Days 24 & 25: Timezone, or Twilight Zone?
If eastern Kentucky was conceived and named in the throes of delirium tremens, the place we're in now is the result of a wayward child's daydream. Where in Appalachia we were cycling past signs for Viper, Spider, and Fisty, KY, we're now seeing towns called Pig, Island, Clover Bottom, Bee Spring, Sunfish, Windyville, Balltown, Forkland, Ollie, Anna, and Huff. Not to mention Texas, Oklahoma, Nineteen, and Paradise — all names of nearby places.
But the whimsy don't extend only to the nomenclature. In fact, we've seen so much strange stuff these two days that we're just going to start with a photo gallery. Seeing is believing, no?
Wait… You caught that, right? We were at Kentucky Stonehenge. A place so puzzling that it inspired this peerless Google review.
We also saw kangaroos (including albino kangaroos?), peacocks, emus, and a water buffalo-type thing. And we had breakfast at an Amish bakery (the Amish don't wear masks, but they sell cute homemade ones, along with the granola, cookies, and fudge).
So much happened, we almost forgot that we crossed a timezone!
And went to a National Park!
But we're getting ahead of ourselves…
Day 24 began with a storm. A whole front of big black clouds that loomed low in the sky. Well, there was a storm somewhere. The weather forecast on our phones made it look like we were going to get pelted, so we were prepared to hunker down in the hotel and wait it out till afternoon — we even requested a late checkout. But as the morning wore on, there was only damp mist. Finally, we were (Sara was) tired of waiting. We mounted up and headed off into the moist.
It turned out to be a pretty pleasant riding day — rolling back roads (the roads we've taken to calling "bike lanes") and the sun hiding behind those same low clouds. We crossed our first time zone line—we're in Central now, woohoo!—and pulled over at a Baptist Church's outdoor picnic shelter to feed ourselves some lunch. (Sara's working on some Baptist jokes: Which Baptists are the best at social distancing? ..... The Separate Baptists! ..... Which Baptists have the best gastrointestinal health? ..... The Regular Baptists! ..... Which Baptists have a hard time being specific? ..... The General Baptists!) We did have to conquer one ugh-omg-why-is-it-still-going hill, but after we made it up "Scott's Ridge" the riding was pretty smooth. (We've learned to beware any road that has any of the following words in the name: Hill, Mountain, Summit, Peak, and for some reason, especially Ridge.)
Our original goal for the day was Munfordville, home of the INFAMOUS Kentucky Stonehenge (cue Spinal Tap here). Alone the way, we caught some good signs — from more horse-and-buggy alerts (Share the Road with the Amish!) to that inexplicable "XXXL RATTLESNAKE DANGER" sign, to this lovely handmade offering in someone's yard (quite a change from the standard yard sign) →
Stonehenge was... Confusing? Hilarious? Weird? Definitely just in someone's backyard? All of the above. But we paid the necessary homage and then decided we had more ride left in us. We headed south towards Horse Cave.
That's when the Strange really kicked up a notch. Camels! Emus! Kangaroos! After the kangaroos, we realized we were biking along the backside of the "Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo" (hoo boy; also, a sign of things to come), but the camels were definitely their own thing, further back along the route. Just someone's personal camels, nbd. Finally, we grabbed big messy Subway sandwiches at a truck stop—the best available option—and lugged them to our hotel. (We're taking advantage of our hotel discount thing a little too much these days and soon we're gonna have to just stop and save the $, but when a bed and shower are available, it's hard to resist). Then, reruns of Travel Man and sleep.
Day 24: Lebanon to Horse Cave, 63.1 miles, 2975 feet of climbing, 2 chill camels, 1 homemade henge.
We were excited for Day 25! We'd heard good things about Mammoth Caves and we got up early and headed that way. Not before absolutely stuffing ourselves with breakfast at the nearby Amish bakery, though. (We're not usually big breakfast people, and going for ALL THE FOODS at 6:30 AM isn't always easy, but it really does help with the first 20 or 30 miles.)
The Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo proved prophetic: The whole stretch around Mammoth Caves (which, itself, is a huge and gorgeous national park) is an object lesson in dilapidated Americana. Run down hotels start popping up, with flickering neon signs and facades that have been decaying since the 70s. There are gift shops and tourist attractions in various states of disrepair (mini-golf, haunted houses, Dinosaur World! Okay, I semi-regret not visiting Dinosaur World). Beau said it reminded him of Nabokov's trip around America researching for Lolita. It made me think of the end of Stroszek — and of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, another strip of eerily worn-out American tourist machinery that I visited back in college.
When we crossed over into the national park itself, everything changed. This won't be the last time we say this on this trip or in this lifetime, but three cheers for the National Parks Service! Biking into Mammoth Caves was a delight — the roads are better, the terrain is beautiful, people even seem to drive a little differently, as if the air in the park calms them down and wakes them up a bit.
We were signed up for a "self-guided" tour of the main parts of the caves — the only kind that's available right now for COVID reasons. So, essentially, we donned masks and got to head down into the massive antechamber of Mammoth Cave's 412 (four-hundred-and-twelve!!!) miles of underground passages and roam around for a bit in about two miles of that mind-boggling expanse. One of the rangers stationed underground (like docents in a very dark, very cold museum) told us that they think of the caves as a giant bowl of spaghetti — all the various passageways tangled up with each other over hundreds and hundreds of miles and levels. No one has ever explored the full extent. Apparently two people have made it through about 200 miles, but that's it. Researchers still owe a ton of original knowledge of the cave system to Stephen Bishop, a self-educated enslaved man who worked as a cave tour guide in the 1840s and mapped out miles and miles of cave that no one had ever seen.
It's a wild place. The largest underground cave system in the world. Looking up at these vast ceilings, trying to process the fact that you're standing inside the result of 10 million years of tiny streams of water becoming bigger and bigger as they eat away at miles and miles of limestone... It's quieting and surreal.
Pictures don't really convey the feeling — sort of the way pictures of the moon are never quite right.
Normally, cyclists take a route to or from the caves that involves a ferry crossing on Green River, which runs through the park. But the Green River Ferry is currently closed for construction, so, after ascending out of the caves (and visiting the River Styx spring, where an underground river flows up from the caves to merge with the Green River outside), we headed for a more westerly path out of the park. As is constantly their wont, our various navigatory apps led us towards a promising looking "short-cut" — which turned out to be a very hilly 1.68 mile long gravel path. Whee! Well, at least there were no cars.
Our day was far from done, riding-wise. And in the ensuing 40-ish miles, we experienced just about every variety of Kentucky riding: the gravel path; the pleasant, almost-no-traffic "bike lane" road; the rolling hills countryside road; the road that's only two lanes but there's way too much fast traffic, no shoulders, and the rumble strips absolutely suck. This is the worst kind of road in Kentucky, which often puts a 55 mph speed limit on roads that, in Virginia, would be 45 at most (probably more like 35 or 40). Sometimes there's nothing to do but stick them out for a couple of miles until you can find a smaller alternate route. You just go into Beast Mode and pump the distance out as fast as you can. And at least cars here give cyclists a pretty wide berth. But these roads are no fun. They and the requisite pre-town-hills had us tired by the end of the day. (I distinctly remember pulling over at one point and saying, "My hands hurt, my crotch hurts, and I'm sick of this.")
But we made it. To Leitchfield, where a local bike-shop-owner who's a member of the Warm Showers community provided us with an odd but very welcome camping spot inside a pavilion at the county fairground. We pitched our tent on a runway-style stage that I'm fairly certain has seen several child beauty/talent contests. Maybe even some prize pigs. Because of our touristy morning, night was already closing in by the time we had our tent up. And we were happy to kill a 6-pack, eat our traditional road sandwiches (tuna! peanut-butter! it's like being back in middle school!) and pass out. From camels to cairns to caves to camping in carnival canopies — we've had a colorful past two days. More soon, friends.
Day 25: Horse Cave to Mammoth Caves to Leitchfield, 65.9 miles, 3375 feet of climbing, some dinosaurs, 2 (out of 412!) miles of excellent subterranean adventure.