Distance: 15.97 mi
Average Speed: 11.7 mph; Max Speed: 31.2 mph
Elevation Gain: 362 ft
Average Temp: 86.2 F; Temp Range: 82.4-89.6 F
First thing’s first: if you are considering riding the TransAmerica Bike Trail, or if you are going to be near this area in Kentucky, and are wondering whether Mammoth Cave is worth the detour, it is. Unless you’re claustrophobic or nyctophobic. It’s the largest (known) cave in the world at over 412 mapped miles of tunnels, and they haven’t finished mapping it yet. Book your tours at least a few days in advance, because they fill up quickly.
But we’ll get to that in a bit.
My tour today wasn’t until 12:45 and I didn’t have to wake up early, but I woke up around 5:30 anyway. I had plans, you see. The lodge near the campground has a breakfast buffet, and that seemed like a spectacular location to sit, eat, and catch up on some blog posts since I’ve been falling behind a bit. Packing up is made much simpler when you don’t have to prepare breakfast, and I was off in good time. I couldn’t remember when breakfast started, though, and I arrived about 15 minutes too early. That was fine, since there was a small alcove in one area containing three desks: one open and two with computers on them. I plugged in some of my electronics to charge, wrote out a postcard or two, and waited for 7AM to roll around.
Breakfast was good. Besides the requisite coffee, they had a waffle and omelet bar, eggs, potatoes, biscuits, cereal, yogurt, fresh fruit, muffins, and assorted danishes. (For the omnivores among us who are wondering, there were also things I couldn’t eat like sausages, sausage gravy for the biscuits, and bacon.)
I ate and updated for several hours, but the fun part of breakfast was the several people who had spotted my loaded bike outside and pegged me as its owner, maybe because I had the handlebar bag to match the panniers, maybe because I was one of the only people seated alone in the restaurant. I had a few good discussions of my trip with one couple who are cyclists themselves and a man who recently returned from a few weeks in Europe touring with a friend (who is still there).
After breakfast, I retreated to the alcove again for a while, and then went to get ready for my tour. I walked over to the visitor center and pulled up the reservation on my phone. It was then that I noticed the small print that said all tickets had to be picked up 15 minutes before the tour started. I had about 35 minutes to my tour, but I hadn’t realized there was that kind of time limit and I was grateful that chance and my hating being late led me to get there on time. Then I walked back to my bike to grab some long pants and my rain jacket. The cave was going to be much cooler than the air outside.
I had signed up for the historic tour, so the narration I got was on the history of the rediscovery and use of the cave. It was rediscovered, supposedly, in the 1700s by a man out in the woods who shot a bear and then tracked it into the cave. Re-discovered because it was clear that several hundred years prior, the Native Americans had been harvesting gypsum from the cave walls. It is unknown why they stopped doing so.
During the early 1800s, the soil in the cave was used in the manufacture of saltpeter. When that was no longer profitable, the cave became a tourist destination for the rich. In all their splendid Victorian era attire (dapper, close-fitting suits for the men, corsets and hoop skirts for the women) they would descend with smoky oil lanterns that have left their mark on some parts of the cave ceiling. The tours were 8 or 16 hours long, and included meals set out on flat rocks using fine china brought down for that purpose. The rich really know how to throw a casual picnic, don’t they? Maybe that’s not fair; I imagine the ground was too dirty to sit on, and hoop skirts are difficult to sit in anyway.
There was graffiti everywhere, but probably not in the way you think. This is 150+ year-old graffiti from those early tours. People would scratch or carve their name into the rock, some in thin scraggly lines, some in large letters that looked like they were cut by a professional. Or they would use the smoke from a tallow candle to write on the walls.
After the tour, I stopped in the ice cream parlor. Not for ice cream, I had eaten some earlier in the day (toasted coconut, which was wonderful), but for coffee and some food. Then I headed out to my bike, intending to leave for horse cave. Instead I found a note tucked into my gear from the couple I met at breakfast, Gene and Stephanie. They told me what cabin they were in and said I should join them for a drink. So I did.
I’ve said it before and it’s no less true now on Day 54 than it was at those times: one of the best parts of this trip is the people. We talked for well over an hour about cycling in general, the tours we had each taken of the cave (they went on a longer one than I did), other trips taken, bicycle injuries, and much more. It was a great way to relax on this almost-but-not-quite rest day.
Even the local wildlife cooperated; a woodpecker and a wild turkey both made an appearance.
Alas, the afternoon couldn’t last forever, and I set out for the short ride to Horse Cave. It was hot, but not as hot as it had been earlier, so the ride wasn’t that bad. There also isn’t that much to say about it, since it was only 12 miles long. I left the park and forest and reentered the meadows and fields of developed land. Cave City had an amusing touristy area filled with rock shops, mini golf, bumper cars, and similar attractions. It also had a non-touristy area a few miles further down the road. Horse Cave seems to be quieter, thank goodness.
I stopped for some food for dinner and because I was running out of a few things. One customer saw my bike outside and asked me about my ride. Then the cashier said “I heard you’ve been on the road for 54 days.” I told her a bit about the trip and gave her a card. She asked if she could get a photo with me and post it to Facebook. I replied yes, but that I would need a similar photo.
Then I rolled over to the hotel. The room is large and comfortable. Not their cheapest (those were sold out for the night) but not expensive either. I’ve had a nice shower, a filling dinner, and am about ready to stretch out in a huge bed for a solid night of sleep.