Quick diversion: East Carolina BBQ!!!!

Oh my, the delights of the smoked ambrosia they have in Everetts, NC!!! We’re talkin’ TURKEY, boys and girls! Ben Jones’ most excellent slow-roasted sweet and tangy BBQ chopped turkey is THE BEST!! Google them when you’re in the area, or search on FB for Ben Jones BBQ Turkey. And get you some.

We had to wait until 3pm to get there and heat/assemble our sammies, but they were worth every hunger pang. So stinkin’ tasty!!

East Carolina BBQ is a lot drier than Memphis. The soaker sauce is vinegar-y, sweet and tangy. It takes to a little mayo and bread + butter pickles like a duck to water. Scrumptious!
We drove up to Ben Jones’ fantastic down-home BBQ (next door to his house), called him, and he and his lovely wife Sandra came out and loaded us up with 7 pints of this heavenly food. What could be better?
George is gettin’ down with it!
His second sammie of the day, and he’s irked that I’m making him wait to take a bite!

A Mammoth Good Time in the Caves

Three and a half days in Mammoth Cave National Park in early October have been just right — this being our first of 55+ national parks in North America, we wanted to wade in gently and learn a lot about negotiating the parks with enough time to do them right. This was a great one to start with.

Mammoth is the largest cave system in linear miles in the world. Over 400 miles of mapped tunnels crisscrossing the limestone karst of three Kentucky counties. These caves are ancient solution caves (limestone dissolved by acidic water dripping or flowing through the rock), and their current state is likely to be much like their future state as they are protected from much further breakdown by a 50-foot sandstone cap over top of the 600-foot limestone bedrock.

We camped at a nearby KOA campground as the park campgrounds were either sold out or only available on a first-come, first-served basis. Not unusual for a national park close to population centers during Fall Break (little did we know beforehand!).

Our caving included a 2-hour tour of the Grand Onyx cave (a favorite for its twinkly walls, created by calcium sulfate (gypsum ) crystals, 2.5 hours in the Cleaveland Avenue section, and another 2-hour tour of the Domes and Dripstones portion, accessible via the New Entrance and exiting at the Frozen Niagara entrance (see the blue stars).


For drama and oohs-aahs, it’s hard to beat the Domes and Dripstones tour. If you can only do one, that’s the one to book. If you’re coming, book your tours in advance, as the best slots get sold out fast, especially in the summer. The Onyx tour was conducted by lantern, which seems lovely until you realize that the cave walls have been severely damaged by the torch tours of past generations and the lantern fumes are probably not helping to eliminate further damage.

The Park Service also offers a Wild Caves tour for those into spelunking (think tight spaces, tiny corridors and lots of wiggling around on the ground to get into otherwise inaccessible places). We have too much claustrophobia for that, but it would be a blast for those who can stomach the tight quarters, close contact with cave crickets and other subterranean creatures, and dramatic views few get to see.

We really enjoyed learning about the early guides, especially Stephen Bishop, who was a slave owned by the cave owner in the mid 1800s. What a mind he must have had, to explore, learn and then educate thousands of wealthy patrons who wanted to tour the early cave segments. He eventually earned his freedom, but he really pioneered the art of cave guiding and blazed a trail for other African Americans who dominated that profession for decades. Much like the Buffalo Soldiers of Yosemite and Sequoia, these historical figures are little known or credited.

Our visit here wrapped up with a two-hour, 8-mile kayak down the Green River that winds through the park and is the source of much of the acidic water that has dissolved the limestone to create the caves. Despite what you might think, paddling down a lazy river with almost no current is NOT an easy job. We stroked nearly 100% of the ride because of a stiff wind in our faces, but the exercise was great, the scenery grand, and it gets us ready to handle trips to the parks next summer with our grandkids!

Thanks, Mammoth Caves NP, for a great start to NP trekking!



Oscar Getz’ Pride & Joy

My dad used to love his Kentucky Bourbon over ice, so in his memory we spent an hour or so at Spaulding Hall in Bardstown, Kentucky, touring the Oscar Getz collection of memorabilia and history of America’s love affair with our version of the liquid gold known as whiskey.

I took a few photos of the Jim Beam side of the industry: fully half of all American Whiskey distilled and sold worldwide. We had seen a very curious building on our way into Bardstown, and the museum informed us that this hulking multistory black structure is a rick house (where the makers inventory and age their full barrels of bourbon). It’s curious to me that the aging takes place in a building sure to get the full assault of the Kentucky summer sun and heat under its black facade, but if that’s what works, they’re sticking with it.

A 1930’s illustration of Jim Beam’s distillery, with five rick houses, on a hill.
One of many rick houses in use today throughout the Bourbon Trail.

Here’s the original James Beam, whose father Jacob founded the company in the 1800s.


Of course, many of the men who worked in the distillery didn’t wear such fine apparel or look so genteel.


And there were plenty of distilleries that didn’t stand up to the standards of the well-capitalized Beam Company.


My favorite parts of the tour were the personality-laden stories, flasks and folklore surrounding the Bourbon industry.

The Great River (Mississippi) Trail

Oh, the things we discover when we just…slow…down a little bit. Tonight’s discovery is the Great River Bike Trail along the Mississippi River north and south of the Quad Cities (Davenport and Bettendorf, IA and Rock Island and Moline, IL).

This is a wonderful series of biking or walking/running paths between many of the river towns in the area, anchored both by the Mississippi and a wildlife refuge which honors one of the area’s original environmental heroes, Elton Fawks, who saved a critical bald eagles’ nesting habitat.  There is much nature to see here, as well as sites to tour and microbreweries to visit!

We stayed at the Illiniwek Forest Preserve and Campground right on the riverfront. $14.00 a night, can you beat that??


There are 74 miles of biking paths through the forest here alone. And we are just downstream from one of 29 Upper Mississippi Locks and Dams, which regulate the flow of water and probably account for the fact that this stretch of the river is not under water, as was the case upstream in Cedar Rapids this past week.

Looking forward to many more well-kept secrets along the way — there are so many great sites under the care of the National Park Service and US Forest Service — treasures that are ours for the asking.