Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Has it been a week?

It feels like it has been a month or more since I last sat down to type this out. We've hit five states in that time - granted some longer than others - and had even more great experiences. The weather has played with us, buffeting us with torrential downpours as it did here in South Dakota last night, or broiling us under 100 degree heat, as it did our last days in Kentucky. Our last nights there were no better as our tent took on the function of a sweat lodge even into the wee hours of the morning. None of this has lessened our enthusiasm.

When we left Carter Caves last week, we headed straight to Mammoth Cave. And by straight, I mean completely not straight, on Kentucky backroads that took us twice as long with nearly no added benefits. We did get to visit a Shaker village, but only briefly - enough to admire their craftsmanship, but not to learn anything much about how they lived during their brief communal existence. We also had a "Roadfood" experience which I will save for another time. Yes, that's my idea of building suspense.

When we arrived at Mammoth, we hardly even knew it. There was no entry booth as with other parks, and we must have completely missed the sign and thus the requisite Kodak moment. We came upon the visitor's center and headed inside to get the lay of the land. We were overwhelmed with the number of options available for cave tours, and availed ourselves of the services of a ranger to help us out. I had heard of the "Wild Cave" tour from my friend Bryan, and defintiely wanted to check that out: six hours of crawling and wriggling your way through mud water and crevices. But my idea of fun and Alyssa's sometimes do not converge, so we looked at some other options that would let us both see the caves. In the end, we decided on the Violet City Lantern Tour and the New Entrance tour. But moments before we were to buy our tickets for the next day, I learned the Wild Cave tour was sold out - through the weekend!! I guess I missed my chance... But I signed up for the Intro to Caving tour, which was half the length, and as I understand, half the effort.

Our two days at Mammoth were amazing. The Violet City tour was definitely the high point for me. We felt like Indiana Jones and his sidekicks traveling through the immense caverns with only a kerosene lamp to light our way. The three mile tour was well worth it, and gave us welcome respite from the 95 degree heat outside - the caves are a constant 54 degrees, all year long. The New Entrance tour later that day was also good, but began with a cramped 300 steps straight down, which provoked Alyssa's claustrophobia. After the first stretch, things opened up a bit, and she was more at ease. The scenery was great the whole way, and we even got to see a sleeping bat. Alyssa has become far more fond of the winged furry fellows since learning they can eat upwards of 6,000 mosquitoes per night. Now she likes the idea of sleeping near the caves, and we can thank Ranger Joe for that.

Thursday morning started off with pouring rain and packing up a wet campsite - never fun. Alyssa was going to do the laundry chores while I took to the caves one last time. The Intro to Caving tour was no disappointment, and we had a good group as well. There were a few tight spaces which reminded me of one of my favorite movies, The Descent (highly recommended for those with a tolerance for gore), but it was just enough to whet my appetite for Wind Cave and Jewel Cave in SD.

We hit the road for Land Between the Lakes just after noon, still full from a big breakfast at the Mammoth Hotel. We took the most direct route, knowing we wanted to avoid setting up camp in the rain again if at all possible. The unfortunate part of being on the road so much is that you have no access to weather info, so we had no idea that we would not have to worry about rain at all at our next stop. And we had yet another "Roadfood" experience... Look for that post later though. You know, when we run out of stuff to talk about. ;)

Land Between the Lakes is gorgeous and we had a phenomenal campsite right on the water's edge looking out over the lake. It was easily our best campsite yet. But the view had an unforeseen cost - boaters hunting for waterfowl into the later hours of the evening disrupted our peace and quiet, but not so much as to make us want to give up that view. On Friday, we hit three of the parks major attractions: the planetarium, their re-creation of an 1850's frontier village, and the nature center where once again, Alyssa saw owls (and possum, a bobcat, a bald eagle, a coyote, and much more!). Though the planetarium was a bit of a bust (they showed a cheesy laser show), the other two attractions were great and well worth the admission price. Back at camp, we sweated through cooking yet another dinner over a hot camp stove, then took a dip in the lake just after sunset, which though it cooled us off, we were still returning to the same hot tent to sleep. But a few High Lifes later, the heat was a bit more tolerable.

Saturday was decision time. The plan was originally to include a trip to Saint Louis, but after many conversations and some research, it seemed there was nothing to be seen there except the Arch and the Cardinals. We learned that Nashville was only 90 minutes from us, and though we were very interested in the idea of a short drive to a great destination, going further south was not part of the plan. After St. Louis was to be a state park stop in Missouri, so we decided to skip the Gateway to the West and head straight for Johnson's Shut-ins, by way of Cape Girardeau, MO. It ended up being the right decision.

The Shut-ins are basically a big swimming hole carved through volcanic rock to create a series of pools and waterfalls. It is unlike anything I've ever seen, except maybe River Country at the Disneyworld of the early 80's (and this was Walt's neck of the woods, too). There were natural waterslides, deep pockets of water to jump into from high up, and shallow pools to just laze about in. When the weather was breaking the 90 degree mark yet again, I could think of no better place to be. We only spent the one night, but then it was through the Mark Twain National Forest and on to Kansas City, and our first urban destination since having left DC two weeks prior.

Let me just say, we both enjoyed Kansas City immensely. It took some getting used to, as the city is quite spread out, and much of it seems composed of derelict buildings abandoned several years before. Interspersed with these are vibrant areas of urban revival, including artist communities and hipster hangouts that we managed to find without trying very hard. Our hotel was in the Westport area, which at first seemed to be a bit out of the way, but ended up being a great place to get a few beers after our Sunday evening steak dinner. We found what must be the "Publick House" of Kansas City, The Foundry, and sampled a few of their over 200 beers. We stayed out relatively late in comparison to our campsite nights and readied ourselves to be tourists the next day.

On Monday we woke late and took our time, leaving the hotel in time to get an early lunch before swinging by the 18th & Vine district, home to the American Jazz Museum and Negro League of Baseball Museum (NLBM). As we walked up to the door, we were greeted with a most unwelcome sight: "Monday - Closed". Our hearts sank and our faces fell. But before we could even think about our misfortune, the doors opened and the beaming face of a man named Steven asked us to come inside. Steven, one of the museum's cleaning staff, explained that the sign outside wasn't quite right, because though the jazz museum was closed, on Mondays during baseball season, the NLBM was open! I was more eager to see the jazz museum, given my musical leanings, but the NLBM was spectacular. I kid you not, I learned so much in the two hours of roaming the halls there that I would easily go back to visit a second time to see what I missed. The stories that lined those walls were a reminder of how far we've come as a country in just a hundred years.

Though we had planned to leave bright and early on Tuesday, Alyssa understood my desire to see the jazz museum, so we committed to return when it opened at 9am on Tuesday. We rounded out the day on Monday with a visit to one of KC's jazz bars, the Phoenix, for happy hour but there was no music playing. We then grabbed another fine KC meal before heading to the Blue Room back in the 18th & Vine area for an evening big band jazz show. The group did some great interpretations of Stevie Wonder and Beyonce tunes, while also mixing in some standards and classics as well. We returned to our hotel that night fully satisfied.

We visited the jazz museum as planned, and saw our friend Steven again. The NLBM has set such a high expectation that the second museum couldn't live up. The exhibits focused on four of the genre's pioneers: Bird, Satchmo, Duke and Ella. Mixed in were some interactive exhibits that would have been more entertaining had we had more time. While I walked out knowing a few more albums I would need to buy, I was anxious to hit the road. We had a long drive ahead of us and had to get from KC to SD and would have to suffer the "flat states" in between.

We made a couple of stops along the way, both in Nebraska and Iowa, but I must agree with the general consensus that traveling through this area is an insomniac's cure. Making it even worse was the continuous road construction, limiting us to 55 miles and hour in one lane of traffic on the interstate. When you don't have to watch out for other cars, never mind hills and bends in the road, you start to drift off. Narcolepsy set in halfway through Iowa and I pulled over and let Alyssa take the wheel. If I'm going to die on this trip, it will be at the claws of a bear, not in a fiery car crash!!! (Kidding!)

One of our unplanned stops took us to Lewis & Clark State Park in Iowa. I haven't mentioned this yet, but I am taking the opportunity on this trip to read Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage, the tale of the Corps of Discovery and Lewis & Clark's expedition west. I've been pleasantly surprised by the number of points where we've seen tributes to this journey in historical markers and roadside signs, but this park offered an exhibit I greatly valued - a reproduction of the keelboat used in the first year of the expedition to ferry the supplied the Corps would need up to the Mandan Indian villages in North Dakota. Of course, it is completely dorky to get excited about this, but that's just me. To be 200 pages into this book, and have an unexpected opportunity to see this exhibit first hand drew me out of my Iowa highway doldrums. It was only a shame to see that others had not cared as much for the exhibit: signs were posted referring to past vandalism of the exhibit, and some effects of said acts were still visible.

Back on the road, Alyssa guided Sylvia through the last stretch of Iowa and into South Dakota. We stoppped off for dinner in Sioux Falls, which had a really cute, thriving downtown area (a stark contrast to many places we've traveled through including and especially Cairo, IL). As we hopped back into the Highlander after dinner, the skies grayed, and we were greeted on the highway by more torrential downpours. It was 7:45 and we had to be at our campsite by 9pm to check in, and it looked as if the rain would buffet us the whole way. We arrived just 20 minutes shy of the campground closing time, and during a break in the weather that allowed us to set up the tent and not get soaked in the process.

Alyssa tells me that the rain and lightning kicked up again in the night, but I was sleeping soundly, likely dreaming of the Badlands that lie ahead of us today.


  1. The badlands are magical. enjoy!

  2. i am dying to visit the badlands... can't wait to hear all about it!

  3. You guys sound like you are having a BLAST..So jealous here...;)