On July 20th, we finished up in St. Louis and headed to our next destination: Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, the last National Park in a vacation that included Rocky Mountain National Park, the Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier, Banff, and the Badlands. McKenna got herself ready.
We crossed through Illinois and Indiana and reached Kentucky in the afternoon, which was the 14th state we had entered since leaving Michigan. As we approached Mammoth Cave, where we were to camp, we saw this warning.
McKenna wondered if we had ever been in an area with tornadoes before, and we reminded her of the time that she had huddled in the closet in Caseville, Michigan, with several of her cousins and her Aunt Gayle. McKenna then recalled the experience as “fun” because “Anywhere you go with Aunt Gayle is fun.” It’s possible that this characterization of Gayle as “fun during a crisis” would be news to any of the other people who have spent time with Gayle during potential disasters. Possible.
We had tickets to go on the “Domes and Dripstones” tour of Mammoth Cave, which was perfect timing since the caves were pretty much the safest place to be during a tornado. The cave network at Mammoth is huge, with over 400 miles of caves, and we had to take a shuttle to the cave entrance we would use for this tour.
The lead Ranger for the tour gave us instructions that included numerous warnings and reminders that the tour involved 500 steps. Apparently, the park service has been burned once or twice by tourists who overrate their stair-climbing abilities. At the door to enter the cave, he gave us one last talk.
The first part of the tour involved a huge surprise.
After the stairs, we wound through narrow cave passages.
Then we reached the truly impressive part of the tour: Frozen Niagara. This damp section of the cave had been shaped by the dripping water, giving it an alien appearance.
Then the passage curved around and…
We exited the cave to find the weather forecast had improved marginally from when we had entered. Since we had a reservation to camp at Mammoth Cave, the forecast was important, and weather predictions were now more promising but still ambiguous. It looked on the radar like the bad weather had passed, and the chance of rain was down to 40%. The downside to camping, of course, was that there was still basically a 50-50 chance that we would be caught in a tent during a severe thunderstorm with potential tornadoes. That would be even worse than descending and ascending many stairs in a cave, and Gayle, who McKenna assured us would have made enduring rain, lightning, and tornadoes in a tent “fun,” was in faraway Michigan. Weighing our options, we opted to get a hotel in nearby Cave City. Over the next few hours, this looked like a cop-out, as there was no rain and the sun even peaked through the clouds. Then, at about 10 pm…
For about two hours, from 10-12:00, there was continuous lightning in the distance. At midnight, it started pouring so heavily that two or three layers of the bug carcasses that had accumulated on our car were washed away, a downpour that would have been much less enjoyable in our semi-waterproof tent, watching water creep inexorably towards our fluffy memory foam mattresses. The next day, refreshed and dry, we returned to Mammoth Cave.
This time we went on the “Historic” tour of Mammoth Caves, which I highly recommend. From the start, the things we were seeing were really impressive.
Beyond the entrance, the cave was cavernous, which is where the “mammoth” in Mammoth Cave comes from.
After a while, the cave did narrow, with ceilings that were much lower than before.
Some people were naturally well-suited to this section of the cave.
Finally, we emerged from the narrow, cramped passages into the aptly-named “Room of Relief.” Then we navigated through an area that was made damp and humid by a nearby underground river.
Ultimately, though, what goes down must go up, so…
It was Saturday, and the weather-proof caves had attracted quite a few visitors.
After emerging from the cave, we hopped in the car to drive to the final destination on our lengthy travel itinerary: Kentucky’s Natural Bridge near the Red River Gorge.
The eastern mountains of this region gave us a feel for what the Black Hills would look like if there was a lot more rain in South Dakota. Under the jungle-like growth in Kentucky, there were similar tunnels cut through solid rock.
It was at this point that we encountered two problems. One was that Laura and McKenna were completely done being tourists. Only through trickery and high-level negotiation was I able to get them to stop at some overlooks in the Red River area. More importantly, the bad weather that had kept us from camping in Mammoth persisted. We made it to Sky Bridge, overlooking the Red River Gorge, just in time to see the storms rolling in.
Amazingly, we had been lucky enough to experience good weather throughout the 28 day trip. This was the first day of our vacation that was essentially a washout.
On July 22nd, we finally headed home. At around 5pm, we crossed into Virginia, which we had left on June 18th, having travelled over 8,000 miles since we left the Detroit area of Michigan.
As we drew closer to home, there were promising signs welcoming us back.
That helped cushion the blow when we emptied the mailbox.