Friday, May 29, 2009

Tennessee Caves from Dunbar to Bell Witch

Today I prepare to attend the last session of the last class that I will take in a very, very long time. The class has been intensive, but I have have learned a lot from Dr. Spencer Crew about how museums can truly be transformative places and how they can have a real time impact on social issues. But the class has also been mental and emotionally taxing. And my treatment for that has been to escape into physically taxing ventures (where I don't have to use my mind for nearly anything, just the body).

For the past several weekends I have been visiting state parks with my friend Megan to do some hiking and explore some of Tennessee's back roads (and roadside architecture, of which both Megan and I are big fans, which might explain why we are also both fans of the show Supernatural, particularly the motels the main characters stay in for each episode). This past weekend we did a cave hike at Dunbar Cave State Park.

Megan on a trail at Dunbar Cave State Park.

We tried to call (several times) to reserve a spot on the cave hike, but never got through, so when the weekend came, we just went on up there. We found out that while the cave hike was full, usually there were no-shows so we planned to swing back by the visitor center right before the tour. We did the two overland hikes that they offered that morning and the best part for me were the turtles that we saw. I love pointing out wildlife: I'm like a little kid that way. But the hoards of turtles in the human-made pond was quite stunning and I eventually stopped pointing them out because it was getting redundant. I did stop to mimic one that was posed with it's rear leg sticking up in the air.

Turtles were on every tree or twig sticking out of the "lake."

The landscape was lovely and there were many families out with their kids, plus lots of military families (because Dunbar Cave is at the edge of Clarksville, which is where most of the troops stationed at Fort Campbell live). There were indeed some no-shows for the tour, so we got to go on the cave hike. Our tour guide was wonderful. He was knowledgeable, funny, and engaging...despite have some real problem tourists in the group. I'm always amazed at people who can handle a group like that where there are folks who refuse to follow the rules, seem to go out of their way to make everyone else miserable, and our tour guide kept them in check as best he could, never lost his cool, and even worked hard to engage the folks who insisted on being yahoos. Ends up most of the guides at the park are interns from nearby Austin Peay. To be a guide you have to be at least a junior in college and be studying in a field related to the work at the cave (biology, history, geology, etc.).

Our intrepid tour guide at the cave entrance.

On the cave we got to see several bats, cave salamanders, some cave fish, and graffiti from throughout the ages. They did not allow photographs inside the cave, so you'll just have to take my word for what was in there (or go see it for yourself). They had graffiti from the last two centuries left by tourists, or the promoters who labelled certain rooms in order to brand them. While the caves had a long history of use, in the 1930s a company hired teenagers to quarry out deeper paths and put in some carved steps in places. Ruined some of the cave ecology that way, but now you don't have to crawl to get to some of the spaces. But the best cave art were the petroglyphs, pictographs, and mud glyphs from the Mississippian people and even as far back as the Archaic Period (9,000-10,000 years ago).

All in all, a good tour. Actually, the great tour more than made up for the difficulties we had in trying to secure a reservation the entire week prior to going.

From there, I thought we could try and check out some of the Bell Witch silliness. I'd never heard the Bell Witch story before I moved to Tennessee, but I've learned to love it for its quirkiness. There are two major versions of the Bell Witch story, but they are very different depending on the oral tradition of the Bell family in Tennessee and the one that migrated to Mississippi. Some of the other major difficulties with the stories is that they don't seem to show up until the end of the nineteenth century when the events supposedly took place in the early 191th. And the corroborating evidence they site (namely an incident with Andrew Jackson getting scared away by the ghost) doesn't actually have any corroboration (you'll find nothing about a visit there or any incident in Jackson's papers or as part of Jackson family memories). But it's a story, it's fun, people get a kick out of it.

I knew that they had a cave as part of a tour out there, but that didn't make any sense at all because even with any of the wildly divergent versions of the legend, there's no cave. But if you're going to have a story that has evolved in leaps and bounds, why not add in a cave for more recent tellings. The town of Adams, TN, is very cool with great farms (and fantastic barns) surrounding an almost picturesque town. Unfortunately, the Bell Witch site is much less inviting. The first sign we saw at the entrance, we just thought was a lot of fun...but I'm less certain now if it was really an attempt at levity.

This is how they greet visitors to the site.

They also had signs saying that this was private property and not to trespass on it. Once we got to their visitor center, we had to wait for the guy behind the counter to finish yelling at someone on a walkie-talkie before he turned to glare at us. We asked where there was to do and he informed us that nothing was free and we had to pay to go any further. He didn't offer any further information, try to engage us in any way, he just glared at us. So we left.

Their "unwelcome" center.

I'm not going to pay money (no matter how small the amount) to be treated poorly. And now that I've asked around, we are not the only people to have had rough treatment there. But it was bizarre. One of the worst customer service experiences I've had, and one of the unfriendliest site visits I've had. And in comparing that experience with the friendly and informative staff at Dunbar, it was almost more jarring. At Dunbar I was glad to pay for the tour.

But on the way back out of town, we decided to enjoy some of the roadside architecture. Someone made some good business a century ago with pressed block construction because there were multiple houses with decorative concrete block. But our favorite was a historic church that someone had heavily stuccoed so that all of the additions to the building all had the same facade treatment. There's a historic church under there...somewhere.


  1. I visited with my girlfriend the caves of Tennessee last year and is a truly unforgettable experience. I was in Tennessee for 3 months and is a wonderful place, but certainly the caves are the best.