Mammoth Camping – Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky, USA

Mammoth Camping
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky, USA

One of the best things about living smack in the middle of Indiana is that I also live smack in the middle of, well, everything else in the Midwest. In this area, there are two general types of people: those who are content to make their backyard their permanent home, and those who strive to make all the states within a five hour drive their backyard. As soon as I got my driver’s license, I figured out that if I save enough money out of whatever meager paychecks I scrounged up for gas, I could do it all; museums, concerts, baseball games, camping, hiking, rock climbing – you name it. It might take a little time and an understanding employer, but I’ve been lucky enough to have both in quantities allowing me to get up and go whenever.

This road trip guide is a loose one; there are far too many trips and stories and places to see to include everything. I’ve tried to give the casual Midwest visitor a rough sketch of what there is to do around these parts besides watch the grass grow (always a favorite), and in doing so draw on trips long since past and embark on new ones.

Best Little Camping Trip Ever

Levi and I said goodbye to Bloomington on a warm July Friday, gracefully piling our supplies in the back of his Sidekick before taking off a few minutes ahead of schedule with the top down and the Pixies’ “Velouria” lulling us into the rhythm of the road. That was what I imagined on Thursday, anyway.

More accurately, we stormed out of Bloomington at 2,000,000 mph, two hours behind schedule, in the midst of a gaggle of Independence Day celebraters who seemed to have collectively slept through driver’s ed in high school. Levi was pissed about getting conned into staying at work two extra hours, I was pissed that we were running two hours late, and it was hot and looked like it might rain, and Levi lost his sunglasses .2 minutes into the trip and it looked for a few minutes like maybe we should have rented a couple of movies and set up the tent in my living room instead of braving the wilds of Kentucky.

Happily, after a while the traffic thinned out, the sun emerged, as did a nice breeze, and everything seemed much brighter. Little did we know… well, what would road trips be without a wee bit of drama?

The trip to Mammoth Cave National Park was supposed to take three hours or so. Okay, so maybe that wasn’t very realistic. Especially considering I thought Levi knew where he was going, since he’d been there before, and he thought I was navigating, which I was most certainly not. I can’t imagine what would lead him to that conclusion, other than that I had the road atlas on my lap for most of the ride. Whatever the reason, after we got through Louisville we missed a major highway change that would have sent us south rather than east, and I didn’t notice until we’d been on the wrong road for 45 minutes or so. Whoops.

We had to go through a creepily horse-filled portion of Kentucky to get back on track, which was monotonous, except that we saw a couple of unbelievably long plantations/horse ranches that were mind blowing. You don’t want to mess with Kentuckians and their horses. So that was neat – straight out of the Civil War era – and it was at this juncture that I began to cultivate a sunburn on just the top of my right arm, so I still hold that the extra two hours were well worth it.

Our plan, initially, was to get to the park, hike out to our campsite before dark and set up in the light. Thanks to our little detour, though – and okay, it was mostly my fault, I’m eating crow, don’t worry – we got to the park at 7:16pm, which was great in that it was still light, but the Visitor’s Center, from which we had to get a pass to hike out to the ‘Back Country’, where we were planning to camp, closed at 7:15.

By this point, too, we were getting nervous because we kept seeing signs that pointed to the park being completely full up. Fat women walking tiny dogs, grandparents in RV’s, a line of cars at the gate. Would you believe it didn’t ever cross my mind that this is a holiday weekend and might therefore be not such a good time to travel? But we got a campsite near the front – not exactly roughing it, but it was still neat – and set up our tent.

Once we got comfortable, we decided to drive back into town to get hamburger for dinner, which we did (a kindly convenience store owner named “Bobby” sold us meat “from the back” since all the grocery stores were closed). We stopped on the way out to take a peek at Sand Cave, a far out part of the huge Mammoth Cave complex, which you can look at but not explore. I’m unclear if you can’t go in because some guy died there in the 30s or if they just don’t think you should go in there (I figure it’s probably cave monsters), but we got to the observation deck right as the light was failing, and it was surreal. It was a big, gaping maw in the ground, right out of a horror movie, practically steaming and moaning. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. Levi wished he’d brought a machete so we could have gotten arrested as quickly as possible while making our way to the entrance, but I must admit it was a very creepy scene and I wasn’t up for playing Daniel Boone at that particular moment and was glad to head back to camp.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but our return was the beginning of our introduction to the sad effects of tourism on nature.

When we got back, Levi started the lengthy process of cursing, grunting, and employing all measure of manly efforts to make fire from slightly damp wood. I left him to it and went into the tent, which we had faced away from the path as to retain the illusion of being deep in the woods. At this point I noticed a raccoon running away from me, into the receding twilight of the trees. It looked like he had something in his mouth, and the something looked remarkably like a hamburger bun, which I thought was odd; the people who had camped there before us had left a mess, but I figured if he wanted that stuff he could have gotten it before we got there.

Whatever, I thought, it wasn’t a big deal. Until I got in the tent, anyway. In addition to the “D” shaped main door of the tent, there is a smaller side door near the floor for easy access. Okay, now imagine that this is your tent. And imagine that in a spurt of wisdom, you had piled your backpacks, including one full of food, right inside this side door before leaving to go to town for a little while. Got that?

So when I picked up the bag of buns (for which I had paid $2 because I wanted whole wheat buns, mind you), I was surprised to find there was a giant hole in the bag and one bun was missing. Digest this. Pretend you’re me. Pretend you not in top intellectual form for whatever reason. I was confused. I called Levi over, and we stared at the bag of buns for a minute, and then noticed the side door was open. Now. Think about this for a second.

The raccoon unzipped our tent, opened the backpack where the buns were, chewed a small but efficient hole in the bag of buns, and made off with one half of a bun. Now, I know you’re not supposed to leave food in your tent, ever. We both knew that. No, I don’t have any idea where our common sense had gone on vacation, but we were stupefied.

Lesson #1? Raccoons are really smart.
Moving on to Lesson #2: They think you’re really stupid.

I went back in the tent to survey damage and make sure there wasn’t raccoon spit all over our stuff, and after a minute, I heard “Jen, look! There’s a deer!” I came out of the tent, and sure enough, there was a deer there. Not off in the distance, not hiding or playing coy deer games, but staring at us from five feet away or so. We stood stock still and admired her for a minute, sending up silent thanks for the grace of nature and whatnot, but then she started walking toward us. More appropriately, she started testing us, staring us dead on with those creepy deer eyes and sniffing the air.

Apparently, FancyPants the Raccoon had gotten on the horn to the entire animal population of Mammoth Cave State Park to inform them of the bounteous goodness located at campsite #64. Pretty soon we were surrounded: three raccoons and the World’s Creepiest Deer, all inching toward us and our food, like if they moved slowly we couldn’t see them. Much arm-flailing and shrieking later, the deer finally went away. Not so for the raccoons, who started sneaking up in shifts, one at a time every three minutes or so. It seems that they lived in a culvert right next to our campsite, and therefore could keep coming all night. Which they did.

By the time Levi got the fire going and I had proved my indispensability in the wild by making some pointy sticks, we had found that the best way to keep them out of our stuff was to take turns making noises and shining a flashlight in their faces. That was the worst part; it was so dark, it was impossible to see them coming. One actually nudged me while I was sitting at the table, causing me to freak out. At least I scared it away. And a few minutes later, while Levi was sitting at the table, one actually got up on the other side and snatched another bun from the bag, which was 6 inches away from Levi and his pointy stick. Indignant, Levi poked his pointy stick at the raccoon, causing it to drop the bun, and then they had a stare-off during which the raccoon weighed the importance of picking up the bun again against his life. He decided in favor of the bun, picked it up again and ran off, much to the chagrin of Levi’s bluff. So it was pretty much that way the entire time we were awake at the campsite. Eventually, we threw all our food away, since we didn’t have any especially raccoon-safe containers and didn’t want them messing around in Levi’s car.

At first, we thought we were just terribly unlucky to be at this particular campsite when these raccoons obviously lived there; however, we soon began hearing shrieks and swearing from other campers – they were everywhere.

The last thing I saw before I fell asleep was the shadowy outline of a raccoon slinking past the tent. I was nervous I was going to wake up to one gnawing at my arm or something, so I tied all the zippers together before turning in.

Overall, my first impression of the park was that it was beautiful. The forest is dense and lush, the place was packed with tourists and families but it was still peaceful, and the rangers ran an organized ship. We had our first look at the caves outside of the visitor’s area of the park. The weather was gorgeous, the night was clear, and it was a fabulous night for camping. But because we managed to arrive too late to get into the heart of the woods and away from the formal camping section of the park, we were forced to meet the ugly side of nature vs. humanity. It was our fault we left our buns in the tent – that was just stupid. But it became apparent pretty quickly that the reason the animals were so fearless was that they had become accustomed to people feeding them, and they were dependent on those people to support them. At the end of the night, they weren’t just annoying, they were a sad reminder of how screwed up things can get when people interfere.

They were still cute, though.