The Land Between the Lakes, part 2

Welcome to the truck stop

I arrived at the Hampton Inn at sunset. The sky was ablaze with ribbons of orange, gold and red. I watched the colors fade behind the hotel; when the last drop of red drained from the black stage of night, I walked into the hotel and checked it.

It must be said: no one tries harder to please their customers than the Kuttawa/Eddyville Hampton Inn. It was Memorial Day Weekend. You would be hard-pressed to find a hotel more patriotic than the Kuttawa/Eddyville Hampton Inn. Their staff were uniformed in red, white & blue; a variety of patriotic flair pinned & clipped to their torsos and heads. The hotel lobby was festooned with red, white & blue decorations… It was amazing. U.S. Flag key chains were free at the counter. The staff were all pleasant and helpful. Free breakfast in the lobby everyday, including a waffle maker. Free lemonade and treats throughout the day; come back from a long day of outdoor adventure — a cold glass of lemonade is waiting for you. Free toothbrushes! Forget to pack your toothbrush — they have you covered. Clean rooms with refrigerators and wi-fi.

The most memorable hotel worker was the night-shift desk clerk. Imagine Penn from Penn & Teller, covered with red, white & blue flair, and just bursting with enthusiasm about the holiday weekend, and with eagerness to help hotel guests. I couldn’t help but think: this guy loves his country, loves his job, loves helping people, and it’s 2am and he has to deal with drunks and whatever maniacs are awake in the middle of the night. What a mensch!

Hampton Inn in Kuttawa KY

The truck stop featured three or four gas and diesel stations, two burger joints, two hotels, a steak & country music restaurant, a Huddle House, a drive through liquor store, and a lady who sold barbecued meats from a grill she towed behind her truck.

I know what you’re thinking: “how many times did you drive through the liquor store drive through?” Sadly, zero times. Instead I just walked there (and bought many PBR tall-boys).

And “did you fall in love with the lady who sold barbecued meats?” Sadly, no. If I did, I would still be in Kentucky.

Drive Thru Liquor Store in Kuttawa KY

PBR, country music wafting through the night air, and taking photos of gas stations at night. Once the cicadas are quiet, that’s how I do it.

Exxon in Kuttawa KYBP in Kuttawa KY

Local Stores

The next day, while cruising around the Land Between the Lakes area, listening for cicadas (why I was in the area in the first place), I made sure I stopped by local stores and markets to get an idea of what local life might be like.

The local flea markets were intense, and possibly magical. Imagine a roadside lined with rows of shacks made from plywood and hope. Inside each were antiques, toys, clothes, Christmas artifacts, knives, preserves, dolls, cellphone cases, drones, and other dreams without a home — you name it, they had it. I walked away with pickles, a knife and some LP recordings of the Bible.

Red Door Antiques was pretty good. They had a wide variety of antiques and collectables. I picked up a vacuum tube tester and some rhubarb preserves. I enjoyed seeing a Big Jim vinyl camper that I think I had as a child (I vaguely remember destroying it by peeling the vinyl from its cardboard frame because I liked the sensation of the vinyl tearing).

Big Jim vinyl truck

I visited an outlet store mall. Only 10% of the stores were occupied. I bought another knife — this time a multi-tool. I was surprised by the overall lack of activity in the area — maybe it was because of the holiday weekend. Maybe not that many tourists were visiting the park?

But no, the Walmart was backed to the rafters with people. Probably all looking for a USB cable, just like me.

Oh well.

Kentucky and the Wonders of Limestone

The limestone rock of Kentucky provides the world with two natural wonders: caves and water for Bourbon.

Caves, of course, are amazing subterranean geological formations often created by the seepage and flow of water through soft stone like limestone. Bourbon, of course, is an amazing American alcoholic beverage made from limestone-filtered water and corn.

I visited southern Kentucky in the spring of 2014, after documenting the emergence of Brood XXII cicadas in the northern part of the state. I had a few days to kill, so I headed south for a tour of the Jim Beam distillery, and then Mammoth Cave National Park.

Jim Beam

The Jim Beam distillery welcome center & tour is as perfect as you might imagine. When you visit, you’ll first notice the massive black barn-like buildings. These are used to hold the barrels of bourbon as the liquor matures.The buildings are spaced far enough apart so that if one catches fire, the flames won’t be able to reach the other buildings. Bourbon, like most booze, is highly flammable.

Jim Beam Distillery, Kentucky

The welcome center, emblazoned with the famous Jim Beam logo, resembles a cross between a country store and an old West saloon. The interior is essentially two floors of gift stores where you can purchase tour tickets, all varieties of Jim Beam bourbon, and many souvenirs. I was tempted to get the $200+ used Jim Beam barrel, but it wasn’t going to fit in my car. I chose to get the Jim Beam Maple, which the cashier recommended pouring in my morning coffee. The bathroom was modern (it did not resemble a barn) and very clean.

Jim Beam Distillery, Kentucky

Jim Beam samples.

The tour (spoilers ahead) takes you through the bourbon making process, from grain and water, through to the final product. The highlight was I got to pour my own bottle of Jim Beam Single Barrel. Along the way I was treated to the sights, sounds and smells of a working distillery — lots of tanks for fermenting the mash, massive pipes, barrels, lots of wooden structure binding & framing it all together — all the stuff you might expect. The tour culminated with a tasting session, where I got to try three varieties of Jim Beam. I think Booker’s was my favorite.

Overall it was a pleasant afternoon, well-spent learning American booze history, and obtaining fine bourbon whiskey from the source.

Mammoth Cave & Travel Lodge

My retro hotel room, Mammoth Cave Park, Kentucky

Later that same day I arrived at Mammoth Cave National Park, too late for a cave tour, but early enough to book a room in their on site hotel. I had the choice of a cabin, or a room in the building attached to the tourist center. I opted for the later, and was rewarded with a room that seemed like something out of the 1950s, or maybe early 1960. Definitely pre L.B.J. Brick interior walls, no wi-fi, old black and white photos of the cave. “Lodge” is the word I would use to describe it. It felt like an interior scene from the TV series Twin Peaks. I fantasized about winning the lottery and living there for the rest of my life (I’m sure I could get Wi-fi at the local Cracker Barrel… I think.)

Part of the fun of staying at the lodge was watching the antics of other people staying there. The best was watching people try to get a cell phone signal. I watched four guys each take turns helping each other climb a tree in hopes of getting a signal. They would boost their friend up, and invariably he would tumble to the ground. Guys, you’re in the middle of a National Park — no cell phone signals here. Actually, not being able to get a signal was nice — it is so rare to go a day without email, web, twitter, instagram, etc — it was like a two-day vacation from the 21st century.

Before sunset I walked the nature trail surrounding the tourist center. It was fantastic and refreshing to walk amongst the nature. Not too far from the “Lodge” I discovered the rear exit of the cave, and sneaked in un-guided. The exit was about 40′ in circumference, and went down at an angle of about 35 degrees for a few hundred feet before reaching a point that was blocked off. Cool air flows from the cave exit, which is quite refreshing and awe-inspiring on a warm spring day.

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

After a solid night of sleep in my amazing room, I had southern breakfast (grits, biscuits and white gravy) in the tourist center dining room. Breakfast was not free, as it was in a dining room (remember the rule: breakfast is only free if it is in the lobby). It was here that I had my first mind-blowing experience, which was hearing the southern-Kentucky accent. I’ve been to about two-thirds of the States, and southern-Kentucky has the most distinct accent I’ve encountered. It was thrilling — I kept asking for more coffee and water just to hear the waitress’ voice again.

Next, I booked the longest cave tour available. About 80 people and I boarded busses, and set off for the cave. At the entrance of the cave, the ranger/tour guide laid out the rules of the tour, all of which were violated hundreds of times, by my observation:

  1. “Keep your child with you at all times.” Kids buzzed around in manic figure-eight patterns out of reach of their parents control.
  2. “Do not take photos and hold up the tour.” People took a million photos, causing the tour to be broken up into unreachable segments, or piling together like the arch of a caterpillar’s back.
  3. “Do not imitate Golem and say ‘My Precious’ when we turn the lights out to show you how dark the cave is.” Okay, this last one wasn’t really a rule, and I did it.

The long cave tour (spoilers ahead) takes you down hundreds of feet of cramped, jagged limestone on slippery steel stares. Then you travel, mostly horizontally, though the cave, until you reach the end and ascend. Only the end has drip-stone formations (stalactites and stalagmites), but it is worth the walk and wait. The tour guide told the story of the men who discovered, explored and dynamited open the cave, all to exploit is as a tourist attraction. Back in the day, their intent was to exploit the local caves for revenue. Sustainability and environmental impacts were not known or considered. Still I have to admire the moxie and bravery of the men who blasted open the caves for future tourists and researchers.

The final stop of the tour had us wash our shoes in a special solution, to destroy a fungus which is killing the local bat population.

I spent the rest of the day hiking the woods around the tourist center. When I think back over the past few years of my favorite experiences, this was definitely one of them. Hiking the trails, stopping to stare in awe of the sun setting over a lush green valley. It is my “happy place” so to speak.

Salamander. Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

Green River. "The cave maker". Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

Cave City and other local towns

Driving to Mammoth Cave National Park you’ll see an abundance of signs for antique stores and rock shops. You’ll also see a lot of people selling geodes on their front lawns — geodes being those ball-shaped rocks with (hopefully) crystals inside. People just set up tables and blankets on their lawns and sell geodes.

I visited the rock shop with the most billboards, which was Big Mike’s. Big Mike’s rock complex featured two shops, a “mystery house”, and a yard loaded with bins filled with hunks of colored glass. The colored glass is pretty to look at, and catches you eyes from the roadside, like tennis ball-sized hunks of rainbow. I bought two crystal formations (no clue what they are) from one shop, and various Mammoth Cave souvenirs from the other.

Big Mike's Rock Shop

After the visit to Big Mike’s I headed for local antique stores. Along the way I discovered the wonder that is the combination souvenir/fireworks/knife store. I visited several, and bought plenty of souvenirs, but no knives or fireworks. You see, I do have some self-control.

Barrel Dog, Cave City, Kentucky

Next I hit a strip of antique stores on Broadway Street in Cave City. I ended up scoring an inexpensive Mandolin and many vinyl records. The most memorable store was Magaline’s Antique Mall, which is staffed by Magaline, who dresses in the style of “Hello Dolly” Levi, and a guy who looks remarkably like Donald Rumsfeld. They noticed my lack of a Kentucky accent, which led to a conversation about “Super Storm” Sandy, how Chris Christy would never be elected as president, and how the biggest problem with Washington is the influence of big business.

I visited Cracker Barrel for dinner ordered a half-dozen sides and nearly exploded with excitement over the waitress’ thick Kentucky accent. I left a way-too-large tip in appreciation.

One more night in the Lodge, and I left for New Jersey — a 15 hour ride fueled by Red Bull, candy and Powerman 5000. I got back in time to see the sun rise, and then I slept until 4pm. But when I woke, I had some of that fine Jim Beam Maple Bourbon in hot coffee.

Exhausted in Little Rock

Sometimes you just can’t get a good night’s rest.

May 20-21st, I stayed at a Comfort Suites in Alexandria, Louisiana. The hotel was absolutely gorgeous: new, clean, flat TV, wifi, wood furniture, a fridge. I watched David Letterman’s final show, and then hit the sack.

What should have been an awesome night of sleep, turned into a nightmare. Throughout the whole night: thunderstorms. Local news warned of flooding. I pointed my flashlight at the parking lot — it seemed to be flooding. Then the hotel power went out. Noise and worry reduced 8 potential hours of sleep, to 2 or 3.

Before noon, I hit the road and started heading for Texas. The weather was lousy and when I got closer and closer to Texas the weather got worse and worse. I’m not saying that I saw a funnel cloud — but I saw clouds that looked like two elephants wrestling with their trunks.

I stopped by a Starbucks to regroup. I walked in and headed for the bathroom. The cashier screamed at me “SIR, YOU CAN’T USE THE BATHROOM UNLESS YOU’RE A PAYING CUSTOMER”! What was I supposed to do? Order a grande mocha latte and balance it on my head while I peed? Howard Schultz, get your staff in line. After grabbing the smallest black coffee, I checked the weather. Texas was about to have some of the worst weather in their history — I made the call to head east, away from Texas. Of course my GPS had other ideas, and routed me through Texas before sending me north-east towards Little Rock, AR. Modern conveniences — Starbucks, GPS — they all give me shpilkes.

Welcome to Arkansas

A stop for energy drinks & peanut patties was enough to keep me sentient & focused, but I needed to get off the road and get some rest.

Around 3pm I arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas. Tired & annoyed, I found the closest motel, booked a room and after spraying myself with Deep Woods Off (just in case because bed bugs), and slept for 18 hours. 18 HOURS! Compared to the hotel I stayed at the night before, this place was sort of a dump. The staff were great, but my room looked like it hadn’t been updated since 1978. It was definitely crusty.

My nap was punctuated by noises from tow trucks and hotel patrons, and the periodic fear that my car was being stolen, but I finally got all the sleep I needed.

The guy in the room next to me looked like character actor Dennis Burkley, which was cool.

And they had a lobby waffle machine! Four stars.

Augusta, Georgia: golfers, cookies & grits

Augusta, Georgia is for golfers…

If you stay at a hotel in Augusta, Georgia, you will get to sleep around 1am, and then you will wake up around 5am. Why? Golfers. Southern golfers party hard into the night, and then wake up before the crack of dawn.

I should have known. If you see a truck like this in the parking lot of your hotel, you can rest assured that you won’t get any rest…
Champagne Statement Monster Truck

This past summer I stayed at the Augusta Double Tree, which is a truly magnificent hotel. Sure, the view from the window of my room faced a hallway, but I kept the curtains shut, so no one saw me sleeping.

Typically people stay at Double Tree hotels for two reasons: Mitch Hedberg (1968-2005) & warm, complimentary, chocolate chip cookies.

  • Mitch Hedberg was a very funny comedian who had many jokes that referenced Double Tree hotels.
  • Double Tree hotels provide their guests with warm, complimentary, chocolate chip cookies. Oh, and they are delicious — they take the cookie out of the tiny cookie oven behind the desk, and it’s like Christmas and your Birthday and a hug, all in one. Their bus shuttles are even decorated with cookies — they are very important to their brand image.

Check out this “Sweet Ride” advertising their delicious, piping hot, complimentary cookies:
Augusta Doubletree Sweet Ride

I couldn’t bear eating dinner from the hotel vending machine, so I cruised the surrounding area for a restaurant. My two choices were a Twin Peaks, which is a strip bar/bar/restaurant…

Twin Peaks of Augusta

… or a Waffle House.

Augusta Waffle House

The first time I encountered a Waffle House was on a road trip to New Orleans back in 1995. So mysterious! A restaurant, open 24 hours a day, catering to road-weary travelers, and serving only waffles. Of course, I quickly learned that Waffle Houses are essentially diners serving a variety of foods, and at the time I was let down. Like finding out that Santa is just your parents, or that school lasts 13 long years.

Now, in 2015, there was no mystery. It was late. I knew I was hungry, and I wanted to eat. I did not want to eat at a strip bar.

Approaching the W’House, a teen called me out: “where you from, New Jersey?” “Yes”, I replied, without pride or fear. She followed me inside — my waitress. My waitress — lets call her Miss Amazing Eye Makeup — was an amazing human being, with amazing iridescent blue, green, sliver & black eye makeup. To say her eyes looked like some rare species of Costa Rican butterfly would not be an exaggeration! Miss Amazing Eye Makeup sat at my table (or did I sit at her table) and proceeded to grill me about fast food restaurants in New Jersey. We came to a conclusion that Georgia and New Jersey shared about 75% of the same eateries (the English language needs more words for “restaurant”). The whole time I felt like she was a cat, and I was a mouse — her eyes could control me — her stare, like a puppeteer’s strings — I didn’t want a large portion of grits at 10pm, but she willed me to order it. And of course she got a 50% tip.

I woke the next day, at 5am. Thank you, golfers. Once the golfers discharged from the hotel (with the reticence & grace of a herd of angry cattle being washed through a gorge by floodwater), I was able to sleep again for a few hours. The hotel breakfast was expectedly bland, and a little pricey (should have gone back to the Waffle House), but satisfying. They should just serve a bottomless platter of their chocolate chip cookies for breakfast.

Thank you Double Tree, Waffle House, and Miss Amazing Eye Makeup for a memorable 12 hour stay in Augusta.