Sometime during the winter, CBS Sunday Morning (which we watch every Sunday as a family; Harper expresses great displeasure whenever Charles Osgood deigns to call in sick) ran a feature on the Mammoth Caves. We watched in awe. “We want to go to there,” we thought. With a bit of time on Google Maps, we realized we could visit the caves in Kentucky and then visit Tennessee: Nashville, Memphis, Dollywood! And so …
We’re on summer vacation in the South. As my Southern-born and named son Penn observed, “You know you’re in the South when the church is selling fireworks as a fundraiser.” Note, he said this just as we pulled into Zaxby’s–where fried chicken fingers are an art form.
Our trip began in the land of another chicken delicacy: Buffalo. After getting our Upstate-on at Anchor Bar. Fried pickles, wings, wing dip, wing nuggets, beef on weck? Um, yes.
We settled down at the gate, where for the first time in my hundreds of flights, Delta was offering everyone free snacks. Real snacks: full size cans of Coke, full size bags of pretzels and chips, full size candy bars. It was weird but wonderful.
Snacks didn’t impact his ability to squish into small spaces.
We had a two hour layover in ATL, which meant one thing: Chick-fil-A!
We walked off late dinner by wandering from terminal to terminal rather than taking the train. One benefit, we got to see the artist behind the latest ATL art installation testing his work. It’s not every day that one gets to see geese fly on demand through a canopy of jewel toned puzzle pieces.
The 11:30 pm flight to Nashville draws a quiet gate area.
Our plane had a gas gauge issue which delayed us a bit, meaning we got in after midnight Central time, meaning our rental car place was closed. By chatting up the late night guy at Avis–who quickly advised that Dollar “sucks” and is an avid I Love Lucy fan–we were able to secure a car at something not-too-unbearable above our original reservation. After several comedies of errors–Harper thinks she’s lost her cell phone; Anne pulls into the wrong hotel; etc.–we finally got to our partway to Mammoth hotel around 1:30 am with just a few hours to sleep before hitting the road again.
On the way to the caves the next morning, we pulled over at Cracker Barrel for breakfast. Hello, hashbrowns! While we wolfed down our cave exploring carbs, I engaged in a fully Southern moment: eating at Cracker Barrel while helping my sister and niece register us for QuiltCon in Savannah. Biscuits, quilting, sisters. Check. (Note, look for that blog in February.)
We arrived at Mammoth Cave National Park with about 10 minutes to spare before our tour, grabbed our tickets, and set off to meet our guide, Eric, a retired school teacher and native Kentuckian who was perfect. We followed him through the sticky, hot forest, reassuring ourselves that thousands of people tour the caves each year. Two of us were more fit than most, and likely, two of us weren’t any less fit than most.
We had been forewarned that the cave temps were a constant 54 degrees, so I had told everyone to wear pants and hoodies just to be sure. They mocked me, but as we neared the opening of the cave, the cold air hit us like the welcome blast from an open fridge door on a wickedly hot day. Then, we saw the stairs, dozens of them leading into the darkness. Eric asked us to think about how the prehistoric Native Americans had been drawn by the chilled air on a hot summer day and had discovered the cave hundreds of years ago. They didn’t have stairs–or lycra leggings–or sneakers.
So, we descended.
Once in the cave, we were given one piece of advice: just experience it. No flash photos were allowed (so as not to spoil the darkness for others) so most photos would not turn out great anyway. So, Eric said, “Just be in the cave.” For the most part, I listened, but I couldn’t resist taking some. The pictures below don’t really capture the essence of what it is to be that far underground, sometimes inching side by side through passageways so narrow my size 9 shoe had to go on an angle, other times ducking to the height of a toddler while walking down a spiral staircase because–as one of our fellow tour takers noted wisely–“Rock don’t move.”
Just since Eric started as a guide, the length of the discovered cave has grown by over 70 feet. While the surface area of the cave is not huge, it runs for over 400 miles of criss-crossing tunnels below the earth. During the 1800s, slaves served as guides for the well-to-do, who toured by smoky lamplight in top hats and fine suits, and bustled dresses and high heels, making their way over sharp-edged, uneven rock. Given how we picked our way around carefully on cleared paths, helped by the occasional uplight, it seemed impossible. Eric shared the story of the most famous Mammoth guide, a slave named Stephen Bishop, who found freedom and respect in the caves that was denied him above ground. Stephen, and other slaves who served as guides, learned to read and write when they were given tips by tourists to write their names in smoke-ash graffiti on the ceilings of the caves. These names–and others more conventionally carved into the rock–survive to this day. One of the best parts of the tour was learning how the history of the cave reflected the history of our country–both good and bad. Harper declared this her favorite part of the tour (Plus, she got to show off a year’s worth of Earth Science in her knowledge of rock formations. Each time Eric mentioned a fact she had already shared, she punctuated it with a saucy, “See, I told you,” and her trademarked Harper-eyebrow raise.)
Our tour covered about two miles of the caves, and we descended about 300 feet below ground. My photos don’t do it justice. You really feel like you’re in another realm.
At one point, Eric stopped the tour and told us to stand as still as possible. He then shut off the back lights and we were in absolute, total darkness–and silence. We couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces; we couldn’t hear any sound. It was super creepy and amazing. Then, he lit a single match, which seemed to illuminate the entire cave. Eric shared that tours in the 1800s to early 1900s were done with only this level of light, and it was clear that, with our eyes adjusted so completely to the dark, a single lantern would be enough.
What goes down must come up eventually, and we ended the tour climbing 15 flights of steps winding around and around a narrow staircase. The light outside the tunnel opening looked pure white after all that time in the relative darkness, and we could feel the cool of the cave evaporating quickly as we re-entered the 90 plus degree/humidity of a Kentucky summer day.
In our foolhardy optimism, we had booked two cave tours, but after two miles of climbing on about five hours of sleep and after walking back through the heat of the forest to the visitor center, we decided to drop the second tour. Note the drooping daughter bottom frame right.
After a bit of cooling off in the visitor center …
we set on the four plus hour drive to Dollywood.
Scenes from a road trip:
I have two foot shaped guardrails. Penn’s foot because every season is Christmas if you look at it right. Harper’s foot because it isn’t.
Penn spent most of the drive working on this sketch of Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark in the Captain America: Civil War. He really is an amazing artist.
Every summer, I have this idea we should all read the same book; every summer, we don’t. But, I thought: trapped in a car, we could listen to the same book. I picked Station Eleven, which I had read when it came out and loved it. Turned out to be a great idea. So, we spent the drive alternating between the book and our now-routine Hamilton sing-a-long.
We made a pit stop at Zaxby’s because Zax Snax, people! And finally, we pulled into Dolly’s Dreammore Resort. The hotel opened just a couple of years ago. It was truly gorgeous on a Southern Living scale.
The lobby is divided into the Living Room and the Family Room, and really looks like someone’s remarkably large, remarkably welcoming home.
All hail the Queen!
We settled down in rocking chairs overlooking the pool while the kids swam. The hotel has all the design touches of a Disney Resort, but is only about a quarter the size, so it feels more cozy and comfy.
A few hours later, from those same rockers, we watched the fireworks over Dollywood. Perfect!
After the fireworks, we grabbed a table in the Family Room to play cards, share a pizza, and watch the Olympics trials. A true Kress-Davis family night if there ever was one. And, for the first time anyone can remember, Harper won. Which Ned took well. Sort of.
Goodnight, Dolly, we already will always love you.