Hospitality in the Hills – the other, other spring break

“The ticket says we have to be there at least a half hour before the tour!”

“What?”

“The ticket says we have to be there at least a half hour early!” I yelled again through the door.

Marco was in the bathroom, it was already 9:30 am and our tour was at 10. It was only then, when I was gathering things together in an attempt to ignore Marco’s lack of speed in the mornings that I saw the clause on our receipts: “Must arrive 30 minutes before start of tour.”

It was spring break. That over-hyped yearly ritual that has imprinted images in our minds of scantily clad college students partying in MTV-like celebrations on beaches across the US and Mexico.

Only, in reality, spring break is not like that. First, it seems to come earlier and earlier as I move up in academia, falling at times when the snow is still falling. Even Daytona doesn’t provide 90-degree days in late February. Second, with a measly week to celebrate, spending almost $1,000 to get drunk for five days straight is not only fiscally irresponsible but also, in my case, fiscally impossible.

That’s how I ended up pounding on a bathroom door in a Super 8 Motel in Cave City, Kentucky, yelling at Marco to hurry up. That year we decided to spend spring break a bit differently – instead of bar-lined beaches, we planned a weekend trip to Mammoth Cave.

The price was right, the time was right, and the distance wasn’t exaggerated. When you’re used to being able to cross a country in a couple of hours, as Marco is, long road trips aren’t the most realistic. The five hours from Columbus, Ohio to Cave City seemed like the perfect way to introduce an Italian to an American road trip.

Also, I had been as a seven-year-old and loved it.

We tried to stay calm, speeding down the road we came in on. I knew it was close, maybe six miles away, and hoped that everything would still go smoothly even if we were fifteen to twenty minutes late.

We had booked a four mile, roughly four and a half hour tour for Saturday morning called the “Grand Avenue” tour. Now, I was scared we would miss that– the only reason for driving five hours and spending spring break in a Super 8 Motel that smelled like a cigarette graveyard.

The single attraction in Cave City is, in fact, the Cave, a detail immediately noticeable after driving through the community. Large signs advertising “Mammoth size rocks from Mammoth Cave!” and other such puns line the roads.

“MAMMOTH CAVE” The sign was the size of a semi and perched over a red arrow that pointed to a long, squat building. I flew into the parking lot and parked.

“Stay here,” I said to Marco, “I’m going to go get our tickets.”

I noticed with only slight irritation that Marco had gotten out of the car also.

“Be careful,” a teenage girl said from a wooden rocking chair on the porch of the building, “The blacktop is slippery.”

“Thanks. Is this the place to get tickets for Mammoth Cave?” I asked quickly.

“No, that’s about four miles that way,” she pointed calmly.

Shit! I turned around, not calmly, and shimmied across the wet blacktop when I realized why Marco should have stayed in the car in the first place. The keys were in the car, locked.

How could I have been so stupid? Of course the huge “Mammoth Cave” sign with an arrow doesn’t mean the real Mammoth Cave. The blank hill behind the store, with no signs of a cave should have been a giveaway. Instead I was at a shop near Mammoth Cave…of which I can now only assume is called something clever like “Mammoth Cave Shop.”

I followed the girl into the store to use their phone. Fog was starting to rise from the dew on the hills; everything was waking up calmly and happily, a sharp contrast to my mood.

The store was stuffed with rocks, beads, magnets, t-shirts and rock candy. Ceramic animals and other thing-a-ma-jigs filled every crevice. It was early, and the only people there were the two owners and their daughter, the helpful girl from the porch.

They caught on to the situation immediately and inserted suggestions to our predicament. We could walk, maybe, but with just ten minutes before our tour left (ignoring completely the “arrive thirty minutes early” request) that probably wouldn’t work. I am a proud and thankful AAA member, but once again, time was of the essence. It was clear there was no solution. I messed up.

The mom turned to rocking chair girl “Honey give them a lift. We can handle it here for 10 minutes,” she said, looking out into the empty store.

If an Italian wanted a glimpse into “real” America, I figured this was a pretty good way – we gratefully agreed and jumped in the car. It was close, like, bus loaded and pulling out close, but with one small act of hospitality we made it on the bus to start our tour.

Mammoth Cave is considered the longest cave in the world, with over 400 miles explored. By choosing the “Grand Avenue” tour we would see the largest part of the cave and enjoy a decent underground hike. I didn’t have my coat, camera or our lunches. Marco shared his giant OSU sweater my dad had given to him as a gift, and contented himself to shiver it out in the cave’s cold, damp air like a true gentleman.

Instead of our usual hike in the Alps, we hiked among the cave’s three different levels underground, listening to the ranger’s various folk tales and science facts and sweating despite the cold.

After four hours we emerged from another level of earth, with bleary eyes and goosebumps, to a bright springtime sun. The girl from Mammoth Cave Shop said she would come get us if we called, but with no phone on us, we figured it was just as easy to hitch a ride. We hung around the gift shop like two teenagers looking to steal a mug, scoping out our company and making comments on who we should ask for a ride.

“What about them? They look like a nice a family, safe.”

“No, the mom already looks exhausted and we’d just scare the kids.”

“We could just ask anyone, it’s no big deal.”

“You ask!”

We decided on a white-haired couple that seemed overjoyed with everything. Of course it wasn’t a problem, sweetie, the van is just right over there! Thank goodness.

Finally back at Mammoth Cave Shop we shoo’d lazy bumblebees away as we played game after game of novelty sized checkers on the porch. They let us use the phone to call AAA and, the main adventure of the day completed, we happily soaked in the relief of having nothing else to do but wait.

True, there was no beach packed with hot, fit, alcoholic bodies; no ocean lapping at our feet; there was no exotic name we could use to brag to our friends. Instead, we saw crickets the size of tennis balls and stalagmites taller than me. We had successfully hiked Mammoth Cave, albeit not without difficulties, and were recipients of personal, small-town hospitality, the type that changes any travel from a trip, to a story.

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