Middle Aged Man Hikes Above Ground Cave

fall My Hocking Hills story beings as many of my travel stories do: mapping periodical cicadas. I had heard that Hocking Hills park in Ohio was a hotspot for the rarest of the three 17 year cicada species (Magicicada septendecula), so I traveled there to check it out. The reports were true… the cicadas were there in abundance… but no one had told me about the cave.

I’m a sucker for a good cave. I see a sign for a cave and I’ll drive 100, no, make that 200 miles to see that cave. Case in point: Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky. Back in 2014 I was in Cincinnati, started heading home (east) for New Jersey, but the next thing you know I’m 208 miles south at a cave! Sure, I stopped at the Jim Beam distillery along the way, but I ended up at a cave.

While wandering through the Hocking Hills state park — clutching my video camera, listening for septendecula, trying not to stand out amongst the dozens of tourists milling about — I saw the sign: “Old Man Cave”. Suddenly the sounds of cicadas dissolved from my mind and all I could think was “cave”.

That’s the third paragraph than ends in cave. Get the point?

Surprisingly Old Man Cave is not a “traditional” below ground cave. It is an above ground cave, because it has no ceiling. Perhaps it had a ceiling at one time; perhaps it collapsed. Had you asked me, I would have guessed that it was actually a canyon. As you’ll see from my photos and video, it still looks like a cave — limestone rock sculpted by the erosion of water — but it also looks like a canyon.

To get to the cave you have to enter a tunnel (the most “traditional” cave-like part of the journey). At the mouth of the tunnel were two healthy-looking young men; before I could enter, one stopped me. “Are you sure you want to go into the cave? It’s a hard walk even for me.” He advised me to go through the tunnel, enjoy the view, and then turn around and go home. He wasn’t an employee of the park — just another tourist.

I had to pause, if just for a moment, and ask myself: “how decrepit is my appearance?” Yes, I know I look like Lucious Malfoy: clearly middle-aged, with bone-white hair. And certainly I could stand to lose a few pounds (more like 20). “How feeble and near death do I appear?”

I thanked the young man for his advice and concern, and entered the tunnel. Upon exiting, the view was amazing. It’s hard to capture the magnificence with a photograph. To the right there’s a massive limestone overhang, slick with moisture and stained with streaks of green alge; straight ahead the cave/canyon drops maybe a hundred feet to the cave floor. It’s spectacular. At that moment I thought, “I have to do this; I have to experience this, even if the young man is right and I will die tying.”

Old Man Cave, Hocking Hills

Old Man Cave, Hocking Hills

The Old Man Cave trail passes under the massive rock overhang, and then winds and twists along the side of the cave until you reach the bottom, at that point you can enjoy the view of the waterfall, and then you hike back up the other side and continue around until you reach the start.

Old Man Cave, Hocking Hills

The hike down is long, and the hardest part is maintaining your balance and not falling to your death while taking a photo. Core strength is important. The hike up requires leg strength and stamina, but it isn’t all that bad. There were a few septuagenarians and little kids hacking it — it was fine. No worries.

Video from my hike:

After the Old Man Cave, I took a break… grabbed some water… made a video of some bugs…

And then walked across this funky looking bridge…

Hocking Hills

And then hiked up a hill into the woods and recorded some cicada song.

Along the path back to my car there were a group of young dudes debating on wether they should hop a fence and go swimming in the stream below. They were having a serious debate — you might think they were getting up the nerve to talk to some young women — no, just going for an illegal swim.

Crossing back across the bridge I could hear them splash into the river below. I thought “good, they’re living life, and taking chances as they should”.

More info:

The Land Between the Lakes, Part 1

Arrival

The Land Between the Lakes is a large National Park nestled between two long, artificial lakes. The park features 170,000 acres of forest & wetlands, bison, a planetarium, and every 13 years, Brood XXIII cicadas. The park offers virtually any type of boating & outdoor activity imaginable.

Imagine Manhattan if all the buildings were replaced by trees, and the rats were replaced by deer and bison — that is The Land Between the Lakes.

I arrived at the park just in time to hear some chorusing cicadas (they get quiet around 5pm). In the background, weekend warriors raced their fishing boats up the lake — their engines making “bwaaaa bwa bwa bwup bwup” sounds as they struggled to keep pace with their captains’ pride.

Land Between the Lakes

Park

There were several hours of light left in the day, so I chose to enter the park before finding a hotel. I drove the speed limit, in an effort to drive slow enough to hear the cicadas I was listening for… much to the chagrin of everyone else driving on the park road. They flashed their lights, and weaved in and out of lanes, all serpentine like, in an attempt to cajole me to drive faster. But I was stedfast in my determination to travel the speed I desired. Eventually, these bullies of the road passed.

The road never seemed to end — mile after mile of forrest-lined road. It was glorious.

Pig Truck Man

I managed to raise the ire of the driver of a giant, matt-black, pig-truck — once again by driving the speed limit. The giant, matt-black, pig-truck was like something out of Mad Max: Fury Road: it was a monster pickup truck, jacked-up about 3 feet higher than normal, pained matt-black, two huge stacks belching black, sooty smoke, with a pig nose for the grill, and lights for the nostrils. Most folks would be terrified by the sight of such a vehicle, two feet away from their bumper, but I was thrilled by it. I’m weaving, trying to get a photo, but failed. It was awesome though. Eventually it passed. It would have been an honor to have been run off the road by the pig truck. All that said, I do look like exactly like Immortan Joe from Mad Max: Fury Road, so the guy probably thought I was his leader. He just wanted to say “Hi”.

Quest for Bison

I made it as far south as the self-guided Elk & Bison prairie tour, paid the $5 entry fee, and was very pleased to see these mighty creatures up close.

Stretching Bison

Bison at Land Between the Lakes

When I was a child I spend a lot of time around lakes, rivers, woodlands, and forests. I loved the smell of a country road after a rainstorm; the mirror finish of a lake; the lively communication of birds; the contrast of a red newt on soft green moss; and awe-lispiring views of lush, green valleys from the top of tall hills.

People find solace & peace in the pop culture & toys of their childhood — Star Wars, comic books, Frankenstein, Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles, Donky Kong, a Nirvana record, etc. For just a moment it allows them to go back in time, and escape from their troubles, worries and responsibilities. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

I find solace in nature. A National or State park is my Comicon.

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.