Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Mammoth Cave

After cleaning up after our mouse invader at the Smoky Mountains and buying mousetraps, we drove north. Our last stop before visiting relatives for the holidays was Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.

When we arrived at Mammoth Cave, it was dark but not too cold, so we set up camp and hung out for a while. At one point, we saw our mouse running around under the car. We didn’t see him jump back inside, so we hoped against hope that he’d run away. Nevertheless, we baited and set our mouse traps – three of them, in two different varieties, to be sure we caught him. Then we went to bed.

We got up in the morning and checked the car. First trap: No bait, no mouse. Second trap: Same story. Cunning little mouse – he’d gotten the bait without triggering either trap. The third trap was snapped shut, though, with a dead mouse inside. Greed and gluttony were the mouse’s downfall. Sarah laid him to rest in the garbage can at Mammoth Cave campground.

We had only done a cursory job of cleaning the car on the previous day, knowing the mouse was still running around. With the mouse gone, we now set out to clean up better. In the course of cleaning, we opened up an old suitcase that we’ve been using to store some of our clothing. Inside was something like half a gallon of a couple of different kinds of grains! The mouse was apparently building up its food cache for the winter! I don’t know how many trips he must have taken back and forth between our plastic bags of food and the suitcase to build up that kind of cache. Amazing! Does he just carry the grain in his hands? Or does he load up his mouth and then spit it out? However he does it, it seemed like an awful lot of work for one mouse. We started to worry that a small army of mice was running around our car and we’d only caught the first…

Somewhat later, we noticed something between two storage containers in the back of the car. After pulling some things out of the car, we saw that it was the mouse’s nest, consisting of a huge pile of paper towels and Kleenex with a healthy dose of mouse hair mixed in. It was probably eight inches wide and about four inches tall – a lot of work went into nest building. Since Sarah had disposed of the mouse, Brian got the job of cleaning up the nest.

Thoroughly disgusted, but feeling better about the state of the car, we drove over to the visitors center to check on times for guided cave tours. It turned out that the first tour wasn’t until 11:15, so we had some time to kill and walked out to hike some of the trails around the visitors center. After finishing up a 64-mile hike the previous day and then driving for several hours, it was good to get outside and stretch our legs out.

At one point we came to a nice overlook of the Green River:

Eventually, it was time for the tour. It turned out that our tour would be led by a park ranger with a bushy gray beard who loved to make the cave seem eerie and spooky. A cross between Santa Claus and Alfred Hitchcock, the kids on the tour loved him.

Despite the ranger’s attempt at foreboding, we proceeded with the tour and entered the cave through its natural entrance:

We were on the Historic Tour, which explores the inside of the cave for about two hours. We learned that Mammoth Cave is the longest cave in the world. Roughly 370 miles have been explored and mapped, and no one knows how many more are yet undiscovered – groups of spelunking buffs, with the park’s permission, frequently explore and chart out new areas of the cave, so the cave “grows” every year. But the cave is virtually entirely devoid of the cave formations that you see at other caves (“speleothems” is the technical term, as we had learned at Carlsbad Caverns). The limestone of the cave is covered at ground level by a “cap” of sandstone and shale, which are harder rocks that prevent water from seeping in, dripping, and oh-so-slowly building up into stalagmites and stalactites.

What the cave lacks in formations, it makes up for in history. The cave was explored by prehistoric people thousands of years ago, but around 2,000 years ago, all human record ends. Legend has it that in the late 1700s, a homesteader shot and wounded a bear and then tracked it to the entrance of the cave – thus, the cave was rediscovered.

The cave’s most important role in recorded history came during the War of 1812. Lots of bats live in the cave, and over the centuries, they deposited a lot of guano. Guano is rich in calcium nitrate, which can be converted to potassium nitrate, also known as saltpeter. Saltpeter is used to produce gunpowder, and when the British blockaded U.S. ports during the War of 1812, the U.S. war effort needed a new domestic source of saltpeter to replace imports. The source was found in Mammoth Cave, and a few smaller caves.

The beginning of the tour passes through the relics of the saltpeter mining operation. Miners built pipelines out of hollowed-out tree trunks:

Next, we came to the pulpit:

In the 1800s, this room of the cave was actually used as a church. Whether it’s a hot Kentucky summer or a cold winter, the temperature inside the cave stays in the fifties, so it made a great meeting place. Churchgoers would walk into the cave with their lanterns, and when they arrived in the church area, the lanterns would be placed on the pulpit, behind the preacher. His sermons would go on and on for hours, the ranger said, and he had a captive audience – no one could see to leave the cave without their lantern.

Although there are no cave formations, cave visitors have seen all sorts of different things when they look at the rocks in the cave. Like when you look at clouds or stars, you can let your imagination run wild. What does this look like?

When the ranger asked us, a young boy immediately said “a coffin”. The ranger said he was right, and proceeded to talk about deaths in the cave. 23 people are known to have died, and the most interesting death was a prehistoric man who was exploring the cave and had a massive five-ton boulder fall right on him and crush him. His body lay there, perfectly preserved, for almost 2000 years, until it was discovered by explorers in 1935. The Civilian Conservation Corps helped rig up some ropes and pulleys and hoist the boulder off the poor guy so he could be examined by the archaeologists.

Another part of the cave’s history is its graffiti. Once the price of saltpeter dropped after the War of 1812, the cave was repurposed as a tourist attraction, making it the second natural American wonder turned into a paid attraction, following Niagara Falls. For an extra fee, tourists could use a candle to write their names in soot on the wall or ceiling of the cave. Lest we get any ideas, the ranger informed us that writing from the 1800s is considered historical graffiti while writing from the 21st century is a federal offense.

Here’s some of the graffiti – Santa Hitchcock snuck into one of the photos:

The cave was formed by water rushing through, and in fact the cave has five distinct levels where the water ran through at various times. When water rushes through the cave, it creates scallop patterns in the roof – the slower the water, the deeper the scallops:

The water still runs on the lowest level of the cave, and it’s particularly high during the springtime. The park service used to run boat tours of the cave on this underground river, but they stopped in 1991 for various reasons, among them pressure from environmentalists. It turns out that there are creatures in the water that are perfectly adapted to the cave and don’t exist anywhere else on earth, such as eyeless fish. They evolved without any eyes, since eyes wouldn’t do them any good, and without any pigmentation, since coloring wouldn’t help them attract mates or avoid predators. If you picked one up, you could look entirely through its body at its internal organs. They have highly sensitive vibration receptors, which allow them to sense food nearby. Well, you can imagine that with a boat floating through the river, those vibration receptors would go haywire and the poor eyeless fish would get completely confused. So they stopped the tours.

Toward the end of the tour, we did see some flowstone, the only significant formation on the tour:

It was a great tour – we learned a lot and the ranger was endlessly entertaining. After the tour was over, it was about 1:30, so we jumped in the car and started the drive to Chicago to visit Brian’s family for Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Great Smoky Mountains

Our original plan for the time between our visit to Texas and Thanksgiving was to hike part of the 165-mile Ozark Highlands Trail in Arkansas. Brian did lots of investigation and we were thinking of hiking an 80-mile section. Then I started calling around for shuttles and we found out that the week we’d be there was the first week of rifle hunting season for deer. Suddenly, hiking for a week in the Ozarks didn’t seem like such a good idea… Since hunting is not allowed in national parks, we decided to go to Great Smoky Mountains National Park instead.

Monday (November 12) was mostly spent driving from Nashville to the park. We were slow to get going in the morning and made several stops along the way. One of the stops was the Russell Stover Factory Outlet where we got four 12-ounce boxes of assorted chocolates. Yum! We also scored a free Backpacker magazine at the Coleman factory outlet and did some grocery shopping for our backpacking trip. We even bought some milk and other cold food and used our cooler for the first time on our trip.

The only really interesting part of the drive was the last bit through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Pigeon Forge is the home of Dollywood. It reminds me of a miniature version of what I imagine Vegas to be like. There are neon lights everywhere. It also has an abundance of touristy shops, more miniature golf courses than I’ve ever seen in one place before (and they were all really elaborate too), a pancake house every few blocks, and lots of amusement rides. In addition to the lights from the year-round places, the Christmas lights were already up. There were lights on the light posts, fancy lit-up scenes in the medians, and a huge display on the hilltop driving out of town. It was quite impressive. We didn’t get any photos because we thought there would be plenty of time to do it later, but various distractions eventually prevented us from taking any. Gatlinburg is the main entry point to Great Smoky Mountains National Park from the Tennessee side (the park also extends into North Carolina). It is a small version of Pigeon Forge, with lots of lights and touristy activities. It even had a mini Space Needle. It was nowhere near as impressive as the real thing! If you are wondering what supports all this build up of businesses, it’s the national park. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park with around 9 million visitors annually.

Tuesday, we spent most of the morning packing for our backpacking trip. Packing up food for a six-day trip is no small task. It was drizzling when we got up, so we put up our new screen house for the first time. It’s quite big and gave us plenty of dry space to pack up. In the afternoon, we drove the Cades Cove scenic loop. The park has a number of historic buildings from the 1800s and this loop has one of the largest concentrations of those buildings in the park. The term “cove” is used to indicate a flat region in the valleys between the mountains. The loop is about 11 miles long and took us most of the afternoon to drive including stops. At points, the traffic was bumper-to-bumper. I can’t imagine what it’s like in the summer, or in October, which is prime leaf viewing season.

Though past peak season, the remaining leaves were colorful and we got some nice shots along the loop until the rain started about halfway through. Here are some of the sites along the way.

Stops along the road to Cades Cove to view the leaves:

John Oliver Cabin:

John and his wife were the first permanent white settlers in the cove. This is one of the oldest cabins in the park. The cabin was made with no pegs or nails. Gravity holds the logs together and mud is used to chink the spaces between the logs.

Looking out across the cove:

Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church:

This building replaced the original church in 1887. An interesting note about this church is that it was closed during the Civil War because the church supported the Union and felt it was dangerous to meet in an area that supported the confederacy.

Cades Cove Methodist Church:

Note the two doors on the church. It was traditional at the time in some places for men to enter and sit on one side and women to enter on the other side. The congregation at this church didn’t follow that practice, but the building plan was taken from a church that did.

Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church:

Like the Primitive Baptist Church, this church also did not hold services during the Civil War due to divided loyalties.

The most interesting area of the loop, and the one with the highest concentration of buildings, was near the Cade’s Cove Visitors Center in the Cable Mill area. The complex included a sorghum mill, smokehouse, the Gregg-Cable house, a cantilever barn, a blacksmith shop, and a grist mill with a flume carrying water from a nearby stream. The majority of the buildings were not originally located here, but were moved from other places in the park. We wandered around the buildings, but didn’t take any photos because it was raining heavily at this point.

The rest of the loop was similar to the first half of the loop, with a couple more homesteads, and lots of bumper-to-bumper traffic while people stopped in the road to gawk at deer in the fields. We made fewer stops during the second half because it was raining pretty hard. The evening was spent doing some errands and finishing our food prep for the backpacking trip.

A little about the backpacking trip: The trip was about 64 miles long and made a big loop. It was recommended to us by a nice lady at the backcountry office because it has a little bit of everything – high ridgelines, forest, historic areas. We started and ended at the Rainbow Falls trailhead off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (yes, “motor nature trail” does seem like a bit of a contradiction).

Backpacking Day 1 -- Mt. LeConte Shelter, Elevation: 6440’, 6.7 miles hiked
This was our shortest day of backpacking, though it involved the most elevation gain (somewhere around 4000’). Despite the seemingly large amount of uphill, the trail gained elevation at a moderate pace and was a pleasant hike through the woods. It was a good thing the trail wasn’t too difficult because our packs were very heavy. Food weight really adds up for a six-day trip. Some estimates say that you should carry 2 to 2 ½ pounds per person per day on average. We also had a lot of extra warm clothes because the forecast was calling for some frigid weather. We got a little bit later start than I wanted (around 8:30 am) given that there were afternoon thunderstorms in the forecast, but the trail was sheltered and the thunderstorms didn’t materialize until much later.

Along the way, we got to see Rainbow Falls, which apparently has two falls earlier in the year when the water flow is higher. It was much smaller when we saw it:

Brian also took a photo of this cute little guy while we were stopped at the falls:

At the top of the trail near the backpacking shelter where we would be staying is the Mt. LeConte lodge. The lodge is really a collection of cabins, with larger log buildings for the dining room and office. All the cabins have propane heat and oil lamps and meals are served family-style in the dining room. It’s a rustic but really pleasant place and after dropping our packs at the shelter, we spent a while wandering around the lodge and chatting with people staying there. The lodge holds about 60 people, requires reservations that fill up months in advance, and is apparently nearly always full. Here are some photos of the lodge:

We were staying in one of the backpacker shelters. This particular shelter was located just above the Mt. LeConte lodge. The shelters are three-sided log structures with metal roofs and a few skylight windows. They have two platforms forming wall-to-wall bunks with each level having room for six people to sleep. The front of the shelter has a long counter and benches. This one also had a tarp to cover the front of the shelter and provide some additional protection against rain, wind, and snow. As it turned out, we’d need it.

Overnight, a thunderstorm swept through the area. Brian was excited about the lightning; I was more or less terrified. I don’t enjoy being in unenclosed buildings during thunderstorms. The thunderstorm started fairly far away, got really close, then backed away. We thought that was going to be the end of it, but the wind shifted and the thunderstorm came back. All the while, the wind howled and there was a torrential downpour outside. I can’t imagine what would have happened if we’d been in our tent. I think we would have floated away. At some point, the warm air turned cold and the rain changed to snow. The thunder quieted down and we got back to sleep. When we woke in the morning, the ground was covered in snow and ice:

Backpacking Day 2 -- Peck’s Corner Shelter, Elevation: 5280’, 13.3 miles hiked
Thursday got off to a rough start. It was really cold when we woke up, and it wasn’t projected to get any warmer throughout the day. We were a little slower than we should have been getting started given how far we had to hike and the fact that there are only about 10 hours of daylight these days. Shortly after we started hiking, Brian discovered that his Platypus (a large water bladder carried in his pack) was leaking all over his pack. This was very annoying but luckily, his sleeping bag and most of his clothes were in a dry bag in his pack so the stuff that got wet was non-essential. The trail was snowy and very icy in spots, making the prospect of a long day of hiking even more daunting. We considered turning back, but decided to continue on. Then, during our first pack break, I slipped trying to take my pack off and smacked into my hiking pole, splitting my lip open. It was a rough morning… After that, the trail got somewhat better for the most part, though there were some more icy patches and it snowed all day. It was hard to get enough food and water since the drinking tubes for our Platypuses had completely frozen up (note for next time – Platypuses are basically useless in freezing weather), and stopping for more than a couple of minutes would induce shivering. There was a shelter along the way where we were able to get out of the wind and regroup at lunchtime.

We arrived at the shelter where we were staying for the night around 4 pm, exhausted and very ready to be done hiking for the day. It was a pretty fast day of hiking given the conditions, probably because stopping in the cold was so unpleasant. We’d seen very few people all day and the forecast was for temperatures in the teens overnight, so we were quite surprised that there were people at the shelter when we arrived.

Our shelter companions for the night were in their sleeping bags shivering. They were wildly and frighteningly unprepared and unknowledgeable. They had hiked 10 miles in and underestimated (or not checked) the amount of elevation gain, so the older guy was complaining of major leg cramps – we gave him some Gatorade to help. The younger guy finally got out of his sleeping bag to help prepare dinner and put on a pair of soaked blue jeans and a cotton sweatshirt. One of them had a sleeping bag rated to 20 degrees (though generally, sleeping bag ratings are on the optimistic side); the other didn’t know what temperature his sleeping bag was rated for. Who goes out when the overnight temperatures are predicted to be in the teens without this information? Then again, it’s not clear whether they had even looked at the forecast ahead of time. Despite having carried 40-pound packs (by their own estimations), they didn’t have extra warm clothes and their food supply was limited to some dehydrated backpacking meals. Again – not a great idea for the weather. Backpacking meals tend to be low in calories and fat and you need both to stay warm when the temperatures are that low. They didn’t realize that they needed to hang their food and trash on the bear wires outside the shelter. When they followed our lead to do so, they didn’t have a trash bag for the trash. This begs the question how where they planning to pack their trash out. I gave them an extra Ziploc bag and the younger guy hung their food and trash. Oh, and to top it off, they had been smoking in the shelter. How rude!

They seemed amazed as Brian and I pulled layer upon layer out of our backpacks as well as two substantial bags of food. We each had long underwear, fleece pants and jackets, a vest, a down coat, rain pants and jacket, neckups, hats, balaclavas, and gloves, and we proceeded to put all of that on. Walking around camp, it was still chilly even with all those clothes on. After dinner, we snuggled into 20-degree sleeping bags with fleece liners that add an extra 10 degrees of comfort range, so we were nice and toasty. I felt really bad for the other two, and really hoped that we wouldn’t have a case of hypothermia on our hands or a frozen body above us in the morning, but I wasn’t sure what else to do for them.

There are no photos today. Despite having hiked 6 miles of the Appalachian Trail, which is on a high ridge in the park, there were no views as we were in a snow cloud all day.

Backpacking Day 3 -- Campsite 29 Otter Creek, Elevation: 4550’, 12.6 miles hiked
We arose to find our shelter mates doing better than the previous night. They were still cold, but the cramps had been slept off and nobody had hypothermia. The guy who was shivering in the temperature-rating-unknown sleeping bag the night before in only a tank top was now wearing reasonably warm-looking clothes and a full balaclava. Makes me wonder why he wasn’t wearing those in his sleeping bag…

Continuing to show their lack of experience, the bear bag that they had strung was hanging a couple of feet off the ground. The guy who hung it to the bear wire didn’t clip the wire to the tree, and naturally the bags don’t just magically stay 12 feet up in the air by themselves. Luckily, marauding bears seemed to have been kept at bay by the unpleasant weather. The other guy asked what we do with extra food, suggesting that he would bury it. Brian politely informed him that wasn’t appropriate – you have to pack it out.

After breakfast, we went our separate ways. They had decided, wisely, to cut their trip short and were heading back to the trailhead. We were continuing on the Appalachian Trail and then down a bit to our next camp. The day was bright and clear, though still cold. The sun made a huge difference in comfort level though, allowing us to stop more comfortably and take pictures at some pretty viewpoints.

As a result of the soaking rain, wind, and then snow, there were some really amazing sideways ice patterns on the trees:

Although we were hiking along a ridge, there weren’t as many expansive views as we’d expected because there were a number of trees and brush along the trail. This wasn’t an above-treeline hike like we’re used to doing in the west.

Towards the end of the day, we split off from the Appalachian Trail and headed down Snake Den Ridge to the Maddron Bald Trail. Today had been another long day of hiking and it was nearly dark by the time we reached our campground. Tonight we’d be sleeping in our tent. The ground was still covered in snow but we set up our tent and hastily made dinner. One other backpacker wandered in after we did, though this guy, thankfully, appear quite well prepared.

Backpacking Day 4 -- Campsite 33 Settlers, Elevation: 1990’, 13.8 miles hiked
We set the alarm for 6:30 am so we could get an early start. This would be our longest day of hiking and we were both pretty worn out from the past couple of days so we wanted to make sure we had ample time to get to our next campsite.

The weather was mostly sunny and we were heading downhill for the first four and a half miles, so we soon walked out of the snow. There were some nice forest views and pretty streams along the way:

Around lunchtime, we came to a junction with an old building off to the side. It was the Tyson McCarter Place and was built in 1879.

The rest of the day was 9.2 miles along the Old Settlers Trail. The trail was wooded, with lots of fallen leaves, and had the remains of old stone walls and chimneys along the way.

Though today’s hike was easier than the past couple of days, I was tired and kept thinking of the Robert Frost poem that I had to memorize at some point in grade school:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village thought;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

It’s funny that I remember it after all these years. I think it was the “and miles to go before I sleep” part that was resonating with me.
We made it to camp surprisingly early – around 3 pm – and for once had a little time to relax before dark. The campsite was next to an old chimney. We took out our Therm-a-rest chairs and read for awhile. We were looking forward to having time to make dessert after dinner, but dinner turned out to be way more couscous than we had counted on, so we decided to save the dessert for another night.

Day 5 -- Campsite 32 Injun Creek, Elevation: 2240’, 10.3 miles hiked
Today’s hike was practically short compared to other days on this hike. We hiked more along the Old Settlers Trail into Greenbriar Cove, then continued on another trail to our camp for the night. It was an uneventful day of hiking, but again the weather was pleasant and we got some nice photos.

Here’s a really cool bug we saw on the road in Greenbriar Cove:

Steam engine that was wrecked in a stream near our campsite:

The campsite was a lovely flat spot in a break in the trees. Our campmates for the evening turned out to be a man and his young son (I’d guess he was around 8- to 10-years old) and an enthusiastic but not very knowledgeable first-time backpacker. He also didn’t know anything about hanging food on the bear wires or not burying leftovers. Hiking in the northwest, we never seemed to come across as many unprepared backpackers as we did here. Maybe part of it is that at the main national parks in the northwest, you need to pick up a backpacking permit from a ranger. When you get the permit, the ranger goes over a dozen or so seemingly obvious points (hang your food, pack it in/pack it out, don’t bury toilet paper, etc.). In the Smokies, you need a permit but you can self-register for it. Maybe the info provided by the ranger isn’t really as obvious as it seems.

After a good amount of effort, we got a small fire going. Everything was really wet from the rain and snow, so there was very little for dry kindling. We finally tore a few pages out of the book I was reading since Brian had already read it anyway, and used that to start the fire.

We actually got around to cooking dessert, which was supposed to be carrot cake. You can boil cakes and breads in an oven bag. Unfortunately, after boiling for much longer than instructed, the cake was still really goopy. The texture was definitely off, but the flavor wasn’t bad. It was an interesting experiment anyway.

We sat by the fire for quite a while after dinner – with the combination of the warmer temperatures and the toasty campfire, it was nice to be able to stay out later after having gone to bed shortly after sunset on previous days. At one point, a burning piece of wood broke off and flew through the air. Brian didn’t notice it until he felt his arm burning – the wood had burned through his thick fleece and the base layer that he was wearing underneath. He couldn’t shake it out because it was trapped between the fleece and the base layer, so Sarah had to pour a little bit of water on it to put it out. Now his fleece has a large hole in it. Oh well, we knew when we planned this journey, it would be hard on our clothes!

Brian stayed up, reading “Catch-22” by the campfire until about 8:30, two or three hours later than we’d stayed up on previous nights.

Day 6 -- 7.2 miles hiked
Our last day of hiking started out soggy. It rained just before dawn and was still drizzling when we got up. We opted for pitas and a bagel for breakfast instead of cooking the last of the oatmeal. We packed up and were on our way shortly after sunrise.

Just before reaching the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, we came to the Jim Bales Cabin where we stopped for a snack and some photos:

From there, we had 3.3 miles to go back to the car. Unfortunately, this involved one seemingly unending uphill. Boy, was I ready to be done hiking.

When we got back to the car, it was readily apparent that we had acquired a mouse during our time away. Paper towels were shredded, there were mouse droppings everywhere, and our food bags had been chewed into. Ugh! This was not how we were imaging our hike ending. We actually saw the mouse peeking out at us and darting around the car. !@$(@#)$. Because the car was so tightly packed with stuff, it was hard to tell exactly what the mouse had gotten into. We also didn’t have much to clean up the mess with.

This had happened to us once before, while backpacking in the Canadian Rockies last year. That time, we ended up spending multiple days trying to catch the mouse and never did trap it until we made it home a week later.

After what little bit of cleaning we could do, we got into the car and headed into town. We decided to stop at a pancake house for lunch and to contemplate our next move. After butterscotch chip pancakes, scrambled eggs, biscuits, and sausage, our moods were improved and we decided to buy some mouse traps, clean the car as best we could, and head to Mammoth Cave National Park for the night. We’d tour Mammoth Cave the next day and then head to the Chicago area where we’d spend Thanksgiving with Brian’s family.

The Smokies are beautiful and have a rich human history. I’d definitely like to visit again someday because there were tons of things that we didn’t get a chance to see. Next time, I think I’d choose my backpacking trip a bit more wisely. Given the short days, the challenging weather, and our current physical conditions, we bit off more than we could comfortably chew with the backpacking trip we choose. For Brian, though, it just whetted his appetite for doing an even longer hike at some point – maybe a 500-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail!

Friday, November 23, 2007


Sunday, November 11, we got up early and left Hot Springs to drive to Graceland. We wanted to get there when it opened, hoping to beat the crowds. We hadn’t intended to stop at Graceland, but decided it was an American icon and since we were driving by, we had to stop. As expected, it was tackiness galore – and lots of fun!

Parking is across the road from the Graceland mansion and they shuttle you (and the rest of the hordes…) across the road for the main part of the tour. The mansion is the main attraction and a mere $25 gets you in along with an audio tour. For an extra $5, you get the full tour – mansion, Elvis’s auto collection, his two airplanes, and a couple of small museums. Since we were there, we decided to go for the whole shebang. Here’s the front of the mansion with the masses waiting to get in:

The first floor and basement of the mansion were the public areas of the mansion when Elvis lived there. The second floor was Elvis’s private space, and it is kept that way today though there are some items from the second floor on display in other places. The front part of the mansion was very bright – bright white walls and white furniture were offset by drapes in deep royal shades. Elvis was big into mirrors too – there were mirrors everywhere, on the walls, ceilings, stairways, etc.

Here’s a view of the front sitting room. Notice the nifty peacock glass art:

Elvis grew up in a simple home and always dreamed of moving his parents to Graceland, which he eventually did. Here’s their room:

Moving from the front of the house into the back of the first floor, the style of the rooms changed dramatically. The kitchen was very 70s – dark wood paneling, yellow appliances, and patterned carpet.

From there, the tour went to the basement which contained a collection of eclectic rooms. The first room was a TV room. It was decorated in brilliant yellow and blue walls embellished with a lightening bolt and a mirrored ceiling. The lightening bolt was a special symbol for Elvis. Along with the letters “TCB”, it stood for “taking care of business, lightening fast”. A huge wraparound couch covered in sparkly pillows provided lounging space to complement the room’s bar and three TVs. President Johnson was said to watch all three broadcast newscasts at once, so Elvis had three TVs to do the same. The strangest accessory was a white ceramic monkey sitting on the coffee table.

Next, we entered the pool room. This room had decorated walls and ceilings with yards and yards of colorful folded fabric.

Back upstairs, we got a full view of the room off the back of kitchen – the aptly named “Jungle Room”. Of all the odd rooms in the house, this one took the cake for strangeness. The floor and ceiling were covered in green shag carpet. The furniture was upholstered in various fake animal pelts and would have been at home in a hunting lodge. The side wall of the room was a floor-to-ceiling fountain. Like the kitchen, this room was also very dark.

Having toured the living areas of the house, we entered a room that had been converted to show off various other Elvis artifacts, including his wedding attire, Lisa Marie Presley’s crib and some baby clothes, some of Elvis’s sporting gear, and this crazy fur bed:

Outside, we got a view of the house from the back:

Then we continued into another building that had housed a small room that was originally a smokehouse but which Elvis had used as a shooting range. A third building housed a museum of Elvis’s career, including walls and walls of gold and silver records and other awards. It also contained movie memorabilia from the 30-or-so movies he made in the 1960s. Then, after viewing the back pastures, we entered yet another building. This one contained a lounge area with a piano and a racquetball court. The racquetball court had been disassembled and the space now contained numerous awards and a few of Elvis’s jumpsuits. Here’s one of them:

The last stop on the mansion grounds was the meditation garden, where Elvis is buried. The garden also contained the graves of his parents and a marker for his still-born twin brother. The graves were covered in flowers sent by fans.

As if all that wasn’t enough Elvis, across the road from Graceland there were more Elvis museums to be seen. We toured his planes – the “Lisa Marie” (nicknamed “Hound Dog I”) and the “Hound Dog II”. The Hound Dog II was a smaller plane that was used mostly by his manager to fly ahead to performance sites and make sure everything was ready for Elvis. Its distinctive feature was seats in lime green and lemon yellow.

The Lisa Marie was a much larger plane. It was originally a Delta passenger plane that Elvis spent around $1 million redoing. The plane had two restrooms, both with sinks and fixtures plated in gold. It also had a full dining area, a lounging area that could convert to a bedroom for a guest, and Elvis’s bedroom. Elvis’s bedroom contained a bed covered in blue suede with a matching blue suede lamp, headboard, and chair. Though most commonly used for work, the Lisa Marie was occasionally used for pleasure trips, including a middle-of-the-night trip to Denver with friends to get peanut butter sandwiches. Here’s the Lisa Marie:

The next museum was the car museum. It contained a number of cars, motorcycles, and other motor vehicles that Elvis had owned. This included a snowmobile that had been converted to a grass mobile to race around the property. It was pretty dark in the museum, but I did get a picture of his pink Cadillac:

The “Sincerely Elvis” museum contains changing exhibits. At the time of our visit, the exhibit was dozens of Elvis’s stage costumes. It showed the evolution from his early outfits to his signature jumpsuit (you have to wonder who thought that was a good fashion statement…). The jumpsuits were embellished with elaborate embroidery or hundreds of rhinestones.

If all that wasn’t enough Elvis, the last stop was the “Elvis After Dark” museum. This housed a small collection of his items and talked about his insomniac ways and how stardom forced him to do normal things – like shop, go out to eat, or attend a fair – after closing hours to avoid attracting large crowds.

Having seen enough Elvis memorabilia to last us a really long time, we left Memphis for Nashville. We got to Nashville just in time for the early show at the Bluebird Café. The Bluebird Café is a famous Nashville spot where a number of singers and songwriters got their start such as Garth Brooks. The first show was Greg Adkins from Knoxville, who was promoting the release of his second CD. He had several offbeat and entertaining songs about being a parent, like one about all the things he and his son do when his wife is out of town (eat lots of ice cream for breakfast, stay up late, etc.) The first show was so good that we decided to stay for the second show.

The second show was songwriters’ night. The songwriters who audition in advance, and if they make it through the auditions, they get put on an 18-month waiting list for the chance to sing three songs at one of these songwriters’ nights. Many of the songwriters were really good, including Kim-Char Meredith, who had a fantastic amount of energy. The night closed with the emcee, Steve Goodie, singing some of his songs since the scheduled closing singer was sick. Steve has a CD called “Stupid Country” and was just hilarious. One of his songs was “Stand by Your Van,” a takeoff of the Tammy Wynette song making fun of people driving Hummers and America’s dependence on oil. Other tunes included one about NASCAR driving school (“So go straight, take a left, take a left, go straight; Take a left, take a left, go straight”), “Handlin’ My Mandolin” (“Cause she likes the way I’m handlin’ my mandolin; She’s on the Trace Adkins diet, I’m a-gonna have to try it; She’s a country music fan, come to see my band again; Cause she likes the way I’m handlin’ my mandolin”), and a number about sweating the small stuff that was performed with his wife (“When I called collect to say I’d wrecked her new Beemer, my baby was cool; And she didn’t get ticked when I went and picked the wrong kid up from school; And she didn’t get bent when I gave her best friend’s rear end a little goose; But one time I left the seat up, man did I get beat up, I mean all hell broke loose”).

That night, we camped at the Cedars of Lebanon State Park, about 30 miles outside the city. There were a number of people there in RVs but only one other group tent camping. Tent camping is apparently not all that popular in November, even when the weather is good. The next day we would drive on to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.