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That sneaky look that sometimes crosses my darling wife’s face at odd moments greeted me Saturday afternoon, just after I had returned from an errand. You probably know a similar look. Under some circumstances, it can freeze you, and under others, it can melt your heart.
This was a melting moment.
“We’re going on an adventure,” she said.
She had arranged for the kids to stay overnight with my parents and had secured us a room for a 2-day sneakaway to Cumberland Falls.
Now before you roll your eyebrows and suggest that this is not like hopping a jet to New York or the Bahamas or stealing away to, say, the low country of South Carolina, I can tell you that during our years of marriage we have taken those magical journeys many times over, and almost all of them embarked from that same sneaky little expression.
To be sure, too, these days, when you can get away from a 3-year-old and a 9-year-old for more than an hour or two, downtown Flat Gap can seem like the most exotic of locations.
Like most of you, I have visited the falls numerous times as part of our family’s regular rotation for tours for relatives and Fourth of July picnics.
But except for a rainy, chilly, abbreviated spring stopover on a trip north from Florida a few years ago, I had not visited the falls for any time period since my high school days. A lot can change in 40 years, but a lot can stay the same, too.
When you’re about 10 or 12, that meandering drive south seemed like it took forever, and the trek my bride and I made this weekend no doubt was quicker. In the old days. there were no bypasses of Harrodsburg and Danville, and the roads were more frequently two-lane than four.
The landscape also wasn’t dotted with what I now would term such interesting sites (i.e. development of both the vain and, well, vivacious varietals).
Those youthful trips ended with fried chicken, potato salad and maybe some watermelon, but they also always included wading and swimming in the swirling eddies above the falls. That seemed very dangerous – and probably was – but it also was a bit exotic to a boy from Simpsonville.
My family, of course, took in the various views of what was then and remains one of our most powerful pieces of natural architecture. When God took the Cumberland River over those rocks and down, He created not only a channel for a flow of fresh water but a symbol of His power, majesty and aesthetic acuity.
Our trip this weekend went beyond merely the falls, of course, and landed us at the magnificent Dupont Lodge, on top of the hill just northeast of the river.
If you haven’t visited the lodge – and I hear from people frequently that they never have been there – let me just say you are missing a truly special experience.
Built of stone and wood in the way of many older and more traditional lodges, it captures some of the spirit of the incredible El Tovar on the rim of the Grand Canyon and brings in the simplicity of the Timberline atop Mount Hood.
Given, this isn’t nearly so spectacular, but I challenge you to find a more lovely vista from which to dine than its restaurant, which offers a pure panorama up the river from a few hundred feet high. I can only imagine how overwhelming that must be in October or during a snowfall, because a routine summer day created a classic oil landscape just outside those panes of glass.
And if the river valley and the trees don’t sufficiently mesmerize, the wrens, gold finches and selfish squirrels diving to enjoy the feeders hanging from the deck above added a simpler frame to the whole indelibly grand scene.
But there also is a interesting irony at play here.
Not far from that beauty, the 30-mile drive on KY 90 and U.S. 25, from just south of Burnside and across to Corbin, is, outside the park, a study not only in lush mountain forests but also of a people and place that were left behind.
So often the natural wonders of our country attract the development and “improvements” of the areas around. You can debate the value of whether what Disney did to Central Florida was a plus – I’d say it’s 50-50 – or what the Smokies did for Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge was good – 10-90 – but you can’t argue that change didn’t happen.
The gateways to Mammoth Cave and Natural Bridge have their own pieces of concept-connection, but that has not been the case with the falls.
There are a couple of nice houses along that drive, but they are intermingled with boarded-up old motels, a small shack with laundry drying on its version of a front porch, junk-surrounded modular homes, a craft store where a woman with more fingers than teeth craves your business and a gas station where the pumps should have been attended, they were that old.
It was shocking and a bit sad in places, but it also sort of fit with what Cumberland Falls is.
The state park is wonderfully devoid of thrill rides, full-sized or miniature golf and neon. Its commodity is wonderful, rapturous, unquenchable natural peace, beauty and quiet.
The gateways, then, too, have that same sense of peace and nature, and I wouldn’t have them any other way, either.
My wife is promising return trips to the lodge at the falls. She is promising to take the kids, one at a time, so they can experience the grandeur and nature and absorb it without distraction or filter.
I like that. It’s a naturally wonderful idea, with a touch of the sneaky and melty.