Fleeing Sandy & Entering The World's Biggest Cave

Trip Start Sep 07, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Super 8
Diamond Caverns Campground
What I did
Hurricane Sandy
Mammoth Cave

Flag of United States  , West Virginia
Sunday, October 28, 2012

We left New York City with wonderful memories of our long weekend there, but also with plenty of buzzing about Hurricane Sandy in our ears. When we got back to our campground in Lancaster, PA, we had just suffered through a two-hour bus ride from NYC, during which Wren had to sit next to this obnoxious lady that was cussing into her phone the whole time. Ugh. When we stopped in Jersey for a quick break, we took advantage of it and changed seats.

That night in the campground, we looked at all the weather predictions and the predicted path of Sandy, and discovered that we were directly in its path, and that it was scheduled to make landfall in about 30 hours. That's a scary moment, when you are camped out in a tent trailer, in the middle of an Amish field!

So, we had to make a tough decision. We decided to alter our route, miss our planned stop in D.C. and sprint inland southwest to West Virginia. As we figured it, we would have just enough time to make it out of the danger zone before Sandy could get us. We settled on Huntington, West Virginia as our target destination, which turned out to be a perfect choice. It was about a 10-hour drive, but it got us out of all the weather except for 1" of snow (some parts of West Virginia got 2-3' of snow!).

We didn't want to take any chances with the storm, so we got a room in the Super 8 Motel for two nights, ordered some delivery pizza, and curled up under the covers, watching the news coverage of Sandy, with our trailer locked down and secured.

While we escaped the danger, it was very sobering to watch Sandy do terrible damage to places we had literally just been touring, like Battery Park and Lower Manhattan. It was surreal to watch these (crazy) newscasters standing by the railing in Battery Park, getting pounded by Sandy, seemingly moments after we left.

Our escape route took us across Pennsylvania, the Maryland panhandle and then down the middle of West Virginia. One downside to fleeing in such a hurry was that we didn't get to see much of West Virginia, except for the interstate. I was hoping for some Deliverance moments, or at least to see some "hillbillies". But nah. Just a lot of stunning mountainous landscape.

After two uneventful nights (for us at least) in the motel, we decided it was safe enough to move on. We didn't have a plan, but our goal was to move south and get beneath the snow line. We discovered that if we went through Tennessee, down to Kentucky, we could visit Mammoth Cave National Park, so we jumped at the chance, since we had been trying to visit as many National Parks as possible, and the World's largest cave would be a great addition to our trip checklist.

The drive through Tennessee was short and there's not much to tell. We did drive through Nashville, but we didn't have time to stop. Chattanooga looked really pretty, with a rocky/treed terrain reminiscent of the Black Hills of South Dakota, but again, it was just a drive through.

The drive through Kentucky was a little more interesting, in good and bad ways. The first moment of interest was when we popped another trailer tire (#2 on the trip) but were lucky to be discovered by a DOT worker who had the tools to help us fix it (although she didn't know how to use the tools!). The very next day, we popped another one, and then decided to buy all new tires and rims. It turns out that the real problem was our old rusty/cracked rims. Since replacing them, we've had no further issues (knock on wood). We got a little bit of the hillbilly treatment when our tow truck driver showed up missing teeth, spitting, with stringy hair and overalls. I felt complete. Honestly, though, I can't say enough about the way we were treated in Kentucky. The tow truck driver and tire shop both went way beyond helping us. The tire shop not only sold us new tires, but fixed our other tires as well, free of charge, giving us two spares to take with us. I chatted with the manager for a bit and told him about our cross-country trip. His eyes lit up and he said he wished he could make a trip like this. I think sharing some of our story got us some star treatment.

When you hit Kentucky, you discover that you have truly entered the Bible Belt. We stopped for lunch at a Dairy Queen, and there were ashtrays on the tables and a copy of The Ten Commandments on the wall! Oh dear. I felt a little out of place. Tennessee and Kentucky both have "dry counties", where you cannot visibly display alcohol or use it in public. This is strange considering that most of their history and tourism seem to be built around distilleries and horseracing. Just saying.

Our camp spot for the next couple of nights was actually inside Mammoth Cave National Park, which made it very convenient to see the sights. Mammoth Cave earns its name, coming in at almost 400 miles in length (6 or 7 more miles, on average, are "discovered" each year). Naturally, there's no way you can tour the entire cave, so you take these little ranger-led tours to see the highlights. We took two tours, the first being the Frozen Niagara tour. We hopped a bus for a 20-minute ride to the entrance for this tour (Mammoth Cave has numerous entrances, some natural, some man-made). The highlight of this tour was the Frozen Niagara flowstone, which looks exactly like a waterfall frozen in motion, but is actually just several millenia of mineral-rich deposits flowing down a cliff. There wasn't much else to this tour, except for a general feel of the cave and spotting some cave crickets and spiders.

The second tour was much longer and more interesting. It was a night tour of the historic entrance and the "Star Chamber". This tour was conducted only by candlelight, because the idea was to give us a feel of what touring the cave would have been like in the 1800s, when slaves gave tours to visiting folks for tips. We learned a lot of interesting facts on this tour and saw some amazing pieces of history. Among these were the remnants of a saltpeter mining operation that was from the War of 1812 (saltpeter was taken from the cave and used to make gunpowder for the war), some brick buildings built inside the cave for a medical experiment (a doctor thought the atmosphere in the cave would help cure tuberculosis...NOT), and the Star Chamber, where the torch-deposited black tar on the cave ceiling was dotted with white blemishes, caused by slaves throwing rocks up there to "create a star in your sweetheart's name". I guess that was the 19th-century equivalent of buying a star name on the Internet.

The other highlight of the night tour was seeing where slaves had used a candle to burn tourists' names on the ceiling. Some of the names were burned backwards, because they used a mirror, LOL. And some of the letters were malformed, because some of the slaves were illiterate and had to form letters based on instructions from the guests. We heard that some of the slaves used this interaction to actually teach themselves how to read/write, which is pretty admirable.

Mammoth Cave was a great stop for us, and while the cave itself was massive and beautiful, the most intriguing part was learning about its history.

Our last duty in Kentucky was to take Wren out Trick-or-Treating for Halloween. We ended up in Park City, KY, which was the closest town to where we stayed. She dressed up as a zombie gypsy (the gypsy part being a nod to our nomadic journey). There was just enough house-to-house candy action to make her happy. I like how you can go to any city in America on Halloween, give your kid a bucket, and she'll have basically the same experience/fun she would anywhere else.

All in all, while this route was not in our original plan, and we did miss out on seeing D.C., I feel like we made the most of it, seeing some great places, meeting some interesting people, and most of all, staying safe and away from Sandy. In our next blog entry, you'll hear about our trip through Georgia, including rabid Georgia Bulldogs fans, a church revival, and a reunion with an old friend. Stay tuned!

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