Wrong Turn Tourist Attraction
By Jill Cox-Cordova
I was five years old when I went to Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park for the first time. When my mother and I passed the brown sign indicating we had entered the territory, I marveled at how the trees stretched nearly to the blue sky and then arched over the wide, paved road like a rainbow of fall foliage. We drove 15 mph, the posted speed limit, through a woodsy wonderland that Mom identified as oak and hickory; our brochures indicated that there were 82 different types of trees. I squealed and clapped my hands when Mom stopped after spotting two white-tailed deer, which jumped high like Santa’s reindeer across the road.
We made a right onto a road that made us both say, “Whoa.” What a wrong turn, I thought. This two-lane, narrow route curved sharply, up and down like a roller coaster track with a blacktop surface. Mom inched along at about 5 mph; each side of the road dropped like a cliff. Upon closer inspection, I realized I could not see the bottom because of the many trees—thick and thin branches stretched, twisted, and sprawled, covered in places by pops of green, rust, and orange foliage. Until then, I did not realize that one could discern shapes and figures from the branches the same way as one can see them in the clouds—a smiley face, a triangle, a long cascade of hair. Still, I viewed each side of this road as a deadly bluff. I prayed that no deer would jump across our path this time, because either they or we would surely land hundreds of feet below, never to be seen again. I squeezed my eyes shut for the remainder of the ride.
My fear matched my angst about moving and starting a new school an hour away from everyone I knew and loved in Hodgenville, Kentucky, which also happened to be Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace. Yet, how could one blame my mother for accepting a new job teaching young adults how to read? Her new students were all enrolled at a Job Corps center, located within the park and operated by the National Park Service. We would live in a trailer at the end of that windy road known to locals simply as the Four-Mile Stretch. No street signs or names. All residents were assigned boxes at the post office, located just before the beginning of the Four-Mile Stretch. There were no warning signs either.
The road did not widen or straighten until we reached our neighborhood, filled with even more oak, hickory, and a few pine trees, plus about 15 single and double-wide trailers for single and family households. Mom wondered aloud about where to go during tornadoes. Later, someone told her that they would allow residents to take shelter in the main part of the cave, if they had time to get there. No tornadoes hit while we lived there, however, making me still wonder whether that was a true emergency plan or just gossip.
Our new home was a rust-colored single-wide, but it had a long hallway, two bedrooms, and a living room big enough for the upright Kimball piano Mom had bought me when I was three. We could see a mixture of tulip poplar, hickory, and beech trees of various maturities, colors, and heights from every window, and hear children laughing and playing, so Mom suggested we walk to where they were, a semi-circle that featured a basketball goal. Toddlers, kids my age, and those who appeared to be maybe 11 or 12, were either sitting on picnic tables or playing a game of “Horse.” They all waved at us as we approached, but I gripped my mother’s hand and hid my face behind her leg while each of them introduced themselves.
Soon, a car pulled up near us.
“I’ll go,” said one of the boys. We all watched him point the driver one way, then another. “That will bring you out here,” he said. “But this time go straight. Make a left when you get to the stop sign.” They snapped a picture of him and honked after they had driven around what residents called the Big Circle, which went around the bigger trailers in the neighborhood, and pointed anyone who traveled it in the opposite direction. For tourists, that meant it was the right way to go to find the park’s only hotel, campsite, or area to buy tickets for any of the nine cave tours.
When the boy returned to us, he looked at me and said, “We call ourselves ‘Wrong Turn Attractions,’ but don’t worry. We’ll teach you how to talk to tourists, too.”
I opened my mouth to tell him that nothing about that would work for me, but my mother said our farewells before even one word escaped. Mom predicted I would grow to love it there. I hoped she was right.
During the day, I sometimes heard wild turkeys, or so Mom told me, but I never saw any. At bedtime, the owls, frogs, and crickets were so loud, I was convinced they were plotting to attack.
“Wildlife,” my mother said. “You like animals.”
I pulled the covers over my head.
“They won’t hurt you, and it’s illegal to hurt them,” she said to my silhouette.
I pulled the covers down and looked at her. She hugged me and said I should picture the deer we had seen earlier. For a moment I did, which relaxed me. When I closed my eyes to sleep, however, I envisioned the woods and convinced myself that BigFoot lived there, too. Unable to fathom why my mother would move us here from Hodgenville, I cried myself to sleep.
The next day, somehow the vivid colors of the trees returned, and some of the neighborhood kids knocked on our door to tell me that the book mobile was scheduled to arrive soon. I loved books, so I forgot that I was in a new place among strangers. I soon had a couple of books in one hand, and my other one was swinging the hand of one of the little girls. We skipped and sang our made-up song, “Books, books, we have books.”
Another car with tourists spotted us and asked for directions. I found myself wanting to interact, and I even smiled for the picture they asked to take of us, proof that yes, people can live in a national park.
In the weeks ahead, I willingly took walks with my new friends along the Four-Mile Stretch, which, from this angle, I now could see included beautiful plants. It was a game for my friends to be the first to identify them—goldenrods, four-o’clocks, morning-glories, ragweed, chicory--or, we would call them “weeds,” if no one knew what they were.
“Don’t touch anything,” my friends warned, because poison oak and ivy were also there. Still, this experience eliminated my qualms about this road, even when I was in our full-size yellow school bus. During these walks, we stopped at a one-room church with white siding and a small patch of grass dotted with tombstones. We read each one and took turns making up stories about who the deceased had been when they were alive. The older ones in the group told me I had the best storytelling skills, and they encouraged me to find ways to perfect it.
That inspired me to start writing fictional stories from facts tourists gave when I asked why they chose Mammoth Cave as their vacation destination. The most popular response came from honeymooners, who said they wanted to celebrate their marriage by doing something different, like exploring a cave. Others were fascinated by the Green River, aptly named and 50-feet wide with patches of porous limestone that looked like it would easily crumble into powder if you touched it. I expected it to have a putrid smell too, but I could not detect an odor of any kind. It also featured a ferry—pulled by a cable—big enough to haul only two cars at a time and a small riverboat, all of which transported me back to eras of long ago, illustrations or photos I had seen in history books. “That’s where most of the snakes live,” my mother often said, so the only time I was allowed to venture to this area of the park was when my school went there for field trips or the times relatives came to visit and wanted to go. In my fictional stories, which I only shared with my mother, the Green River became the most popular place for people to talk about, but never visit. Much like the North Pole.
During the next seven years, I embraced dinner as time to interact with some of the wildlife. Our dining room window allowed my mother and me to eat, talk about our day, and watch a family of four or five deer seemingly mimic our movements as they watched us, chewing succulent green grass or the leaves, twigs, or vines they found within it. Sometimes they looked at us, then each other, as if exchanging thoughts.
That scene was still the case the summer before my freshman year of high school when the Job Corps relocated to the other side of the Green River, necessitating that my mother and other employees take the ferry everyday to work. All of us moved to another part of the park, less isolated. No more four-mile stretch to navigate. The road to get to our homes was flat and wide. No more trailers. Instead, we had modest, soundly built houses with screened-in sunrooms, hardwood floors, dens, living rooms, and, of course, windows. All of the homes had wooded areas for back lots and sizable front lawns, nurtured and mowed by maintenance workers. We still had a community basketball goal, but there was also a volleyball net and a recreation center, which we often used to host our own aerobics classes. Raccoons, bigger than our lapdogs, were also commonplace and mean enough to challenge our pets to boxing matches if they caught them outside alone. Park service employees often told stories at work about encounters with copperheads and rattlesnakes, which were repeated to us children at home; these provided entertainment every spring and summer, but I equated them with fish tales.
One summer day, I was at the edge of our driveway with several other neighborhood youths. They were talking or doing Double Dutch jump rope moves; I was swirling my body with my hula-hoop for exercise. Faye, who lived directly across the street from me, was standing in her front yard, sometimes watching us; occasionally humming, but mostly talking to her birddog, more spoiled than any of us because he was treated to ice cream every day. No wonder he never barked.
“Throw me that hula hoop,” Faye said.
I, amused she wanted to try her hand at it, shrugged, carrying it as I walked toward her.
“Stop!” she screamed. I froze mid-stride. “Toss. It.”
I threw it like a Frisbee, which she caught, but slammed on the ground. That is when we heard the rattles and saw something brown slithering.
I held my breath as Faye picked up the hula-hoop on the snake-less end and flung it into the woods. The reptile rattled its entire flight. I was the first to hurry inside my home, but before I reached my door, I heard some of my neighbors say, “Write that story,” before going inside, too.
That is when I realized that others viewed me as a writer. This thrilled me, especially since I had remained an avid reader and wanted to one day call myself a published writer, too.
I recognized that nature and its companion sounds of wildlife added up to peaceful moments in which I could think more clearly about the stories I wanted to tell. My neighbors’ encouragement also made me think more about my writing, which provoked me to not only ask tourists the usual questions of what they expected to see and why, but I also inquired about their background (who they were before) and how they thought this tourist attraction might affect them (who they evolved into afterwards). Instead of fictionalizing their responses, I wrote the stories they told me. These tales were still only shared with my mother, but soon, her responses were “Great!” or “Look at my little journalist.” Words I suddenly viewed as my purpose.
I no longer hesitated to enter nonfiction contests for students, and I sometimes won. Many of my best entries came while I walked, socialized outdoors, or talked to tourists, which gave me the opportunity to master my interviewing techniques.
I lived in that national park for twelve years, and the biggest lesson I learned was that sometimes wrong turns are the right ones. When I headed off to college, I studied journalism, of course, and eventually creative writing, but I like to tell people that my career started at Magical Mammoth Cave.
Jill Cox-Cordova holds an MFA from Spalding University and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. Her publications include flash fiction in an anthology, plus articles in CNN.com and Essence. She currently teaches at a university in Georgia, and also serves on the board of the Atlanta Writers Club in the role of Volunteer Coordinator.