Louisville, Lincoln’s Birthplace, Mammoth Cave, and Jim Beam

Now that I have started back at graduate school at Western Illinois University, I anticipate that I will not be traveling internationally in the next year and a half. However, there are plenty of places in the United States that I haven’t been, so I am planning to use this time to travel and explore more of my own country. The first stop on this tour was Mammoth Cave National Park, with stops in Louisville, the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace, and the Jim Beam American Stillhouse.

Charles, one of my good friends from college approached me about going to Kentucky a few weeks ago. He was going to be in Louisville for a training, and since Louisville is only about six hours from Macomb, I decided to go for it. I had been to Louisville a couple of times in high school for the National FFA Convention, and I had been to Lexington for a UGA-Kentucky football game but other than that, I hadn’t spent much time in Kentucky. I met up with Charles in downtown Louisville and we headed out to explore the area. We had bourbon and bbq at a great restaurant and a few drinks at Fourth Street Live! (exclamation point theirs). Fourth Street Live! is a pedestrian street that is surrounded by a 350,000-square-foot entertainment and retail complex. It was a cool place to hang out and people watch.

The memorial building housing the symbolic Abraham Lincoln birthplace cabin
The memorial building housing the symbolic Abraham Lincoln birthplace cabin

The next morning after a hearty breakfast at the hotel, we hit the road and head down to Mammoth Cave. About halfway there, we saw signs for the Abraham Lincoln birthplace (technically the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park) and on an impulse, we decided to stop. Living in Illinois, I have a deep appreciation for all things Lincoln. Honest Abe was born on this farm in LaRue County in 1809 and lived here for a couple of years before moving up the road a bit, and eventually moving north to Illinois. While the cabin they have enshrined is not the actual birthplace, it is from the same time and of the same style. It is covered by a large memorial building, with several architectural features that symbolize part of Lincoln’s life (like 56 steps for the 56 years of his life).

After that stop, we continued on and arrived at Mammoth Cave National Park. Mammoth Cave is the world’s longest cave, with more than 400 miles of passageways (and more being discovered all the time). It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981. It was my first visit to a UNESCO site in the continental United States. Mammoth Cave has a huge variety of cave formations due to the karst topography. The cave is also full of unique cave-dwelling plants and animals, including some crazy fish and shrimp with no eyes.

We arrived about noon and booked a tour at 12:30. Shortly thereafter, we heard an announcement that the 11:30 am tour would be starting soon…and we realized we had gone back in time to the Central Time Zone. So with a little extra time, we went to the campground and set up our camp for the night. Since we were just staying one night, it was pretty basic. It was nice to be at the campground, right above the cave system. The first tour we went on was the “Domes and Dripstones” tour. Since Mammoth Cave is huge and confusing, you have to be on a tour to explore the cave. Entry into the park was free, but the tours were $10-$15.

Part of the Frozen Niagara at  Mammoth Cave National Park
Part of the Frozen Niagara at Mammoth Cave National Park

The Domes and Dripstones tour explored the “new” part of the cave, including the famous Frozen Niagara. We went down and through a number of passageways. We learned about George, who was the proprietor of this part of the cave before it became a national park. This part of the cave has a lot of stalactites, which were really cool. After the tour, we glad to be back “on the surface” and after a brief but intense rain shower passed, we headed out to one of the trails. There are a ton of trails here, and we walked along an easy one overlooking the Green River. Afterward, we headed back to our campsite, lit our fire, had some hot dogs and smores, and called it a night.

Graffiti dating back to the 1830's on the ceiling of Mammoth Cave
Graffiti dating back to the 1830’s on the ceiling of Mammoth Cave

The next morning we got up and packed up our tents before heading out on the Historical Tour. This was the tour that I was most excited about. Though it has only been a national park since 1941, Mammoth Cave has been a major tourist attraction since 1816, and before that it was a major source of saltpeter (a component of gunpowder) during the War of 1812. In fact, it was so popular it had its own railroad spur starting in 1886. We learned about the early cave tours led by slaves that took 12-14 hours and often included lunch and tea in the cave. We also saw graffiti dating back more than 150 years. It was hard to take pictures in the cave due to the low light, but I tried.

Charles and I with Jim Beam himself.
Charles and I with Jim Beam himself.

After our tour, we hit the road again and headed back towards Louisville. But of course, no trip to Kentucky would be complete without bourbon, we decided to stop at the Jim Beam American Stillhouse. We got there right in time for a tour. We learned about the history of Jim Beam and the rest of the Beam family (the faces on the side of the bottle), the fermentation and distilling process, the bottling process, and even got to try a couple of types. It was a really interesting tour, and I learned a lot about the process of making bourbon (and what exactly bourbon is). I can’t say I like it any more than I did before, but I know a lot more about it!

Overall, it was a great experience. Kentucky is an unexpectedly wonderful place, with friendly people, great sights, and of course, bourbon.