For a full list of all travel posts, please click here: Away with Words – Travel, or select Travel from the Categories list on the right.

This map of the U.S. shows the states I’ve visited, so far. I’ve seen 74% of the country. That’s 38 states. 12 to go.

A world map is more like a picture of the places I haven’t been! I’ve visited 17 countries, that’s just 7% of the world. There’s still so much to see!

Create your own personalized map
or write about it on the open travel guide, World66.


Cruising: The Panama Canal & Mexican Riviera

NCL Star, originally uploaded by oliviatejeda.

Fourteen days, nine ports, two people, one tiny cabin, and the Panama Canal.

I don’t know what that sounds like to you, but to me it sounds like the ingredients for a fantastic trip. I might be a little biased, though, because the memories of that very trip are so fresh that I’m still wandering around the house looking for the buffet.

Hon and I just returned from a two-week cruise aboard the Norwegian Star. We boarded in Los Angeles and sailed south to Mexico (Cabo San Lucas, Acapulco, and Huatulco), Guatemala, and Costa Rica. After passage through the Panama Canal we headed north with a stop in Columbia before ending our trip in Miami. We flew home weary, happy, and ready to board another cruise soon.

We both love cruising, and I get the sense that we could easily spend weeks at sea, but we picked this particular cruise based on itinerary. We both wanted to see the Panama Canal, so that was the deciding factor in this case, but there were some added bonuses, too.

Bonus #1: Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala

A stop in Guatemala allowed us to explore more of this country that is so dear to me. My father, who passed away in 2003, was born and raised there. He moved to the U.S. with his parents and lived here for nearly 50 years, never returning to his homeland. He talked about Guatemala from time to time, sharing his love for the country called the Land of Eternal Spring. The first time I visited, like this time, was via cruise to the east coast at Santo Tomas de Castillo. We hiked into a rain forest and swam at Las Escobas, a waterfall near Puerto Barrios.

This visit took us to the west side where we docked at Puerto Quetzal and took a tour inland to Antigua Guatemala. This was a wholly different experience from the last one. We didn’t go through any rain forests and stayed in more densely populated areas. It was still a rich experience, and I felt my Dad close by the whole time I was there. Antigua was once the capital of Guatemala, but after a series of earthquakes in 1773, the capital was moved to its current location in Guatemala City. What remains in Antigua has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Bonus #2: Puntarenas, Costa Rica

I’ve never been to Costa Rica but have always heard so much about its beauty. In high school, my family hosted an exchange student from Costa Rica, and that’s when my interest in that country was piqued. Our quick visit (a seven-hour stop) didn’t allow for much site seeing, but it was enough to let me know that I want to go again and spend more time.

There isn’t a lot to see right at the port in Puntarenas, so we booked a tour to Sarchi, a region known for its brightly colored, hand-painted crafts and in particular its ox-carts. Las Carretas seemed quaint and rustic to me, but I understood their importance once I learned about the role they played in Costa Rica’s history. In the late 1800s, when coffee plantations started to develop, oxen pulled the coffee over rough and muddy terrain to the ports. Nowadays, the carts are a symbol of Costa Rica’s history and its artistic heritage.

Bonus #3: Cartagena, Colombia

It truly was a bonus that we got to see Cartagena again. This was our second visit and this time we toured the city on our own. When we were there last, we learned that there’s nothing to be afraid of in Cartagena. Everything you hear about crime and drugs, etc., did not infringe on our time there. I’m not naive enough to say it doesn’t exist, but Old Town Cartagena was as safe as any city in the U.S., perhaps more. 

I’ll be writing more in depth about all the stops on our cruise, but dinner is waiting so it’s time to say good night. Thank you for reading!

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia, originally uploaded by oliviatejeda.

Our cruise through the Panama Canal took us to Cartagena, Colombia. It was our second visit and there’s still so much to see.

I’ll be posting more about our trip soon, but in the meantime, if you click on any of these pictures they will take you to my Flickr site with the rest of the pictures.

Here’s a few you’ll see there:
The Bridge of the Americas at the beginning of the Panama Canal
Panama Canal

A Costa Rican Spider
Costa Rica

Catedral de San José in Antigua Guatemala
Antigua Guatemala

Gut Bombs and Glitz, Life at Elvis Presley’s Graceland

Graceland's kitchen. Home of the Gut Bomb.
Graceland's kitchen. Home of the Gut Bomb.

Question: What do you get when you combine a bunch of bananas, a jar of peanut butter, a pound of bacon, and a big, soft loaf of white bread?

Answer: You get an Elvis Presley Gut Bomb, and that’s what I kept thinking about when I stood in Elvis’ kitchen during a tour of Graceland.

Sure, he’s the King of Rock ‘n Roll, and, yes, he had a tremendous impact on our music and pop culture, and it is true that all these years after his death, thousands upon thousands of loyal fans still make the pilgrimage to his Memphis home. I don’t disagree with any of that, but as I stood in his kitchen, looking at the dark wood cabinets, the linoleum countertops and the stained glass overhead lamps, I thought of Elvis in his pajamas, frying up a Gut Bomb for himself and whoever happened to be hanging out with him.

Visiting Graceland didn’t put Elvis Presley up on a pedestal for me. It took him down from one, and made him accessible in a very endearing way. It wasn’t just the Gut Bomb that did it, either. The house itself, did, and the property around it.

Continue reading “Gut Bombs and Glitz, Life at Elvis Presley’s Graceland”

Arcosanti: Soleri’s Eco-Dream Still Grows in the Desert

The view of Arcosanti from across the canyon
The view of Arcosanti from across the canyon

Back in the 60s, architect Paolo Soleri had a vision in green.

Soleri believed that by combining elements of architecture and ecology, he could create an arcology, an autonomous super-structure where 5,000 residents could live, work, shop, and play, all while improving their quality of life and minimizing their impact on the earth.

The Italian-born architect put his vision into action in 1970, and began building his self-contained 25-acre city in the middle of a 4,060-acre land preserve in the Arizona desert. He called it an urban laboratory and named it Arcosanti.

Continue reading “Arcosanti: Soleri’s Eco-Dream Still Grows in the Desert”

Mississippi’s Hometown Boys: Elvis & Faulkner at home

Mississippi's Native Sons: William Faulkner & Elvis Presley
Native Sons: William Faulkner & Elvis Presley

The Pelvis & The Pen
On our way to Memphis, Tennessee, there were two important stops we wanted to make. Both were in Mississippi, and both paid homage to two of America’s greatest icons. The first was Tupelo, to visit Elvis Presley’s birthplace. The second, Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home in Oxford.


When you first consider Elvis and Faulkner together, they seem like an unlikely duo. Elvis was the King of Rock ‘n Roll, the Hillbilly Cat, Elvis the Pelvis. Faulkner was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, two Pulitzers, and two National Book Awards. Even though the disparities might seem as wide as the Mississippi River, these two Southern boys did share some similarities.

First, they were born within miles of each other in small north Mississippi towns. Elvis in Tupelo, Faulkner in New Albany. Second, from those small-town beginnings, they both grew to worldwide fame. It could even be said that they had more influence in their respective fields than any other artists of the 20th century. Yet, for all of their money, talent, and fame, their love of the South kept them deeply rooted there throughout their lives. They traveled the world, but home to both of them, was always the South. As someone who has moved from state to state a few times, I was looking forward to seeing the homes where those strong roots took hold.

Continue reading “Mississippi’s Hometown Boys: Elvis & Faulkner at home”

Finding Insight in the Lost Luggage

Courtesy of Unclaimed Baggage CenterA couple months ago when I was flipping through channels looking for something to watch, I found the program, Extreme Superstores on the Travel Channel. Within the first few minutes I got completely caught up in a cross-country shopping spree that included everything from Daffin’s Candy, dubbed the world’s largest candy store, in Sharon, Pennsylvania, to the eight-square mile San Jose Flea Market in California.

The Extreme series picks a theme for each show, e.g., Extreme Mind-Blowing Hotels, Extreme Water Parks, Extreme Pig Out Restaurants, and then tracks down the most over-the-top examples of that theme. With a name like Extreme, the program is practically required to be overly enthusiastic and full of hyperbole, but it’s fun to watch and it’ll perk up even the most dormant travel gene. It certainly got my motor running as I watched the segment on the 20,000 square foot candy store. As an avowed candy junkie, I plan on making a pilgrimage one day soon.

After the candy store, the most interesting shop on the program was also the most unusual one.

Abandoned treasures
As you may have heard, sometimes airlines lose luggage. But what happens to the luggage that is found and can’t be reunited with its owner? That’s where Extreme Superstore No. 4 comes in. The Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, buys the orphaned luggage and all of its contents from airlines around the world. They clean it, price it, and sell it to the public. What a great idea. My inner bargain hunter wanted to see what kind of deals I could find, and my inner voyeur was interested in seeing what kind of stories these lost treasures told.

As Hon and I planned our trip west, we kept the store in mind. It would be about two hours out of our way since we weren’t planning on passing through Scottsboro specifically. Other than Unclaimed Baggage, there isn’t much to do in this remote little spot in northern Alabama. Right off the main highway, there’s a Walmart and some restaurants and that’s about it. Once you get into Scottsboro, you have to drive even further to get to Unclaimed Baggage, which sits four miles off the main road, near the site of the original store that opened on a much smaller scale in 1970.

After watching Extreme Superstores, I did some internet research. It turns out the Unclaimed Baggage Center is world renowned. It’s website alone features enthusiastic quotes from World News Tonight, Wall Street Journal, London Free Press, CNN, Vogue, et al. A Google search brings up more than 17,000 results. After reading about all the treasures and the shoppers who visit week after week finding amazing bargains every time, we decided a trip to Scottsboro would be worth the extra miles. We weren’t the only ones. Every year, thousands of visitors from around the world pass through Scottsboro, like so much lost luggage.

Through the front doors
The store’s popularity is often exaggerated in the press with claims that the store hosts a million visitors a year and is the state’s biggest attraction. That’s not quite accurate. A 2008 report from the Alabama Department of Tourism says the Gulf Coast beaches are its biggest draw, bringing in more than 4.5 million visitors in 2007. Unclaimed Baggage welcomed just under 850,000 shoppers, making it the fourth largest shopping destination in the state, behind The Riverchase Galleria in Birmingham, Tanger Outlet Center in Foley, and the Bass Pro Shop in Prattville. Being #4 is not as exciting as being #1, but considering that it is one store, tucked away in a tiny little Alabama town, it’s a pretty impressive feat.

As we were en route, I questioned whether we might be lost ourselves. Our driving lanes kept tapering, first four lanes, then three, two, and one. I checked my iPhone a few times just to make sure we had the correct Unclaimed Baggage Center. Could there be more than one? I didn’t think so, but this seemed like such an unlikely location for a store that garnered international attention. We kept on driving and finally saw the big sign announcing “Unclaimed Baggage Center.” Whew, we made it!

With all the gushing praise from the media, I imagined some kind of neo-bargain basement experience with the secret contents of suitcases and steamer trunks spilling out onto the floor and customers scrambling to get their hands on the best of the booty.

In reality, Unclaimed Baggage is a big thrift store with a lot going for it. Aside from being the black hole for waylaid luggage, the store is as big as a city block, it’s clean and well-organized. Every day, 7,000 items come into the store. Clothing makes up 60% of that, the rest is a mix of electronics, jewelry, bedding, garden tools, skateboards, surf boards, musical instruments, medical instruments, suitcases (empty ones), wedding dresses, travel mugs, paintings, eyeglasses. The list goes on longer than the world’s longest packing list. Yet even with all that inventory, I found a surprising little that interested me enough to warrant a purchase. Maybe I was turned off by the excessive spirit of consumerism all around me, or maybe it was the prices. Considering everything is second-hand, and it’s bought in bulk from an industry that is probably thrilled to be rid of it, the prices were much higher than I expected and that just annoyed me.

As far as finding the stories that these lost treasures told, well, they’ve all been erased, at least as far as I could tell. Everything in the store has been sanitized and de-personalized. Before selling anything to Unclaimed Baggage, the airlines go through their own stringent process of trying to reunite owner and luggage, so most items arriving at the store are already anonymous. Once merchandise arrives, it goes through a thorough check-up and cleaning, so by time it gets to the shelves all identifying marks are long gone.

I’m glad we took the side trip to Scottsboro. We really wanted to see the store so it was worth the effort, but while I was there I felt sad and kind of empty. As I stood looking at a long wall of plastic baggies filled with hundreds of earbuds, adapters, USB plugs, etc., I thought I was feeling sad for the anonymous travelers who once cared enough about these things to pack them up and take them along. Then I realized I was feeling sad about some things in my own life.

Letting go
In packing for our move to Phoenix, I had given away a lot of “stuff” that once meant a lot to me. I knew it was time to let go of these things, but letting go can be hard, even in the best of circumstances. I was feeling the sadness of loss and saying goodbye, not just to things, but to the people back in Baltimore who meant a lot to me: Dennis, Christina, Keith, Megan, Nate, Nicholas.

It’s true I was moving onto another phase of my life that is exciting and full of hope, but I was missing my friends and it hit me right there in front of the earbuds. I let the tears come for a few minutes, until I saw the cutest little tote bag, which was exactly what I needed for the road trip. Not one to dwell in the past, I walked over and checked it out before someone else got their hands on it. Then I went off to explore the rest of the store in hopes of discovering something fantastic like the things I’d seen on Extreme Superstores. Perhaps I’d find a suit of armor or a Barbie doll with $500 stuck in her head.

No luck there, but I did find Hon checking out the tools back in the Annex, a separate building that sells an ever-changing mix of brand new items that come in from unclaimed cargo..

We ended up leaving the store with a $3.99 tote bag for me and a $2 knee brace for Hon’s sore knee. It wasn’t much loot considering all the build-up, but I guess we got what we needed.

After we left the store, I was trying to make a connection between people and travel, the things they take, and the things they lose. I wasn’t looking for a big revelation or the great secret of life. I just wanted a little insight, and after thinking about it for a long time, I got some. It’s this: If you care very much about something, don’t pack it in a suitcase, but if you have to, make sure it’s a carry-on.

A Little Country Gets Into My Soul

Grand Ole Opry on the Ryman StageI’ve never been a country music fan, but our drive from Baltimore to Phoenix took us through Nashville, the country music capital of the world. That isn’t something that would ordinarily draw me in, but since we were nearby and there is a lot of music history there, we wanted to stop.

We only had a few hours to spend, so Hon and I booked Gray Line’s Discover Nashville Tour. We had a great time seeing the city and listening to the commentary of our tour guide Rudy, who had a strong Southern drawl, a huge knowledge of the city and a dry sense of humor that kept us laughing. At one point, Rudy told us about the Nashville Raccoons, the city’s old hockey team that did great at home, but always got killed on the road.

Rim shot, please.

It’s a corny joke, but having a tour guide with Rudy’s knowledge and wit made the tour so much more enjoyable than the standard … “on your right is the blah, blah, blah.” He was friendly and funny and he humanized Nashville in a way that made the city come to life.

Our tour started when Rudy picked us up at the Gray Line office and off we went with about 15 new friends who met the bus at their hotels.

The Mother Church of Country Music
We stayed on the bus through most of the tour, but we were able to walk through some of Nashville’s most legendary sites like the Ryman Auditorium, where the Grand Ole Opry gained its fame.
Ryman Auditorium
The Ryman was our first stop and it was there that I started to feel like a visitor in a foreign land. So much of the history … events, names, faces were unfamiliar to me. I knew I was clueless, so when my tour mates oohed and ahhed over something, I made a note to self: Google that. What I was seeing was an important part of American history and I wanted to learn more. Names I had never heard of, like Porter Wagoner, George Morgan, and Red Foley, were treated with such reverence that I’d have to be a complete moron not to realize there is more to country music than heartbroken hillbillies and low-down cheatin’ red-necks.

Stained Glass inside the Ryman Auditorium

The reverent atmosphere in the Ryman is more pronounced because it was built in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. When we first walked into the auditorium we all quieted down, not because we were told to, but because the room still looks just like a church and that was our natural reaction. The original wooden pews are there and provide seating for more than 2,600, and the stained glass windows still paint the room in quiet, colorful strokes of light.

The history of the Ryman itself is pretty remarkable beyond the notoriety the Grand Ole Opry brought in. It was built by riverboat captain Thomas Ryman, a hard-living, hard-drinking business man who owned a few saloons in Nashville and encouraged gambling and drinking on his riverboats. After hearing a sermon by the evangelist Samuel P. Jones, he was so moved he not only repented, he built the Union Gospel Tabernacle as a revival hall for Jones and the largest convention hall in the South. When Ryman died in 1904, the Tabernacle was renamed in his honor.

The Ryman Auditorium, nicknamed the Mother Church of Country Music, was in constant use from 1892, and hosted a remarkable mix of historical figures. President Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryant, and Booker T. Washington all lectured from its stage. World renowned performers like Enrico Caruso, Charlie Chaplin, Sarah Bernhardt, and Mae West performed there.

Despite the high caliber names that streamed across the Ryman stage, it was the Grand Ole Opry that brought it to national prominence. After making its first appearance in 1943, the Grand Ole Opry called the Ryman home until 1974, when it moved it to its current home in the Nashville suburbs.

It didn’t seem to matter how popular it once was, because after the Grand Ole Opry moved on, the Ryman was nearly forgotten. A few movies scenes were shot there and an occasional hard-core fan would tour the building, but beyond that it was vacant and left to decay. By 1991, it had been vandalized many times, there were holes in the roof and floors, and demolition was its likely future.

Then came salvation in the form of Emmylou Harris and her band the Nash Ramblers, who recorded a live album there and reawakened public interest. A year later, concern was so great, owners Gaylord Entertainment agreed to a multi-million dollar renovation, and when the Ryman reopened in 1994, it was with the same glitz and glory that drew in its first capacity crowds. Big name acts were on-stage again and shows quickly sold out.

These days, the Ryman Auditorium still brings in big names. The day we were there, the box office was busy selling tickets for an evening of bluegrass and banjo with Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. Roger Daltry will be there in October; Aretha Franklin is coming in April. Even the Grand Ole Opry comes back for a performance every now and then.

Patsy Cline handbillOur tour took us beyond the auditorium to the back hallways where salvaged memorabilia is preserved in glass cases. Old handbills advertise Patsy Cline and an unknown Elvis Presley, who appeared only once at the Opry in 1954 and vowed never to return. Presley’s rockabilly music didn’t impress the audience and afterward Opry manager Jim Denny told him he should go back to his truck-driving career. Sepia-toned photographs show Minnie Pearl, a member of the Opry for 50 years, wearing her trademark $1.98 hat and laughing with her Opry friends. Again, I don’t know a lot of the names, but the vitality and the energy of what happened in the Mother Church of Country Music still shines through.

Today, the Ryman is well-cared for and well-loved. It is one of the most popular concert venues in the country and with it’s been designation as a National Historic Landmark its future is secure.

Back on the Bus
After the Ryman, we boarded the bus to start the driving part of the tour. As capital of Tennessee, Nashville is home to the Tennessee State Capitol, a huge and impressive Greek Revival building that sits high up on a hill overlooking the city. The Capitol was completed in 1859 and was visible from all sides, but a building boom 100 years later obscured the view from all but one side. To preserve the remaining view, plans were developed to build a public park, similar to the National Mall in Washington DC. The result was Bicentennial Mall.

Rivers of Tennessee Fountain

Aside from the Ryman Auditorium, Bicentennial Mall impressed me the most. It is a 19-acre state park that was completed in 1996 to pay tribute to the state’s 200th birthday. We entered the park on the south side where a 200-foot granite map of Tennessee includes every county and waterway in the state.

As we continued through the mall, different areas honor highlights in the state’s history and geography. 31 fountains gushing up from ground level represent the state’s 31 rivers. A 1400-foot granite wall along the west side of the park is engraved with a chronology of world, U.S., and Tennessee history.

The World War II Memorial in Nashville
A memorial to World War II features (get this!) an 18,000 lb. granite globe floating and rotating on 1/8 inch of water. Because the globe floats, visitors can stop it and turn it with their hands to see lines connecting Tennessee to the locations where Tennesseans fought during World War II. It’s a remarkable monument that honors the thousands of Tennesseans who were killed in the war. Along the North end of the Mall, a 95-bell carillon, representing the 95 counties of Tennessee, plays Tennessee Waltz every 15 minutes.

Our tour guide Rudy filled us in on lots of details, and seeing this park from the tour bus had its advantages (comfortable seats, air conditioning, Rudy’s commentary), but this park should be experienced on foot. Every monument is interactive in its subtle way. On the granite map, you’re compelled to walk across the entire state, in the meantime you learn a little about Tennessee’s geography. You can romp through the rivers and walk along its path of history. Visiting this park and simply admiring its sites would be a lovely afternoon, but walking through and getting your hands on, would make for a much more enriching experience.

Ancient Greece in Tennessee
After Bicentennial Mall, we headed to Centennial Park. Oh, Nashville does honor its milestones. Centennial Park is home to one of the more unexpected finds on our tour … The Parthenon. Yes, that Parthenon. Well, kind of.

The centerpiece of Centennial Park is a full-scale ancient Greek building. Seeing that kind of architecture in the middle of a Nashville park was a pretty strange site, but Rudy filled us in as we zipped by on the bus. Nashville built its Parthenon in 1897 to celebrate the state’s Grand Centennial Exposition. It chose to model the Athens original because of its nickname, Athens of the South, earned by the city’s early commitment to higher education.

The Centennial Expo included 36 other structures, all built from temporary materials like plaster and wood, but the Parthenon was the only full size replica. By 1920, all the other Expo buildings were gone and the Parthenon was falling apart. When it came time to decide what to do with it, the public made its wishes known. The building had become a beloved part of Nashville’s personality, so rather than demolish it, the city rebuild it in concrete and made it a permanent part of its landscape. It stands today as the ancient Greek treasure of Centennial Park. It is open to the public and serves as home to the Nashville Art Museum.

A little bit more country
Next up was a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Rudy dropped us off out front and told us to meet him back there in an hour. Some fellow passengers grumbled that an hour wasn’t enough to see everything, and I might have agreed since the Museum is so big, but I’d had my fill of country music at the Ryman and thought an hour would be plenty of time.

It was enough time for me, but country music fans could easily spend hours looking at the exhibits, listening to historic recordings or just browsing through thousands of platinum, gold and silver records that line the walls.

The architecture of the Hall of Fame and Museum is not what you’d call understated, but it is elegant and rich. It’s also true to its roots both musically and geographically. Taking its cue from the music, the façade of the building looks like a piano keyboard, with windows lined up to look like the black keys. The right side of the building arches upward, paying homage to a 1950s Cadillac fin. With the Rotunda on the left and the building curving to the right, the entire complex is shaped like a bass clef.

Inside the Museum, we were directed to start our tour on the third floor and work our way back down to the lobby. We piled into an elevator decorated to look like the inside of a barn … another nod to country music’s roots, and started the tour when the doors opened.

“Sing Me Back Home,” one of the Museum’s permanent exhibits, starts with the evolution of country music as far back as the 19th century and continuing through to today’s country artists. The two-floor exhibit features display cabinets filled with memorabilia and history. Listening booths offer a rare opportunity to listen to crackling old recordings of country music’s earliest creators, and touch-screen kiosks let visitors “interview” their favorite musicians with pre-recorded answers to a surprisingly in-depth set of questions.

Elvis Presley's Gold Piano

Further along the exhibit is a seemingly endless collection of everything Country: Elvis Presley’s gold piano, a very beat-up Martin Guitar belonging to Johnny Cash, and Hank Williams’ custom-made cowboy boots.

Speaking of Hank Williams, the Museum gives a surprising amount of space to the seemingly endless collection of Williams’ wives, supposed wives, children, step-children, unrecognized children, grandchildren, etc., and that was only three generations. That’s in addition to “Family Tradition,” a temporary exhibit on the Williams’ family legacy. It is true that Hank Williams had a huge impact on country music, but even in light of that, I thought the exhibit was a little Jerry Springer-esque and gossipy, and I quickly lost interest.

Walking along the top two floors of the museum, we were able to look into the Frist Library, a two-floor, glass enclosed archive of historical photographs, recordings, films, sheet music, newspapers and more. The Frist Library and Archive is the branch of the Museum that acquires, documents and preserves country music history and makes it available to the public.

In another architectural nod to country music’s geographical roots, the walk down to the main floor follows a long waterfall made of stone from East Tennessee and the flooring is made from southern yellow pine from Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

The main floor is home to the Hall of Fame Rotunda, where 108 inductees are honored with brass plaques featuring their names, faces and accomplishments. The inscription, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” from the Carter Family hymn wraps around the room and offers a hopeful link between the long history of country music and its growing future.

We finished our Nashville tour on a low note with a visit to Legends Corner, a famous (I’m not so sure) Broadway honky-tonk. We were herded off the bus and hustled inside for a soft drink and serenade. An earlier tour group was already there, so we settled for bar seating. The serenading was done by a local performer, whose name I’ve forgotten. He had a decent voice and it was nice to get a free soda, but with all the important names and places we had seen on our tour, I felt like we’d had an authentic Nashville experience. This final stop seemed a little too forced and it was a disappointing end to a really interesting tour.

I’m not sure what I thought I would see in Nashville. I don’t think I was expecting to see a bunch of hillbillies sitting around chewing on hay stalks, but I was surprised at how beautiful and well-thought out it is. It’s rich with history, but also very modern and metropolitan. We left that day with a new appreciation for Nashville and a respect for country music that I never had before. I still can’t say I’m a fan, but maybe I am just a little bit.

To see photos that accompany this blog, please visit my photo site:

The Upper Crust of the Underworld

Looking down inside Mammoth DomeA

bout three years ago in West Virginia, I came face to face with the underground. I’m not talking about the criminal fringe or shady, back-room wheeler-dealers. I’m talking about the real underground, like 500 feet below ground level where stalactites hang overhead like massive primeval icicles and narrow tunnels snake downward into the earth leading to complete silence and darkness so deep its called absolute black.

Organ Cave in West Virginia was my first visit to a real underground cave, and it was an experience I’ll never forget. Since then, every time Hon and I travel, we make it a point to tour local caves and this trip was no different. We didn’t have enough time to see all the caves on our drive across the country, but we made specific plans to see two of the biggies: Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.

I’ll try not to be overly effusive, but these caves were the mother lode, the tip-top in rock bottoms, the upper crust of the underworld. In short, they were spectacular. Each very different from the other but both of them jaw-droppingly beautiful, fascinating, mysterious and astounding to see.

At Mammoth Cave, size matters. It is the world’s longest cave system with 367 miles of “explored” passages. That’s more than twice the length of the second largest, Jewel Cave in South Dakota, which clocks in at 145 miles. Experts say there’s still more to be seen at Mammoth and new passageways are discovered every year.

With that much distance to cover, there’s a huge array of cave phenomena to see. Since it’s impossible to see it all at once, the National Park Service, which oversees Mammoth Cave, offers a variety of tours. The Frozen Niagara tour explores a section of the cave where millions of years of dripping water have formed what looks like a gigantic waterfall. On the Violet City tour, experience cave exploration the way 19th-century visitors did, by lantern only.

Hon and I took the Historic Tour, a two-hour walk down two miles into the earth. Our tour leader Ranger Kevin told us, in Mammoth Cave, everything that goes down must come back up again. That means from our first steps in, we climbed 440 steps to get back up into the open air again. It might sound a little like torture, but the sites we saw inside the cave made it worthwhile.

We walked into the cave from an opening called Natural Entrance. As soon as Natural Entrance is in sight, we felt the cave exhaling its cool air. The temperature inside Mammoth Cave hovers around 54 degrees year round. The day we were there, the above ground temp was 94 degrees with stifling humidity, so the underground cool was very inviting.

Though the length of Mammoth Cave is its most talked about feature, I didn’t get a true sense of the size until we were in one of the massive open spaces called “rooms.” After following a long dark passage, the first room we entered was the Rotunda. To imagine this space, picture the lobby of Grand Central Terminal. Now double it. That will start to give you a sense of how big this room is. Then, remember that you’re as far as 500 feet below ground level in a room of massive stone slabs that were carved out over millions of years by underground waterways. That will start to give you a sense of how phenomenal this cave is.

While Mammoth Cave, is indeed mammoth, not all the spaces are. Some passageways we followed are a comfortable height and width, like a normal hallway. One, nicknamed Fat Man’s Misery, is such a narrow maze that we had to walk through one at a time, we had to walk sideways, and those of us with a gut, sucked it in.

Fat Man’s Misery was immediately followed by Tall Man’s Agony. This is where I starting to feel like Alice in Wonderland. Like most of Mammoth Cave, Tall Man’s Agony is a natural formation, not man-made, but it seemed like something thought up by Disney. It is a narrow, curving stairway and with each step down, the ceiling gets lower and lower. I’m 5’5” and I could barely stand upright at the beginning of the path. At the end of the path, I was going down the stairs in a sort of duck walk with legs squatting and my head bent forward. I was starting to feel a little claustrophobic and worried that I couldn’t scrunch down anymore when the pay-off came. At the end of Tall Man’s Misery we entered into another magnificent room. Great Relief Hall is so named because it’s a great relief to be able to stand upright and not be squeezed up against the tops and sides of the pathways. It’s also the only place on the 2+ hour tour where facilities are available for those in need of another kind of relief. Although, we didn’t need them, the NPS had the good sense to lend nature a hand and installed a few toilets for emergency use.

Continuing on from Great Relief Hall, we followed more limestone passageways and came to Bottomless Pit, a ravine that isn’t really bottomless, but at hundreds of feet deep, it’s close enough. When we were about 1/4 of the way across the catwalk, I looked down and realized that I could see through the bridge straight into the endless darkness below. My fear of heights took over and I was not able to move.

My fear was heightened by a little trick the NPS borrowed from Hollywood, good lighting. By installing small lights at just the right height, the Bottomless Pit, quite ominous on its own, looks even more menacing. The trick worked and I stood frozen for a few moments. Fortunately, I’ve been in that situation before and have learned to use denial, my favorite of all the defense mechanisms, to get out of it. I closed my eyes and tried to forget that I was walking across a see-through bridge and could plummet to my death at any moment. When I opened my eyes again, I looked straight-ahead and started walking. I ignored all the oohs and ahhs of everyone else on the bridge with me and took step after step until I was back on solid ground again and could continue the tour like a normal person.

Before starting the tour, the NPS and Ranger Kevin did a thorough job of telling us about the great heights we’d climb and the tiny spaces we’d squeeze through, but I wasn’t about to let my irrational fears talk me out of seeing one of the earth’s natural wonders.

The final showstopper of the tour was the climb up Mammoth Dome. The NPS has again given nature a hand and has built a staircase that lets visitors climb back up to ground level from the inside of a 200-foot vertical cave. If it sounds astounding, it’s because it is.

Mammoth Dome is one of the few wet areas in the spaces we toured. As we started to go up, a few of us got dripped on, but the drips were quickly forgotten. As we climbed higher, we started to see the tapestry of stalactites that have draped the inner walls of this underground mountain over millions of years. Seeing these ancient formations from top to bottom in layer upon layer upon layer was a fitting finale to this grand tour.

As Ranger Kevin answered final questions back at the Rotunda, I realized that one of the highlights of the tour was his presentation. We heard plenty of history and he was able to answer every question we came up with. He was extremely knowledgeable and he was very funny, without stooping to the goofy anecdotes and silly tales I’ve heard on tours at other caves. I think the NPS has done a wonderful job of training its rangers and of presenting Mammoth Cave in a way that honors its magnificence.

After leaving the cave via Natural Entrance where we came in, it was so hot and humid that we decided to sit there for a while to reacclimate. While we sat there it was fun to watch everyone’s eyeglasses fog up once they were out of the cool comfort of the cave and into the blasting Kentucky humidity. It happened at just about the same spot for everyone and everyone had the same reaction … A lean backwards and a look of surprise when they were hit by the heat, and then a little laugh when their glasses fogged up. It made us laugh even more when we realized we had reacted the same way.

A huge storm was blowing in as we walked back to the Visitor’s Center, so we waited it out next door at Mammoth Cave Hotel, where we browsed their gift shops and had lunch in the cafe. When we were ready to brave the storm, we walked back to the campsite we had reserved earlier. There are four campgrounds in Mammoth Cave National Park, and we took a space at the Headquarters site, an easy, 10-minute walk to the Visitor’s Center.

The rain must have kept all the other campers away because we had the campsite to ourselves. That night as we fell asleep to the pounding sounds of another tremendous thunderstorm, I felt content, safe and grateful for the gift and beauty of nature and for being able to experience it the way I had that day.

I knew part of our trip included plans to visit Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, but I didn’t think anything could top what I’d seen at Mammoth Cave. I was wrong.

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A Very Dolly Birthday

The Entrance at Dollywood

ot knowing where we’d be on my birthday, we waited until the last minute to decide how we’d celebrate. It turns out we were an easy drive from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, home of Dolly Parton’s theme park Dollywood. What a perfect way to spend a birthday. We had a great time, too, in spite of the 9000 degree heat and 9 million percent humidity.

The best part of the day was Thunderhead, the life-threatening wooden rollercoaster. I screamed so loud and for so long that my throat hurt for two days, it was well worth it though and I’d do it again tomorrow if I had the chance. There a few other rollercoasters at the park, but they involved too much time upside down, so I sat in the shade while Max took his chances. His pale complexion and shaky legs after the rides were proof that I’d made the right choice.

Even though we had a lot of fun, Dollywood was not what I expected. What I expected, and what I was looking forward to, was a park full of loud, tacky, hillbilly fun and lots of bosom jokes. But no! Dollywood has no bosom jokes! Dollywood has no bosom at all! Can you imagine that? The only slightly bosomy reference came from another park visitor who, upon seeing a big display of two baby owls said sadly to his friend, “I think those are the only hooters we’re going to see here!”

That made me laugh, of course, but it also made me take notice of how little “Dolly” there actually was in Dollywood. No Dolly songs piped in, no theater showing Dolly concerts, no Dolly timeline tracking her rise to stardom. I’m not what you’d call a hardcore Dolly Parton fan, but I do like her. Despite all the plastic surgery, she seems like a real person, and there’s a joyfulness about her that’s infectious. I imagine a lot of people going to Dollywood are hardcore Dolly Parton fans, so it was surprising, and disappointing, that more of her big personality didn’t show up in the park.

Before Dolly became a partner and it was renamed Dollywood in 1986, the park had the “mining town” theme that still remains. Other than putting up the Dollywood signs and adding lots of Dolly-to-go in the gift shops, it doesn’t look like much was changed, and that seems like a bit of a cop-out. Okay, it seems like a big cop-out, but it was still a fun place to spend my birthday and the wooden rollercoaster was fantastic!

To see photos that accompany this blog, please visit my photo site: