Kid-venture 2: Mammoth Cave

After a successful trip with the boy (to St. Louis, Missouri), I felt very empowered to take my young son on more adventures. The park ranger at The Gateway Arch National Park was monumentally important in determining the trajectory for all of our trips from that point out.

Gabriel wanted more junior ranger badges!

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Junior Ranger program and you have small kids, I highly suggest doing this with your children. When visiting National Parks, Historic Sites, National Shorelines, etc, visit the ranger station and your child will get an activity book to fill out while exploring the area. The workbooks are age adjusted, so the activities for preschoolers are much less intense than the ones for older elementary children. It’s a great way to learn about the park, and the park rangers get totally stoked to swear-in the kids. Every park we’ve been to, the rangers stop whatever they are doing to help kids– even at one park they “fought” over who got to swear Gabriel in that day.  They are wonderful, wonderful people!

Mammoth

Being a teacher has many positives and negatives, but one of the positives is that I have breaks from work when my son has breaks from school… for the most part. And, in central Indiana we have a modified schedule where we have multiple two-week breaks: two weeks in October, two weeks in December, two weeks in March/April. My school does something slightly different now, but at the time of this trip, we had two weeks in October- and so we looked for National Parks that we could drive to pretty easily.

Gabriel decided that his next adventure should be Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, just 3 1/2 hours from where we live. We decided to go over our fall break since the tree colors would be pretty on the drive and in the park.

On the first day of our trip, we started off early and went straight to the park. We got there in time to go on a tour of the main cave. There is a small fee to go on the guided tours, but it is well worth it for the vast knowledge of the park rangers.

There are a plethora of tour options from the very tame, where you walk on well-lit paths that are basically paved and accessible to everyone, to the extremely intense, where you are crawling on your belly and need head-lamps. I believe they even have zip-lining now!  We took the basic tour of the main cavern since my son was still quite young, just six years old.

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Entrance to the main cavern – note the park ranger on the far bottom right for scale

At that age, Gabriel soaked up every. single. word. the ranger uttered. He instructed me what I should write down in the activity book, and he made sure that I kept track of the different uses for the caves over the years.

Some of the great facts we learned:

  • It is the longest system of underground caves in the entire world
  • Originally it was thought to be several different systems that were eventually connected through further exploration
  • Portions of the cave are still unexplored and underwater
  • Evidence of Native American habitation has been found in multiple portions of the cave
  • For a time it was used as a tuberculosis hospital
  • Discoveries are still being made
  • Some animals discovered in the cave (insects) have completely translucent skin because of the complete lack of light (Gabriel’s favorite fact)

Park rules prohibit flash photography in the cave, and this was 2012, so I probably had an iPhone 3 that I was using as a camera. 🙂  Here are a few pictures that are less awful than the rest.

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The slope down into the cave

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It’s difficult to describe how massive the cave is– the shadow on the left is about four times bigger than the actual person that gives some kind of scope.

One of the coolest part of the tour we went on was that once we had walked around for a while and looked at the various sites, the ranger warned us and then turned out all of the lights in the cave. I have never known complete darkness like that. I had my hand right in front of my eyes, and couldn’t see anything – not even the movement of my hand. If it makes sense, it was even darker than when I close my eyes! The lights were only out for a few brief moments, but it was nothing like I’d ever experienced before.

After our tour, we hiked on several trails around the main cave and the visitor center. It was a beautiful cool day, but not so cold that you needed a coat.

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Trees on the trails

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This is the face of a very excited young man. He loved the hiking we got to do!

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“Take a picture of me walking by myself, Mom”

Fall was the right time to visit Kentucky. The leaves on the trees were turning, and it was positively beautiful.

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One of several “sink-hole” cave entrances

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This is his pensive stance

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Like many National Parks, Mammoth Cave has a lodge where you can stay in the park, and they also have several campgrounds for both tents and campers. We chose to stay in nearby Glasgow, Kentucky – but I’ll talk more about that in the next post when I talk about day two of our wonderful time at Mammoth Cave National Park!

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New to the blog?

Check out the first mom/son adventure that my son and I went on: 

Or, check out my adventures in Ireland in 1997 by starting here: 

How about my trip to Italy and Greece with some of my students? Start here:

St. Louis, Missouri

Welcome to a new series on the blog!

Since last September, my blogs looked at my travels either by myself or with students. However, this Mother’s Day (in the US Mother’s Day was this last Sunday), I am starting a blog about the trips that my son and I have gone on — mostly by ourselves, but there will be a few travels that we also took with my parents.

We are kicking off the series with our very first mother/son trip.

For those of you who don’t know me, I am a single mom of a fabulous 13-year-old young man. At the ripe ol’ age of 28 I found myself suddenly single with a 2-year-old– that’s a different story that I’d rather not get into in this light-hearted blog, but it gives you a little background.

Growing up, my family went on some truly wonderful vacations, and as my son got older, I felt like he was getting cheated out of those kinds of experiences because of my fear of traveling alone with a young child. So I decided that I was done “waiting around” for our life situation to change, and we began to go on trips, just the two of us.

So one day while driving home from Dairy Queen (an ice cream store for you non-Americans), I asked my son where he would like to go on vacation. He was five years old at the time, and I anticipated hearing something along the lines of Disney World or some other place that children have heard of. Instead he says boldly that he wants very much to go to St. Louis.

St. Louis? Where on Earth does a five-year-old year about St. Louis? And then it came to me… Veggie Tales… “Meet me in St. Louie, Louie. Meet me at the fair.” So I laughed, and figured when I asked him a few weeks later he might change his mind (as five-year-olds often do). However, Gabriel was consistent, and so a few weeks later I booked us a stay at a (cheap) centrally located hotel in the lovely city of St. Louis.

Though I grew up only a few hours away from St. Louis, I had NEVER been! I’d heard many lovely things about the place, but I mainly new about the arch and that was it. So I did some research, and a few months later, we were on our way- braving the road on our own!

Honestly, St. Louis was a wonderful place for us to start our adventures. For one, it’s only a four-hour drive from Indianapolis, which isn’t too terrible for a five-year-old to handle in one go. We did stop for lunch, where he lost his second tooth, and we found out that the Tooth Fairy does find you no matter where you are staying. AND she gives bigger gifts in new places because Mom didn’t have any change. 🙂

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Our first stop was, of course, the Mississippi River. We crossed the bridge from Illinois into Missouri, and pulled over almost immediately into the riverfront parking. We walked along the shore for a while enjoying the cool breeze off the water – the temperatures for the days we were there were in the mid-90s, so the breeze was welcomed!

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The first thing Gabriel noticed was a river boat, and we simply HAD to take the day cruise right that minute! So that’s what we did — it was the perfect way to see the city for the first time. The guide came over the speakers and pointed out famous landmarks and gave us historical insights into the city and the expansion of Anglo-invaders to the western portions of the United States.

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We chose the boat Tom Sawyer for obvious reasons– I’m an English teacher!

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The English teacher in me found the name of this boat particularly hilarious

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After our trip on the boat, we headed straight for the arch! Gabriel was blown away by the sheer size of the arch. We went under the arch where there is a museum run by the National Park Service and it is free (donations are accepted).  The museum gives much of the history of Westward Expansion, life on the prairie, and how people lived before the west was “settled.” It was truly fascinating for us both, and we came back the next day as well because Gabriel wanted to see it again.

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A statue of Thomas Jefferson – the president who pushed Westward Expansion

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partial replica of a sod house

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At this museum we had a defining experience. It seems strange to say that, but it is true. The park ranger who explained the museum to us gave us a worksheet for Gabriel to complete while we looked around, and he told us to come back when we were finished.

We walked around the exhibits and answered the questions and returned, as instructed, to the park ranger station. The ranger then told us about the Junior Ranger program, and explained to Gabriel (not me) the importance of keeping our National Parks and historic sights clean, safe, and protected. He told Gabriel that as a Junior Ranger, it was his responsibility to make sure he did whatever he could to keep the parks clean and safe. Then, he swore Gabriel in as a Junior Ranger and gave him his first (of many) Junior Ranger badges. Later Gabriel expressed to me that he thought the responsibility was too big for him and insisted that we go back and return the badge. It took quite some time before I was able to convince him that he was up to the challenge (so cute)!

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After leaving the museum, we went back above ground and walked around the arch.  We laid on the grass under the arch and looked up and traced it with our fingers and talked about how, from where we were, it looked like it got paper-thin at the top. He was fascinated and horrified (thankfully) that you could travel all the way to the top and look out at the world from the top.

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Here is a life lesson for you new parents out there: I should have stopped there. We had experienced quite a bit in our short time in St. Louis so far, and I should have steered us to the hotel and have been done with it. However, wanting to squeeze as much as we could into the day, I insisted that we keep going.

Five-year-olds do not have the same attention spans as their parents, and though I enjoyed the Old Courthouse quite a bit with its beautiful architecture…

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… Gabriel did not!

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This was after I told him we could get ice cream if he just stoped frowning. 

That night at the hotel we ordered a pizza and relaxed. Gabriel’s good mood returned when he learned that there was an entire channel on the TV dedicated to just golf! We watched golf for nearly an hour before I couldn’t take it anymore, and I finally got us both to sleep!

Day 2

We started out our day back at the arch, back at the museum, and of course the gift shop! We also took another cruise because our hotel gave us a free ticket… so we HAD to go! Then we visited the Dred Scott museum, and Gabriel was much more into that than he had been at the courthouse.

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Peek-a-boo!

We also encountered a lovely public park in the middle of the city with statues, fountains, and interactive art. I highly recommend going – it is just west of the Old Courthouse.

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Another note: You cannot do St. Louis the justice it deserves in two days! There were SO many things we didn’t do on that trip because we simply didn’t have the time. I’d learned my lesson the first day, and I let Gabriel guide the trip – and though I wanted him to see even more, I decided he would have the most fun if he got to choose the itinerary. So that’s what we did. We didn’t see the zoo, or the sportsball stadiums, the City Museum or Grant’s Farm. However, my son has the time of his life, and I enjoyed watching him enjoy the city!

All in all this was a wonderful first vacation for the two of us! We had an amazing time, despite the record heat they had that summer, and we made life long memories!

Come back next week to read about our next adventure – Mammoth Cave!