Sarah and I traveled south of the Mason-Dixon Line last weekend on a little vacation.
We left Madison on Thursday morning, bound for Mammoth Cave National Park. Our route took us through Illinois and Indiana on our way to Kentucky. Conventional wisdom says that Kansas is flat and borning to drive through. Having now driven through both Kansas (east to west) and Illinois (west to east and north to south), I can safely say that Kansas has nothing on Illinois. Illinois ought to bill itself as the natural remedy for insomnia. If mile after mind-numbing mile of flat, treeless, agricultural sameness sounds good to you, I'm sure that the state of Illinois would love to make your acquaintance. About half-way through the state, we bailed, and headed east towards Indiana. Just across the border from Illinois, Indiana State Highway 63 and US Highway 41 offer a pleasant alternative to interstate travel. Four lane highways, with a grass median (but not controlled access), both IN-63 and US-41 offer a much more interesting and less crowded path south to Kentucky. Along the way, you can view such interesting sights as the Newport Chemical Depot (where almost 1300 tons of the nerve agent VX are sitting in storage), and the Vigo County Courthouse in Terre Haute, IN (which is very impressive, but unfortunately located--next to a busy highway).
We arrived in Evansville, IN about dinnertime. We ate dinner at the (unfortunately named) Little Cheers Restaurant and Bar. If you find yourself in Evansville, IN for lunch or dinner, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Red Beans and Rice at Little Cheers. It's everything you might expect from a Cajun-inspired, homemade red beans and rice dish.
Running on all cylinders after a good meal, we headed south into Kentucky. About 11 PM we arrived at the Mammoth Cave Hotel in Kentucky. After setting our alarms, we crashed.
Friday morning saw us up early to eat breakfast before our 09:30 Historic Tour of Mammoth Cave.
Before I talk about the cave, I need to reveal that once you've been on a spelunking tour of a cave, everything else is just so-much Disney. Crawling around the cave on your hands and knees, inching through spaces just ten inches tall, dangling over pits, all while using only the light from headlamps--this is good stuff. Walking around a cave with electric lights, walkways, bridges, railings, and the like--this is boring.
Having said that, we found ourselves on exactly the sort of tour that makes the whole experience seem so canned. My knees have been acting up of late, and I didn't want to find myself one hour into a three-six hour crawling tour with cranky knees. So, even as I started on the Historic tour, with an entertaining and informed guide, I was feeling ripped off.
Anyway, after the tour, we checked out of the hotel, took the Green River Ferry, and drove a bit deeper into the park. Our mountain bikes were on top of the car because we were planning on riding some of the trails in the park. Once we got to the trailhead, we unloaded the bikes, and took off down the trail.
We couldn't have asked for a better day to mountain bike. The trails were completely deserted. We didn't see another soul on the trails the whole time we were out. The weather was mid-sixties and sunny. The trails were a bit wet in some locations, but otherwise in really good shape. We had to carry the bikes over or around some fallen lumber, but otherwise, we were able to ride the whole way. The riding we did on Friday was probably our favorite part of the whole trip.
Once we got the bikes loaded back on the car, we took off for Nashville, TN. On the way, we stopped in Bowling Green to eat at that quintessential Southern institution, Waffle House.
We finally arrived in Nashville about 20:00. Before I write anything else about Nashville, let me issue a warning to anyone thinking about visiting the city in the relatively near future (i.e., the next five thousand years). Every road in the metro area is under construction, all simultaneously. Numerous signs asking people to turn off two-way radios and cell phones dot the highways as blasting zones abound. Helpful navigational signs have been removed and replaced with Nothing. As such, almost any time we went anywhere in or around Nashville, we left ourselves plenty of time to both get lost and get found again. Of course, this is all because Nashville has real traffic issues. The city is so car oriented, many (most?) roads do not have sidewalks. I didn't see a bus the whole time we were in the metro area, though I did see one token bus shelter.
Once we get settled in to our hotel, we headed out to find the legendary Prince's Hot Chicken Shack. Anyone who knows me will testify that I love hot food and Prince's is supposedly as hot as chicken comes. There are four flavors mild (eat somewhere else, you'll feel like a wimp ordering mild here), medium (probably as hot as most people would enjoy), hot (for the adventurous soul), and extra hot (for the heat elite). Sarah ordered medium; I went for the extra hot. Before I describe the food, let me explain that Prince's is not necessarily located in the upscale portion of Nashville. All sorts of used car lots, adult bookstores, and discount liquor stores rub shoulders with the nondescript strip mall housing Prince's. So, if you want that white tablecloth, linen napkin experience, go somewhere else. The chicken is served in quarters, halves, and wholes. We each ordered a quarter. The chicken is fried in pans of grease (lard?) on a stove top until it is cooked, slapped on top of two slices of bread (to absorb the grease), wrapped in one piece of wax paper, and dropped in a paper sack. Fancy presentation is not included in the price, obviously.
Buy the time we got back to the hotel (after buying a bottle of wine at one of the discount liquor stores), the grease had soaked through the paper bag and left a grease and spice stain on the floor mat of our car. We called that spot "Revenge of Chicken Shack" for the rest of the trip because nothing we tried could take the grease and spice stain out of the mat and anything set on the stain quickly obtained a patina of spicy chicken grease.
Back at the hotel we unwrapped our chicken grease bombs and set to work. Sarah's chicken looked like standard fried chicken, but with a slightly reddish tinge. My chicken looked like it had been dipped in honey, set outside during a viscious sand storm, and then painted red. The chicken's skin was completely obscured by the 1/8" thick coating of cayenne pepper that was deep fried to the skin. Sarah declared her chicken very good and mine completely inedible. I thought mine was really good. I can see why hot chicken is such a popular food.
Saturday morning, we headed out to ride part of the Natchez Trace Parkway on our bikes. About four miles in to the ride, Sarah's handlebars came loose. I tried to tighten them with a hex wrench, but no amount of tightening seemed to do much good. So, I had to ride back to the car and drive it to where she was waiting to pick her up. We drove down the parkway for a while longer, visiting Franklin, Leiper's Fork, Fly, and Shady Grove before heading back to Nashville in a pouring rain.
Tennesee gets very rural, very quickly. Fly and Shady Grove appear as towns on the map, but to call them towns is generous. Fly consisted of one general store, with plenty of Confederate flags flying out front. Shady Grove was a bit more metropolitan, but only because made-to-order pizza was available at the general store in addition to beer and bait. Saturday night we ate at Bound'ry on Nashville's west side. We chose to eat off the tapas menu, and had an interesting and filling meal.
Sunday, we decided to head back towards Madison because we were at least twelve hours away from home and we wanted to break the drive up over two days. On the way out of Nashville, we stopped at the Opryland Hotel to see their indoor gardens. They have several acres of gardens inside the hotel with waterfalls, boat rides, little islands, and the like. It is all very pleasant and relaxing, but it is clear that the gardeners there aren't trying too hard. It seems they found ten-fifteen species of hardy tropical plants to grow and just kept planting them over and over with a few annuals sprinkled in for color.
Sunday night we stopped in Chicago. We stayed at a hotel downtown, and ate dinner at the Chicago branch of Sushi Samba Rio. The atmosphere was cool, the drinks were good, and the food was alright. However, for the price, the sushi at Sapporo Sushi Boat in Alameda was much better.
After dinner, we took a cab to The Backroom to catch some live jazz. The band playing that night was alright, but nothing special. The 2004 Housewares trade show was in Chicago, and the bar was filled with all sorts of folks from around the world who were all Housewares show attendees. There were people from Britain, South Africa, Belgium, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and the like all present. It was a fun scene.
Monday morning saw us getting back in to the car and heading back to Madison. We got home Monday afternoon tired, but happy with the trip.