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.
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.
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.
The tour (spoilers ahead) takes you through the bourbon-making process, from grain and water 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
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 latter 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 to help 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 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.
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 buses 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:
- “Keep your child with you at all times.” Kids buzzed around in manic figure-eight patterns out of reach of their parent’s control.
- “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.
- “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, through the cave, until you reach the end and ascend. Only the end has drip-stone formations (stalactites and stalagmites), but it is worth the long walk to the end. The tour guide told the story of the men who discovered, explored, and dynamited open the cave, all to exploit it 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 with a special solution, to destroy a fungus that 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 at the sun setting over a lush green valley. It is my “happy place” so to speak.
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 chunks of colored glass. The colored glass is pretty to look at, and catches your eyes from the roadside, like tennis ball-sized hunks of a rainbow. I bought two crystal formations (no clue what they are) from one shop, and various Mammoth Cave souvenirs from the other.
After the visit to Big Mike’s, I headed to 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.
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, 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 sunrise, and then I slept until 4 pm. But when I woke, I had some of that fine Jim Beam Maple Bourbon in hot coffee.