29 April – Tennessee countryside would have to be some of the prettiest we have seen and today was no exception as we made our way towards Tazewell via 25E.
30 April – Followed in the footsteps of Daniel Boone as we hiked some of the Wilderness Trail up to the Cumberland Gap located at the point where the states of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia all come together. This trail was the main road over the mountains in this area for settlers moving from the East through to Kentucky. About 300,000 pioneers and settlers travelled over the trail from 1775-1810. The trail in this area used to be the main road, but in 1996 a tunnel was put through the mountains so that the historical trail could be restored and preserved. Originally it was only wide enough to fit a couple of horses side by side but it did eventually get widened to take a cart. The settlers would mainly travel the trail, which is over 200 miles long, in the winter so that they would arrive in the land of milk and honey in spring, in time to plant their first crop.
The Cumberland Gap visitor centre had a good documentary video showing the history of the Wilderness Trail. From the Gap we entered into Kentucky for the first time and headed up towards London on a scenic road which followed the route of the original Boone Wilderness Road. Green wooded roads meandered over a series of hills before we finally came into a valley which opened out into green fields. We haven’t quite reached the Bluegrass Country here and the prosperity hasn’t stretched this far – a lot of very old decrepit barns lined the road.
Made it as far as the Levi Jackson State Park and booked in for the night. With a storm brewing and a distinct drop in temperature it is nice to have the luxury of power.
01 May – Got to start the day wandering around the yard sale that was going on right in the campground. Today and tomorrow the camp was booked out with people selling their wares – mostly junk – a lot of recycled clothing and other rather useless junk – my big buy was two books for $1. Left the campground before kicking-out time and headed up to London. This part of Kentucky is not at all prosperous and London, although it had a lot of very nice substantial buildings in their main street, they were nearly all empty and boarded up. 1st May must be some kind of Kentucky-wide yard sale day as even though it was a Friday, we passed masses of sales in people’s front yards and in front of all sorts of businesses. After London we continued on a scenic byway north-west through Mt Vernon and up to Crab Orchard, trying to find somewhere suitable to pull off for lunch. Eventually we turned off onto a side road and found the most amazing country discount store – parked in their carpark while we had lunch and then went in and got our bargains for the month. You could fill a banana box for $15 worth of end-of-line products, so we stocked up on cereals and tinned stuff and then also got another banana box full of snack bags for $5. We were surprised to find that we had landed in Amish country and the storeholder was one such young man. Passed several of their wagons as we drove around this area.
After packing all our bargains, set off in the completely wrong direction and ended up on an ever diminishing road until we decided that we needed to turn around and go back from whence we came. One couple stopped and proceeded to give us directions back to the main highway and we finally got on the right track. As we proceeded on the road through to Stanford we did see a lot more farms and the town itself was much better off than London. Continuing now south-west down the Cumberland Parkway we eventually came to the Lake Cumberland State Park and our destination for the night, a huge campground above the lake but only about 10 of the 150 sites were occupied.
02 May – Just a gentle tour through Kentucky rural byways. The farmland is not very extensively farmed in this region and the ones with stock have the most rumpty looking barns for keeping their animals in the winter. Throughout the drive today through Glasgow and on to Mammoth Cave National Park, the countryside has been littered with old barns which makes for an interesting landscape. Mammoth Cave is the site of large historical caves carved originally by water in limestone – 400 miles of length have been discovered so far – we opted to stay in the National Park Campground – very busy this weekend with over 100 sites and only a few free spots. RV’s are thin on the ground here, it’s mainly tent campers.
03 May – Took one of the Mammoth Cave Tours – opted for the historical tour. The tour took us along a couple of miles of the first discovered part of the 400 miles of tunnels in the park. Very different to go through a dry cave – no stalactites or stalagmites, but to see the path of a river which has carved out the tunnels. We had a whole range of passages – some huge caverns, a small keyhole pass called ‘Fat Man’s Misery’ and others where the height of the tunnel forced you to duck low. The ranger who led our tour gave us a glimpse into the history, but it could have been more substantive. An interesting fact was that without the salt-petre mined here for gunpowder (ironically by black slaves), the US may well have failed in their 18th Century Revolutionary War with the British. Back in the open air we were greeted with a warm afternoon to enjoy. Took a little bike ride on the rail trail but there were a few too many hills for a long ride.
04 May – Bowling Green here we come. Home of the Corvette Museum and the only factory where GM-Chevrolet build this iconic sports car. We started off doing the assembly plant tour – that was great for a mere $7. With an intern tour leader, we followed the construction progress of the Corvette from go to whoa. 180 cars are produced each ten hour shift for five days each week – each car is paid for before being built and each is individually tailored to the buyer’s needs from a small range of basic models. There is also the facility to build your own engine, overseen by their engineers. The finished products coming off the line were certainly impressive – it was fascinating to watch the numerous overhead conveyors and unmanned roadway trucks as they moved the parts around the building, delivering the appropriate bits to the correct stage for fitting. The cars themselves move around the plant on the line spending three minutes slowly moving through each work station for a particular piece or pieces to be attached – mainly by humans but there are a few robots as well, especially in the body shop.
On then to the nearby Corvette Museum – this is the famed sinkhole building which collapsed the floor of their main exhibit hall early last year. It is still being rebuilt – the cars that fell into the hole were on display and they showed a range of injuries from fairly minor to being completely crushed.
Our last stop was just across the road – a used Corvette/American car dealer. On display he had a 2000 Corvette for only $17,500 so I offered him to swap Wanda for it – he was quite receptive to the idea and had it been August and not May, I would have been tempted to push him further. Inside he had about fifty cars from the 1950’s up including a couple of very nice early Corvettes but the rest didn’t appeal – many of them were huge things with lots of fins. Went a little further down the road to Camping World to pick up a replacement vent cover as one disintegrated the other day and they were happy for us to park overnight; we hope to borrow their ladder in the morning.
05 May – Bob got the vent cover replaced early but our overnight stop was very noisy – right beside a busy freeway with truck after truck. Onward to a small m/c museum at Hartford where Bob enjoyed meeting with the eccentric owner and trying his best to understand the southern drawl which is so strong in these parts. Final stop for the day was at Central City, and Walmart again.
06 – 08 May – We entered an area called ‘Land Between the Lakes’ – the area was originally land between two rivers – the Kentucky and Cumberland Rivers ran either side of this large piece of land. Following devasting flooding over the years, it was decided that both rivers be dammed thus forming two lakes and displacing about 7,000 people. In the 1960’s Kennedy proclaimed that the area be turned into a National Recreation Area and the remaining people were moved off the land. The US has this act called Eminent Domain with which they can invoke to seize land for public use and this seizure still rankles with the people who were forcibly removed from this area.
The road runs up the middle of the LBL and there are various campgrounds, picnic areas, boat ramps and primitive camps. We opted for primitive – the permit was $14 for three days and we stayed in three of the camps – Taylor Bay, Birmingham Ferry and Twin Lakes. All were on the lake shore – plenty of vacant sites to choose from. Lots of boaties out fishing on the lakes. All sorts of hiking, biking and horse riding trails straddle the 170,000 acres that make up the LBL and they even have a small 700 acre wildlife preserve with bison and elk. We did the drive around this – managing to see about half of the bison herd and about a dozen elk. Further up the road was a small nature centre with a little more of the local flora as well as a few injured local fauna, in the process of recovery where possible. Our weather has been quite variable – the last few days very hot and humid with rain as well, so not conducive to very much activity.
09 May – Decided to see Kentucky off with a visit to the Kentucky Opry in Benton. We booked our tickets for the evening show with the intention of going down the road to Wallies afterwards, but the ladies at the Opry were kind enough to let us park overnight in their carpark. The show was great fun – the first half was their talent search semi-finals for beginners and juniors. We figured that the beginner class was for artists that hadn’t performed before – most of them were littlies with the first act off the block the cutest little guy (can’t have been more than 6 yrs old) dressed in cowboy hat, jeans and boots and complete with guitar. He sang Lonesome Dove and was just gorgeous. There were 5 other acts – four young girls with one standout who must have been only about 9 years but with an incredibly powerful voice and one other young lad about 12. The juniors had the same mix – 2 guys and 4 girls – all in their teens. A mix of talents but all very entertaining. The second half of the show was the Opry band – drummer, bass guitarist, steel guitar, electric guitar, incredible young woman fiddler, banjo player and a blind pianist who also doubled as the music director (she was brilliant) and a couple of backup singers. The lead was the show’s creator and venue owner (this Opry has been running for 27 years) – Clay Campbell (he had a great voice but didn’t come across as a very nice person). We had a great toe-tapping time – nice small theatre, very well patronised and it was a nice end to our stay in Kentucky.
10 May – Northbound from Benton we stopped off at a small historical Mississippian Indian Mound site at Wickliffe on the banks of the Mississippi River. The mounds were first excavated by a local couple in the 1930’s and they did quite a bit of digging to expose the layers of settlement that had been present in this area from around 900 years ago. A small museum showcased the finds from pottery to farming and hunting implements. Headed on up to where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers converge. Crossed over the Ohio and the Illinois State Line into the town of Cairo. Boy what a difference to Kentucky – Cairo was a very dead town – coming into town the welcome signs were faded beyond recognition and only just standing up. Travelling through the town showed businesses closed down, abandoned buildings everywhere and just a very sad area. Not too far from Cairo we headed off towards a little lake to experience the first of our Illinois State Parks – a bit sad and tired like Cairo but with running water I was able to get some washing done and nearly get it dry before a huge weather system came through with thunder storms and high winds. We need to keep a very watchful eye on the weather radar and reports now as we will be heading through Tornado Alley in the next two or three weeks and already the tornadoes have been doing damage in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.
11 May – On to Highway 3 today with a short detour to get propane at Cape Giradeau then on up to Waterloo south of St Louis. The weather was quite overcast to begin our day, but as we got to more open farmland the skies cleared and we ended up with a nice fine day. Not much to see but a whole lot of farmland – corn, wheat or possibly sorghum were the main crops.
12 May – St Louis beckoned today – we made our way up to the city along the east side of the Mississippi – first stop in the city was the Moto Museum – a nice collection of mainly old and rare European motorbikes, as well as one S8 Sunbeam which had a NZ registration sticker from 1992. Bob was probably more impressed by the Triumph dealer in the building next door which had a very large number of new Triumph and Ducati bikes for sale.
As we were pretty close to the centre of the city we thought we would try and get to see the Arch. Well, due to road works we ended up over Eads Bridge (the original Mississippi River Route 66 crossing point) on the other side of the river. East St. Louis is in Illinois and the Missouri St Louis population regard it as being extremely dangerous and a no-go area! Just had to do a quick about-turn back over the bridge and couldn’t get close to the Arch due to more reconstruction work, so just had a fleeting glimpse as we drove by. Bob was particularly disappointed that the Museum of Westward Expansion at the Arch (featuring a substantial Lewis & Clark exhibit) was closed.
Headed out of the city to another collection – the Mungenast Motorcycle display on Gravois Avenue (more original Route 66) which had a wonderful range of mostly European and Honda machines reflecting the dealerships that the founder had operated over the years. Being the only visitor at the time, Bob had a personalised guided tour of their impressive displays (BSA Gold Stars, Triumph competition machines, Nortons, Ariels, AJS, Matchless and BMW to mention just a few).
With those two visits ticked off the list it was onto the freeway for a few miles before we came off to historic Route 66, where we stopped for the night at their visitor centre at Times Beach. Times Beach used to be a little riverside town promoted as a get-away from the big smoke. It suffered from flooding but it’s eventual demise was that the whole town became contaminated. The streets were all dusty and the local council had a contractor spray old oil to keep the dust down. Several years later it was found that this oil was full of dioxins so the whole town was razed, all the soil dug up to be incinerated and once cleaned, the area then became the State Park and was replanted and turned into a wildlife preserve.