OF MAMMOTH CAVE AND A LITTLE PHILOSOPHY

JANUARY, 2017 AT MAMMOTH CAVE, KENTUCKY

I am always fascinated with the themes of perception and reality, ignorance and truth. In fact, when I was a young girl, I noticed some numbers adjacent to the inside door, close to the check out counter, in our local convenience store. These numbers were arranged in color-coded blocks, similar to those near the exit door at Lowes. I asked one of my parents about these brightly colored numbers, and one of my parents described that they were there to help identify the heights of any thieves that tried to steal from the store. The numbers represented the heights of the suspects, and the colors were designed to help the store clerk remember the numbers. Fascinating, especially to an older, inquisitive child. This really left an impression on me.

These numbers allowed me to see that everyone sees and remembers things differently. Our conception of reality is based on what we know or have seen, our personal biases, and our interpretations of what we’ve experienced. Fast forward to when I was young adult. Someone very dear to me and I went into a local field to fly a kite, believe it or not. College exams were over, and we were looking for a way to fly a kite as a way to unwind as I recall (based on my perception from many years ago, of course). We were laughing and joking, making a lot of noise, when out of the corner of our eye, we saw someone laying face down in the ground. Surely the person would have roused if asleep we thought. As we walked closer, we realized the person did not move at all, and the person’s calf was exposed and a bit mottled. We touched the person’s calf, seeking a pulse, when we realized the calf was cold. Stone cold. We looked at each other and came to the same realization at once. The person before us was dead. This was long before the days of the ubiquity of cell phones, so we RAN to call the police. Police arrived, and so did the local news reporters. I put my hood up, as it was cold in New England that day, the day we grew up, and I knew we would be there a while. More and more reporters arrived but were kept at a distance from the crime scene by the police while we gave our statements. The next day, reporters said a brother and his younger sister found the deceased person, likely due to the difference in heights between my companion and myself. Reporters said also that two young lovers were coming out from the woods that day, and nothing was further from the truth. Discrepancies upon discrepancies were reported to the public by the news media. We later learned that the poor deceased woman was an inmate from a local state hospital mental health ward and had ground privileges. The story that was told to the media by the police was that she fell asleep and died from exposure to the cold that day.

In Plato’s “Republic”, a story is told about a cave. In this “cave allegory” as it has been called by many people, there is a group of prisoners who have been chained since childhood in a cave such that they can face only one wall, and there is a fire burning behind them. As such, the fire casts numerous shadows in front of them, and they have come to accept that is what is real. This is the only stimulation these people have had in their dreary lives. The focus of their lives, in fact, are the shadows, which are the only things they have come to know.

One day, one of the prisoners escapes from the cave and makes his way out of the cave. Outside of the cave, he is shocked and afraid to learn that he sees numerous things he had no idea existed. He squints to see the sun, then focuses on the sights before him. He realizes there are other people outside the cave as well as real animals, too, and he delights in this knowledge. He returns eagerly to the cave, almost blind from the sun, and tries to explain to the others, with joy, about the world that exists beyond their little cave beyond the shadows. There is some suggestion in the story, too, that if the man tried to free the others from their confines, they would kill him, as they would rather remain in the cave with their eyesight healthy, just as it was.

So many of us live in a similar cave, surrounded by what we THINK is the truth, either metaphorically or in reality. Our versions of what we have come to know is based on our limited exposure and understanding to the events, people, places, and things around us. While some of us seek to see beyond the cave, despite the risks, others of us prefer to remain inside the cave among our own limited knowledge, perception, or ignorance. Of course, some of us prefer to live only sometimes in that cave, depending on the situation at hand. Sometimes we venture out of the cave, yet other times we are more content not to explore beyond our comfort zone. Human behavior and the motivations for such are fascinating.

On a separate note, I have never encountered a cave that I didn’t love. During this period of self-isolation, I am reminded of a few of my visits to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky during a moment of my own armchair travel. This cave is known as the longest cave system in the world and is over four hundred miles long. At time of this writing, the cave is currently closed due to the covid epidemic but is normally open 364 days a year, closing only on Christmas. Normal hours are from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM (Central Time) . Plan ahead before you go, as year round cave temperatures can be around 54 degrees Fahrenheit, so you likely might want a jacket. Reservations are strongly recommended, as cave tours often sell out in advance, but some self-guided walk up tickets are available at times. Ticket prices vary, depending on the tour you select, and there are many tour options to meet your needs. Some tours require passage through tight spots, and others do not. Other tours require long distances with hundreds of steps and steep inclines, yet others require limited steps through short distances. One way to experience something different might be the Violet City Lantern Tour, during which the only light for visitors is from lanterns. There is also an accessible tour for those with limited mobility as well.

It’s best to check the website below to plan your visit and to check on the status of any changes to park operations:

https://www.nps.gov/maca/index.htm

Find your way out of the cave a little from time to time….live life well and experience life as fully as you can.

Life is good; carpe diem, friends………………………

COPING WITH CORONA….ARMCHAIR TRAVEL TO ASSATEAGUE ISLAND

I had always dreamed of visiting Assateague Island in Maryland and Virginia since I heard all about it from some people I met many years ago. Another “bucket list” item. Assateague Island is the place where the children’s story, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry, takes place. In the story, a family tries to raise a pony that was born to a wild pony on this island. During the summer, usually in July, wild ponies on the Southern tip of the island are rounded up and swim to Assateaugue Island. Here the ponies are auctioned off to control the size of the herd and to raise funds for the veterinary care of the ponies. This week-long event is a BIG deal, with over fifty thousand visitors from all around the United States and Canada. A short youtube clip below, by National Geographic, captures the excitements of the annual pony swim:

Of course I had to make the journey with my family to this special place, where you can camp among wild ponies, a few years back. What makes Assateague Island so wonderful, in part, is the availability of some campsites right on the beach. Imagine looking out your RV or tent only to find wild ponies walking through your campsite. It is magical and like nothing else I’ve experienced before. Part of the Island is managed by the National Park System, and part of the island is managed by the state park system. Camping is only available in the Maryland district of the island. Campsite reservations are required from March 15 until November 15, and the site below takes for reservations six months before then. Most weekends sell out quickly. From November 16 through March 14, campsites are first-come first-served . This is an experience for which you should plan ahead, as even the firewood needs to be purchased within fifty miles of the park.

National Park information can be found below:

Maryland State Park information can be found below:

https://dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/eastern/assateague.aspx

There seems to be some difference of opinion as to how these wild ponies got to the island, but most say a Spanish Galleon with these ponies aboard sunk off the coast, and the ponies swam to shore.

If you are traveling with children, a stop to Ocean City Maryland, might be a good place for the kids to burn off some energy after being in the car. Ocean City, Maryland, has a lot of beaches and a wooden boardwalk with shops, restaurants, and hotels. There is also an amusement park there, at the Southern tip, called Trimper’s Rides. This is a historic themepark, which originally was opened in the 1890’s. It is under new management now, and there were plans to add at least nine more rides in 2020. I’m not sure what the status of this new expansion is, however, with the current Covid-19 situation. Normally, the park opens from Memorial Day until October, and there are both indoor and outdoor rides.

https://www.trimperrides.com/home

For a unique camping experience, consider camping on Assateague Island. For those of you who don’t wish to camp, you can drive through to see the wild legendary ponies that live there. Keep in mind, however, that both Assateague Island parks and Trimper Rides are currently closed because of the pandemic.

Enjoy a little unique travel to Assateague Island when the travel restrictions are lifted. This would be a great road trip when that happens and something for which to look forward.

Life is good; carpe diem, friends…….

You can read all about the annual “pony swim” week here:

https://www.chincoteague.com/pony_swim_guide.html

COPING WITH CORONA….VANILLA AND TEMPORARY TATOOS IN TAHAA (Armchair travel to French Polynesia)

Temporary Tatoos in Tahaa? Time for armchair travel to a warm, sunny place….. French Polynesia. Armchair travel in my mind keeps me sane amidst the Corona pandemic.

While visiting French Polynesia, a country comprised of more than one hundred islands located in the South Pacific, I took a tour of one of the islands there, Tahaa. Tahaa is ninety square kilometers (about thirty five square miles) and simply breathtaking. While driving along this island, located on the leeward (western) side of French Polynesia, our guide pulled over to the side of the road to pick a wild fern.

The fern has silvery white powdery spores on its backside.

When you place the backside of the fern against your skin and press for a few seconds, the spores leave an imprint on your skin which resembles a white tattoo. This spore powder doesn’t easily rub off and remained on the my skin for the duration of the day, coming off only when I washed it with soap and water later at my resort.

The thought of a tattoo on my arm did not especially appeal to me, but the thought of a “temporary tattoo” imprint from the spores of this natural plant intrigued me.

For the next stop on our tour, we visited a vanilla plantation. Tahaa is known as “l’île de la vanille” in French, ( “Vanilla Island”), as this island produces about eighty percent of Tahitian vanilla.

Vanilla growing in Tahaa

The vanilla plant is part of the orchid family, and the wet climate and altitude of this part of the world is great for growing this vanilla. La Vallée De La Vanille, an organic vanilla plantation, was an amazing place to visit.


vanilla normally produces flowers in a short season (May and September mostly)



During my visit, I learned that vanilla beans are harvested after each flower is hand pollinated, after about six to nine months. While it is possible to hand grow Vanilla planifolia  (vanilla) in other parts of the world, Tahitian vanilla is actually a hybrid of two species (vanilla planifolia and vanilla pompona), which were bred together to create Vanilla tahitensis or Tahitian vanilla. The bees that normally pollinate vanilla were not brought to French Polynesia by the Europeans from Central America, are not on the island, and are nearly extinct. The plants, which contain both male and female parts, are hand pollinated accordingly. The plant is propagated mainly from stem cuttings instead of seeds because they require a certain type of fungus to even germinate.

unripe vanilla pods on the vanilla plant and a “temporary tattoo” on the tour guide
Dried vanilla pods after several months

Vanilla pods are harvested when they are mature, as harvesting them too early before they turn the right color yields a vanilla bean that is not as aromatic or flavorful. Post-harvest, the beans are washed and dried in a series of steps for approximately nine months before going to market.

Marché de Papeete in Tahiti where many things, including Tahitian vanilla, are sold

Tahitian vanilla tastes very different than the usual vanilla we eat here in the Americas, which is usually a Bourbon vanilla or Madagascar vanilla. While Madagascar vanilla taste can be described as “rich and creamy”, Tahitian vanilla can be best described as sweet and floral with a hit of cherry somehow. Many people simply LOVE the flavor of Tahitian vanilla (especially my friend in Belgium), but I find it tastes almost like eating soap some how.

So when the travel bans are lifted, think about visiting French Polynesia. Try something different. Enjoy the local color wherever you end up and keep dreaming. Carpe diem, friends……….