It’s been a very busy and very enjoyable week on the road. Fall colors are peaking here in Kentucky and it is truly beautiful to see. Peak foliage is such a short and intense time it’s hard to fully appreciate it before it’s over. Like strawberry season you just have to enjoy it as much as you can with the time you have. I finished my first Kentucky podcast this week which you can listen to HERE or by searching “American Anthology” wherever you get your podcasts. I really like how it came out. I’ve also taken some great photos this week which I’ve only now begun to sift through.
My week started in the world’s largest cave system at Mammoth Cave National Park. I had a great time exploring the park both above and below ground. From there I made my way out to beautiful Big South Fork National Recreation Area and on to Renfro Valley where I got to see some great music in a wonderful setting. I had a wonderful visit to tiny Berea with its fascinating historic University and from there made my way back into Appalachia and spent some time in unbelievable Red River Gorge, one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen here in the east, especially under fall colors. I’m finishing the week with a visit to my dad here in Charleston, West Virginia, where this whole journey started just about a year ago. In fact this week I will be celebrating my one year anniversary on the road. The weather is turning colder and as temperatures dip below freezing I’m starting to turn my attention south for the winter. It’s been a great stay in the Bluegrass State, but it’s almost time for me to be moving on.
When last we met, it was Halloween and I was slipping on my mask and headed out into the night in Bowling Green. It turned out to be a fun, but not an exceptionally long night. I wandered around downtown for a while, freaked a few people out with my scary clown mask, had a couple of beers and some tacos and called it a night.
The next day I tried to finish off some work in the morning at the library before making my way out to Mammoth Cave. I spent my fist night out of my van in a long time (with the exception of crashing at friends’ houses), and got my own wigwam at Wigwam Village #2 in Cave City. Out of the seven original Wigwam Villages built in the twenties and thirties, only 3 remain today. It was silly and kitchy, but I had a great stay in my concrete teepee. I worked on my podcast and got some dinner at Tuertlelini’s in Horse Cave which was a good spot for some pizza and to get in out of the rain.
The next day I was up and off on my way to Mammoth Cave National Park. I had two tours booked so I had to get there early. My first tour took me down to Gothic Avenue, one of the older sections of the park with regards to tourism. This tour was supposed to give an historic glance at the park and the tours that have been made there over the years. We entered through the natural entrance and learned about the history of saltpeter excavation which happened in Mammoth Cave during the early years. Then we started into the belly of this enormous cave system. It’s generally a dry cave so there aren’t a ton of cool formations down there, but it’s an enormous cave with huge chambers and is definitely something to see. As we made our way up to Gothic Avenue, we began to see some of the historic graffiti in the cave. In the old days, guides would give candles to the tourists who would slowly and methodically burn their own names into the ceiling of the cave. Many of the signatures I saw were dated back in the early 1800s giving some perspective on how old it was. This was an interesting tour, mostly due to the Park Rangers who were leading it.
After some lunch, and a hike down to the River Styx Entrance and the Green River, I headed out to the “New Entrance”, a concrete doorway with a steel door that opens onto dozens of steps down into a different section of the cave. This Domes and Dripstones tour took us deep into the earth and through some more grand chambers. We walked through several large rooms and eventually made our way to the beautiful Frozen Niagara area. There, water had seeped in and created enormous and beautiful formations which were well worth a look. This was the less interesting but more beautiful of the two tours.
After my tours, I enjoyed a short walk to Sand Cave to learn the story of Floyd Collins who was trapped and died there in 1925. Rescue attempts gained national attention which eventually led to the formation of Mammoth Cave National Park. As dark was settling in, I made a beeline for Somerset.
The next day I headed on down to Stearns in the heart of the Kentucky side of Big South Fork National Recreation Area where I caught the historic Big South Fork Railway down into the gorge. This was a great little ride past some beautiful scenery and some interesting mining history as well. After we returned from this excursion, I popped quickly into the local museum and then made my way out to Yahoo Falls. It was a nice hike down to, around and behind this gentle little waterfall, one of the highest in Kentucky. As the day wore on, I drove out to Cumberland Falls, a much larger waterfall in its namesake State Park. The place was packed, but I was glad to see people out there enjoying the great outdoors.
That night I went on to the Renfro Valley Entertainment Center, one of Kentucky’s premier music venues. I was there for a double feature that night, with the weekly Barn Dance in the Old Barn followed by headliner Montgomery Gentry in the New Barn. There was great music all night and I had a really good time there.
As I was riding the railway down into the gorge, I realized that I had mistakenly skipped Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace, believing I had visited it a few years earlier. I finally figured out that I had been to his boyhood home in Indiana instead which is what threw me off course. One of my main objectives on this trip is to visit all of the National Park Sites that I haven’t seen before, so I immediately changed my plans to backtrack to this one. I had a nice visit there until I learned that the birthplace cabin they are protecting in their giant stone memorial wasn’t actually built until decades after Lincoln was born. At least the water spring, the reason they had settled there in the first place, was authentic. It is an interesting place though.
Having seen the fake cabin, I headed back across to Berea, getting in just in time for dinner at the Historic Boone Tavern. Built in 1909, this hotel and restaurant serves the needs of Berea College and the town in general. It is one of the nicer establishments in this part of the state, and I had a great meal there. I figured I’d have one more bowl of Burgoo and one more Hot Brown before I leave Kentucky, and they served both in a classy and friendly historic venue.
Pursuing a story on the Day Law for my next podcast, I stopped by the Visitors Center the next day to get an answer to a question which I couldn’t sort out online. I ended up having a nice chat with one of the students who worked there who was also a campus tour guide. Since she had a tour leaving in the next few minutes, I decided to join. Berea College was incredibly inspiring. It was established as the first coed, integrated university south of the Mason-Dixon line a decade before the Civil War, a groundbreaking feat for sure. Today, they provide a tuition-free education for 100% of their student body, many of whom come from Appalachia. In return, the students must maintain their academics and also work part-time for the betterment of the university doing anything from sweeping floors to guiding tours. The whole campus had a wonderful, inclusive feel to it, and the tour I took really gave me a good feeling about the place. Expect to see more about Berea later this week.
After spending the morning there, I made my way out to the Red River Gorge in the heart of Daniel Boone National Forest. I was stunned by the beauty of this place and had a great day and a half exploring. From the pedestrian suspension bridge just above the river to the lofty heights of Sky Bridge, this area is full of beauty and surprises. I did a few short hikes, but heavy rain had left many of the trails in pretty bad shape so I didn’t stray too far from the roads. As darkness settled in the gorge, I enjoyed a cold beer and a bowl of chili at Sky Bridge Station, a climbers bar on the southeast side of the park and a real hidden treasure.
Hating to leave Red River Gorge, but looking forward to a few days off the road, I sped off towards Charleston, West Virginia, temporarily leaving Kentucky to visit my dad before I head south for the winter. It’s been a great couple of days here in a warm bed with a good shower and unlimited wifi available as late as I want to use it. It’s always good to catch up with my dad and his partner Judy, and to spend a few days with familiar faces off the road.
This coming week, I’m heading back for my last few days in the Bluegrass State. I still have a handful of things I want to check out in the Appalachian region and another podcast to get finished as well. I’m going to explore some beautiful state parks, small towns and off-the-beaten-track spots, and hopefully get the chance to go down into a coal mine and explore some of the history of the area as well. By this time next week, I may still be in Kentucky, but I may not be. The weather is dipping down into the low twenties this week, and it’s time for me to point my headlights south towards Georgia where I’ll be for most of the time before Christmas. I’ve spent some time in Georgia before, mostly in Savannah and Atlanta, and I’m looking forward to seeing a whole lot more of what it has to offer in the month ahead. What are your plans this winter? I hope you’re going to get out and do something fun and not just barricade yourself inside in front of the television. I’d love to hear what you have planned. Let me know in the comments below. My plan is to spend the winter in the south, and I’m going to get started with that plan as soon as possible.
Until next week then, take a deep breath now that the elections are over and go do something fun. Winter will close in soon enough, so it’s time for one big hurrah before it does. Have a great week out there y’all, whatever your plans are. I’ll see you right back here this time next week.