Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Old School Tourism

Last weekend I went to Mammoth Cave with my friend Megan. I was joking with another scholar of heritage tourism that I should take my copy of John Sears' Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions in the Nineteenth Century (a standard for anyone studying the history of tourism in America). We went in part to continue our hiking trend, but we also planned to drive some of the Dixie Highway and explore the fabulous roadside attractions on that route.

Our tour guide/ranger laying down the law before we entered the cave.

The Park was beautiful and we saw deer and one turkey. We did an outdoor hike to get ourselves warmed up and then we went off on the Grand Avenue Tour, which was supposed to take 4.5 hours, but I think it lasted a little longer than that. The tour was very interesting. There was just the awe inspiring aspect of the cave itself. I kept wondering to myself if this was how a worm saw the world (if they had eyes, that is). They incorporated a lot of history and even demonstrated a historic lantern that early tourists would have used. They pointed out historic graffiti, talked about cave ecology, and even talked about some of the current conservation efforts.

Rangers of various types swapping stories in the Snowball Room.

What I really liked about the tour was the level of humor. Our main guide/ranger was young, told us that he was a chemistry major and that this was his strength. If he didn't know the answer to a question, he was honest and told you that he didn't (and I pelted him with a bunch of technical and maintenance questions, so I was impressed with his amiability in light of me being such a pest). And he wove in quite a few jokes without over doing it.

Our lead ranger talking about cave ecology and trail maintenance. Note the electrical box next to him.

Analyzing Mammoth Cave as a tourist environment was a lot of fun (to me) as well. The ranger pointed out old tourist paths (from a time when people didn't have to worry about lawsuits from tourists apparently), talked about the CCC putting in paths and how they maintained them, and some of the damaged to the cave system. The paths were obviously constructed and there were a lot of stones stacked to keep people on the trail, prevent them from touching sensitive areas (ie, the gypsum), and to mask some of the electrical infrastructure. It was the electrical stuff that I was particularly interested to see. In Sears' book he talks about tourists a century ago complaining about the light shows and the kitschiness of Mammoth Cave.

Fellow tourists in the Drapery Room. You can see some of the artificial lighting in this picture as well.

While the lighting did create a sort of artificial setting, I can see how it increases the safety of tours, and it makes it possible to highlight certain features without a tour guide trying to find them in the dark with a flashlight. There was mold on some of the walls of the cave where the old halogen lamps had caused unnatural growths, but the new LED lights were supposed to stop that from continuing. The damage to the gypsum, particularly in the snowball room, was kind of disturbing, but I can see the arguments for that not being too terrible because there are plenty of places in the caves where the gypsum is not damaged and continues to grow. It does give me pause to think about balancing access with conservation.

But the artificial part that I loved the most were the bathrooms. The little restaurant set up in the Snowball Room was fun, but the bathrooms next to it with the stacked stone treatment was fabulous. The stacked stone is kind of a pet peeve of mine because all of a sudden you see it everywhere in new construction (which means it will start to look dated just any time now). Here is kind of worked because it was using natural elements to shield something unnatural. But the stacked stone doesn't really echo the cave setting, rather it echoes the human stacked stones along the pathways and around the light fixtures throughout the cave. The second bathroom still has institutional brick, but I suspect that stacked stone is in its future.

Bathroom at the Snowball Room.

The second bathroom on our hike.

The second part of our excursion was to travel to Cave City and enjoy the 20th century roadside attractions that are still there despite commerce moving away from highways to the interstates. We were both so excited that we took a lot of pictures of colossi of various sorts and several great business signs (complete with neon). Growing up in Michigan, one of my favorite parts of our regular trips to the Upper Penninsula was seeing the giant Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox at Castle Rock. There were also plenty of roadside colossi here, including a Dinosaur World that looked fabulous.

Megan posing with "Big Mo"

But our main reason for this excursion was to travel a bit of the old Dixie Highway (which also runs through Murfreesboro, and Megan is writing her MA thesis about how the highway reshaped Murfreesboro both aesthetically and socially...or I think that's what she is doing) and to see concrete tipis. For roadside architecture enthusiasts, the phenomenon known as "ducks" is a particularly joyful find. Ducks are any building that is designed to mimic something else. So some of these buildings look like actual ducks, or shoes, or elephants. And the ducks that people seem to love the most in Kentucky are the Wigwams. We were so excited to find it, we walked around the grounds, took pictures, went into the gift shop, Megan bought a post card. It completed our roadside tourist experience.

Concrete tipi at the Wigwams.

And while I argue for historical accuracy/authenticity in some both Mammoth Cave and Cave City, it is the carnival nature of the sites that tickles my heart. I am not saying that every place needs to be this way. It is that kind of boom and bust infrastructure that has crippled tourist economies and I am definitely in favor of most places moving towards a sustainable tourism model (as opposed to continually building fake attractions). But that doesn't mean that some of these relics from the heyday of roadside attractions can't stay around. I think that they have their place and their context. And I'm perfectly okay with celebrating them in their limited niche.

And seriously, who wouldn't want to stay in a wigwam?


  1. oh noes! the comments about people complaining about the lights that far back reminded me of my childhood favorite, wonder cave -- it was my favorite because you got to carry lanterns, making it feel like a REAL ADVENTURE. it's closed now.

    and i wanna stay in a wigwam!

  2. yay for historic graffiti.. my parents saw the stuff in Lascaux