Hoping to see Schipperke friends in Kingston, Tennessee, we planned a couple of days there. But Tina had to go west to a dog show that weekend, so we stopped at Raccoon Valley, an Escapees park in Heiskell, Tennessee, instead. The park was under reconstruction; it was formerly a KOA campground that was having its main building enlarged and new sites added. The existing sites were a little rough, but the Escapees spirit was clearly there – we received the traditional hug when we signed in! And there was a spontaneous bluegrass session that night, with a dozen participants including a washtub base and a flute.
From Heiskell, we trekked north to Cave City, Kentucky, the site of Mammoth Cave National Park. With over 350 miles of underground caves and passages explored, this is the largest system in the world. We wanted to see the caves, but we also wanted to go into Bowling Green – about 25 miles away.
Cave Country Campground was great – beautifully landscaped and maintained, spotless facilities, a rec room with lots of fitness equipment and a pool table, and a dog park. The owner lived on premises and had a workcamper couple helping him. Four years old, it was still “like new.”
Above ground, the National Park encompasses approximately 53,000 acres. It has its own hotel, numerous campgrounds, aboveground as well as underground attractions, and no entrance fee – the only federal reservation where this is true.
There are over a dozen underground tours available, rated at four levels from easy to very strenuous. The very strenuous tours are actual cave explorations on all fours; like growing old, they’re not for the timid (or claustrophobic). Your own equipment must be disinfected in advance because of “white nose syndrome,” a disease widespread in 2009 and has already killed over half a million bats in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic. Mammoth has had no sign of it and works to keep it that way.
We took the moderate “New Entrance” tour, a short bus ride away from the headquarters building. Description includes 500 stairs (up and down), steep climbs, 250 foot drop and ¾ mile of walking. This entrance was discovered in the early 1920’s by a mining engineer named George Morrison. We learned from our tour guide, a descendent of a family who owned land now within the Park’s boundary, that Morrison’s discovery of an entrance on his own property allowed George to exploit cave tourism – as so many others were doing at that time. The entrance is now fitted with stainless steel, non-slip steps and railing for the entrance and exit runs, and all the passageways were similarly railed. We were glad to be there now rather than in Morrison’s day.
Of the four caving experiences that Dot and I have now undergone, this was the most difficult, least developed and most fascinating. The lights were very dim and the passages were not simple to negotiate; much twisting, turning, ducking and squeezing were required. On the other hand, the formations were pristine. We were fortunate to be on a tour only a dozen or so of us on it – it can have as many as 114. And two guides are required, so we all got our questions answered. It was quite wet, owing to the plethora of rain in the area (as in horrendous Nashville floods just fifty miles south). There was a waterfall through the ceiling that had a gentle but steady flow – two weeks earlier it was a torrent. One thing we learned that was unexpected – the temperature in the caves varies quite a bit. We thought that all caves always maintained a temperature of 54-54 degrees – at least that’s what they tell you at wineries!
We weren’t claustrophobic, but it was nice to see daylight again.
The other major attraction at this stop was very different. Bowling Green hosts a GM factory solely dedicated to the production of Corvettes. They weren’t always produced here; the original factory was in St. Louis. This is a finishing and assembly plant, receiving major components from other locations and pumping out the final product at the rate of about 80 a day. The first one, as any red-blooded American knows, was produced in 1953. The 1,500,000th one came off this line in 2009.
Part 1 was the actual plant tour. Prior to the tour, we were treated to a movie tracing the history of America’s only true sports car. Then a young employee named Jason led us around along a yellow-lined path, right on the factory floor. Since it was noisy, he gave us a preview, and he stopped from time to time and activated recorded presentations about specific functions. For about half the tour, we watched as all components of the body were assembled – doors, seats, dashboards, windshields and dozens of other parts. Then the body begins a journey upward on the conveyor, coming back down around the corner in perfect synchronization on to its matching chassis and running gear. The two are bolted together in thirty places. Final assembly is followed by final static inspection, then a series of running tests. The unit is then put through a high pressure water bath to simulate days of rainfall. Any blemish, leak or performance hickey causes it to be pulled from the line and worked over until perfect.
All Corvettes are built to order. None is built on spec. There is an intermix of colors and models, and Jason carefully pointed out the different characteristics of each. Naturally, we were offered the opportunity to place our order and watch our beauty get constructed from start to finish.
We had to park a long way from the tour entrance. The close-in parking lots were for GM vehicles only. Our Dodge dually didn’t qualify!
Down the street was the Corvette Museum. Primarily a separate entity, the lobby had eight brand new Corvettes waiting for their owners to pick them up. Inside, the story of America’s fascination with the ‘Vette was thoroughly spelled out, with car after car and engine after engine. In the hundred-foot high conical center was a “Hall of Fame.” While there were plenty of new things to learn, the place got to be a “seen one, seen ‘em all” experience by the time we exited. The last car on display, shown at left, was worth the price of admission, however. Note especially the lace.
Bowling Green is also the home of Camping World, the country’s leading retailer of RV “stuff.” CW was a client of mine in the eighties, while Dot and I were still sailors. I was a member of Boat US at the time, a membership organization primarily designed to collect purchase information from retail customers. I suggested several times to my client, a young man named Kevin Embry, that CW might want to start something similar. Lo and behold, they started their President’s Club a few years later.
Caving and Corvette-fanaticizing completed, we closed up shop again and moved on to another yard for the kids, this time in Owensboro, Kentucky just for an overnight. Since it was Memorial Day weekend, the only place we could find was the Windy Hollow Campground. What a hoot! It wasn’t a campground at all. It was a huge grassy park with nine lakes, one of which was a full scale swimming hole and eight of which were stocked for catch and release. Popping up out of the ground almost randomly were electrical boxes and water connections, with the occasional septic dump thrown in. Nothing was level; nothing was really defined. And the place was not made for rigs as big as ours. So after much backing and forthing, Dot eyed a spot with possibilities next to the pavilion. Dodging trees and parked vehicles, we wended our way up to it. We just fit – and it was level!
Windy Hollow also owned a NASCAR sanctioned drag strip about a mile down the road. Having not been to live drags in about fifty years (Big Daddy Don Garlits was still racing when I last went out to Long Island Dragway), I jumped at the chance. I only needed about an hour to restore the memories and renew the passion.
All in all, it was a peaceful night in a serene setting, and the dogs could explore to their hearts’ content (as long as they were only 23 feet away from us.” But I did fret about a hairpin turn that was much more challenging going out than coming in. I charted an alternate route – but didn’t need it. We were off Sunday before 8AM.