Mammoth Cave Road Trip

I don’t know why we kept talking about Mammoth Cave, but we did.  Or more accurately, my pal, Silas, kept talking about it, talking about how he wanted to go, thought it would be fun to go through the cave with us—us being any number of our group who could manage a day away.

Logistics with busy people is a nightmare.

Should we go for overnight, or try to do it in one day?  Which weekend?  A Friday? Saturday? If Mammoth Cave doesn’t work out, should we consider Lost River Cave in Bowling Green?  But restaurants, there must be restaurants.  A date was set, then was changed, and the time when we should meet. Finally, we synchronized our calendars, and we were in business.

On a beautiful Friday a few weeks ago, my running mate, Alice, and I bundled in the car and drove  across country for Edmonton County, past woodland with redbud just about to burst, past stands of daffodils on rolling hillsides, under an impossibly blue sky. 

From Owensboro by way of Fordsville, it was a pleasant drive, scarcely an hour once we got back on Hwy. 54. I can’t remember the exact route we took, but it was secondary highways the entire way, and lovely.

I’ve been to Mammoth Cave many times.  With  each visit of relatives from out the state, my grandmother organized a trip to the cave, complete with picnic and singing in the car, which I suspect annoyed the adults and I know for a fact deeply embarrassed the children. In college my anthropology buddies and I often hiked on the trails and we applied to work there one summer but they didn’t want us.

There have been some improvements since the last time I visited.  There is a grill and a restaurant in the renovated hotel, and a nice little walkway over to the visitor’s center.  We arrived in time for a late lunch, and while we waited to be served I toddled over to see about tickets.

Now.  Pay attention. 

You really must get your tickets well in advance for any of the tours. On the day we chose—the Friday of spring break—all the tours were sold out and had been for days.  We knew this before we left home, but decided to take our chances.  There was one tour that is only booked on the day of but we were too late for that, too.

However, there is a self-directed tour, the only one now that uses the historic entrance, and for five bucks you can do that one, all day and at your own pace.  Rangers are stationed in the cave to answer questions and keep an eye on things.

Well, now.  This was perfect.  We wandered down to the entrance around 3:00 p.m., the last minute to still enter the cave for the day.  Down a few steps, not so many, and then we were  in the cave, walking past the saltpeter mines, listening to the ranger tell a group about the tuberculosis patients who once lived in the cave—an experimental treatment that managed to kill them all.

We took pictures, most of them quite awful, because it is really dark, although our camera phones did a pretty good job, considering.  Alice posted a pitch black photo on Facebook of us in the cave, and we had big fun with that, like we were the cleverest people in the world. 

It took us less than an hour to see this small part of the cave and to read the plaques and ask the rangers some questions.  But it was enough for us.  We went topside and spent another hour looking at exhibits and watching a film.

We were hungry again, or thought we were, so a ranger at the information desk suggested a couple of places toward Park City, including a place the locals like, Porky Pig’s, in…I am not making this up…Pig, KY.PORKY PIG DINER We couldn’t resist.

Pig, being so small,was hard to find, but we eventually pulled up in the gravel lot of Porky’s.   It seemed more like a community center than restaurant, with tables dotting the large expanse.  But there was a buffet, pulled pork, and sliced tomatoes and a friendly waitress, so we ate too much and someone bought a ball cap.

We lingered over coffee and cobbler, because we are lingerers.  Even so, I was home by nine. I recommend this little road trip.  A weekend’s worth of fun in under ten hours.

Saying Goodbye

Last week I said goodbye to an old, dear, friend…the first friend in my circle to leave us, and as it is with all such loss, it happened too soon.

Otis L. Griffin, of McLean County, was a civic leader, a large-scale farmer, the husband of my high school pal, Donna. He was a man who gave ballast to our social group and he was my friend.

From the scores of people who came to his visitation, it’s clear he cast a wide net in the friendship department. The line for those waiting to pay their respects snaked out into the hall of Muster Funeral Home. So many came, so many shared stories. So many needed, by their presence, to say how Otis had touched their lives.

I first met Otis in my late twenties—I think it was my twenties—when I and my contemporaries were easing into adulthood. We had jobs and car payments and thought ourselves quite something. Otis was a little bit older, a full-fledged adult compared to our apprenticeship status and he helped show us what grown-ups looked like.

When Donna and Otis started dating he slipped easily into our group, this big guy with quiet ways, one who wore suits on evenings out. Dapper, yes; stuffy, never. I can recall almost nothing of those early days except that we laughed all the time. We had “coming out” parties when someone brought home a potential mate, and I am not sure that it wasn’t Otis who orchestrated an Olympic-style number rating the evening Margaret brought home her future husband to meet us all.

She and Woody were late getting to the party and, as idle hands are the devil’s workshop, we improvised rating cards to hold up when they walked through the door.
Or maybe that little caper was my idea. I know it was Otis who told Woody, “I gave you a 9.5 but then you started talking and I had to drop it to a 6.”

Woody is a funny guy, too, and they were friends from that day forward.

Otis told me once he was in the habit of going to funerals, made it a point to do so. He made a special effort if it was some forgotten soul with no one to be sorry he was gone. We always figured he liked funerals.

No, he told Donna. He didn’t like funerals, but it was the right thing to do. To bear witness. To show respect.

And that is who he was. A stand-up guy, Donna would call him. A traditional fellow, one who honored the earth, served on the school board. A father and grandfather. A protector.

When his two youngest children were little, Donna and I packed them up to drive to Hattiesburg, to see Margaret and Woody and their little one. Otis was staying behind, farming, and as we were loading the car, he was uncharacteristically cranky.
I asked him what was wrong.

“I don’t like it. You are taking away my babies.”

Their mother, I must point out, was in the front seat. It was just that he wouldn’t be there, and me in the driver’s seat was no substitute.

Funerals are sad, but they are homecomings, too. I so enjoyed reconnecting with Otis’s children, Lance and Jennifer and their spouses, and seeing their sweet babies, all grown or almost so. And Caitlin and Sage, the toddlers from that long-ago trip, who are stepping out and into their own bright futures. The Griffin children, all of them lovely and lovable adults. And the next generation of Griffins well on their way.

They have lost a sturdy pillar of their family, but they have not lost their compass. Otis had a way of imparting wisdom and giving guidance without you even knowing it. I learned from him every time we were together. His lessons were quiet, but deep. Otis himself, embodied True North.

The funeral procession meandered along Hwy. 136 amid the redbud and dogwood blooms. Cars pulled over as we passed by the farmland Otis worked, loved. A procession so long the first cars often disappeared around a distant bend as the last cars worked to keep up, like a game of crack the whip. The little country cemetery couldn’t hold us all.

It was, as the Rev. Jim Midkiff reminded us, as far as we could go with him now.

So, Otis, we love ya and we will miss you. But don’t you worry. We will keep loving this family and each other. It’s easy for us. We have some advantage. You have shown us how it’s done.