This is a story about underground rivers and the road that runs above them. Throughout central Kentucky, those subterranean tributaries have carved up a limestone bedrock to give us the best bourbon and best caves in the world, and this morning, via a short day trip from Louisville, the Dixie Highway will lead me to both.
Like millions of other Americans, when I was growing up, my family often took to the roads. Frequently, we headed south toward Mammoth Cave on the Dixie Highway, a Michigan-to-Florida route conceived in 1914 by Carl Fisher, founder of the Prest-O-Lite car headlight company, and later immortalized in a Journey song that promises: “We’ll rock the night away down by the Dixie Highway.”
I haven’t made that trip in many years, but this morning, I leave Louisville and head south over the Salt River and through the beautiful rolling farmland of Nelson County. As I arrive in Bardstown, the self-proclaimed Bourbon Capital of the World, I pull into the Barton 1792 Distillery—one of six major distilleries in the area—where a lively guide, Jerrica Goatley, shows me around. All of the buildings and warehouses are painted black, she says, because the distiller’s mold that escapes through evaporation would turn them black anyway.
“That’s how revenuers found stills back during Prohibition,” Goatley says. “They just followed creeks up to where the trees were black.”
We climb three stories through the noisy still house to stare down into the vast fermenters, where the sickly sweet mash is bubbling with water from twelve limestone springs that have filtered out iron and added calcium and magnesium, which is exactly what bourbon wants.
Over at the warehouse, the building is actually leaning out of plumb under the weight of nineteen thousand barrels that cram the horizontal ricks. If you took all the lumber from this small warehouse and laid it out end to end, it would stretch fifty-four miles, Goatley says.
Very Old Barton is what one friend’s dad used to call his “everyday whiskey.” But I actually prefer Barton’s grittier tour to the more sanitized version at nearby Maker’s Mark, with its cypress fermentation tanks and polished copper stills. I sip a little V.O.B. at the end of my tour, then head out. Half a mile away, I stop at Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral, which was originally the seat of one of the first four Catholic dioceses established in the United States. I had heard this basilica is the rather incongruous home of some incredible paintings by the Flemish masters, including works by Van Dyck and Van Eyck. The canvases are hanging quite high, presumably because they’ve been stolen before.
As I cast my gaze about, the parish priest, Terry Bradshaw (that’s his name), approaches. He recounts a local legend that the future French king Louis Philippe stayed in Bardstown for a time while fleeing the French Revolution. When he ascended the throne fifteen years after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, he gifted the Catholic diocese these canvases.
What’s more, Louis Philippe and his two brothers were evidently amateur painters themselves, and during their time in Bardstown they rendered a mural on three walls of Talbott Tavern, an impressive edifice built in 1779 with two-foot-thick stone walls and heavy ceiling timbers. Though the murals were badly damaged by fire in 1998, I can still make out the semblance of an Italian volcano. I can also see bullet holes in the wall, legendarily lodged there by Jesse James, a poker partner of the Bardstown sheriff Donnie Pence.
A few miles outside Hodgenville, I pull off beside Knob Creek, where a replica of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home stands in a pretty bottomland that apparently hasn’t changed much since the young Lincoln watched, for the first time, a coffle of slaves being driven down what was then the Cumberland Road. Years later, one of the shackled men on that road might have been Stephen Bishop, the legendary slave-scout who in the 1840s was the first man to extensively map Mammoth Cave. I sit by the creek and eat a fried bologna sandwich with a side of crackers and beer cheese—my family’s traditional picnic when I was a kid—then hit the road again.
While Mammoth Cave, my final destination for the day, is the longest cave system in the world—no other even comes close—many smaller caverns dot the landscape nearby. And historically, the cave owners often resorted to pretty whacked-out schemes to lure distractible tourists. That may explain a makeshift attraction a few miles off Dixie Highway called Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo. Bill Austin’s grandfather owned this land above Onyx Cave, and when Bill inherited it in 1990, he and his Australian wife, Judy, decided to start importing kangaroos. Now the new owner, David Gray, tends dingoes, emus, woma pythons, lemurs, and beautiful rainbow lorikeets that mob anyone holding a cup of nectar.
It’s late afternoon when I finally reach Cave City, where kitsch clings to the karst terrain like lichens. Forty years ago (I still have a picture to prove it), my cousin Tye and I, both nine, spent an exhilarating evening riding the Spider, careening around in bumper cars, then watching a Wild West shoot-out on the “Main Street” of Guntown Mountain, an amusement park set on a hill above the city. But Guntown is now only a ghost of a simulated ghost town.
This trip, I decide to skip Cave City altogether, looping around the north side of Mammoth Cave National Park and crossing the rushing Green River on a rural ferry that deposits me near the cave’s historic entrance. The dirt around the entrance was once rich in saltpeter, which was heavily mined to make gunpowder for the War of 1812. Tours began in 1816, making this year the two hundredth anniversary of official cave exploration.
I join the last tour of the day at a massive sinkhole, and a young guide named Michael Goodman leads us down into the mouth of the cave. We drop quickly through incredibly narrow passages dripping with moisture that means this part of the cave is still forming. Great vertical shafts plunge down beside the narrow trail. I feel, more than anything, as if I’m entering the earth’s multichambered heart. There’s something incredibly intimate and elemental about this descent—at once comforting and vertiginous.
About a half mile in and 250 feet down, Goodman cuts the lights. Anxious gasps ripple through our group. There is no earthly darkness this dark. One’s eyes would never adjust to this, which is why the cave-dwelling fish and shrimp have no eyes.
Farther on—light restored—we enter a chamber where masses of glossy, ocherous stalactites drip from the ceiling, forming at a rate of one inch per century. Hundreds of these biomorphic cones come together into the flowstone formation known as Frozen Niagara.
About fifty of us crowd around it. Then our guide turns to me, the only person taking notes, and says, “Did you teach English 104 at the University of Kentucky in 2010?”
All eyes are on me. “Um, probably,” I say.
“You were my English teacher,” he goes on. “I actually wrote an essay for you about Mammoth Cave.”
“And it was excellent,” I reply, not really remembering the piece but realizing that with one flick of a switch, he could compel me into utter darkness.
When I arrive home tomorrow, I will find a PDF of the essay attached to an e-mail. In that essay, I will (again) learn that Goodman is a fourth-generation cave guide, and his grandfather Lewis Cutliff escorted Ronald Reagan to this very spot in 1984, whereupon the president broke into song with a rendering of “The Death of Floyd Collins,” a ballad about the famous trapped explorer.
But that’s not all. In 1935, ten years after Collins’s demise, Goodman’s great-grandfather Lyman Cutliff discovered a mummified body in the cave. Archaeologists determined that the deceased, known now as Lost John, was crushed by a boulder twenty-three hundred years earlier.
Back down in the cave, though, I’m not thinking about the ghosts of Floyd Collins and Lost John. Otherworldly beautiful though my subterranean surroundings are, after two hours in the damp confines, I’ve begun to feel a little trapped myself, a large mammal pulled like Persephone into an unnatural habitat. So I climb back up to the earth’s surface, then walk out into the terrestrial light of the setting sun.