Cave to Cairo

Day 42 – Monday, July 8
Mammoth Cave to Cairo, Illinois
282.2 miles
95 Hot & Humid

This turned out to be a long odd day. I planned to travel to Land Between the Lakes, a National Recreation Area southeast of Paducah, Kentucky. It’s a long narrow undisturbed wildlife refuge about 12 miles wide and 100 miles long between two manmade lakes. It has one major road from east to west and one, called The Trace, north to south. There is one additional paved road on the east side leading to a camping area / boat launch and some dead ends. The topography is low rolling hills completely coved in trees and undergrowth. Other than seeing water from the bridges coming in, you are encased in forest.
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I arrived about 1 p.m. I drove across to a visitors center. Food could only be found off LBL (as it’s called), some distance away. Driving in from the east I saw only one gas station / convenience store. I thought about driving out the west side then backtracking to the campground. This did not appeal to me so I drove to the campground.

The campground sits on a forested hillside beside the eastern lake. Most of the sites are engineered for level and drainage. All of the campers I saw had boats. Four days before, a tornado ripped through the area. There were no injuries, but tree limbs and logs and debris was strewn everywhere. What would I do if awakened by high winds? I decided to drive north back to the mainland.

So began an afternoon odyssey. First I turned in the wrong direction. That wasted about 20 miles. When turned around I had to plot a way to avoid the Paducah metro area. That took some creative choices, but eventually I found myself out in open farmland. From this point on I started looking for a campsite. A few cemeteries presented themselves. My problem was time. It was still early. I couldn’t hang out in a cemetery for three to four hours. I kept driving.

I realized Cairo, Illinois was possible if I drove on highways at 50 mph. So I hit the gas made it to Wickliffe, Kentucky about 12 miles from Cairo where I stopped at a convenience store. I sat down with two good-old-boys and asked for directions. We laughed at my east coast pronunciation: KI-row. They say KAY-row. Then one fellow got serious and said, “You don’t want to go there.” I thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t. He suggested I stay in Wickliffe and just drive through Cairo quickly in the morning.

Of course I didn’t take his advice. I drove the 12 miles and over the Ohio River Bridge to Fort Defiance State Park. This is the point where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers meet. It is the southern most tip of Illinois. It was getting late. I decided to look for a campsite or a motel. I turned north, up over the levy and into the city of Cairo.

Cairo is surrounded by high levies and flood walls. It hasn’t had an overflowing flood in a long time, but the citizens are evacuated just in case every couple of years. The city, a town really, is desperately poor. Half of all buildings are empty and dilapidated. The only chain business is a Subway that just opened this spring. It feels desperate and dangerous. There is one main four-lane street running north. I followed it through town and out into the country.

There is no place to camp because all the land is wet. I turned around and decided to drive back to a motel in Wickliffe. There is one motel in Cairo, the Belvedere. I passed it earlier. It is rundown, next to the street, and looks like a gathering place for drug dealers. As I approached it, Ruby’s engine quit. I coasted into the parking lot.

The Belvedere. I was buzzed into the dark office through a door that had been jimmied more than once. A short, middle-aged Indian woman, with a pleasant smile greeted me. I got a room. What else could I do? Room 108 has one light hanging from the ceiling in the far corner. The window curtains are made from a heavy tarp and stapled together. There is no art or wall paper. The actual composition of the walls is unknown. Against the back wall in a narrow closet recess is an air conditioner. I pressed on it until it started. Cool air came out. The little bathroom had its own light. It was clean. The sheets were clean too.

I pushed Ruby as close to my door as I could. I showered then walked to a convenience store. The owner and I struck up a conversation. His brother is Cairo’s police chief. Somehow, that made me feel safer. I slept well.

The next morning I went outside. Ruby was still there. I turned the key and she started. Amazing. I drove through town and over the Mississippi Bridge. Both bridges, Mississippi & Ohio, are long arching steel frames just wide enough for two lanes. No photo op. I drove into Fort Defiance State Park. Lewis and Clark were here 210 years earlier. The rivers are high, near flood stage. The water is wide, miles across. A small boat with two fishermen sat at the confluence. Three states meet at this point.
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