An Esotouric Kentucky Road Trip to experience the 2017 American Eclipse Totality

The total solar eclipse that slashed across the continental US on August 21 provided a great excuse to take our favorite kind of road trip: a few semi-scheduled days roaming the blue highways, seeking out historic Main Streets, graveyards, roadside attractions, diners, storefronts and nice folks who are willing to stop what they’re doing and show us around old buildings.

Since a big part of the pleasure is bringing back photos to share. won’t you join us for a virtual excursion, from Nashville to Bowling Green, Mammoth Cave to Cave City, #EclipsevilleUSA to the shadow of the Kentucky State Penitentiary to the cosmos and beyond?

We touched down Friday afternoon in humid Nashville, picked a Ford from the rental fleet and bee-lined to Mount Olivet Cemetery (1856), home to the tallest of the many Confederate memorials we’d see on this trip. Try as we might, we couldn’t escape the politicization of these times: lurking in the shade nearby, a couple of tough looking fellows sat in a camouflage SUV, just kind of… watching. Not wishing to rile them, and meaning the monument no harm, we ambled off to admire mossy crypts in the Egyptian, Moorish and Southern Gothic styles. The possible presence of these lurking “Monument Guards” is something history lovers should be aware of when visiting southern graveyards, or other places where the Confederacy has left its mark.

After a congenial supper at Monell’s Germantown’s communal table of all-we-could-eat catfish, greens, slaw and ‘nilla wafer specked banana pudding, we took our table mates’ advice and strolled through the Italian Lights festival on Bicentennial Mall. Diet tip: chasing fireflies across the lawn is a swell way to work off a heavy meal.

Next stop: Bowling Green, KY. It was Saturday and BGSU’s special collections library was shut, so we couldn’t call up select novelties from their famed pop culture holdings. But the sleepy town proved plenty novel.

In a tiny and apparently nameless Civil War cemetery opposite Lisa’s 5th Street Diner (great twice-fried potato discs!), we felt the weight of time and marveled at the alien beauty of a newborn cicada, its pale wings still expanding for first flight, perched on its own shed skin at the base of a grave. These weird creatures spend long years in the ground, then ascend to the trees to suck sap and make riotous noise with the bass drum in their tummies, and their cacophonous rhythm was the soundtrack for our trip.

Bowling Green is a park-rich town, and Circus Square Park features a cool architectural feature: Standard Filling Station No. 1, restored in 2008 to its original 1920s exterior appearance. The interior has been cleverly altered to serve as a public restroom.

No eclipse road trip would be complete without a flying saucer sighting, and Bowling Green delivered, in the form of Western Kentucky University’s exuberant Hardin Planetarium (1967).

Just down the hill stood a faded classical temple with a vivid blue dome, weeds growing between its ramshackle steps.

An open door lured us to call out, and inside we found Vilson Qehaja, who purchased the former Westminster Presbyterian Church (1912) two years ago at auction and is converting the National Register landmark into a restaurant (Anna’s) and wedding venue (Century Palace).

He graciously took some time away from his work to give us a tour of the project, which has been rich in the surprises (both happy and heart-stopping) to be expected from a century-old building. We were thrilled to have a chance to preview this lovely space as it steers towards its second century, and glad we could thank Vilson personally for making the considerable effort to restore and open it up to the public. Blessed are the entrepreneurial preservationists! And dig that fabulous glass!

Although we saw nothing that would be called a crowd in Los Angeles, eclipse tourists had reserved all of the ticketed Mammoth Cave tours weeks before. But there was no ticket required to hike down into the primordial forest at Cedar Sink, a beautifully engineered staircase path from the highway that wound down and around and finally into a wet cave system whose ceiling collapsed long ago. Along the way, we saw iridescent blue butterflies, strange wildflowers, tree limbs draped in the filmy sacks of wiggling bagworms and two very weird caterpillars.

On the outskirts of the National Park is Cave City, a highway-facing tourist trap of a town that’s been miraculously spared recent development. Of course, the architectural historian’s miracle is the business owner’s lament, and it didn’t take long for a storekeeper to let us know that Cave City was no longer booze-free (!!), and investment would soon follow. This made us gladder still to have stopped by to see the sights while they were still a mid-century time capsule.

Come October, thrill seekers will presumably be able to scream themselves hoarse inside Raven’s Cross Haunted Village, but on this hot August afternoon, the parking lot was deserted. We couldn’t resist peering into the spooky attraction’s open doors, which seemed unsettling even in bright sunlight. Was that electric sawing sound coming around the bend a technician constructing a scary display, or a serial killer chopping up the previous nosy tourists? We didn’t hang around to find out!

One of the reasons we travel is to interact with people who are very different from us.

At Mammoth Cave Knife Works, we found ourselves in a spacious shop that seemed to function like the extended living room of the colorful family proprietors. Gleefully politically incorrect, they were also gracious and funny, and ran an admirably tight ship. Richard picked up a nice little bone-handled fruit knife and some insights into life on the Cave City main line.

Across the highway, Redneck Golf was closed for the season or maybe forever, its dusty Astroturf greens guarded by a sun-faded concrete hippo.

Our next stop was Onyx Cave, one of the smaller, privately-run subterranean attractions that surprisingly had space available on the next tour—although we’d soon learn this was because the operator was taking advantage of increased demand to oversell. But our tour group was friendly and didn’t mind pressing close together as Gabrielle, our enthusiastic guide who had only been on the job for a couple of months, did a great job of telling the story of the beautiful cave’s accidental discovery, unique characteristics, conservation concerns and weird bugs. About halfway through the narrow cave, we outed ourselves as professional tour guides and offered to help with crowd control, and Gabby outed herself as a former Southern Californian, and together we brought the group safely through sheets of dripping wet “cave bacon” and back to the gift shop entrance.

We couldn’t leave Cave City without stopping to admire the celebrated Wig Wam Village #2, America’s oldest surviving ring-of-teepees motel complex. There, inside the towering teepee office, we phoned Kumar Patel, who runs Wig Wam Village #7 in Rialto and let him say howdy to his cross-country innkeeping compatriot, Mir.

Years ago, the basement of the big teepee held a circular souvenir shop. It’s just used for storage now, but we got a big kick out of exploring this unique space and seeing all the cool artifacts down there. Maybe one day it will be a shop again.

As dusk fell, we found ourselves in Russellville, KY, the self-styled “oldest town in Southern Kentucky,” admiring its National Register town square, first with pleasure, then with mounting horror, as we realized that two of the most prominent historic corner buildings are slated for demolition, to be replaced with “boutique hotels.”

It was painfully obvious that the historic downtown is dead, with no stores open and the only restaurant owned by Deborah Hirsch, the person who seeks to knock the landmarks down. Russellville needs help. But destroying history isn’t going to magically bring people to spend money. We don’t understand how the demolition of major contributors to a National Register commercial district can be permitted except in the case of building collapse, and very much hope the town’s leaders will think twice about taking the word of the property developer’s architects that these historic buildings are too far gone to be adaptively reused. They looked solid and beautiful as the sun set, and we hope one day we will see them again.

But the universe in benevolent, and wouldn’t let us leave Russellville in a preservation funk. As Richard gassed up the car, Kim heard a volley of squeaks and looked up to see dozens of bats taking flight from inside an old chimney. What a thrill! Nice creatures, the bats, congenial. Maybe they can take over some of these derelict old buildings and make something out of them.

On Sunday, we swung through Hopkinsville, KY, the small town that had cleverly branded itself as #EclipsevilleUSA due to its prime position within the totality, still more 24 hours away. The carnival atmosphere was building as we admired the historic storefronts reverberating with an amplified open-air church service, and searched in vain for somewhere to get a cup of tea and a muffin to go.

We mistook a storefront rescue mission for a cafe, and longtime mayor Wally Bryant stepped out to offer a preview of his cosmic testimony and invite us to visit his landmark home afterwards. If the moon’s shadow wasn’t racing ever nearer towards its union with the sun, we’d have taken him up on it. But the road called, and we needed to be on it.

But first, peckish Richard presented himself at the only midway food concession tent that looked like it might be open for business. “Sure—we can deep fry anything!” the cook boasted. Richard opted for an order of Oreo cookies and managed to eat three of the gloopy horrors.

Next stop: Princeton, KY, another small town with more than its share of intact 19th century storefronts. Strolling down the main drag after a hearty grade school lunch of grilled American cheese sandwiches and vegetable soup, we were immediately swept up by native daughter Debbie, who was giving visiting Oklahoma friends a town tour and wanted to know who we were, why we’d come and what we thought of Princeton.

Well, we thought Princeton was just beautiful. It’s unusual among smaller towns because it has an Art Deco WPA courthouse, a handsome jewel box distinguished by a row of three-dimensional busts, among them FDR’s. The old Masonic Hall across the street is pretty special, too.

When we mentioned our plan to drive out to see the old state penitentiary, “The Castle on the Cumberland” on Lake Barklay, Debbie suggested we caravan out to Eddyville together.

But first, we had to see the limestone river cave that was at the old town’s heart (spooky and cool).

And we had to visit Debbie’s pal Nancy, the ham lady.

We somehow had no idea that Princeton, KY is a legendary foodie destination, and that people come from all over the world to taste Newsom’s Country Hams, produced in the 18th century fashion over nearly two years of tending by third-generation smoker Nancy Newsom Mahaffey.

But when we stepped inside her Old Mill Store, it was obvious that we were in the presence of a genius, a place where traditional foodways and public service are twined into a lover’s knot.

We didn’t “discover” Nancy Newsom Mahaffey—that honor belongs to James Beard, in the mid-1970s, and you should click that link and read all about it—but we did enjoy the rare pleasure of stumbling onto Newsom’s Old Mill Store completely unaware. Some of the carnivorous wonder was lost on us as pescatarians, but we still come away with some of the finest treats anyone ever ate out of a jar, including a luscious blackberry cobbler and some unbelievably delicious pickled beet salad. You can order these things, with or without a ham, by mail order from Nancy the ham lady, herself.

A little dazed and drunk on the scent of smoked pig, we followed Debbie on to the lakeside hamlet of Eddyville, site of the historic prison. Unfortunately, the state prison system had eclipse fever, too, and a humorless deputy got out of his van to let us know that the lake frontage road with its views of the 19th century prison complex would remain closed until after the solar event. With the trouble in the yard earlier this summer, the warden wasn’t taking any chances on so-called “architectural historians” casing the joint for a bust out.

Well, we’d just have to admire the state penitentiary from the water. Because here comes the main event!

Thanks to the hospitality of our pal Greg Tlapek, seen above plotting our course at his family’s cabin, we took in the eclipse on a pontoon boat off the coast of Lake Barkley, KY, at a spot that boasted about 2.5 long minutes of totality.

After a hearty country breakfast, it took us an hour to motor to the spot, over flooded towns and fields seized by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1960s. We stopped close to shore when a heron landed and let us know he believed this was the place.

And then the eclipse began. The long slide into darkness was preceded by waters roiling with big, confused fish jumping for fat bugs and by eagles swooping in to take the fish. It wasn’t dark, but the light wasn’t right. Time seemed off-kilter, too.

And then the shadow came and stopped up the sun, like a kid’s thumb over the lip of a bottle. It was disorienting and wonderful, and in the midst of it we somehow managed to capture a cell phone image of the hole in the sky with the light show exploding all around it.

Then the brightest light that ever was poured out of the hole’s right side and it was summertime again. It was a good 15 minutes until the birds or cicadas made another sound, and before they did, we were talking about traveling however far it took to see another total solar eclipse.

Man, what a show! Space and time contract into a single point and the brain can hardly take it in. Well worth any trouble to experience something so uncanny.

Before flying home from St. Louis, we had one final pilgrimage to make. Richard Nickel is one of our historic preservation heroes. As a young photographer in the 1960s, he documented and single-handedly salvaged some of Chicago’s greatest doomed buildings, with a special focus on the exquisite decorative forms of Frank Lloyd Wright’s teacher, Louis Sullivan.

 

Overwhelmed by the volume of salvaged material he was collecting ahead of the bulldozer, Nickel partnered with the new Southern Illinois State University at Edwardsville, which purchased much of his collection with the promise to display it. A few years later Nickel was under contract for the university, salvaging elements of the Chicago Stock Exchange, when the floor collapsed and he was killed.

We admire his devotion and singular vision, and mourn his lonesome death. It was very moving to see his astonishing collection, which is installed in and around the university library, in the stairwells and in a quiet double-height gallery near the stacks.

Imagine a time when such exquisite, architecturally significant objects were viewed as garbage by most people! It wasn’t all that long ago. As preservation activists, who often come up against such dismissive attitudes surrounding the places we seek to save, this visit—especially in the charged aftermath of the cosmic event—filled our psychic batteries to the brim. We set off for the airport in a state of humming excitement, eager to return to the preservation work that awaited us at home in Los Angeles.

Some friends who we’ve told about our eclipse trip have expressed surprise that didn’t just go to Oregon with all the other Californians. But especially now, with the country so divided, we think it’s important for coastal dwellers to visit red states, to talk to the people and admire their folkways and landmarks. We’re all of us Americans, and not really so different when we come face to face–at least, as long as there isn’t a statue of Robert E. Lee between us. And damn, Kentucky is beautiful. Much too beautiful to write off for political reasons.

Thanks for joining us on this Esotouric road trip, and stay tuned for further adventures at home and in the field.