We stopped just outside of Mammoth Cave at Cave City, a deserted row of run-down attractions. It has teepee-shaped motels, kangaroo zoos, and a hilltop theme park called Gunsmoke Mountain where a rusty chairlift rocked in the rain.
“It’s like we’ve driven back to the 50s,” Laurie laughed.
At the end of Cave City, I’d heard, was a museum devoted to Floyd Collins, the most famous spelunker who ever lived.
His career was cut short in 1925 when a sand cave fell in, crushing a leg and trapping him.
And yet Floyd Collins was still alive. Friends could pass him food, and drink. Newspapermen could interview him. But they couldn’t get him out.
Collins became a national headline. Tens of thousands of sightseers crowded around, to witness the drama. Hawkers sold souvenirs. The scene was an absolute circus. (See Billy Wilder’s amazing “Ace in the Hole” for a vision of it.)
After four days, there was a second cave-in. And the hole disappeared.
Floyd could still talk, and be interviewed, but there was no way to get food or water to him. Miners dug, trying to open a new hole, but it was fruitless. After ten more days media madness and national attention, Floyd Collins died. Tens of thousands stood outside in silence.
That’s where the story gets weird.
It took two months to dig the corpse out, and give him the burial he deserved.
But in 1927, the land was sold, and the new owner dug Floyd right up. He put the body in a glass box, and started a brand new attraction: Come see the most famous spelunker that ever lived!
For two years, trade was booming, and Floyd’s rotting corpse drew a morbid Kentucky crowd. A few of them weren’t content with seeing it, and returned in the middle of the night. They lifted the body from the case, and took off with it!
When the body was recovered, it was missing a leg. The very same leg that had been trapped. What strange sick Kentucky tourist took it home? What mantlepiece does it rest on? What collector shows it off to his friends and family??
But the owner was undeterred. He put Floyd back in the box, snapped a hefty padlock to the outside, and opened up for business once again.
Today, the Floyd Collins museum is not the same. He was finally re-graved in 1989. What’s left is a bed and breakfast at the far end of Cave City. It’s called The Wayfarer. And it was closed.
Just like half the attractions in Cave City.
Cave City is a ghost town of Americana. Built as a gateway to “one of the seven natural wonders of the world,” it’s now a shadow of commercial poverty and hokey archaic stops like Big Mike’s Rock & Gifts Shop.
Big Mike’s, though, was wide open. It’s “Kentucky’s largest rock shop,” or so they claim. They also claim to have “the world’s largest mosasaur skull.” They sell quilts, and jewelry, and Justin Beiber postcards, and 8X t-shirts.
They also have a mystery house. Big Mike’s Mystery House.
The mystery house, built in 1972, costs just a dollar to get in. It’s full of cut-rate wonders like off-balance rooms, water flowing uphill, and chairs that sit at unlikely angles. It’s a discount Barnum and Bailey, without Chang and Eng.
“Walk towards this one,” the guide insisted in a room filled with black light posters. “Doesn’t it look like you’re walking into a tunnel?”
Another room was covered in Escher prints. “Can you tell which hand is drawing which?”
There were even fun-house mirrors.
It was the most fun I’d had in Kentucky in years.
At the gift shop, Laurie picked up a handful of ancient arrowheads. They cost only $2 each.
“Were these found around here,” she asked.
“Sure! I mean, they were made around here.”
I bought an RC Cola, instead.