Mammoth Cave: A National Park Gem

National parks and monuments are not to be missed and some are backpackers’ dream destinations, so we veered north from Nashville to explore Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park. What did we find? Enough to fill three days. The ranger-led Gothic Tour took us below to walk two miles of the 365 miles of cave, more than twice as long as any cave in the USA. If you time it right, you might be offered a rare boat tour on an underground river. A free ferry took us across the Green River after a roadway sign warned us that the road ”ends in water.” The road across the river leads to a web of wilderness trails for backpackers; permits for overnight trips are available in the visitor’s center. We walked several trails, including the Big Hollow Loop.

We pulled our hybrid bikes out of our trailer to try another park feature: the Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike and Hike Trail, a packed-gravel path that includes many short (some steep) climbs. We rode to two of the 77 cemeteries in the area, reminders of times more than a century earlier when the narrow-gauge railroad transported people and supplies to communities built around the growing popularity of the cave network. Another great national park, but without the crowds that frequent some.

Together We Will Go, But Where?

Mark Antonelli, a struggling writer, concocts a plan that begins when he buys an old tour bus. His idea needs riders, so he advertises for special people to join him for a cross-country trip to San Francisco.

The dozen passengers he picks up for the journey agree to ride until the bitter end, when he intends for the bus to plunge off a cliff. Their individual stories are the foundation of an intriguing novel, Together We Will Go: A Road Trip to the End, by J. Michael Straczynski.

The passengers are an eclectic, quirky group, and include a poet, a young woman with a chronic disorder, a 65-year-old widower, a woman who grew up bullied for her body size, a party lover, and a mild-mannered young guy who is literally blue due to a hole in his heart. Antonelli hires a young Army veteran to drive.

There are many twists (but these are not spoilers).

One rider gives up his life so the others can pursue their plan to end theirs.

The passengers find happiness with others who want to die because their lives are empty.

They each go because they don’t care to live, but they grow to care more about each other than most of them have cared for anyone.

I found myself liking most of the characters so much I wanted them to fail—in other words, to live. In the end, they do not all die, but some do, and not necessarily how they intended.

Straczynski brilliantly balances a sometimes lighthearted story with the seriousness of the topic. He uses the characters’ own words to advance the story through the texts, journal entries, emails, and voicemails they send to Antonelli, the leader of the bus trip.

Straczynksi, known for his many successful motion picture and television projects, has also written Marvel comics. My favorite TV series he created is Senses8 on Netflix.

The book made me wonder if these 12 passengers really want to die. Or are they looking for something else? For them all, the tour bus, like life tends to do, takes them to places they do not expect.