- Never tailgate a gravel truck.
- The government of the Commonwealth of Kentucky is run by cheapskate morons.
- Louisville is closed on Sundays.
- Dolly Parton is perhaps the most extreme example of a hometown hero of the past twenty years or more.
- Mammoth Cave, after 181 years of tourists, is still seriously cool.
- There are more victory screens in the Game Boy version of Tetris than we ever thought possible.
This trip was the result of telling our kids too many stories about things that happened before they were born. We talked about visiting Mammoth Cave, and they decided they wanted to see Mammoth Cave -- and other stuff in Kentucky and Tennessee that we'd talked about. The idea of maybe looking up some old friends in Kentucky wasn't entirely without appeal, either. Julie and I -- mostly Julie -- therefore worked out a route for a ten-day vacation (which wound up getting trimmed slightly), running from Maryland through western Virginia into West Virginia, on through Kentucky, then south to Tennessee, to North Carolina, then back north to home.
(Actually, the original version would've taken about sixteen days. We trimmed a lot. Dropped Nashville entirely, for example.)
It's worth noting that Julie did most of the planning, and the rest of us tended to just agree with whatever she said, so that we sometimes found ourselves surprised by where we wound up because we hadn't been paying attention to that part.
So... Thursday, August 14, around 10:00 we gassed up the car, set the trip odometer, and headed down I-270 toward D.C. Which we almost didn't, because I was driving and I thought we were going to head up I-270, toward West Virginia. Julie corrected me.
Instead we took I-270 from Gaithersburg to the Washington Beltway (I-495), around the west side of the Beltway to I-66, down I-66 to its end at Front Royal, Virginia. Picked up I-81 down the Shenandoah Valley to I-64. Then took I-64 west into West Virginia, and stopped at a rest area with an information booth to decide which of several state parks in the general vicinity of Beckley WV we would camp at.
We chose Bluestone State Park. This involved driving fifteen miles on narrow, incredibly-winding roads through lots of temperate rain forest and the town of Hinton, which is a perfectly respectable town except for an excessive number of bait-&-tackle shops and a small surplus of slightly scummy bars.
We emerged from Hinton, managed to not turn onto Rte. 3 despite its enticements, found the entrance to Bluestone just in time to avoid crossing a rusting old iron truss bridge that's under much-needed repair, and proceeded to drive a few more miles of winding roads through the park, alongside Bluestone Lake.
We found the park office and booked one of two available tenting sites in the Meador campground (which is mostly for RV's, the difference being that RV sites have electric hook-ups and tenting sites do not), the one adjoining the lake. We learned that the other campground, the Old Mill campground, is entirely tenting sites, and as well as lacking electricity it also lacks flush toilets, hot water, and other amenities. It does, however, have black bears who consider anything not actually in a person's hand to be intended as part of an ursine dinner.
This is why sites at Meador were in far more demand than those at Old Mill.
So we found Site No. 8, which does indeed back up to the lake, but no one had mentioned the twenty feet of thick undergrowth between the campsite and the shore, rather inhibiting the view. Site No. 8 is also at the farthest point from the showers and toilets of anywhere in Meador if one follows the official paths; we generally cut through a couple of campsites to get there instead.
We made camp, setting up the big tent (a very nice pop-up, endorsed by Sir Edmund Hilary and intended to sleep four) at one end and Julian's puptent (officially a two-person tent, but they need to be either very small or very good friends) at the other. This division was because Julian has a long history of snoring -- loud, dramatic, irregular snoring. The big tent has two rooms; Julie and I took one, Kiri the other, while Julian had his own separate establishment.
Julian collects stuffed crustacea, and had brought his two favorites along -- a three-foot lobster named Super Medic, and a hand-sized crab named Mr. Crabbie. They shared his tent, and you'll be hearing more about them later, I expect.
At any rate, he wasn't totally alone.
I had had some doubts about this whole camping business, actually. Julie grew up in a family that used campgrounds frequently -- it was the only way a family with seven kids could afford to take regular vacations -- but my parents were both urban in origin, and we'd never done anything like that. I'd spent a summer at Camp Flying Cloud when I was eleven -- a "wilderness" camp that was later closed down for good by the Board of Health -- and had gone on a few camping expeditions with Julian's Scouts, but this was still not something I was very comfortable with.
Julie had not realized this; it finally registered with her when I pointed out that I had no idea how one acquired a site at a campground, what it cost, etc.
The weather had been less than ideal, with scattered showers in Virginia, but it had cleared up, so we went ahead with the camping, despite my reservations. And the kids' reservations. Julie wasn't having it.
And at dinner time I saw why. I'd known we had the tents, and a bag of charcoal (which I put in the grill and lit) and a bundle of sticks cut from our apple tree, but I had not known that we had a roll of aluminum foil and a big Tupperware container full of marinated boneless chicken breast and a package of hot dogs and a bag of marshmallows. Once I saw the meat I knew why we had to camp that night -- it wouldn't have kept.
So we put the hot dogs on sticks and wrapped the chicken in foil and cooked dinner over the fire, which was fun and tasty and a pretty good time despite the damp weather and gathering insects.
There was a path to the lake, which we used, and we strolled about admiring the scenery. We sprang for a three-dollar bundle of firewood, and after the cooking was done and the charcoal fading we removed the grill and built a campfire on the spot.
This meant we could toast marshmallows -- except the bag we'd brought turned out to be several months old, and a cheap brand to begin with, so that the contents, beneath a loose top layer of more-or-less edible marshmallows, had congealed into a great mass of gooey, sugary gel.
So instead of toasting and eating them, we simply burned the marshmallows on sticks. Marshmallows, when burned, produce hot gas and almost pure carbon, and because of the expanding gas the carbon blows up into weird, lacy shapes. Black, of course. If you can then get the carbon tracery to burn, it burns blue, which fascinated Kiri.
And when it was dark the glowing tips of the sticks could be waved about to make patterns of light. We had a full moon and a mist, making another tour of the lakeside quite strikingly beautiful once we'd used up the firewood and marshmallows.
When the fire had burned down we prepared for bed. We'd brought two flashlights and Julian's camp lantern -- a battery-powered fluorescent thing that was bright enough I read several chapters of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere by its light without strain. Julian took the lantern into his tent, where it lit the entire interior and cast sharp shadows on one side, giving us a clear view of Julian preparing for bed -- and then the rather horrific image of a giant lobster swooping up out of nowhere, hovering over our son, then lunging down.
This was Super Medic in action, as Julian picked her up, held her at arm's length, then dropped her. The rest of us burst out laughing, which caused Julian to stick his head out of the tent to see what was happening.
He then proceeded to play with the shadows of Super Medic and Mr. Crabbie, but eventually went to sleep (and did not snore, to our pleased surprise). Kiri crawled into her half of the big tent and went to sleep (had I mentioned that it's a two-room tent?), and Julie and I, after putting away almost everything for the night, followed suit.
I say "almost everything" because Julie had deliberately left out a couple of very ripe bananas on the site's picnic table, so we couldn't possibly miss them at breakfast. Except I didn't know that was why she left them out.
Somewhere around 3:00 a.m. I was awakened by a loud crash; I got up and got out of the tent, and thereby scared off a raccoon that had been rummaging through our site's trash can. I didn't exactly see it as a raccoon -- the moon was bright, just about full, but still, all I saw was a grey blur with a ringed tail dashing into the woods.
I put the lid back on the trash -- good and tight this time -- and went back to bed.
Came the morning, Julie asked, "Where are the bananas?" (She also took that photo.)
I replied, "The raccoon took them, of course."
She was astonished, and I was puzzled -- hadn't she left them out for the local fauna on purpose, as too ripe for humans to bother with? I'm not sure whether I'd thought that all along, or decided it was her intent sometime during the night after I scared off the raccoon, but it seemed blindingly obvious that if you leave food sitting out overnight in the woods, it won't be there in the morning.
Apparently this hadn't occurred to Julie at all, and she was genuinely surprised that the bananas were gone. Seems odd, given her experience at camping.
Anyway, we broke camp, packed up, and headed out of the park, munching crackers to stave off hunger until we could find somewhere that would sell us breakfast. This time we gave in to Route 3's blandishments, dodging most of Hinton and heading back toward the Interstate by a more westerly route.
It also turned out to be an even wigglier route than the one we'd come in by, going through a few tiny villages before reaching the inevitable commercial sprawl surrounding the highway. We found a Hardee's and ate an adequate breakfast there, then headed up the connector toward I-64 -- and found ourselves behind a very full gravel truck.
An uncovered gravel truck. Maryland finally began requiring covers a few years back, but West Virginia obviously hasn't yet.
Several years ago, in Connecticut, on I-84 between Hartford and Sturbridge, a truck in front of us hit a bump and a pebble bounced off, hitting our windshield hard enough to crack it. I had no desire for a repetition of that, so I stayed pretty far back from the truck.
This was a good thing, since as soon as it began to pick up speed, small stones and dust began to rattle off, bouncing over the top of the tailgate and scattering on the road in front of us. We made various disgusted remarks.
Kiri said, "He should have fastened the back tighter, too." At first I didn't see what she was talking about, but then she pointed to the bottom right corner of the tailgate, where sure enough, gravel was leaking out in a small trickle.
By this time we were passing under I-64 preparatory to climbing the entrance ramp -- a three-quarters circle. And just then the truck's tailgate came open completely, and gravel began pouring out as it started up the ramp.
"Yup, he should have fastened it better," we all agreed, as we stared in amazement.
The truck was hugging tightly to the inside of the ramp's curve, and effectively paving half the ramp with a pretty even layer of gravel; we stayed to the outside of the curve to minimize the rattling against Winnie's undercarriage. (Winnie is our 1991 Plymouth Voyager minivan.) We prepared to honk the horn, flash lights, wave, and yell to get the truck driver's attention as we passed -- but it proved unnecessary; as he pulled onto the Interstate he looked in his mirror (as well he should) and saw what had happened, so that by the time we zoomed past he was already pulling onto the shoulder.
He did not look happy at all. He'd lost perhaps a fourth of his load.
Which brings up a game we'd invented the previous day, the Annoying Driver competition, which I explain on another subpage.
The gravel truck incident past, we headed on to the northwest, through Charleston and Huntington. We ate lunch in Huntington, and pointed out to Kyrith that that's where she said her first word.
After Huntington we headed on west on I-64, into Kentucky. It was a bit odd seeing it again after eleven years -- limestone and greenery. The kids noticed the difference quickly, and remarked on how odd the limestone cliffs were, with their sharp layers.
We were greeted by a midwestern shower. For those of you unaware of it, even rain is different on the two sides of the Appalachians. To the east, where the kids have always lived, it's a gradual affair; west of the mountains it's often sudden and torrential.
In Kentucky you can go from sunshine to downpour and back to sunshine in a matter of minutes; this is not the case in the Maryland piedmont.
The kids marveled at what was, to them, a freak of nature.
We had been debating possible stops, such as Cave Run Lake, but a close inspection of our maps and my memory (I went to Cave Run Lake once; Julie never did) led us to conclude that there are no beaches there, so we pressed on. Our first real stop would be Winchester, the county seat of Clark County, followed by a visit to our former home in the wilds south of town.
Winchester hasn't changed much. The downtown is still struggling, various industries (rather more than used to be) clutter the north end of town, and there's no sign of much new building anywhere.
And our old place on Dry Fork Road wasn't very different, either. No one was home (we don't know who owns it now), so we just looked at the outside (as seen in the picture), then drove down to the ford at the foot of the hill and played on the rocks a little.
The ponds were scummed over with algae. Ollie Brinegar's house was gone without a trace, and a new factory-built double-wide, neat and clean and tidy, sits on the lot, considerably farther back from the road than the old place.
We had had, on our thirty acres, a cabin, built straight out of the Whole Earth catalog in the late 1970s by a couple of back-to-the-land types -- passive solar, chemical toilet, rainwater cistern, etc. It still stands, but the front's been ripped out and it's been turned into a cattle shed -- no toilet, no solar windows or thermal mass.
The corner grocery, which had been Ballard's Grocery when Cecil Ballard was alive, then Bennett's Grocery when Tom Bennett bought it from Cecil's widow after marrying her granddaughter, is now just labeled "Grocery," and was closed; Tom Bennett was murdered a couple of years after we left, and we have no idea who owns the place now. It looked pretty dead.
In short, nothing we saw in Clark County had gone significantly downhill, nor grown much, nor seen great improvement; some things were better, some were worse, but in general it looked much as it always had. Jerry Brinegar's name is still on the mailbox next to our old place, even if his father's ancient little home is gone, and the Samses appear to still have the place down by the ford, even though they no longer run black Angus. We didn't see anyone, either friend or stranger, anywhere on Dry Fork Road.
Shrubs have grown up to block the view from our old front porch, which was one of the few redeeming features the place had. We're glad to be out of there.
After leaving the old farm we stopped off in Winchester to look at the shops, and found a new one where I commiserated with the proprietor on the difficulties of running a small retail operation; her horror stories about trying to hire competent help made me very glad that Beyond Comics more or less came with all the staff it needed.
We bought a few toys, then headed on to Lexington, where we were staying two nights with Jane and Scott Dennis (who some of you may know -- they do business as Fo' Paws Productions and are a fixture at many SF conventions). We drove partway around New Circle Road, which looks much as it always has, though the specific mix of businesses has changed -- we noticed that all the Chinese restaurants we liked are gone, though others have replaced them.
Jane and Scott now own a large and rather odd house in the western part of Lexington, in a neighborhood that would be very nice indeed if it weren't quite so close to the highway. We got a detailed tour of the house and garden -- as an architecture aficionado I was fascinated with the house, and Julie, being a gardener, admired the yard. The place was custom-built in 1962 by an architect who greatly admired Frank Lloyd Wright to the specifications of a wealthy Frenchwoman, and the result is odd, dated, but not unpleasant, with terrazo floors and many "haute moderne" elements. A wing was designed by the original architect for a second owner, but not built until much later, and the plans were revised by someone else, so that the wing blends in well on the outside but is quite bizarre inside.
As with any house thirty-five years old, there have been lots of accumulated changes; Jane and Scott have tried to reverse the worst of them, but more work remains to be done, and time and money are finite.
The place has many charms, though -- lots of storage space, for one thing, and a couple of guest rooms, as well as two offices. There are two kitchens -- the original, and one that was added for a mother-in-law apartment. The original is now the winter kitchen, and the new one the summer kitchen -- the latter opens onto a splendid private terrace, which was where we ate while we were there.
Jane and Scott were preparing for Worldcon (they need at least two or three weeks for that), so we didn't see as much of them as we might have liked, but we did get to talk some.
Saturday, after that lovely breakfast on the terrace, we went out to see Lexington.
It hasn't changed much. It's sort of odd, how much Kentucky still looks as we remember it, when Gaithersburg has changed rapidly. One nasty old industrial area has been replaced by a nice little park, but otherwise downtown looks the same. Traffic's a bit worse. We're told that the south end of town has grown tremendously, but we didn't go look -- we never liked the south end of town anyway.
Our old house on Lindy Lane is in a time-warp, I swear -- it's still 1953 there, same as when we lived in it (1978-1983). Someone cut down the lovely maple we planted in the front yard, and the ancient peach tree behind the garage is gone, but otherwise it's so similar... same paint job, same hedge, same dogwoods and apples...
On the other hand, the Eastland shopping center has changed almost its entire tenant list. It's strange what changes and what doesn't.
Patchen Village, a '90s-style mixed residential and commercial development off Richmond Road that was built twenty years too soon, is still there, and we had lunch at Max & Erma's there -- but it's declined somewhat. The commercial area's looking a bit tatty. The apartments have all had new facades put on 'em, replacing the stucco and fake timbers (which I liked) with boring brick and fake-clapboard siding. And many, many new buildings have gone up around them; in 1977 Patchen Village was at the outer edge of the city, surrounded by green, and now it's surrounded by more apartments, more stores, etc. It's pretty much lost its ambience; the original apartments no longer match the commercial section at all, destroying the "village" feel.
I keep thinking of things I wish I'd revisited that I didn't -- none were worth more than a few minutes at most, but I find myself wondering what they look like.
Anyway, after lunch, we headed for Fort Boonesborough State Park. Julian felt he'd been cheated out of swimming at Cave Run Lake, so we were going to swim in the Kentucky River at Boonesborough.
Sidelight: Chinese restaurant
We got there, however, and found No Swimming Allowed signs -- big ugly ones -- on every access to the beach. A big new pool had been built a bit up slope.
I asked at the gift shop what had happened, and was told that because the Board of Health had had to close the beach a few times, the parks department had built the new pool -- and then closed the beach permanently.
They weren't willing to pay lifeguards for both facilities, you see, and now that the pool was there they weren't going to check water quality at the beach, either, so instead of "Swim At Your Own Risk" they closed it entirely.
The beach had been free. The pool was $6.00 a head. Damn cheapskate morons. If I want to swim in a pool, I'm not going all the way out to Boonesborough for it!
So we lolled about on the grass for awhile, bought some Ale 8 -- but really, Boonesborough was a washout. No one cared about the reproduction fort. So we packed up and headed back to Lexington, where we drove out Old Frankfort Pike to the Headley-Whitney Museum. ("Headley" is pronounced "Heed-lee." "Whitney" is pronounced "Vanderbilt," pretty much -- at least, all the Whitneys have Vanderbilt as a middle name and a source of wealth.) The Headleys were a fairly well-off local family to begin with, and when George Headley married a Whitney... well, the museum exists to show off his hobbies, more or less, and the most interesting was the making of bibelots -- that is, small artworks made entirely of gemstones and precious metals. (The T in bibelot is silent, by the way.) Thirty-some of them are on display, and they're absolutely gorgeous. The wasp brooch he made for Joan Crawford is especially nice -- and it's a wasp as his commentary on her personality; he didn't like her much.
Headley also converted his three-car garage into a "grotto," of the sort that was trendy in 18th-century Europe -- a room entirely decorated with seashells. The kids liked that part best.
And as that would be a pretty small museum, there's also a library (which we skipped) and two exhibit halls, one with the Headley-Whitney collection of porcelain (which was, alas, closed), and one with various non-permanent exhibits which had, at the time, a display of 19th-century fashion.
After the Headley-Whitney Museum we drove out to Versailles for a cook-out with one of Julie's old co-workers and her family; that was pleasant, but not particularly noteworthy. They have a big orange cat named Garfield (and two other cats we saw less of) who provided much of the entertainment -- Garfield will gladly spend hours chasing the red dot made by one of those hand-held laser pointers...
Versailles is pronounced "Vur-SALES," by the way. Driving there involved driving past the castle some rich loon built about ten years ago alongside U.S. 60; we were amused to see that it's for sale.
Then back to Lexington and another night at the Dennis'. Julian apparently over-ate at the cook-out and had to make a middle-of-the-night dash to the bathroom, but otherwise the rest of our stay was uneventful.
Our plan for Sunday was to drive the seventy miles or so to Louisville and go to Kentucky Kingdom, a small amusement park/water park we'd heard about that has a notable coaster -- Chang, it's called. Kiri wanted to ride Chang. We were then going to stay with friends just outside the city.
The directions we had for Kentucky Kingdom were, "You go in on the interstate until you see the signs"
The interstate in question, connecting Lexington to Louisville, is I-64, so we headed west on I-64... and went right through Louisville and on into Indiana without seeing any signs. We did pass a billboard informing us that Chang had broken five world records in coaster design, but it didn't deign to tell us how to get there.
So we turned around, got off the highway in downtown Louisville, and found a phone. We called Kentucky Kingdom, and learned that it's off I-65, not I-64. To Louisvillians, we learned, "the Interstate" means I-64 only as far as downtown; then it means I-65. The idea of not turning off I-64 onto I-65 never occurred to anyone from around there. North and west of Louisville is Indiana, and why would anyone ever want to go there? East is I-64, south is I-65, and they're collectively "the Interstate."
So we headed south on I-65, followed the signs, and discovered that Kentucky Kingdom is on the Kentucky State Fairgrounds -- it's a permanent midway, I guess. Ordinarily this would be no big deal, but it happens that that weekend was the first weekend of the State Fair. The only access to Kentucky Kingdom was through the Fair, and we'd need to pay admission for both. No, we couldn't just cut through the Fair and go to the Kingdom.
We were pretty pissed off at the stupid directions and lack of signage already; the weather was turning cloudy, windy, and threatening; and this was the last straw. We said "Screw it," and decided we'd get lunch downtown then head on to cave country, and to hell with Louisville.
So we went back downtown and started looking for somewhere to eat.
Louisville is closed on Sundays.
We were amazed. Everything's closed. Wendy's, Chinese, coffee shops, all shut up tight. We eventually got to the Galleria, and even there there were only two businesses operating: McDonald's and a cheesesteak-and-fries place. So we ate there, disgusted with the whole city, then got back in Winnie and headed south, being careful to thumb our noses at the fairgrounds as we passed.
So we chugged on down I-65 toward cave country. By this time it was raining in Louisville, but once we got out past the suburbs into open country it was sunny and pleasant.
"Cave country" consists of three towns strung along Rte. 31W, parallel to I-65, and the Mammoth Cave National Park just the other side of I-65 from the more southerly pair. The towns are, north to south, Horse Cave, Cave City, and Park City. (Incidentally, there's a Rte. 31E that more or less parallels Rte. 31W and I-65 several miles farther east, through Glasgow. I have no idea why 31W and 31E have the same number.)
Horse Cave has sometimes gotten the short end of the tourism stick, and has therefore tried to expand their economic base; their city seal (which we saw posted several places) bears the motto "Agriculture, Tourism, Arts," and they do indeed have a regionally-famous theater company there and occasional art fairs. We ignored that entirely. They've also added their own tourist traps, such as Kentucky Down Under, a wild animal park stocked with Australian livestock. We ignored that, too.
The factory outlet mall we didn't ignore.
I'm getting ahead of myself, though.
Cave City relies almost entirely on tourism; besides having the main entrance to the national park in their back yard, they have other show caves (Crystal Onyx Cave, which we highly recommend, and Onyx Cave, which used to be Mammoth Onyx Cave until people objected to the near-fraud, and which we emphatically don't recommend at all, among them), the Guntown Mountain wild-west theme park, and zillions of tacky little souvenir shops and time-wasters. (Go-kart tracks, bumper boats, etc.)
Park City I don't know well at all, but they've got Diamond Caverns, the oldest and best-known of the privately-owned show caves, and the south entrance to the park.
All of them have motels, of course. Since we were planning to arrive on a weekday we hadn't made any reservations; we were sure we'd find space. Especially since Kentucky and some neighboring states have moved up the school year and started school on August 18th.
Julie had picked up a coupon book at a rest stop somewhere that had a coupon offering a good deal at the Budget Host Inn, just off I-65 in Horse Cave, and wanted to just stop there, but I insisted on driving down 31W from Horse Cave toward Cave City to see if we could do better.
We passed a variety of motels, in a variety of states of repair -- some were spiffy and clean, with fresh coats of paint and new roofing, while others... um... weren't. Falling shingles, peeling paint. One proudly boasted, "Owned and operated by Americans," which we understood better when we priced a room across the street at the Scottish Inn and discovered that the management there, while speaking good English and quite likely U.S. citizens, was clearly Asian-born. Racism -- or at any rate, prejudice against foreigners -- is not dead.
Those proprietors weren't Scottish, for sure.
We also passed Wigwam Village. We had told the kids about this place, and they hadn't entirely believed it, but now they saw it for themselves, and if it had had a pool they'd have wanted to stay there. Having been cheated at Fort Boonesborough and the Kentucky Kingdom water park, they were determined on a place with a pool.
At one time there were several Wigwam Villages; according to the literature only two still exist, this one (No. 2) and one in Arizona (No. 7). There's a third in California in ruins, but not yet completely gone. The one in Cave City is alive and apparently thriving, as it's clean and freshly painted, the lawn neatly mowed and the playground in good shape. [Note, Feb. 2015: According to Wikipedia, the one in Arizona is #6, not #7, and the one in California has been restored. The two webpages I had originally linked to are both gone, so I've linked to the Wikipedia entry instead.]
This is a motel consisting of a big oval of concrete "teepees." The office is in an oversized one. Each of the other teepees holds one small bedroom and bath. Each has a jalousie door. Each also originally had two windows, one on either side, but in each teepee one window has now been replaced with an air conditioner.
We didn't see inside, but I expect they're rather cramped and dark. We didn't stop to ask the rates, due to the lack of a pool and other practical considerations.
At any rate, it's one of the all-time classic examples of American tourist kitsch. If you want to see it, it's on 31W half a mile north of the center of Cave City. Maybe a mile.
And the places we did inquire at couldn't beat the coupon rate for the Budget Host Inn, so we turned around and went back to Horse Cave and booked a pair of connecting rooms for a two-night stay.
After dumping our luggage at the motel, we still had half the afternoon left. We therefore headed down to Park City and toured Diamond Caverns.
Diamond Caverns is a very wet cave, with lots of formations, few of which are really striking or dramatic. It's not all that big -- maybe three-fourths of a mile, end to end.
It makes for a nice hour, though.
Oh, yes -- it also isn't very deep, maybe ninety feet compared to Mammoth's 300+. As a result it's warmer, 58 degrees instead of 54, and with all the dripping the humidity is 99%, so while it was cooler than outside (which was about 90 degrees, 90%) it wasn't anywhere you'd want a jacket.
It was interesting comparing this tour with the one we took long ago (1979?). The spiel has changed; all the historical stuff about the cave has been dropped, including where the name came from, probably out of a desire to avoid being racially insensitive.
Because the way it was discovered and named is this: Somewhere around 1858, while a slave was tending livestock (we forget what kind), one animal vanished. Upon investigating, the slave found a hole in the ground where the critter had been and ran for help.
Caves were hardly news in the region, since Mammoth had been running tours for forty years and Horse Cave held church services in a cave, so it was pretty clear what had happened. The possibility that this was a previously-unknown part of Mammoth Cave was appealing, since owning a piece of Mammoth Cave could be highly profitable -- especially a piece with a natural entrance. (Caves belong to whoever's land they're under, regardless of where the entrance is. There were parts of Mammoth Cave where the owners ran tours despite only being able to enter through someone else's property, miles away.)
So the landowner lowered a slave into the hole on a rope, equipped with a lantern.
I've already mentioned how wet Diamond is; well, the opening that animal fell through had been the result of a rainstorm the night before, so the cave was very wet indeed, and the lantern light sparkled off water droplets on all sides.
The poor slave had never been in a cave before, despite living so close to Mammoth Cave -- tour guides were usually slaves, but most slaves never got to see the caves -- and had no idea what he was seeing, and reportedly shouted back, "Lawsy, Master, it's full of diamonds!"
This, along with the lost cow/pig/whatever and the commercial prospects, was enough to set the owner digging eagerly. They had a ladder in place within three days, and were running tours not long after, and have been doing so ever since. There weren't any diamonds, though.
It's odd; Diamond Caverns used to be quite open about how the cave-owners exploited slave labor, and now they seem to avoid any mention of slavery.
Mammoth Cave, on the other hand, used to not mention slavery at all, but now the guides there point out that the first guides were slaves, who not only had to direct tourists but also carried lanterns, fuel, and food, including wine for the tourists and water for themselves.
(The original tours at Mammoth were full-day affairs with an elaborate luncheon.)
Anyway, after we left Diamond, which is... well, the entrance to Diamond Caverns' parking lot is in the Mammoth Cave National Park, but the parking lot itself is just outside the boundary. It's right on the edge, with National Park on three sides of the property; you get to it through the south entrance to the park.
Anyway, from there it made sense to go on up to the park's Visitor Center to check out schedules. We did, and discovered that most of the next day's tours were already sold out. The next day was Monday.
Rather than risk going all that way and not getting into the cave, we bought tickets for Tuesday morning's Grand Avenue Tour. The Grand Avenue Tour used to be called the Half-Day Tour, and Julie and I took it on our previous visit, before the kids were born. It's four miles in four and a half hours, with a lunch break, and goes through some nicely varied cave but misses virtually all the historic stuff because it uses artificial openings for both entrance and exit, nowhere near the big natural entrance.
That left us with a day to fill on Monday -- and for that matter, the rest of Sunday. This was not a problem. Once we had our tickets we left the park, bought dinner, then headed to the motel to relax. The kids spent the evening playing in the pool, while Julie and I read.
Monday morning we checked out the Horse Cave outlet mall, and an antiques & craft shop near the motel, taking it easy. Got lunch in Cave City, then headed out for a visit to Barren River Lake State Resort Park Beach.
This is a fairly unremarkable beach on a fairly pleasant river, but had acquired near-legendary significance to the kids for two reasons: First the name, which is the longest string of nouns of any name we've found yet on a real place -- one adjective, six nouns -- and also noteworthy because there's nothing barren about it. It's very green indeed. Whites first found the place shortly after the Indians had burned it over to keep it open for grazing bison, however, and it looked barren. Once the whites drove the Indians away, a century or so of accumulated ash had made the land nicely fertile and it grew back quite lush.
Second, Barren River Lake State Resort Park Beach was where I got the worst sunburn of my life, an incident that has long served as an Instructive Example when coaxing the kids to put on sunscreen.
We got mildly lost on the way thither, wasting maybe fifteen minutes, but arrived safely at Barren River Lake State Resort Park at about 2:00 -- and found the road to the beach closed, with a gate barring the way. No sign explaining it, though.
We went to the hotel, where I found a brochure that said the beach was open daily throughout August, and a clerk who said that it was only open weekends because of the revised school year -- the lifeguards were back in school on weekdays, and it was assumed potential beachgoers would be as well.
Once again, we saw that the Commonwealth of Kentucky did not want us to swim. And that it never occurred to anyone that people from out of state might come to Kentucky and expect tourist amenities like Being Open, or Useful Signage.
And we weren't going to put up with it any more. There was no sign saying the beach was closed, and the brochure clearly said it was open, so to hell with them. We parked the car on the verge by the gate and changed into our swimsuits in the car, then walked down to the beach and had a wonderful afternoon there.
We weren't the only ones on the beach, either -- about a dozen other people had made the same decision we had. It wasn't crowded, though, that's for sure.
No lifeguards, but who cared? The bathhouse and rest rooms being locked was mildly annoying, as was the long walk down the access road, but hey, it was fun.
And we invented a game called "Handshark."
For those who somehow stumbled in here by accident -- hi! I'm Lawrence Watt-Evans. I'm the author of more than three dozen novels and over a hundred short stories, as well as innumerable articles, comic scripts, poems, and other miscellany. This is my personal website, the Misenchanted Page; the name is a reference to my bestselling novel The Misenchanted Sword.
That's it; here's your list of handy exits: