any worse than what we dealt with in Nevada, where mountain weather gets downright ornery at times. Despite how light Airstreams are for towing, I am consistently amazed with how well they endure stormy weather. We barely felt the wind as it whooshed through the park, and I suspect the aerodynamic shape of the Airstream is part of the reason. Either way, we got lucky again. Nothing more severe than heavy rain pelting the trailer.

In the morning Michael made sure he emptied all the tanks completely before heading north and home, since we expected to drive straight to Olean after our quick tour of Mammoth Caves. I reserved a tour time of 11 am, which gave us plenty of time to get packed and ready to go, and Jellystone is only about 15 minutes from the park’s visitor center. We liked this RV park, though it was pricier than the typical $30-35 per night you find in most Southern parks; we spent almost $50 for the convenience of being close to the National Park. Other than the steep price, the park was nice and clean, and very kid- and dog-friendly.

The drive through the national park pleasantly surprised me, as the wooded area held onto several shades of neutral tones from dried leaves still clinging to trees and scattering the ground, but also glimmered with a soft glow of green moss popping up occasionally in the woods. Once checked into the tour at the visitor’s center, we took the time to walk through the exhibit there, one of my favorite things to do at the national parks. I have said before that if you go to a national park it may behoove you to take the time to walk through the typically attractive and informative exhibits in the visitor’s center of any park. They usually run through the most common animal and plant life you may see in the park, often give insightful info about geology of the region (and why the park was designated), and usually break down the history of the park and its surrounding area. Even if you only skim the info, I find I enjoy the park much more due to knowledge of what I may see during my visit.

We decided to take the “Domes and Dripstones” tour at Mammoth Caves, which is two hours long. Our snarky ranger guide amused the tour group with quips about safety, reasons for being conscious of what we touch in the caves, and told us stories about one of the first explorers of the portion of the cave we visited. I found the first portion of the cave to be one of the most interesting. On this tour, you descend about 280 steps built specifically to wind through the often close passages of the cave, sometimes being able to look down dozens of feet below. As you travel downward, water drips from above and the music of its falling echoes through the limestone cavern. It’s difficult to take the time to truly appreciate this wonder, as the steps allow for only single file descent. This makes it hard to stop and take in the fascinating structures of the domes overhead, but do try. While on the stairwell you will see some of the most interesting rock formations of the entire tour. One kindness of this particular tour was the choice to put the slowest members at the front of the group, which kept the pace somewhat slower and did allow for occasional stops. It was thoughtful of the ranger to do this, since this meant our elders would not be left far behind, but instead held a place of honor at the front, as it should be.

Once at the base of the stairwell, we were corralled onto benches for a short history lesson and another story, but I suspect it also offered those who were tired from the stairs a chance to rest before continuing. The entire tour is about two miles of walking, including the stairs. What I did not realize about Mammoth Caves is that the system of caves is the largest of its type in the world, but is encapsulated in a small geographic area. Think of intestines winding through your abdominal cavity—approximately 25 feet fit into your belly—and that’s what the Mammoth Cave system is like, with miles and miles of caves all sitting on top of each other.

We stopped a few times during the tour to listen to stories or explanations of certain aspects of the caves, and I found much of this information engaging. Honestly, much of the cave tour did not strike me as terribly exciting or interesting in terms of its beauty or rock formations. As I said, the stairwell portion was the more enthralling part of the cave to me, and then at the end of the tour the group is given the option of descending a set of stairs to view the “Frozen Niagara” formation of limestone, named for its resemblance to that massive waterfall. I will admit this formation does impress, and on this tour the group gets the pleasure of walking beneath the formation to see it from many angles. Because of all the recent rainfall in Kentucky, we saw a lot more water falling from above than is typical, and our tour guide divulged this fact with good cheer. Though much of the cave tour is dry, even in rainy weather you may want a rain-proof jacket for the beginning and end of the tour where it tends to be more drippy. Also, wear good shoes for climbing, as the ground is often either steep for short periods or is quite uneven.

After the tour, Michael and I took a few minutes to view the historic cave entrance, where yet another waterfall adorned the opening on one side. We also walked down to the river, which was of course swollen beyond its usual banks. I imagine this walk would be a delight in spring and summer beneath the trees in full bloom, but even in winter without leaves the forest still held a bare beauty to be appreciated. If you have the time, there are plenty of trails to explore from the visitor’s center, some of which appear to traverse miles. Perhaps if anyone has taken another tour of the caves, that information can be shared in the comments below. I would love to know if another of the cave tours might have slightly more interesting sights.

The remainder of our trip home went without much excitement, which is good. We arrived in our home town of Olean, NY with little fanfare at the early hour of two in the morning, and faced the task of needing to unload quite a few of our belongings right away. Since the night time temperature had dropped below freezing, we could not leave anything that might freeze, but we also needed to get clothes and food for morning. The monumental task of unloading the entirety of our belongings remained for the next day or two, followed by the beginnings of tearing out the cabinetry and flooring yesterday. Currently, the state of affairs of our home is an absolute mess, but this is a good beginning. Michael and I are both excited and concerned about what we will find when all the interior is out and we can begin the process of building it back up with new materials and a slightly more suitable design for our lifestyle. We will take occasional photos to document and share our upgrade, and look forward to sharing the remodel when it’s finished. I am also prepping some email courses I am excited to share, so keep an eye out for those when I get them up on the website. I will create a page for them for anyone interested.

A storm is headed for Western New York this evening, so I need to get back to work. We have a lot to do before the storm hits, not the least of which is to move the trailer to another location before the winter weather arrives, since the trailer can’t sit in the street in the way of the plows. More to come as we work, but if we go on any interesting hikes while home I will share those. I may also write up a guide to local trails of the WNY region, since I know there are lots of hikers out there who enjoy those posts. Until next week, friends, I am off to work. I do hope you get outside and enjoy the world.

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