About me, Northeastern US, Travels, US National Parks

Westward Bound, part I – Connecticut to Kentucky

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

I hadn’t planned to spend so many years in Connecticut. And I certainly never expected that I’d be sad to leave.

Admittedly, I wasn’t sad to leave behind the humidity and the brutal winters and the traffic and the rude drivers (because yes, New England drivers really are that bad). But I spent six years of my life in the state, and they were years full of memories: earning my PhD, exploring up and down the coast with family and friends, meeting Pat and becoming part of his family.

And so it was with tears in my eyes that – after nearly 6 years in Connecticut – we closed this chapter of our lives and opened a new one. Most of Pat’s family lives there, so we’ll be back frequently. But on that morning, we were packed and ready to begin our new adventure in Denver!

We’d already loaded everything into the moving cubes and the moving company had picked them up 2 days earlier. Everything we’d need for our drive across the country (and a few things we didn’t need, like a box of stuff that didn’t make it into the cubes, and a broom and a Swiffer that came tumbling out every time we opened the back door) was packed into my car, and it was time to head off. Our stuff would take about a week to get to Denver so we figured we might as well take a week, too, and drive the scenic route.

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It was a strange feeling to have everything we owned condensed down to 2 cubes

Day #1: By lunchtime, we found ourselves stuck in traffic in eastern Pennsylvania, just outside of Scranton. Pennsylvania drivers don’t know how to merge, apparently. Every time an entrance ramp merged in, traffic came to a dead halt. It was irritating. Around this time, a road sign informed us of the nearby Steamtown National Historic Site, so we decided to escape the traffic for an hour and learn about trains while eating lunch.

We could have easily spent half a day at Steamtown, but we didn’t have time. We completely glossed over the visitor center and museum and mostly just looked at all the old trains before continuing on our journey.

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Also, for any of you The Office fans out there, there’s actually a Mifflin Ave in Scranton! (I tried to like that show. I really did. But Michael gave me way too much secondhand embarrassment and I just couldn’t do it.)

It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at Gettysburg, so we unfortunately had to gloss over a lot of this park as well. We stopped by the visitor center only briefly, but it’s a huge building with an enormous amount of information so I’d recommend planning to spend a decent amount of time there. The rest of the park is very spread out but is traversed by a 12 mile (19 km) auto tour that follows the battle chronologically, connecting points of interest. There are probably at least 100 signs, statues, and monuments along the way.

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The Sherfy House
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This peach orchard and the house in the previous photo were owned by John Sherfy during the Civil War, and he lived here with his wife, kids, and mother Catherine. The family did their best to support the Union soldiers, providing them with food and water, until the battle came right through their property, destroying the orchard and leaving bullet holes in the barn. I bring this up because Catherine Sherfy also happened to be the cousin of my great great great great grandmother, so this was a place I was especially excited to see!

We spent about 2 hours completing the auto tour – though we easily could have spent longer – before driving the remaining 20 minutes to Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland for the night. This is a decently large park in a hilly green area with a nice campground; however, at times it’s apparently a fairly noisy place to stay due to its proximity to multiple large cities. Alcohol is not allowed at the campground, presumably because they’ve had issues in the past. We didn’t have any complaints, but you’ll find a lot of online reviews warning of noise and general obnoxiousness.

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Handstand in West Virginia

Day #2 was a driving day as we made our way through Maryland and West Virginia, popping back into Pennsylvania briefly on our way to Middletown, Ohio, where we spent the weekend with my aunt and uncle. It was hot as hell and super muggy, and the bag of gummy bears I accidentally left in the car turned into a colorful gummy blob.

But we cooled off in their pool and spent day #3 hanging with my other aunt and uncle and a couple of my cousins, all of whom I hadn’t seen in about 4 years. It was a nice relaxing weekend, complete with a giant plate of Skyline Chili. If you’ve never had Skyline Chili, you’re missing out. It’s amazing, and I highly recommend it if you’re ever in Ohio, Kentucky, or Indiana.

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5 way chili from Skyline Chili!

Day #4: After a much overdue visit with my aunt and uncle Pat and I were on the road again, this time detouring south for a visit to Mammoth Caves. We left Ohio mid-afternoon, giving us enough time to set up camp before dinner (if you visit this park, beware that you’ll cross into the central time zone, despite the fact that most of Kentucky is in the eastern time zone). This was the hottest, muggiest, most miserable night of our trip, but it eventually cooled off enough that we were able to fall asleep.

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Day #5 dawned equally muggy, but we were in high spirits because it was cave tour day.  Mammoth Caves is a place I’ve wanted to go for years because – well – caves! But these are no ordinary caves… more than 400 miles (644 km) have been mapped so far, and there’s still more to explore. Either way, this is the longest cave system in the world!

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We’d purchased tickets in advance for the Domes and Dripstones tour which is, in my opinion, the best one. Not that I’ve taken the other tours. But of the many options available, this one appeared to be the most thorough tour that hit all the highlights for a very reasonable $17 per person.

This ranger-led tour lasts for 2 hours and covers 0.75 miles (1.2 km) and 500 stairs. As with any cave tour, there are narrow passageways and low ceilings, and it’s dark and cool in the cave (though the walkways are lit and flashlights are not required). Large backpacks aren’t allowed, and neither are items like tripods, strollers, walking sticks or anything else that could potentially damage cave features if they were to bump up against them. Also, the park is very serious about preventing the spread of white nose syndrome (a disease that is decimating bat populations all across the US), so standard restrictions and decontamination protocols apply.

On our tour, we entered through the new entrance, travelled through the large, open Grand Central Station room, into the narrow Canyon Passageway, past the Frozen Niagara feature (so-named for the purposes of attracting tourists back in the day when Mammoth Cave was privately owned), and above Crystal Lake, before exiting out the Frozen Niagara entrance. We didn’t see any bats, but we did see cave crickets. Also – as per usual – I came away with about 150 photos and roughly 15 of them actually turned out halfway decent. Cave photos are not my forte.

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Cave cricket

In next week’s post: the Gateway Arch, Lake of the Ozarks, a stormy evening in Kansas, and our arrival in Denver!

8 thoughts on “Westward Bound, part I – Connecticut to Kentucky”

  1. Ha, New England drivers are definitely rude and Pennsylvania drivers are definitely clueless when it comes to merging. I swear, you cross the NY/PA line and it’s like a different world. But anyways, how cool was Mammoth Cave?! I’d visited Carlsbad (highly recommended) prior to Mammoth and so was prepared for large cave systems, but the scale of what you see on the tour vs. all the layers they’ve mapped is incredible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I couldn’t believe how different the two were. Carlsbad is definitely more what I’m used to with caves but Mammoth Cave was a whole different world. Someday I want to go back and do the spelunking tour! I feel like 8 hrs underground and only seeing like 1% of the cave will really put the size into a whole new perspective.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re brave! Those real cave tours where you have to do crawling and such are a little too serious for me I think. But I agree it’s totally amazing how little of those massive cave systems we see (and still think are huge)!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I have been to Mammoth Cave. We did the 4 hour tour which was pretty cool because midway through a box lunch was served in what is called the Snowball Dining Room named for the white fungus? that dots the ceiling of the room. It is a grand place!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hahaha. New England drivers are TRULY terrible! They’re just jerks. And I should know. I lived there for years! Anyway, I’m sure you had mixed emotions about leaving, but I’m pretty confident the hiking opportunities in Colorado are just a tiny bit more impressive than those in CT. 😂😂😂 Fun trip across the country! Looking forward to reading the rest.

    Liked by 1 person

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