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Saturday, June 7, 2014

Mammoth Caves

Mammoth Caves

Having packed the previous night, I woke up and remembered to disable the fitbit silent alarm before leaving. That was a close call. I gave Pilot the long walk through the park and (fairly exhausted) ambled my way to the bus stop with Amanda's rolly bag in tow, having at the last minute given in to packing a rain-coat as it was raining already.

I was stressed out about sky-checking the bag but everyone at work assured me it would be no problem. I called the cab at 4:20 and fretted about missing the plane while I waited. The driver was really friendly and we talked about the election and immigrants and racism and the rules around owning taxi plates on the ride. At the airport, I was though security and sipping a booster juice before 5pm. The plane left on time at 6:20 and they sky checked my bag, no problem. I read An Abundance of Katherines and on the plane laughed uncontrollably while reading the hemorrhoids scene.

Flights ($327.98 booked through expedia)

Thursday June 5
6:20pm YOW-YTZ, 1 h 0 m, Porter Airlines 270
Layover: 0 h 35 m
7:55pm YTZ-YQG, 1 h 0 m, Porter Airlines 579

Monday June 9
6:30pm YQG-YTZ, 0 h 55 m, Porter Airlines 578
Layover: 0 h 30 m
7:55pm YTZ-YOW, 0 h 56 m, Porter Airlines 273

Windsor

I was the first to arrive in Windsor and waited on the curb reading my book in great weather. Spencer pulled up just as dusk fell and Barrow soon after. Barrow drove a Prius which hummed like a spaceship. We arrived at the downtown Quality Suites which was cheap but clean and secure. The hotel had lots of night scene close by.

Quality Suites, 250 Dougall Ave, Windsor.
3 adults, 1 Room, 2 Double Beds and 1 Sofa-bed.
Check-In: 3pm, Check-Out: 11am.
Parking Charge: $5-$12/night.
$125.60 (Advance Purchase Rate = No cancellation allowed), but to get this rate you have to sign up at choicehotels.com before you can book.

We walked around a bit but nothing looked like it would serve good food. I ducked into a bar called Vermouth and they said only the Shawarma Palace and The Dug Out would sell food that late, so we went for shawarma then back to Vermouth for drinks. I was starving and galloped the shawarma and thought about having a second, which I successfully and wisely resisted. Vermouth was a comfortable pub. I had a Mill St. Vanilla Porter which I expected to be bitter but was sweet like cream soda. I drank too much and ranted unnecessarily about politics, but I think we all had a good time.

We were back at the hotel and in bed shortly after 2pm. I slept on the pull out couch which was a derelict and wasn't much more then a sheet stretched across three metal bars. I woke up in the night to pee and found myself sober enough to deem the pull-out an unfit sleeping surface. I took the the cushions from the couch and laid them angle-wise across the pull-out and covered them with the bed sheet. This worked perfectly and I was asleep in no time.

Mammoth Cave

In the morning, I was first up and showered and ready for the new day. We crossed the bridge to Detroit without incident and had breakfast at the nearest Denny's. I had the All Americana Slam.

This was our big driving day and we had a lot of ground to cover. Barrow drove the first leg, and I took over when we stopped for fuel and Gatorade. We talked about stopping at some sights, like the world's largest hot-dog bun museum, but realized we only had an hour of non-driving time before our scheduled cave tour, so we decided to push through.

We hadn't been paying attention to the schedule in the morning and would have been hopelessly off track if Mammoth Cave hadn't been in central time which gave us a spare hour. Unfortunately the interstate bogged down as we approached Cincinnati and we realized we'd miss our tour, so we struck out on an alternate route which luckily crossed back over the interstate just after the jackknifed boat trailer and firetruck that had caused the bad traffic. Back on the highway I had to lay the boots to Barrow's little Prius in order to make up the lost time.

Within an hour of the park, we estimated we'd arrive a half hour early (which is how early they ask you to pick up your tickets), so we risked a stop at White Castle for a rushed pee break and take-out combo #9 which includes 20 sliders.

It was my first time. White Castle is a bizarre phenomenon.

We pulled into visitor center parking lot 20 minutes before the tour and I had the tickets within five minutes. The rangers in the office didn't know if the hotel would still be open after our tour, but I figured it would be fine and there was nothing to be done anyway.

Star Chamber Tour - See the cave by lantern light as it was seen in the 19th century. Bring a flashlight to return to the parking lot, hotel or campground. No flash photography. Participants must carry lanterns. No restrooms are available. All tours begin at the Visitor Center. Pickup tickets 30 Minutes Prior to Tour Time.
Duration: 2 hr 15 min
Distance: 1.5 miles
Number of Steps: 200
Difficulty: Moderate
Tour Capacity: 40
5:30pm, 3 adults, $36.00 USD

They gave a PA call for the Starlight Chamber Tour five minutes before the start time and we all gathered under a big gazebo outside the visitor's centre. About every fourth person gets a coal oil lantern. Our guides were two old guys and were pretty great.

We walked a paved path down a fairly steep hill through some verdant forest to the mouth of the cave. Cold air was rushing out and it seemed like we'd be too cold in our shorts and t-shirts, but we ended up moving enough so it was okay. There were no mosquitoes and it was still daylight when we emerged, but inside it was very dark. The trail was well groomed, so wasn't much of a tripping hazard, but someone with bad vision might want a different tour.

The cave really was huge. Most of the time it wa a tunnel between seven and twenty feet high and about twenty feet wide. I believe that it was carved by water long ago and is effectively the remains of an underground river.

We had a good group and the effect of the limited lantern light was pretty cool. I'll have to revise my view of torch light in D&D and in stories like the Hobbit. Sure it may illuminate something forty feet away, but not enough to let you know what it is.

Our guides told us lots of great stories. It was mostly a historic tour, but they had some fun with us too. The one guide would sneak ahead and hide himself among the rocks, so that when you peered at an interesting feature his ghostly form would resolve into view. No one screamed but he earned a bunch of nervous laughter.

In the Starlight Chamber which was the farthest point of this tour, they sat us down and walked loop with the lanterns which put them out of view. They called this the sunset and the sunrise and it was a neat effect. For part of it we were in pure darkness and I waved my hand in front of my face and had the impression that I could see my fingers even though that's impossible. It must be the proprioception feeding into the visual cortex.

After the tour we checked in at the hotel which has an attendant all night and got the keys to our cabin. The cabin was old and rustic and suburb. It was incredibly affordable at $78 USD (tax included) and was much more comfortable than the Windsor Quality Suites.

Woodland Cottages
3 adults, Cottage, 2 Rooms, 2 Twin Beds, 1 Double Bed.
Check-in: 4pm, Check-out: Noon.
$78.00 USD

Everything was shut so we drove back to the nearest town and had dinner at El Mazatlan (a Mexican restaurant) that the hotel attendant suggested. Dinner was fantastic and huge. I had enchiladas which came smothered in pork and fried vegetables alongside two huge piles of guacamole and sour cream. Barrow ordered something crazy that came in a volcano stone bowl and included a big chunk of cactus.

After dinner we tried to pick up some beer but were in a dry county and El Mazatlan (which served us a pitcher of beer) was the only facility in town with alcohol.

Insanely, we drove a half hour to Bowling Green for beer. I passed out in the back seat. Back at the cabin after managing to avoid hitting three pods of deer, I drank one with the boys and passed out again.

I woke to sunbeams and birdsong the next morning feeling great and wrote up this chronicle. The cabin was amazing. I took a bunch of photos in hopes of one day building a similar model back home.

We were still pretty full from the Mexican food the night before so we drank bud light lime for breakfast while I taught Barrow and Spencer to play Dominion. We had time for one game before checking out and prepping four the Introduction to Caving Tour.

Introduction to Caving Tour - Experience off trail adventures wearing traditional caving gear. Requires some crawling and squeezing through narrow openings on the belly. All equipment and outerwear including gloves will be provided by the park. Visitors must provide their own boots. Shorts and t-shirt recommended for wear under required coveralls. Chest or hip measurement must not exceed 42 inches. Lace-up hiking boots that cover the ankle are required. Boots must have good tread. Bring an extra pair of shoes for use during boot cleaning at the end of the tour. No restrooms are available. All tours begin at the Visitor Center. Pickup tickets 30 Minutes Prior to Tour Time.
Duration: 3 hr 30 min
Distance: 1.25 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
Tour Capacity: 20
12:45pm, 3 adults, $69.00 USD

The tour had two guides and nineteen participants, two of which were children about the age of ten. Barrow was at least six inches taller then everyone else and were were a bit worried he wouldn't fit through the tight gaps.

We boarded a green bus that took us two parking lots over to a ranger station where we geared up in knee-pads, coveralls, head-scarfs and headlamp helmets. My headscarf was pink.

We got back on the bus and drove maybe five minutes to an artificial entrance. They had blasted down to a known fissure through which was constructed a metal stair. At the top was a concrete cube entrance. Overall we descended 250 feet.

Our first obstacle was called the test hole, and if you couldn't make it you had to turn back. It was a tight squeeze and required some climbing strength, but wasn't too hard and everyone made it.

The cave was awesome. It usually had a dirt or sand floor and sometimes a little mud. Overall it was pretty clean and pretty easy going and a nice cool temperature. There were some giant spooky cave crickets, but not too many to freak you out until one chamber near the end.

Our guides were awesome. We went in single file and were the last three in line usually followed by the last guide except when he went ahead to spot some difficult parts. So it was kind of like having our own private tour, because the tail guide was usually chatting with us.

After the tour we were all pretty hot and tired and the bus picked us up at a different location, so we never traversed back up the 250 feet descent. They drove us back to the gear depot where we had to scrub our boots in a halite solution to prevent the spread of white nose syndrome, which is an epidemic among bats.

Before scrubbing our shoes, we sprayed them off with a water hose and I took this opportunity to spray my head and torso down.

On the way out of the park we stopped at the gift shop which had some nice stuff and at the park store which mostly sold awful packaged food. We bought a 4L jug of ice tea which was fantastic.

Louisville

We left the park and drove towards Lousiville (pronounced Lowville). On the way we stopped for gas and Barrow had to go in to pre-pay. Spencer and I were placidly discussing how crazy the girl in front of us was for smoking while rummaging though her hatchback. Eventually she ambled over to the gas pump which had been filling up on auto and had stopped. She started squeezing the trigger to try and force more in. After several iterations, gas squirted out onto the pavement and she lazily hung the nozzle back up while dangling her lit cigarette over the fresh gas puddle. As this was happening, Barrow hopped into the drivers seat to a chorus of "Lets get the hell out of here" and we sped away.

Once we arrived in downtown Lowville, we milled about on foot looking for free wifi and failed to get a plan together so decided to get something eat before finding a hotel.

If you can believe it a street was closed to traffic in order to host a pole vaulting competition. There were loads of people and it was pretty cool to watch. We went a bit further and stopped at for dinner and drinks at Gordon Biersch.

Our server was awesome and started out by asking a bunch of questions about my narrative device. When we started asking him about places to drink in town he sat down with us for ten minutes and wrote us a list of all the places we could go. He made the other places sound so much better than downtown that the other guys decided not to eat anything and I scarfed down a Gorgonzola Pear Salad while he gave us the low-down.

We drove straight to the Apocalypse Brew Works which closed at 10pm. It was fantastic. They're only open Friday and Saturday night and put a bunch of picnic tables in a fenced parking lot that is an impound yard or something for the rest of the week. Their beers are seriously original. We had their porter, black pepper and watermelon. All of which were great.

After they shut, we drove out of town to the Drury Inn in Hurstbourne. This place was incredible. Our stay included dinner (which we missed) and breakfast, which was a decent buffet. The guy at the desk gave us a discount just because Spencer said "is that your preferred rate?" and they added a legitimately comfortable cot to our 2-bed room. The whole thing came in at $161.36 CAD (all-in).

After we settled into the room the boys decided we had to hit some more of the bars the server had mentioned. I was pretty passed out and not too keen on the idea, and as I hopped into the cab, I saw it was 1:50am and asked the driver if the bars were closing in ten minutes. He replied with loud and drawling "Hell No!", gunned the engine and cranked up music. An adventure was definitely underway.

The taxi took us to Diamond Pub & Billards in St. Matthews. It wasn't really my scene, and I mostly hibernated. There was a live band, who was okay, but I couldn't see past the burnt out old lady who was dancing like lusty eighteen-year-old. Mostly I drank the necks of my beers and swapped them for the stumps of Spencer's and Barrow's.

Eventually we went across the street to Grestels Place which had a much better live band (who was just finishing up) and better beer. But it was full of underage kids and a short thick one started picking a fight with Barrow who decided the best way to diffuse the situation was to give him a nipple twist. Shortly thereafter the short thick one got escorted out by some bouncers. Then all his friends wanted to apologies and know where we're from.

Shockingly a bunch of them were on a local Lacrosse team and knew a bunch of guys from Southern Ontario, so we had some common ground to talk about. They were convinced that "Fuck Yeah" was a Canadianism. I always thought it was universal.

After Grestels wound down we headed out for Spinelli's Pizza which actually also served beer. Spinelli's is crazy wicked cool. It was very punk/retro and felt like Sneaky Dee's in Toronto. I had their taco pizza which was great.

We got back to the hotel and to sleep around 4am and were up for 9:30am breakfast. I was in the best shape, so I started the driving. If I'm ever back to Louisville, I'll be sure to check out The New Albanian and Bluegrass Brewing Company.

Buffalo Trace

It was an overcast day and we drove out to the Buffalo Trace Distillery which has hourly tours on Sunday at from Noon to 3pm. We caught the 1pm tour which started with some video propaganda but quickly became really interesting. Plus the whole place smelled delicious. There were actually some people working the bottling line, which is unusual for a Sunday, so we got to smell the vat of Bourbon from which they were bottling. The "correct" way to smell it is to hold your face over the porthole at the top of the vat and breath in through your mouth. It's an oddly overwhelming experience.

At the end of the tour I had a shot of white-dog (un-aged corn whisky) and Buffalo Trace (the same thing 20 years later). There's a big difference. They also gave us a shot of root bear and Bourbon Cream (their version of Baileys) which was delicious, and a boozy chocolate, which was delicious.

Cincinnati

Barrow and I drove to Cincinnati where Spencer found the amazing Eli's BBQ, which is in a relatively burnt out part of town and is differentiated from a residential house only by the delicious smell of roast pork and the stencil of a pig hanging out front.

They are a little cash-only shop with no alcohol and a long wait, but while you wait you get to sit in their large outdoor picnic table area, where it's BYOB. I fetched a six pack from the car, and we had a great time. When the food arrived (mine was a pulled pork sandwich with corn bread and mac-and-cheese), it was better than whatever you're imagining. Eli's is a must-visit if you're ever in the area.

After lunch/dinner we pulled into a starbucks parking lot for WiFi and Barrow booked a "secret hotel" on travelocity, which turned out to be the Hyatt downtown for $212.61 CAD (all-in). That didn't include parking which ended up being an extra $24 US, because their 24 hour rate actually meant until-5am-next-morning. They also wouldn't give us a cot saying it wouldn't fit in a two-double-bed room, so we switched to a King room with a cot. Wifi wasn't included. Breakfast wasn't included. We had to call down to remind them of the cot which still hadn't appeared by 10pm. And the room wasn't much nicer than the Drury. Lesson learned: more stars doesn't mean better.

We drank some beer and played a game of Dominion, then Barrow passed out and Spencer and I played head to head Dominion until I passed out at 3am.

The Home Stretch

I guess we thought we were going to do something in downtown Cincinnati, but since we'd stayed in the previous night and slept pretty late we decided to get some distance behind us before breakfast.

We ended up stopping in Dayton at Olive, an urban dive (again found by Spencer's data plan) for an early lunch. This place was awesome and delicious and we ended up spending a bit more time than we should have.

Back on the road we hit some bad traffic in Toledo where the 475 splits off the 75 near the Woodlawn Cemetery. The bad traffic turned out to be caused by the complete closure of the intestate. We lost a full hour and it looked like I would miss my plane.

Once we got moving again, we made a plan, pulled over, ditched some questionable beer, swapped drivers, and I tried to online checking using Spencer's hotspot. Unfortunately it was too close to departure and they'd closed online checkin. I hadn't checked in the night before because there was no hotel wifi. We drove like mad and Barrow fast-talked us through the border with no delay but we still arrived at the airport only 25min before flight departure which is 5min past the time when the can refuse to check me in. But charity prevailed and, in a rush I got on the plane and home safely.

What a great trip.