Needless to say, despite our beautiful surroundings at Cumberland Lake, we were slightly soured on the place by our unexpected stranding and rescue in the wee hours of the morning. Rather than a lovely two day stay, it was reduced to just one, most of which was just recovering from the exhaustion and stress of the previous day. Therefore it left an even more bitter taste in our mouths when Loops asked the campground host if she would consider refunding one day of our stay and she refused; despite the fact it was on her assurance we had driven Belle into the park in the first place.
We felt very reluctant to jump straight into a long drive when we left the park, still feeling a little demoralised from events, and so I tried to find an activity locally to cheer us up. I was in luck, just ten miles down the road I found out we could visit the site of Mill Springs Battlefield. Surely there is nothing merrier to get you through the day than learning about the civil war, right?
The drive over was a quick twenty minutes through a flat, open faming landscape interspersed with small horse farms and equine centres. Sat atop only the only small hillock in the area, the battlefield visitor centre and its car park looked fairly new and slightly underutilised. We were the only vehicle there.
Upon entering we found a couple of enthusiastic volunteers running the show, one of which was a civil war re-enactor himself, a special brand of people I discovered. We were directed into a modest sized room to sit and watch a video about the battle that took place at Mills Springs. It was an interesting and informative account, and I was only slightly distracted by the too loud soundtrack and identical re-enacted battle scenes that appeared multiple times.
In a condensed account, this is what I learned (I will not vouch for the historical accuracy here, because sometimes I just get it plain wrong, but I’m about 95% sure this is correct)…When civil war broke out, the state of Kentucky declared itself for President Lincoln and the Union. However, there were some people who just plain didn’t like that and decided to make their own little patch of confederate land right there in Kentucky and appoint their own state leader. Well, that just wasn’t cricket. So the northerners came to teach the southerners a thing or two, and they got beat. And beat pretty bad. Specifically there was a confederate General called… *thinks for a minute*Zolli-something or other, and he was killed in the battle and they laid his body by a tree while they kept on fighting. The general was really well liked and so the southerners took it really hard and were all sad and demoralised about it. And after the battle was done and Kentucky was all with the Union again, the tree where the general had been propped up became famous. It was called the Zollie Tree and a little girl used to come and decorate it every year in remembrance of the general and the battle. And that’s what I learned.
After the film our helpful re-enactor gave us a personal tour through the little museum. He let us look at the artefacts and read the information, and then would add little snippets of information about them or answer any questions we had. On one hand it was very neat in a small town kind of way to have our own individual guide, but also a little awkward as I felt I had to look at absolutely everything in detail and nod my head sagely as we were told in explicit detail the differences between bullet types, uniforms and the intricate workings of the different types of canons used in the war. I was a little worried there would be some type of exam to complete before they might allow us to leave. Needless to say I felt pretty darn worn out and a little depressed after learning about all of the killing. It was like a highly condensed version of North and South without the pretty dresses, Patrick Swayze or Mount Royal (if you don’t get this reference, you must watch the 1985 TV series).
After we completed our tour we decided to take a breather and pop outside to Belle to have some lunch. It’s times like this I realise how wonderful it is to have your house travelling with you. You step inside, open your fridge, make whatever you want for lunch and can have a quick rest on the sofa until you’re ready to go again.
By the time we finish our late lunch at 4pm, we notice the volunteer staff have locked up and gone home for the day. Now we really are the only ones on site.
We decide to make the short walk to the Mill Springs National Cemetery that is located right next door to the museum. For those of you who have ever visited Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC, this is a miniature version of it. During my hike of the AT, Loops and I took a side trip into DC and made the trip out to Arlington, and these were my exact words about it…
“The following day saw a trip to Arlington Cemetery in the morning. For those who haven’t been, I find it an extraordinary place, a potent mix of beauty and terribleness all wrapped into one.
You can’t help but be somber while visiting, standing in the center of the cemetery all you can see in each direction are pristine white graves lined with strict precision. It almost looks elegant.
All reminders though of those who died in service for their country. Which is heartbreaking. No matter how someone feels about war in general, standing there and being surrounded, fills you with a thankfulness for their sacrifice, but a disappointment in humanity that there is a requirement for this in the first place.”
Standing in the cemetery at Mill Springs these words jump to the forefront of my mind, for this once again how I feel looking at all of these graves.
We return to Belle once again as it is drawing close to 6pm. We are now in a bit of a quandary. We haven’t actually made any plans for where we are going to spend the night, and actually neither of us feels like moving on. We’re actually quite fond of our battlefield location and rather wonderfully, there is a pleasant cool breeze up here on the hill; enabling us to throw open our windows and feel cool for once. We feel slightly naughty though about discussing the possibility of just spending the night right here in the car park, but all the same we move the bus around behind the building were we are more sheltered, overlooking a field of cows to our left.
We make dinner, watch some TV, have showers. No-one comes to move us on or ask what we are doing. What really settles it is the storm – thunder and lightning begin sounding and flashing all around us. Loops checks the forecast and there is indeed a large storm rolling through the area. We start to worry slightly about being in what is effectively a large metal tin on top of a hill. We even go so far as to take seats on furniture that is not directly bolted down to Belle’s metal frame in the hope we won’t get electrocuted if she’s hit (sorry mum, just one more thing for you to worry about now). We turn out the lights and watch the storm dance around us in the night sky.
I awake the next morning feeling happy, rested and cool. Loops appears not to feel the same. Apparently the cows mooing at 5am next to Belle were not a welcome sound to him; however they just reminded me of home. Also as a big reminder of home – I woke to learn that my homeland was no longer to be part of the EU, in a shocking result my fellow British compatriots voted us out of the union. I spent the morning in a state of astonishment and amazement, not quite believing the news.
Luckily, I had a fabulous distraction, for we decided to visit Mammoth Caves National Park!
Now in case you weren’t aware, this year is the centennial for the National Park Service (NPS) here in the USA; one hundred years since the first national park, Yellowstone as it happens, was created. So I feel it is good mojo to go and visit as many parks as we can this year, and even better, I’ve never been to Mammoth Caves, what a treat! Additionally because I am a bit of a geek, I have also bought a NPS 2016 passport which you can use to collect dated stamps from all of the sites you visit.
Mammoth Caves is an interesting park because they have activities for people to enjoy both above and below the ground. As its name suggests, the park is actually home to the world’s longest known cave system, it’s a virtual underground labyrinth with currently over four hundred miles, over 5 depth levels, having been explored. Four hundred miles of cave system? That’s unbelievable! It also makes me a little nervous as we pull Belle into the car park knowing that sitting directly below us is basically a honeycomb of caves, effectively a sinkhole waiting to happen; as if we haven’t had enough trouble getting stuck recently. I’d hate to see the recovery bill for being dragged out of a sinkhole cave.
Above ground the park is spread over almost 53,000 acres covered in forest with plenty of hiking, biking and camping to be had. There is also plenty of wildlife to spot, on our way driving through the green corridor we had a coyote dash across the road right in front of us, and saw turkeys hanging about on the verge (just asking to be someone’s roadkill dinner).
While the surface activities in the park you can just get on with and enjoy, the underground fun requires you to book on to a selected tour – with a number of options available. After a lot of research and visiting online forums to try and find which tour might allow us to experience the most bang for our buck, Loops and I opt for the Domes and Dripstones tour. This gives us a chance to walk through a number of passageways, into some of the larger caves and to see the area they call Frozen Niagara, where you can view curtain dripstone formations. The tour covers ¾ mile and goes three levels deep, an elevation change of 250 feet, and contains over 500 stairs (mostly in a downwards direction).
If my memory serves me right, I’ve been to visit two other caves in my life. The first with my dad when I was about 13, he took me to see Blue John Caverns in Derbyshire where they mine Blue John stone, which is incredibly beautiful. The second I visited with Loops back when we were hiking the AT, Luray Caverns in Virginia, and we amazed by the phenomenal stalagmite and stalactite formations and underground lake in the caves. Both tours were fairly small, about 20 people in total, informative and respectful.
So I suppose I was expecting something a little in between my previous experiences when we signed up for our tour.
The first thing that became apparent was that our journey into the depths was to be an intimate affair, just Loops and I, and 116 of our closest friends. Which also happened to include a good number of young children, including a couple with their baby.
We were greeted at the mustering point by Jerry, a ranger with the park service. I will point out now that I found Jerry to be the highlight of the tour; he should probably consider doing the rounds on the comedy circuit. He was upfront, strict but fair, and very informative with a good dose of humour. He is also a 5th generation ranger guide, his great- great grandfather was one of the original slave guides at the park, and his family had lived on the land before it was converted into a National Park, with his father being a minister at the local church. I also liked the way Jerry was dressed, crisp and clean in his pressed grey ranger shirt with NPS patch sewed on, and dark green trousers. He wore a tie, his beige ranger hat and a torch hung from his belt.
We were instructed to board a small fleet of green school buses to take us to the cave entrance, where we were given a short list of instructions on do’s and don’ts in the cave – no running, no touching, no flash photography, don’t get left behind etc. Loops and I quickly ensured we were to the front of the main crowd, second only to another couple, so we could hear Jerry when he chatted as he led us through the caves.
The caves themselves did not excel themselves in any particular beauty or attractiveness in my opinion, I found Luray Caverns to be far more remarkable to look at; but the story behind how Mammoth Cave came into being and its subsequent explorations and opening to the public were all really interesting to hear about.
The cave system itself is blessedly cool, cold enough I’m glad I followed the advice on the NPS website and put on a pair of jeans and a jumper. We duck and stumble over the uneven natural stone of the cave floor, descend down a long sectional staircase and try to avoid being dripped on in several places. The caves are so minimally lit it can actually be difficult to see where you are stepping and once or twice I stumble and slip, convinced I’m going to fall but manage to stay on my feet.
Despite Jerry’s warnings and instructions, I can hear kids running about in the passageways and in one cave he has to repeatedly tell them not to climb on the rocks. Flashes from cameras can be seen and coming down one staircase I almost get hit on the head by someone dropping their mobile phone while hanging over the edge trying to take pictures. Sadly, it’s not really the relaxing and respectful tour I had imagined and I am just glad that we are at least at the front to get the full value of Jerry’s informative talks.
In the largest cave there is an amphitheatre, where we all sit down and Jerry tries to give us a taste of what cave exploration might have been like in the early days – he turns out the lights and plunges the cave into darkness for a couple of seconds. And it isn’t just simply a case of being in the dark; the total blackness is complete and suffocating. I hold my hand out in front of me and there is absolutely no hint of anything being near my face, it’s like the parts of my body have become some sort of abstract thought; it feels like because I can’t see them anymore, they simply don’t exist.
Jerry then lights a single candle, and the most amazing thing happens, not only do I suddenly feel real and present again; but I am shocked by the amount of light thrown by the candle, it is incredible – I can see around ten or fifteen people sat near me. I shall never again question the reality of a TV show when someone enters a room with a single candle can see everything like it’s daylight, because it’s pretty darn close!
Not long after the large cave and the candle experience we are given the option of taking the additional fifty step walk down to see the only formations on the trip, the curtain or draperies as they are known. While it’s nice to see them, I still don’t feel overawed by it.
We finish up the tour with a gentle ascent up and out into the light, with the heat and humidity slamming into us like a brick wall – the jumper quickly gets flung aside and we jump on the school bus desperate to get back to the visitor centre car park and to Belle with her freezing cold air conditioning.
Just in case anyone might be interested in learning a little about the caves and Ranger Jerry’s family history with them, here is the link to an article written about him two years ago for The New York Times – http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/02/travel/in-kentucky-a-family-at-the-center-of-the-earth.html?_r=0
Back at the bus we once again find ourselves at a little bit of a loose end, for time is pressing on and we have made no set plans for our evening stay. We wonder about simply dry camping in the car park, but unlike the Smokies or even Mill Springs, this area is unlikely to be deserted during the night. Directly behind where we have parked there are a series of cabins for campers and a number of people are walking and milling around. We notice that there is an evening activity at 7.30pm, a campfire and talk on cave art at the outdoor amphitheatre. We decide to have dinner and then go along to the presentation.
Ranger John welcomed the small group of us to his talk, which surprised me by being a PowerPoint presentation on an outdoor screen. I tell you, my students at college probably would have paid far more attention to my lectures if I’d sat them outside on a pleasant day and sparked up a campfire before discussing the joys of ecology and animal care. Ranger John began his talk by laying out what is considered cave art and showing pictorial examples of art from around the globe. He talked mainly of how and why people may have created cave art in the first place, why animal forms frequently feature and human images do not and what these images might be saying to us about how these people viewed the world around them. All in all, a very enjoyable and informative talk, highly recommended.
Still at a bit of a loose end as to our arrangements, we decided just to wing it and leave Belle where she sat for the evening and if anyone came by and asked us what we were doing, we would be happy to move on to the nearest Walmart or Cracker Barrel car park. As luck would have it, we spent a lovely quiet and undisturbed evening asleep, with the windows thrown open for the cool fresh air. Perfect.
After a little research by me the next morning, we decided to aim Belle northwards again with our eye on Elizabethtown, placing us about halfway through the state. We choose to keep off the main motorway and opt to travel route 31E, giving us a taste of the countryside of Kentucky. Although Loops has to apply a little more concentration to his driving while on the smaller curving roads, I am able to enjoy the small family run farms with red roofed barns and grain silos that look like giant rounded missiles pointed skywards. Fields of high corn fly by as we roll up and over the small undulating hills. We pass a large pond in one field where the cows have gathered to stand still in the centre of the water attempting to escape the overwhelming heat, all but one anyway. The solitary cow stands to the side of the pond with its head down and a little bit of a guilty look on its face. Secretly I think it’s being shamed by the others for farting in the water, or some other such sinful crime.
It’s as we drive along this road that we see signs for the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park. Well, not knowing anything about ‘Honest Abe’ apart from the fact he freed the slaves, and having already taken in a little civil war history earlier in the week; we felt we simply had to stop by, it would be practically rude not to.
The historic park is free to visit and I was really quite pleasantly surprised by it, a good stop for an hour or so during our road trip. The park can be divided into sections, the first stop is the visitor centre. The entrance way contains a bronze statue of the Lincoln family – which depicted that Abraham had a sister, who knew that? Talk about living in your sibling’s shadow. You then move through to a ‘this is what we think their house may have looked like inside’ mock-up of a one room log cabin and there is a timeline on the wall charting the family’s progress and Abraham’s rise to fame as president. This then leads you into a small room to watch a short film on Abraham’s life focusing on his time in Kentucky. It is worth noting that while he was born at the Sinking Spring Farm site we visited, the family actually lost the land there and had to move when he was two, to another site slightly north called Knob Creek Farm. Again, he only lived there until he was seven, losing the land again, and then the family picked up and headed north to Indiana. So I guess it’s up to each visitor to decide how much of a claim the state has on him, and his birthplace site in particular, in the shaping of this president.
Once you finish in the visitor site you can head outside and visit the spring for which the farm took its name, still flowing today. Rising above the site of the spring and up some 56 steps, is the rather grand looking Memorial Building, built on the site of the cabin where Lincoln was born. Inside the building is a ‘symbolic’ reconstruction of the cabin. I will say I found the outside of the building rather impressive but then felt a little bemused when I walked inside and sitting very tightly packed into the centre of the building is the cabin and nothing else. You are not allowed to stand inside it, there is nothing in it to view and no information posted around the room about it. It was just a little odd.
Finally when you leave the building there is a rather quaint woodland walk which we took despite the sweltering heat, skirting the property and bringing us to the site of where the Boundary Oak Tree used to be. This was the original property boundary land marker, a white oak tree which was apparently about 25 years old when Lincoln was born. The tree sadly died in 1976, at approximately 195 years of age and was eventually felled in 1986, so we missed seeing it by about 20 years. Just our luck.
Having had our fill of US history for the day we decided to head on our way into Elizabethtown to find a likely spot to spend the evening. Once again we were on the prowl for a boondocking site out of the way and found an only slightly worrying parking space not far from Freeman Lake, just around the back of a somewhat dodgy Mexican restaurant/club. Still, it’s free and has a nice view of the lake, so beggars can’t be choosers, eh?
Onwards to Indiana tomorrow and our fifth state!