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Mammoth Cave National Park

007I had visited Mammoth Cave once before – when I was about 4. I have a vague memory of traipsing through a cave and lots of steps … and begging Daddy to carry me when I got tired (which he did!). I figured after 50 plus years it was time to visit again! On our way from the cabin up to Indiana seemed an ideal time to plan a brief stop to explore this National Park.

Folks have been touring this cave system for centuries. Evidence of Native American presence in the cave dates back 4000 years while American settlers re-discovered the cave in the late 1700s. The cave was mined for saltpeter (a precursor for gunpowder) for the war of 1812. Over time, more and more people just wanted to come to see this massive cave system. Mammoth Cave became America’s 26th National Park in 1941.

One interesting historical side note is that the cave served as the site of a tuberculosis sanatorium during the winter of 1842-3. A physician named Dr. John Croghan became interested in the cave, noting how well timbers and bodies of bats and Native Americans remained perfectly intact and undecayed. He hypothesized it was due to the cave air, purchased the cave, and convinced 16 “consumption” patients to live in the cave as an experiment. After some months, it became evident that the cool/damp environment combined with smoke from lanterns and fires did NOT improve their condition and the experiment was terminated (failed). Ironically, the doctor himself succumbed to TB and died a few years later.

The network of tunnels, chambers and channels that make up the Mammoth Cave System is currently measured at over 400 miles, the world’s longest cave system. Nobody really knows how big it is, and exploration continues today. The Park offers hiking  / biking trails, rivers for boating, horseback riding and camping, but the big attraction is, of course, the Cave.

A dozen or so different tours are offered at the Visitor Center, all exploring different areas of the cave system and offering varying walking distances and levels of difficulty (easy to very strenuous). Tours can be booked online and should be reserved in advance during busy seasons as they do sell out! But our two-day visit was during a not-so-busy time, so we were able to simply walk up at opening time the first day and book all of our tours. We booked 4 tours, two each day. I’ll give the highlights of each.

Historic Tour:  This (2 mile, 2 hour, moderate) tour led us through the original (historic) cave entrance, down dozens of stair into this enormous, dripping cave opening. We walked through giant electric-lit chambers past the remnants of the old saltpeter mining operation, while our tour guide brought history to life. We perused thousands of names scratched or burned onto the cave walls and ceilings – early tours encouraged the practice. Now it’s called a felony! We stooped through low ceiling areas and squeezed through “fat man’s misery”, emerging finally at a mammoth dome area.  We climbed many stairs up a vertical shaft, back toward the entrance, finally emerging where we began.

Violet City Lantern Tour: The 3 hour, 3 mile tour is considered strenuous. Lit only by kerosene lantern, the tour enters by the original entrance (again), but continues one way down a path built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). It passes by remnants of the TB sanitorium, past ancient Native American artifacts, and streaming underground waterfalls (called cataracts). All of the rain we had during our visit added to the waterfall’s effect! Touring the ancient caverns by lamplight is a whole different experience! It’s certainly light enough to navigate, but the flickering light and shadows evokes what it must have felt like 100 years ago. This tour doesn’t really have “squeezes”, but does have steep ups/downs in spots and quite a few stairs to enter and exit. We emerged into daylight at a different spot and were bused back to the Visitor Center.

Domes and Dripstones Tour:  This 2 hour, 0.75 mile tour is considered moderate and begins on a bus to the “new entrance”. This entrance starts off the tour quite dramatically with over 250 steps winding down a vertical shaft, through some fairly tight spaces at times. Claustrophobes might have some heart palpitations here. The passage opens up to wide spaces and winds around to the classic “Frozen Niagra” features that made Mammoth Cave famous with its dripstone, drapery formations, stalactites and stalagmites. The previous two tours led through dry sections of the cave system, which didn’t have these kind of formations. We climbed a few stairs out a different exit, to be bused back to the Visitor Center.

Great Onyx Lantern Tour: Our last tour of this journey (2.25 hours / 1 mile / easy) began again on the bus, this time to a cave outside the Mammoth system (at least, so far as they know). This cave was “discovered” by a land owner who blasted an entrance open – there was no known entrance previously. The owner launched a cave tour operation. This cave was not part of the initial Mammoth Cave National Park land acquisition process, not becoming part of the Park until the 1960’s. The cave sat idle for at least 10 years after that, and has been open for only limited tours since. As a result, the cave is extraordinarily well preserved, with none of the “autographs” seen in the heavily-trafficked tour areas. A 20 minute bus ride took us to the nondescript cave entrance, down a few stairs, into an immediate wonderland of limestone cave features – stalactites/stalagmites, columns, and flowstone formations.  A smaller cave overall, the gas lanterns lit the space adequately. As we wound back from the wet area into drier parts of the cave, delicate gypsum formations began to emerge. Gypsum was mined out in the main cave system by Native Americans, but it remained untouched here. The cave was virtually pristine. One cool thing that the guides did on our way back out of the cave was to give us a cave “sunset and sunrise”. Gathering up all of the lanterns, the guides walked away around the corner as the light became progressively dimmer – finally disappearing altogether leaving us in total darkness. A few minutes later a glimmer of light appeared, growing and brightening until we could see our guides trudging back around the corner with our lamps. REALLY cool effect and a fantastic ending to our Mammoth visit.

Our stop here was great fun. The main feature, to me, of the cave system isn’t it’s crystalline limestone features, it’s the sheer size/scale/scope of the caverns. Truly Mammoth.

Sedona Summary

IMG_3700Sedona is an unusual, magical place. Its red rock buttes and spires emerge unexpectedly from the surrounding desert, casting a rosy glow over the landscape. I can see why the area has been viewed as sacred by peoples for many thousands of years.

We happened to arrive here during college spring break season, which made the area unexpectedly busy. The town of Sedona is divided into two sections: the original “Uptown” Sedona and the sprawling, newer West Sedona. Uptown Sedona reminds me of Gatlinburg, with its shops full of souvenirs, T-shirts and jerky.  However, Sedona offers a new age twist with a number of crystal shops and places to get psychic readings or aura photos. (As opposed to Gatlinburg’s moonshine breweries?!) Both get quite crowded during high season, and that’s what we hit. We also got hit by 15+% tax when we ate one lunch downtown! There’s a county tax, city tax and a health fee (?). Definitely a tourist town with tourist town prices. But fun to explore nonetheless.

IMG_3707The best way to see the area’s beauty is to get out on trails and hike or bike. There are a variety of trails of all levels (easy to difficult), and many of the most interesting and beautiful vantage points can be reached with just a moderate hike. One such point is devil’s bridge, a natural sandstone arch that the brave can cross. I wasn’t that brave. I clutched firm rock from a safe distance away and watched as the courageous waited in line to venture out on what appeared to be a VERY thin bridge hundreds of feet up in the air, in order to get that great Facebook photo. I am told that the bridge was wider than it looked, but I will take their word for it!

Other trails lead to the Sedona energy vortexes, four purported energy centers spaced around Sedona city.  A vortex is said to be an area of particularly strong subtle energy, that works on your body’s energy field to uplift and energize. People travel from all over the world to visit and experience these vortexes (properly, vortices, but that’s not how people say it here). We visited all four during our stay. Each vortex was placed in an area of unusual beauty. One can’t help but feel grounded and peaceful in such surroundings, out in nature, drinking in the beauty, soaking up the sunlight. And maybe, that’s the point.

IMG_3712The area is also known for the extensive network of mountain biking trails. According to Jeff, it is sweet single track through hard pack clay and slick rock. He liked that most of the trails could be done in loops (rather than out and back) and he never felt truly isolated anywhere (unlike the Big Bend area). He is so busy having fun that he is a couple of months behind in his mountain bike trail reviews!

thumbnail_IMG_3301As we found in New Mexico, ancient peoples left their marks on the landscape here in the form of cliff and hilltop dwellings and petroglyphs. Interesting historical sites in this area include Montezuma Castle (cliff dwellings), Tuzigoot historical monument (ancient hilltop village), and Palatki Heritage site (cliff dwellings and petroglyphs). All are unique, but the Palatki site’s petroglyphs were especially interesting in that they showed a continuous record of rock art spanning back more than 10,000 years. It is always fascinating to learn about the interweaving of ancient cultures. And all of the sites are covered by our National Park pass!

Our exploration of the area isn’t complete without sampling the local cuisine and wineries. The Verde Valley area (where we camped) is known as Arizona wine country with a dozen or so vineyards. We visited several, but our favorite was Alcantara Vineyards, the first and oldest in the area, with over 13,000 vines and 12 varietals. The sociable lady pouring our wine tasting also happened to be a knowledgeable mountain biker and she and Jeff launched into a discussion comparing trail systems from here to Vancouver. Their super Tuscan blend and Merlot were particularly tasty and a bottle of each now resides in our bus. Not for long, though.

Our favorite eatery was a small, family owned diner known as Pepe’s Café. It’s got all of the attributes of the best kind of diner – quick service, good food, and inexpensive. A full dinner plate of home made goodness runs about $8. We went there twice.

Our fun here was enhanced by the fact that Jeff’s brother was able to fly out and join us. Sedona is a place we’ll definitely come back to – and stay longer. Tomorrow, we pack up and head off to Las Vegas as our westward track continues!


Our plan was to park the bus for 4 months at local County park campgrounds while we moved in, finished up with work, and got ready to go. Hurricane Irma threw quite a monkey wrench into those best-laid plans!

Hurricane Irma is a big, bad storm. As it worked its way west in the Caribbean toward us, the projected path put South Florida directly in the crosshairs.  We received an email from our campground, notifying us that they would close if the area was put under a Hurricane Warning status and we would have to evacuate the motorhome. So, we starting making plans to leave.  There was no freakin’ way we were going to risk our brand shiny new home in a storm if we could avoid it.

I had essentially moved our belongings into the bus anyway, so I moved over everything else of importance and stocked the pantry and fridge. The only thing we couldn’t take was our brand new F-150 truck. Our tow set up wasn’t installed yet and driving separately would be complicated. So, we just parked our vehicles as safely as we could and hoped for the best. That was when we discovered that our engine cover was broken and wouldn’t open (thank you Dixie RV!). We couldn’t deal with it then, so had to hope that all fluids were still OK for the trip.

We had been notified that we were required to evacuate the campground at 10 am on Thursday, so pulled out around 9 am and headed for points north. Our plan was to head west to the Florida Panhandle, continuing to the storm, adjusting if needed to stay out of its path.

Traffic on Florida’s Turnpike was gridlock. It was fortunate that we had nearly a full tank of diesel because lines to get into the toll plazas were back up for miles. It took us until nearly midnight to reach I-10. Rest stops were mobbed. We found one lone parking spot at a rest stop and grabbed it to hunker down for some much-needed rest.

It is lovely to have a generator, refrigerator, and king size bed while on the road! We slept in comfort, despite the circumstances. The next morning we continued heading west. We managed to get a service appointment at a Dixie RV dealership in Defuniak Springs to assess our engine cover problem. They worked us in right away and diagnosed the issue, but unfortunately were unable to fix it.  We got back on the road and stopped early in the evening at another rest stop to relax and monitor storm coverage. Based on the projected path, we felt safe stopping around Pensacola to wait out the hurricane. Campgrounds were packed with other refugees, but I managed to find one lone spot at a little, quiet campground just outside of Pensacola.

So, as of this writing, we are tucked away in the campground, waiting for the storm to pass by us. After a couple of boondocking nights, we really appreciate full hookups and the slides out! The bus has performed admirably.  Our family members are fine and Irma has moved away from the southeast Florida coast, so all is well at the moment.

We are indeed blessed.

Let’s move forward already

I feel as though I’ve been pushing for change for months.

I’ve focused my energies the last few weeks and months on getting the house ready for sale. I’ve purged, cleaned and organized. We’ve given away a truckload of furniture to kids and family. Some items were listed and sold on Craigslist. I’ve taken multiple car loads of purged items to the Salvation Army. Our house is more than half empty at this point.

Then there was the subcontracted work. We had the house painted inside and out. The landscaping has been cleaned up. The roof was checked and minor repairs made. A million little repairs and adjustments completed. Then we met with a realtor and made a few more cosmetic changes at her suggestion — new kitchen cabinet pulls, new dining room light fixture, etc.

Have you ever gone down a super high water slide? You climb up and up and up. It seems like you’ll never get there and it takes SO much effort. Finally you reach the top and all there is left to do is – let go and wheeeeee!

Our house is officially on the market and today is the first showing day. Thanks to all of the prep work as well as marketing efforts by our realtor, we booked no less than 14 showing appointments for the first day! Maybe, just maybe, we’ll get a decent offer out of this weekend’s work.

Then it will finally time to go down the slide!  All of the balls will start rolling – sell the house, dispose of the rest of the furniture, move into transitional housing, wrap up our work life (hopefully), buy the bus, and go!

OK, it’s a long and curvy water slide, as there are still lots of steps to take. But at least, it should be downhill from here!