When I drove down the hill that fed me onto the interstate in the early golden hours of Sunday morning, the honeyed strings of the Kronos quartet played an adagio of Philip Glass's music that I particularly adore, rendering the verdant scene before me even more cinematic in its presentation. In my rear view mirror, I noticed something coming up behind me quickly which made me feel as though I was in Wonderland again - a semi truck cab hauling three other identical semi truck cabs behind it, the chain of them very much resembling a team of highly trained horses, prancing fluidly past. Tennessee Walkers, would be my guess. People sometimes ask me if I've ever taken acid and I tell them, "Nope, don't need to" - and this is why.
I sped on, hell bent for leather, eager to reach the tiny town of Bon Aqua, Tennessee - about 20 miles miles west of Nashville. Bon Aqua is where I would find The Beacon Light Tea Room - a venerable roadside restaurant that's been serving essentially the same menu since 1936 - southern favorites like fried chicken, country ham, gravy and biscuits.
I was greeted at the door like I'd lived my entire life in Bon Aqua and was soon seated in a cozy corner table next to a spot where several waitresses gathered between runs to check on customers and food. While I sat quietly sipping my coffee and reading a Longfellow poem (preparation for my trip to Nova Scotia), I eavesdropped eagerly on their conversation. One of them had a beau that seemed to be acting up and the others were proffering expert advice. I had to stifle a giggle, however, when one of them said in a heavy country accent, "Did you know that there are 28 places on the human body where a bruise will not show?" Say it aloud to yourself like Loretta Lynn and you'll laugh even harder.
I told my excellent waitress I was torn about what to order - I was really set on having some breakfast, but the fried chicken sounded like something I shouldn't miss. She tossed off my worries and suggested a custom meal that included all their best dishes. Listen my children and you shall hear the tale of my amazing breakfast: two eggs over easy, cheesy hash brown casserole, sawmill gravy that should be pictured in the dictionary, fried chicken made of velvet from heaven and the tastiest little biscuits I've ever eaten at a restaurant. There were even delicious house preserved fruits in syrup to drizzle over the biscuits! I could not believe the food I was eating. Plus, there was more than enough left over to take with me for a second large meal. All in all, my visit to the Beacon Light is what I consider to be road trip Nirvana. I would imagine I floated to the car, despite my generous helping of biscuits.
After making my way back to the interstate, I attempted to make a quick dash through Nashville, but became mired in construction zone hell the equal of which I have never before seen. I spent TWO HOURS going less than 10 miles. I had to turn the air conditioner off the last quarter of the wait because I was afraid I was going to run out of gas. I was very very close to frantic when I finally got past the evil quagmire, but that's enough said on the topic.
In the more pleasing and soothing climes of Kentucky, I made my way to the curious town of Cave City which serves as the gateway to Kentucky's famous National Park, Mammoth Cave. Cave City is one of those strange places that you can tell was once a thriving tourist destination, but has since become mostly irrelevant and shabby. My lodging for the evening, the Wigwam Motel, is a prime example of that sad and awkward survivor - but more on that later. First, an evening lantern tour at Mammoth Cave!
Mammoth Cave gets almost a half million visitors a year, so with that in mind they offer a variety of interesting speciality tours in addition to the usual walk-throughs. I chose a tour which is offered only after the cave is closed for the day and which is conducted entirely by the light of 10 oil burning lanterns carried by the participants. No other source of light - artificial or natural - is utilized. So, the emphasis of the tour is not on seeing the wonders of the caverns, but rather in experiencing the caverns much as the earliest visitors did (the cave started giving tours in 1816) and in so doing, bring history alive in a way a dusty display isn't able to. Our rangers even sang to us and performed elaborate reenactments of illusions that were utilized by the original 19th century tour guides.
My favorite part of the tour was a long passageway we entered that had been used during the 19th century to allow visitors to inscribe their names on the ceiling and walls of the cavern. Many of the names displayed elaborate penmanship and listed dates from the early 1800s. When the owner of the cave tired of the self referential scribbles, he began to instead require that the tributes be left in the form of cairns (rock stacks), which apparently became quite the fad in the late 1870s. There were dozens and dozens and dozens of the intricately stacked columns and structures along the walkway, some of which really caught my attention (e.g., "The Incisor" by Carnegie Dental School, late 1800s). The entire chamber was positively otherworldly in the lantern light and velvet silence of the cave - very, very special. We also passed other areas of the cave that were used as tuberculosis treatment facilities and a series of large tanks used during the War of 1812 to produce nitrates for making gunpowder. Very mysterious in the flickering lantern light.
When we finished our 2 mile underground trek and returned to the surface, I deeply lamented the loss of the 54 degree air, but was soothed nonetheless by the deafening roar of \cicadas beyond number, croaking in eerie unison. It had rained while we'd been underground - there was debris on the ground and a moistness that could only be the result of recent rain. As I started driving back down the winding park road toward the Wigwam Motel, I passed knots of nonchalant dear grazing by the road's edge and saw searing white flashes of lightning blazing in the darkness at the end of the tunnel of trees I was driving through. It was fantastic.
When I quietly glided into the little niche beside Wigwam #1 and got out of the car, the air was a joy to drink in. I fetched my modern peace pipe and my modern smoke signal maker and sat on the rickety bench next to my Wigwam in a pool of security light watching the flashes of lightning in the distance. I talked to Mark for a bit and then polished off the last of the fried chicken.
After a tour or two around the property musing on such things, it was time to crawl into my little wigwam, burrow deep down into the deer skin pallet and click the window unit up to high to drown out the noise of passing big rigs. I slept like a papoose.