Cave City, KY - Part One
A trip close to two years in the making and a strange destination for a multitude of reasons, embarking on the four-hour drive to Cave City, KY was almost a bildungsroman of sorts for someone approaching middle age, if that’s even possible. Per my past post I am aware that I have no concept of elapsed time and constantly feel younger than I am so as I pulled out of the driveway, finally leaving for a trip I never thought I’d complete, I felt like a teenager. Almost like I was doing something wrong or leaving home for the first time for my first solo trip. There was excitement, but more than excitement was a sense of scripted freedom. Scripted in the sense that my stops were planned with a loose itinerary of stops to photograph along the way. This wasn’t a vacation by any means. This was an assignment.
In an attempt to capture as many roadside curiosities as I could, I navigated back roads through rural Tennessee into Kentucky. This usually proves to be beneficial as I normally find some good stops along the way, but this route ultimately gave way to 30mph curvy backroads with nowhere to pull over even if I wanted to. It did put me through the city of Carthage before crossing the state line. The highway I was on put me through what I believe to be their “downtown” area which was in complete disrepair. I would have stayed and explored more but I was on a schedule and couldn’t squeeze it in. I did however, come across the town of Red Boiling Springs, TN and that was a quick, easy stop to make.
Some of these towns don’t appear to have a single person living in them and when you do see someone, its automatic horror movie vibes like you’re being poached from behind someone’s screened in porch. I say this only in jest as most people I encounter while out shooting either leave me alone or are just curious as to what I’m doing. It’s not often that I run into anyone going out of their way to be a dick.
I saw exactly one passing car in Red Boiling Springs but had that feeling like I was being watched the entire time. I’d be curious too if some strange person rolled up and just jumped out of their car and started taking pictures of weird shit. You can ask me questions, it’s okay, but I’d honestly just rather we didn’t interact. I’m just here to document your town.
My next stop was my destination, the once booming town of Cave City, KY! The last time I was in Cave City was Thanksgiving weekend of 2001. My then two best friends and two others took off for a weekend at Mammoth Cave. We loaded up in his Chrysler minivan with bottles of blackberry brandy and peach schnapps and next to nothing else. I personally don’t even remember eating while we were gone. We were just dumb high school friends who got ahold of some liquor and wanted to get drunk and have fun. I don’t remember much about the town, just the motel we stayed at and visiting Mammoth Cave National Park the next day. I guess this was the beginning of my memories being muddled by alcohol.
A ghost town by definition, Cave City strives to thrive but the people who live and work there have adapted to some unconventional ways to generate cash flow while other areas which have been closed and reopened throughout the years are once again reopen with new and updated attractions.
My first stop in Cave City was the Mammoth Cave Wildlife Museum. A main point of personal interest as a campy stop that I really wanted to photograph. First opening its doors in 1969, the museum features more than 1,600 preserved animal specimens from all over the world. The tour begins with a massive, preserved butterfly room that includes moths, beetles and other insects and then leads to the Musk Ox, the only feature in the museum that can be viewed for free.
After leaving the museum I haphazardly rushed over to Mammoth Cave National Park to try to jump on a tour, knowing that I can view tour departure times online but choosing to ignore this fact until cell service was nonexistent. I made a stop as I entered the park so I could take what would end up being one of my only “tourist” photos with the MCNP sign. A couple was struggling to setup their phone, so I asked them if they wanted to trade, I’ll take theirs and they take mine. From there it was straight to the visitor center to see what tours were available. The best tour for your time and money appears to be the Historic Tour, and from the standpoint that I set out to photograph it, was the perfect tour for me. It set off in 45 minutes which gave me time to check out the gift shop because I must buy stickers to show everyone the cool things I’ve done but then have a mild panic attack whenever I use that sticker and realize its permanent. It also gave me time to go to the car and use my vape pen to get nice and elevated before my tour began.
The Historic Tour comes in right at two hours and covers two miles. For $20 and being able to support the National Park Service, it’s an amazing deal and opportunity. The tour begins at the historic entrance, descending 160 stairs into the massive entrance. Once you’re inside you walk to the Rotunda, the sixth largest room discovered in the cave and begin and end your tour here. From here the tour weaves through passageways and landmarks while park rangers tell stories at stops.
The weather outside was in the high 90’s with the humidity not far behind and the cave consistently remains in the mid 50’s. As we made our way closer to the entrance the air become freezing at the hot air was pulling cold air out of the cave creating wind strong enough at some points to blow your hair.
Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world and goddamn fascinating to walk through something so intricate that took millions of years to create. Places so cut off from the outside world that even for a national park, few have ventured to see. Places where early settlers used the cave for refuge; to survive. Evidence of humans in the cave dates back 5,000 years however most visible evidence now are names and dates candled and carved into the limestone and saltpeter vats from mining for the war of 1812. The lighting that’s been installed creates ethereal shadows that stretch along the walls and ceiling and the reddish hue is reminiscent of a Martian landscape.
After finishing the tour and taking time to watch and photograph a deer that was eating near the entrance, I made my way toward the city of Horse Cave where my motel was located. A lot of what drew me to Cave City was how bustling the town once was, hitting its prime in the 60’s and 70’s, the motel signage that litters the main highway every few miles is a true testament of the traffic that once came through here. A lot of motel signs that I wanted to photograph were located along the same 5 mile stretch between the turn to get to the park and my motel, so I was able to knock quite a few things from my list on my way to check in. One of my most looked forward to places to photograph was the Wigwam Village #2. The vision of Frank A. Redford and built in 1937 it was one of 7 Wigwam Villages spread across the country and one of only three remaining today, each wigwam features a bed and full bathroom. The main Wigwam is 52 feet tall and consists of 38 tons of concrete and 13 tons of steel. The structure used to contain a restaurant and gift shop but with the completion of Interstate 65 diverting traffic away from the town the restaurant closed in the mid 60’s. The gift shop remained open however when I visited it showed no signs of being open anytime recent. I tried to book a wigwam for my trip up, but they were booked out pretty far in advance. Regardless, I was able to stop and photograph the main wigwam and neon sign out front. This was a main stop, so I photographed this sign in the evening, morning and night to capture all different light.