Category: travelogue

1988 Trip to Mammoth Cave–When the Lights Went Out Underground

1988 Trip to Mammoth Cave–When the Lights Went Out Underground

(Pictured: Passage within Mammoth Caves National Park, iStock.com/sreenath_k)

I wrote this to a penpal back in 1988, as a sophomore in high school:

During August, my parents, my brother L– and I went to Bowling Green, Kentucky.

I went with my dad and brother to Mammoth Cave, but my mom stayed at the hotel because she’d gone through there before in 1965 (as did my brother and dad), and, since she hadn’t dressed properly for the cold down there–my dad was the only one in the tour group with pants on instead of shorts–she got sick.

(When it was my turn to go in this cave, which I’d heard so much about that it seemed legendary, I wore pants.)

Back then, the longest tour was somewhere around six, seven, eight hours.  Now it was only four and a half hours, unless you wanted to go on the “Wild Cave” Tour: I think that was six hours long, and it was one where they gave the people equipment and they’d pretend they were explorers.  (I’d like to go on that one sometime.)

The electricity in the cave is powered by two companies, one in Indiana, but when we were there, it wasn’t working in the Indiana Company’s part of the cave.  Most of the Half-Day (4 1/2-hour) Tour was in that part, so we had to stand outside in the heat for a very long time, waiting for the previous group to come back with the lanterns.

But, during that time, there was the oddest coincidence: During my freshman year at school, I had two best friends, and one of them–Jennifer–was on the very same tour I was on!  Neither of us even knew the other was going to be there!

Finally, we could go in the cave and cool off.  There were a lot of stairs to go down.  I’d brought a pocket flashlight I’d bought at church camp, which came in useful now.

(With at least two tour groups being shoved together for the tour, there was a shortage of lanterns, and anyone with a flashlight was encouraged to use it and lead a smaller group.  Of course, my flashlight was hardly big enough to lead a group with, so I didn’t say anything about it to the tour guide.)

After a while we reached the Snowball Dining Room and had lunch, chili if you wanted it (I had something else since I don’t like chili), then went into the next room and sat for an extremely long time.  It turned out to be cold in there, so our guide told us we should go back in the Snowball Room where it was warmer.

Some of us went in there, and the guide from the next group came up to us and said we should go in the other room because another group was going to come in.  Some people in our group started laughing; the other group’s guide asked, “Why are you laughing?” and someone said, “Our guide just told us to come in here.”

For a while during our wait in the other room, I had a chance to talk with Jennifer.  Before that, and maybe after, I talked with Dad about the link between the Great Flood and how the room looked like it was carved by water–which it was, as the guide later told us.

It was decided that the rest of the Half-Day Tour groups would join our group.  Our guide told us about the forks in the trail ahead and how easy it was to get lost.

He said that, usually, he could joke about how one person could go the wrong way and have forty people following, but now it could be a hundred (or maybe even 120, I don’t remember now), and it wouldn’t be so funny.

The guide was asked if anyone ever got lost in the cave, and he told about when a man, before there was electricity in the cave, left his new hat in the Snowball Room, and the guide let him go back and get it.  When he was going back to the group, he missed the turn and started going the wrong way–then his lantern went out.

He was lost for 39 hours!  They found him after he started pounding two rocks together.  They thought he was smart to signal the search party like that, but they found out the total silence–since Mammoth Cave makes no sound–had begun to get to him, so he pounded the rocks so there would be some noise.

As we went deeper and deeper into the cave, we could look up and see colossal walls on either side.  Some people were given candles, so now we had three or four flashlights, some lanterns and candles.  (I just remembered: One lantern had set on fire outside.)

I thought it was more fun without electricity.  Once or twice only a few of us were in front, and the others were so far behind we thought they were lost.

If I remember right, someone screamed when they saw one of the cave-dwelling animals or insects.  Along the way we saw a cave insect, and, in one room, we divided into groups to look for more.  We found at least one.

Some time later there were huge depressions on either side of the trail, and large rocks, which were in such positions that they looked like they would fall any second, were in the depressions, and one could see where part of the roof caved in when the cave was being formed–but it looked as if the cave-in had just occurred in the past few minutes!  One of the rocks in precarious positions was holding the roof up.

We reached a place with restrooms, and we found out those lights weren’t working either, so someone put a lantern in the girl’s restroom.

At one spot, we sat down on benches that were on either side of a trail with depressions on both sides.  Where I was, the bench tilted backwards, so I was uneasy until we all stood up again.  (L– noticed a heavily overweight woman panting and fanning herself here.)

There are so many steps in that cave, and we went up and down a lot of them.  We went down some more to see some formations, then came back up.  I believe the lights were on there.  Soon after, the tour was over.  Only my feet wanted to leave; they ached so much.

That “Half-Day” Tour turned out, for us, to be over five hours long.  People were joking that we should be given T-shirts saying, “I survived the 5-hour Half-Day Tour.”  I was disappointed when we came to the part where the lights were on, though as soon as they saw it some people cheered.

My dad, brother and I were going to go on the Echo River Tour the next morning, but all the water-tours were cancelled because the lights had gone out.  So Dad and I went on the Historic Tour, and heard from someone on that tour how he and a group were on the river when the lights went out.

On the Historic Tour, we, of course, went in the Historic Entrance.  All the lights were on in the part of the cave where this was.  Once, the lights were deliberately turned off, and we were told to be very still and just listen to the total silence: Mammoth Cave makes no sound at all, as I said before.

Then the guide took a kerosene torch and threw it on a ledge high above us, to light up the roof.  She said that a family of rats lived up there, and when they were “at home” they’d push the torch back off the ledge.  They weren’t home.

She also said a “fire and brimstone” preacher in the olden days liked to preach to his congregation here, where they felt close to Hell.  It was also used for mining at one time.

By the Bottomless Pit–which is 105 feet deep–is a tower-like thing that we climbed up–and up–using stairs.  (The stairs curved around and around the tower.)  It seemed to me to be just as high as the Bottomless Pit is deep.

On the way to and from Kentucky, I played Amy Grant’s Lead Me On tape, which I had just gotten, on my Walkman because it was the only tape I brought.  I played it as Dad drove down a road in a wooded area and then turned the car around because we were going the wrong way.  (We were close to the cave by then.)  By the end of the trip, I was tired of it.  I gave it a rest, and eventually was able to listen to it again.

Mom and Dad had told me the story of Mammoth Cave for years before this.  Mom had to carry my other brother La– (my brothers were that young), and L– ate too many hot dogs and got sick of them for life.  I think he eventually was able to eat them again, when he was grown up.

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2011 Trip to Tennessee–Land of the Appalachians

For most of the last week (August 4-9, 2011), my husband Cugan, my son Daniel and I were in Knoxville, Tennessee visiting Cugan’s parents.  This is the travelogue:

Day 1:

We are now down in Tennessee visiting Cugan’s parents.  Daniel got his first ride on a plane yesterday, but hated it: First our flight was so delayed that we couldn’t possibly make our connection, so we were switched to a different flight.  Then they switched us back with a different connection, but we’d lost our seats–and ended up in steerage, next to the engine, no window, but tons of racket.  Made my travel-migraine much worse, our stomachs went up and down with the plane–just awful. 😛

But the second plane was much better, right behind first class, very little airsickness, and Daniel got to watch out a window as the nighttime lights fell away below us…and the moon rose….

The layover was also much better than originally planned.  We originally had only an hour to get through the massive Atlanta airport, not enough time for dinner.  That airport is lots bigger than the one in Milwaukee, requiring trains to get from one concourse to another.  But this time, we got to have dinner and recover from our airsickness in the cool AC.

And I saw sitting across from us a little boy about Daniel’s age.  I encouraged him to go over and play, and the two became fast friends: The other boy, Jonathan, was like Daniel’s Spanish-speaking counterpart.  They spoke different languages but played the same things the same way, had similar toys.

And it showed Daniel the value of learning Spanish, which he’s been working on with my BYKI.com software.  They both had lego guys, cars, DS game systems.   LOL

Day 2:

It’s funny that I just digitized one of Cugan’s Blue Öyster Cult tapes onto the computer, because this state reminds me of “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” with its mountains, hillbilly history and Lover’s Leap on Lookout Mountain.

Today we went to Gatlinburg, an hour from Knoxville, where Cugan’s parents live.  Kitschy establishments everywhere!  There’s even a “Hatfield vs. McCoy” dinner theater, the building made to look like a couple of hillbilly shacks.  They really play up the hillbilly thing in these parts.

But we weren’t there for the kitsch.  First we went to–what was it called, Bubba Gump Shrimp or something like that.  It’s a restaurant based on Bubba’s shrimp business, which later became Forrest’s, on “Forrest Gump.”

Not only do they have Forrest Gump stuff everywhere–quotes all over the tables, Gump memorabilia, menu items named after characters–but the server does movie trivia as you eat.  You put up a sign saying “Stop Forrest Stop” if you want service.  If you don’t, you put up a sign saying “Run Forrest Run.”

After that, we went to the aquarium.  Usual aquarium stuff, but the shark tank was set up with classical music and a moving sidewalk (very disorienting, especially with my nasty migraine, but if you’re feeling healthy it’s supposed to fill you with awe), and the tank actually went over your head.  You could look up and see sharks resting over your head and swimming over you.

The African penguin section allowed children to go in these tubes to see the penguins up-close, but still from protective glass, so of course Daniel went in there.  There were two petting areas: One for horseshoe crabs, the other for stingrays.

I got to pet a horseshoe crab, but the stingrays were just too far away.  It was hard to bend over the wall, and the stingrays always went just beyond my reach, though some of them did seem to come over to me on purpose.

And, of course, to get out of the aquarium you HAD to go through the gift shop.  It was actually a rule: You were blocked from going anywhere else but through the greatest part of the gift shop.  Yeah, we knew why that rule was there.  LOL

We’re talking Chattanooga tomorrow.  I hope to go to Lookout Mountain and the Civil War display there, along with the cave and Lover’s Leap.

I went there with my family as a kid, though I forget how old I was.  Possibly teens or late childhood.  I also remember going to the Coca-Cola museum; I’m not sure where exactly it is in Tennessee, but hope to show it to Daniel.

I must show him a cave before we leave this state!  Not only do I want him to see the awesomeness that is caves, but I haven’t seen a cave for probably 10 years.   Here in the mountains there are probably lots of caves!

Too bad the airsickness and migraine have combined to make the trip more grueling than it otherwise would have been.  It’s also very hot here right now: The car thermometer read 98 degrees at one point.  😛  I like cooler weather.  I don’t want to ever move down South or West.

Day 3:

Turns out Chattanooga is some four hours away, so unfortunately, we won’t be going there.

Today we went to the Cherokee Caverns, a cave near Oak Ridge where they did the Manhattan Project during WWII.  It’s not far from Knoxville, out in the wilderness.

History of Cherokee Caverns

They do public tours only four times a year, and today was the day for this time of year.  There were a bunch of people there.  A cute young guy led our group through the little cave.

It was pretty, and has some interesting history.  There is evidence that Cherokees used it, such as river cane torch marks (stoke marks) in places where they would have rubbed their torches to relight them, and they would have found flint and other things they needed in there.

The cave is also made into a Haunted Cave periodically, so they also have two manmade wonders: a “vortex tunnel,” a spinning black tunnel with colored spots which makes you feel disoriented, and an alligator-shaped formation.

It was used for filming during one of the Christy movies, when she was lost in a cave.  The guide showed us where the crew filled up a part of the cave with water and then drained it.

He also told us that during the 80s, a biker gang used it for parties and hanging out.  They damaged it in various places, such as one spot where some idiot shot a stalactite (did it hit him in the eye when it fell, I wonder?), another spot where they burned a bunch of tires as a last hurrah before leaving the cave, and tiremarks here and there.

Also, when one large floor was excavated to make the cave handicap accessible, they found some bear skeletons.

After that we went to the Oak Ridge Children’s Museum.  It wasn’t just a play area, but had actual museum pieces and log cabins to show how people used to live in the Appalachians, and how people lived who worked on the Manhattan Project.

Through this display, I learned why some of the Weather Channel people pronounce “Appalachians” so strange: In the North, it’s “AppaLAYshuns,” as we say it around here.  In the South, it’s “AppaLATCHans,” as they say it on the Weather Channel.

Daniel had a lot of fun playing with various displays, especially the toy boats and trains, and didn’t want to leave, but it was almost closing time.  We got caught in a sudden rainstorm on the way out.

The clerks at the Children’s Museum told us about the houses nearby, which Cugan’s dad asked about, saying they looked a lot alike.  They were used by the workers in the Manhattan Project–A houses, B houses, C houses, etc.–and are now private dwellings which people modify as needed.  To this day people refer to them as A houses, B houses, C houses, etc.

The government kept the town a secret until after WWII.  Workers on the Manhattan Project didn’t even know it had anything to do with the atomic bomb.

Day 4:

Today we visited the Museum of Appalachia near Knoxville.  It has relics and actual or replicated buildings from old Appalachian settlements.

With all the steep pathways and the heat and humidity, it’s not surprising that Daniel started to complain.  But it wasn’t surprising that they spent most of their time outside: The stifling buildings were even worse.

One hut, belonging to an old bachelor, was a teeny tiny room that just fit a bed, a stove and some other things.  A dorm room was palatial compared to this, even the closet-room belonging to a friend of mine who lived in the men’s dorm at Roanoke College.

One cabin belonged to Mark Twain’s parents, and was only a bit larger, with a loft.  Yet another cabin had large rooms and two stories, along with a richly-carved mantel.

There were peacocks running around and filling the air with their cries.  There were sheep and large roosters.  Inside the display buildings you could see various pieces used by actual mountain people from the late 1800s and early 1900s, from toys and beds to musical instruments, caskets, a hearse….

There was a tiny church, making you wonder how they could sit in that stifling room dressed in 19th-century Sunday best.  There was a one-room schoolhouse with two outhouses, one for boys and one for girls.

The outhouses were big enough to move around comfortably, though one-seaters, and could easily hold a coat and a water basin.  I always wonder about such things.

We stopped at the little restaurant/cafe for refreshment, and found Coke in old-fashioned 8-oz. glass bottles.

There was, of course, a hut with a still and other whiskey-making implements.   The write-up told about a guy called Popcorn Sutton, a mountain man who was famous for making moonshine.  The dates given were in the 2000s!  He died only two years ago!

So I asked, and was told that some people still live like this in the mountains, that these aren’t just relics from the past like the Galloway House.

After a little Googling it appears that there have been many improvements and modernizations in the rural areas of the region, there are now trailers and more modern houses and cars and schools and modern clothes and household implements, but the mountain people are still desperately poor.

So the same lack of running water and electricity, ramshackle houses, outhouses, poor medical care, and other such things still exist among many.  And they still carry on the culture and music of their ancestors.

Popcorn Sutton

Popcorn Sutton’s Family’s Blog

20/20’s “Children of the Mountains”

Mountains Of Substandard Housing Appalachia’s Poverty And Unemployment Make Even Ragged Homes Unaffordable.

In the evening, Cugan and I went on a little date by ourselves, first dinner at a restaurant then the latest Harry Potter movie.  On the way home, finally I could see the Appalachian mountains at night, a beautiful scene I haven’t seen since my family visited my brothers in North Carolina in 1990: the mountains black, lurking shadows against the dark gray of the night sky.

Day 5:

Today we went to Dollyworld, an amusement park which was bought out by Dolly Parton and made into a big marketing thing for her: her music playing everywhere, Dolly’s fashions sold in a shop, things like that.  The narcissism was amusing.

But there was lots to do, shops to visit, rides for Daniel, a candy shop, a train going through the park but also around the mountain with various replicas of hillbilly life/buildings (including a moonshine still) circa the 19th century.

There were also various shows; we went to a 40-minute musical with dancers, which went through local history from Cherokees to the Scottish-Irish settlers to the 19th century culture to Depression-era changes.  There were even 4 guys, playing Cherokees, who flew over the audience and ended up right over us on a stage contraption.  Daniel was amazed at that part.

Tomorrow we go home.

 

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