A Travellerspoint blog

The Amish & The Snack Capital of the World

PENNSYLVANIA - PART II

My friend, Nick Pironio, oft spoke of a marvelous land filled with as many pretzels as one could eat and where beer had only one name—lager. This marvelous land was Hanover, PA, and the only beer on tap was Yuengling. Unfortunately my travels wouldn't take me far enough north to go to the Yuengling brewery, but I would be able to make a few stops in the heart of the The Snack Capital of the World.

Heading west from Philadelphia on the shoddy (yet expensive because of tolls) Pennsylvania Turnpike, the air turned a little sweeter. This area has an abundance of companies making candies, baking pretzels, and salting chips. Utz, Snyder's of Hanover, and Wise are just some of the big names that can be found in the area, but there are scores of mom and pop chip and chocolate companies around each corner as well. Our first stop was the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Company.

The Julius Sturgis Pretzel Company is located in Lititz, a town small town in the Pennsylvania Dutch country. We chose the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Company because Utz and Synder's of Hanover tours didn't allow pictures or were not available Friday afternoon (not to mention that Sturgis pretzels are delicious!). Megan was also super-excited about the tour because they let you twist your own soft pretzel!

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We just about passed the bakery (you can't miss the giant pretzel out front) and went inside to inquire about the tour. Nobody was out on the streets, and it didn't look like anyone was inside the bakery. I got the feeling that tour was not taken very frequently, and that we had wasted time driving through Lititz. We found a lady serving pretzels from behind a counter and inquired about the tour. To my surprise she said the 2pm tour was full and we would have to wait until 2:30. Not only were the tours actually running, they were filling up with people! We wandered around the shop and lobby looking at old advertisements, newspaper articles, and pretzel making equipment to kill time until our tour started.

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Right before 2:30, a heard a herd of shuffling feet as they piled back in the bakery lobby. Our tour guide gathered those of us waiting for the next tour (another 15 people had joined us) and took us back into the bakery. After explaining a little about the history of the Sturgis family and how it spawned multiple pretzel companies (reminded me of how the Jim Beam family spawned multiple whiskey distilleries when we did the The Bourbon Trail), our guide started instructing us on how to fold the perfect pretzel.

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Our guide mixed in some pretzel history (stories about German monks and children's bedtime stories), some pretzel traditions (how "tying the knot" now refers to getting married), and some pretzel jokes (check out his shirt in the picture below, you can get a feel for his sense of humor wearing the "Old & Salty" shirt). Megan bragged about her pretzel being the best in the entire group, but we all got certificates indicating we passed pretzel twisting school.

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Next we walked over to the giant brick ovens that were used to bake the pretzels. The guide informed us that soft pretzels begin to go stale 30 minutes after they come out of the oven, so to truly appreciate one you need to eat it still warm (makes you think twice about the soft pretzels at sporting events that sit on the rack for hours at a time). Hard pretzels were made by baking them a second time by storing them on the second story to reuse the heat from the ovens located below. Based on the temperature and humidity outside, it could take anywhere from 1 day to a week for the hard pretzels to finish baking.

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Just as the guide was wrapping up the tour, our soft pretzels came out of the oven. I have NEVER had a pretzel this good. My mouth is watering just remembering how it tasted.

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I sampled a variety of the hard pretzels, including some of the "experimental" flavors (like garlic pretzels and hot cheddar pretzels, mmmmm). I could have stayed there for a week, especially if a beer had been available. Megan was eventually able to drag me back to the car so we could continue the trip.

As a mentioned above, we were not only driving through the Snack Capital of the World, but also through the Pennsylvania Dutch country, home to the Amish. Since we had left the turnpike and were driving on smaller roads, we frequently passed by the Amish riding in their buggies. Most of us are familiar with the Amish as the people who have decided to give up worldliness (electricity, tv, computers, cars) in order to strengthen their relationship to God. I was somewhat surprised at how frequently we saw them riding on the streets and working in the fields.

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The countryside was beautiful as we made our way further west. Rolling fields, silos, and barns stretched out in front of us. Philadelphia seemed a million miles away in this rural countryside.

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Our travel through Snack Central was not finished just yet. Having got a taste of salt, it was time to even it out with a taste of sweet. And what place is sweeter than Hershey, Pennsylvania?

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In Hershey, everything related back to the chocolate company. The street lights were Hershey kisses. The sign on every barn and silo was branded Hershey. Every street sign pointed towards the Hershey Theme Park.

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When I was a senior in high school, we visited Hershey on the way up to a Young Life Camp in New York. I remember having a good time at the amusement park, and remembered everything smelling like chocolate. Megan and I didn't have time to ride the rides, so we opted to take a tour of the chocolate factory instead.

Upon entering the Chocolate World, my excitement quickly drained. This place was way over-commercialized. You could make your own candy bar in the Chocolate Lab, you could ride a trolly through the chocolate factory, and you could participate in the 4-D theater—all for $25 a pop. The majority of the floor space in Chocolate World was dedicated to buying CostCo size boxes of chocolate (and even a 25 lb bar of chocolate), but the prices were higher than at the grocery store back home. I was briefly in my own personal heaven in the Reese's corner, but there were no free samples.

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They did have a free factory tour ride, which was supposed to simulate how chocolate was made. It matched the rest of Chocolate World in its commercial-ness, complete with singing cows and a picture your could buy of yourself on the ride upon completion. There wasn't anything authentic about Hershey, and I was about 20 years too old to appreciate anything in Chocolate World.

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Megan and I grabbed a handful of free white-chocolate kisses and got back in the car. We still had to drive halfway across Pennsylvania to get to our next destination, Latrobe (and then on to Pittsburgh)!

Posted by Mike.Flynn 13:26 Archived in USA Tagged museum tour local_food Comments (0)

Philadelphia

STATE 18 - PENNSYLVANIA

sunny 78 °F

Only 1 of the original 13 colonies did not touch the Atlantic Ocean, but it was also the center of the emerging nation politically and geographically. It is the birthplace of cheesesteaks and soft pretzels. Somehow, this state got the entire nation to watch a rodent predict a late winter or early spring. Megan and I are headed to Pennsylvania!

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Philadelphia is the largest city in Pennsylvania, and arguably the best (just kidding Pittsburghers). Philadelphia does have a pretty cool view when driving into the city from the south. The downtown skyline is visible while the Phillies and Eagles stadiums fill the foreground (it was especially cool at night).

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One thing immediately jumps to mind when I think of Philadelphia. You might be thinking obnoxious sports fans, cheesesteaks, or the Liberty Bell, but I can't help but remember the greatest underdog story of all time—Rocky. Our first stop is the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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We could see the museum from the hotel room (at the end of the road heading in the 2 o'clock direction) so it wasn't a far walk. Flags from every country lined the side of the road (I'm not sure why). There was a fountain in front of the museum with plenty of statues, Megan couldn't resist posing.

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It was about 6:00 in the morning, and the only people around were either homeless or people working out on the steps. Some were doing yoga and stretching exercises, while others ran up and down the steps. Getting into the Rocky spirit, Megan challenged me to a race up the stairs.

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Upon reaching the top, Megan and I danced around, did a little shadow boxing, and high-fived one another. However one thing was missing, there was no statue of Rocky at the top! Try to differentiate between Rocky, Megan, and me in the following pictures:

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From the vantage point on top of the steps, we spotted the new location of the Rocky statue. After walking back down the steps and over to the statue, Megan dared me to shout "Adrian" while posing for a picture. What you can't tell from the video is that there is a stoplight 15 feet from the statue where 20 cars had stopped on their morning office commute. Needless to say, they all turned to stare at me.

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After getting our Rocky fix, Megan and I crossed through downtown to reach our next Philadelphia destination, Independence National Park. Philadelphia played a huge role in the forming of the United States. Its central location among the first 13 colonies made it a convenient place for the founding fathers to meet. Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed in Philadelphia. Philadelphia initially served as the nation's capital, and several presidents had homes in the city. Independence National Park is a preserved area in downtown Philadelphia that contains Independence Hall (the building where the documents were signed and original home of the Liberty Bell), President Washington's house, the First Treasury of the US, a number of era-representative buildings, and the town bar.

Our first stop was the Visitor Center so we could empty our bladders and get a ticket to enter Liberty Hall (you have to be escorted through Liberty Hall at a specified time). The Visitor Center had people dressed up in late 18th century attire, including slaves. People played instruments from the time, and a couple demonstrated common crafts like stitching (it was a little reminiscent of when we were at Colonial Williamsburg). It was a little weird to see US Park Rangers walking around with their wide brim hats, but I guess they wear the same outfit whether they are in downtown Philadelphia or at the Grand Canyon. There were some hints of modern day Philly too, like the Philadelphia Phanatic!

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We had about 2 hours before our scheduled tour of Liberty Hall, so we decided to walk around the park. On the way to see the Liberty Bell, we passed by George Washington's house.

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Well, we passed what was left of George Washington's house. You could see the foundation 15 feet below ground behind a plexiglass wall. The space on top of the foundation was dedicated to a display about George Washington's slaves. It was an interesting display because it didn't mention anything about George Washington specifically, just whatever information they had about the slaves that Washington owned. It seemed like the display was better suited for a Civil War era park instead of a Colonial era park. However, it wouldn't be the last time slavery was discussed during our time at Independence National Park.

The Liberty Bell was located right next to the foundation of Washington's house. Just about every kid knows the story about how the Liberty Bell was the grandest bell in the world and how it cracked when it was rung to announce the signing of the Declaration of Independence (although none of that is 100% true). Regardless of the true story of the bell, I was intrigued to see it. Unfortunately, so was just about every other person. People were waiting to see the Liberty Bell in a non-moving line that stretched around the side of the building (surprisingly, foreigners made up 75% of the people in line).

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Seeing bell wasn't important enough to wait an hour in line, so Megan and I continued walking towards Independence Hall. Upon reaching the end of the Liberty Bell building, I saw that waiting in line to see the Liberty Bell was a complete waste of time. The entire end of the building containing the bell was made of glass! Anyone who wanted to see the bell could easily do so without waiting a minute in line. I guess the only benefit of going in the building is to get a little closer or get a better picture with the bell (tip to anyone who wants to do this, they have a perfect replica of the bell in the Constitution Center, and no one will even know that it isn't the real Liberty Bell). Megan and I listened to a short story about the bell, got a picture, and moved on.

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Since we still had about 90 minutes until our tour started, Megan convinced me to walk through the rest of the park to see the Rose Garden. The crowd disappeared as soon as we passed Independence Hall. It seemed that most people stayed in the portion of the park between the Constitution Center, Visitor Center, Liberty Bell, and Independence Hall. I tried to follow the map to the Rose Garden, but there were no signs on the cobblestone streets. After wandering through several different gardens, we finally reached the Rose Garden. There was only one bush in the entire garden with roses, and Megan was not impressed.

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We walked to the end of the park, passing by the First Bank of the US, the first US Treasury, several statues, and a variety of historical buildings. The building we really wanted to see was the watering hole of the founding fathers, the City Tavern.

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The City Tavern was closed when we walked by, but it does open for lunch and dinner every day. It would have been cool to get a beer at the same place George Washington once did, but not even the founding fathers grabbed a drink at 9am in the morning.

We headed back to Independence Hall to get ready for our tour. Unfortunately Independence Hall was getting renovated, so the exterior view of the building was not quite authentic.

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The inside however, was kept as authentic as possible. There are two main rooms, one side is a court room and the other is the gathering room where the delegates met. Each room only had furniture from the late 18th century, some of it being the actual pieces that were used by the delegates (such as George Washington's chair and Thomas Jefferson's walking stick).

The first room we entered was the courtroom. The guide told a story about how the seal of England used to be on the wall, but once the Declaration of Independence was announced, it was ripped from the wall and burned in the street. You can also see the cage that the accused man used to stand inside while making his case. Thank goodness the court system has evolved, no one would ever appear to be innocent when pleading their case from within a cage!

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The next room, the Assembly Room, is where all the real action happened. We got a good dose of history on how the delegates were gathered here to debate the Declaration and later the Constitution. The guide went into a long story about how North and South Carolina initially refused to sign the Constitution because it would have ended slavery. I was shocked, I had never imagined slavery was a dividing issue for our country from day 1. Eventually the references to slavery were removed from the Constitution, and it was signed by everyone. The guide pointed out where each delegate sat, and described how the windows were screwed shut to prevent the listening ears of the press from reporting the proceedings until they were finished. At the front of the room sat the chair with the carving of a sun where George Washington presided over the conference, in which Ben Franklin commented "I have often looked at that behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now I... know that it is a rising...sun."

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After the tour completed, Megan and I made our way back to the car. It was nearly lunch time, and I was starved. I was told there are two options for lunch, Geno's or Pat's, the two most popular cheesesteak places in Philly. We drove out of downtown and decided on Geno's based on a local's recommendation. I ordered an "American With", which means an American-cheese based cheesesteak with peppers and onions. Listening to the next 50 people that ordered, I realized that the most common order was the "Whiz With", a cheesesteak that uses cheez-whiz (which ironically isn't real cheese).

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Our day through Philly was over, but our trek through Pennsylvania was just beginning.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 02:45 Archived in USA Tagged museum historical tour local_food world_heritage_site Comments (1)

Mammoth Cave

KENTUCKY - PART II

Kentucky is home to the longest cave system in the world, Mammoth Cave. This cave system is so long that if you put the second longest and third longest back to back, Mammoth Cave would still be 33% (over 100 miles) longer. Megan and I set out to hike the longest portion open to the public, the Grand Avenue Passage.

It was about a 2 hour drive from my grandma's house to Mammoth Cave. We left early in the morning, and the weather seemed to eerily foreshadow what laid ahead for the next 6 hours. A fog blanketed the highway, limiting visibility to the immediate area around us. We should probably get used to the claustrophobic feeling, hiking through a cave wasn't likely to feel any more open.

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The fog eventually let up as the sun rose higher, exposing the rolling hills and green grass of the Kentucky countryside. We turned off the highway and followed the signs through a forest to get to the visitor center. Mammoth Cave is designated a National Park, World Heritage Site, and an International Biosphere, so we didn't pass by any other buildings. The visitor center was a madhouse, full of families and prospective spelunkers on a holiday weekend. Most of the Mammoth Cave can only be explorer with a guide, presumably so people don't get lost or injured in the miles of darkness. We had arrived with about 45 minutes to spare before our tour, so we sat on a park bench to escape the bustle and noise of the visitor center.

The 45 minutes turned out to be 1 hour and 45 minutes since Mammoth Cave was located in the central time zone, so Megan and I left the visitor center to explore the trails in the woods surrounding the visitor center. The first path we went down took us to the Historic Entrance to Mammoth Cave. It is a natural entrance to the cave (some of the entrances to the cave were created by using explosives to blast through the rock). A strong breeze blew constantly out of the cave, and the air was very chilly. We walked down the steps to get our first glimpse at Mammoth Cave.

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A small waterfall fell over the cave entrance, and low powered lights lit the entrance to the cave. After 50 yards or so, a large gate blocked access to the rest of the cave. We had no choice but to turn around and continue heading down the trail. The trail we were on was supposed to take us to an area called the River Styx, a place where an underground river rises to the surface. The trail was only a little longer than a mile, so it didn't take long to get there. The River Styx looked like creek that had flooded its banks to engulf the surrounding trees.

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Waterfalls came out of the side of the rock face (may be hard to see in the picture) creating the tranquil sound of falling water. It was hard to tell that this was an underground river. The water level was much higher than normal due to the heavy rainfall in the surrounding area (the tornadoes running rampant from Georgia to Missouri seemed to fill the news every other day). I found a picture of the same area that shows where the river emerges from underground.

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We started the mile hike back (which was all uphill) to the visitor center. We met up with the rest of our tour group, loaded the buses, and headed off to the New Entrance of Mammoth Cave.

A quick back-story on the history of Mammoth Cave. People have known about the cave since the explorers first came to Kentucky. In the war of 1812, saltpeter was mined from the cave to use to fire rifles. Later, nitrates were mined from the cave. Eventually, people began exploring the cave for recreation. In the mid 1800s, people began to pay guides to take them through the caves. After the civil war, Mammoth Cave became a big tourist attraction, people would travel from all over to see the cave. Most of the formations are named after things that people in the north could relate to, like the large room called Grand Central Station or the Frozen Niagara. The tour industry was so lucrative, that other people in the area began offering their own cave tours to caves on their property. The Historic Entrance to Mammoth Cave was located 5 miles from the highway, so competitors would dress up as cops to direct traffic away from the Historic Entrance to their entrances, or dress up as construction crews and tell people that Mammoth Cave had collapsed and they would have to go to alternative sites. The New Entrance was one such competitor. The owner of the site even sued to use the name Mammoth Cave because he said he could prove it was the same cave system. Eventually an organization setup to preserve the caves bought all the land around the caves, and Mammoth Cave was later made a National Park.

The New Entrance to Mammoth Cave was marked by a large wooden awning, but otherwise would be all too easy to miss. We received some quick instructions from our guide, and the kids in the front of the group asked questions like "How often does the cave collapse?" and "When did the last person die in the cave?". With a morbid thought now implanted in my brain, I was ready to spend the rest of the day underground. As we passed through the gate into the cave, cold air blasted upwards, and we descended 300 feet underground.

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We passed a couple small bats clinging to the ceiling of the tunnel and emerged in a large cavern at the base of the stairs. It took a second for my eyes to adjust to the lack of light. Once the group all made it safely down the steps, we started the hike through the limestone tunnel.

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The cave was not brightly lit. In fact, it was lit just barely enough so that you could see where the trail was. This portion of the cave was about 20 feet tall, and ranged from 10 to 30 feet across. Large blocks of limestone littered the sides of the cave, often looking like they fell off in giant slabs. There was no sound except the light slapping of shoes hitting stone. The guide would stop every 20 minutes or so in the larger rooms of the cave to talk about the experiences of people who toured the cave 100 years ago. Chicken bones and bullets could occasionally be found in the cave, and these artifacts (not trash) had to remain untouched since the cave is now a World Heritage Site.

The cave twisted back and forth, never traveling in a straight line or letting you see too far ahead. The guide turned the lights off behind us as we traveled from section to section. The lights in the cave were usually placed to accent unique rock formations and create eery shadows on the wall. No harsh, white lights were used, but instead softer reds and greens lit the way in front of us.

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The first third of the hike did not have any stalactites or stalagmites, which only form in areas where water is moving through the cave. Instead, gypsum formations lined the ceiling and walls. Water percolating through the limestone extracted gypsum and deposited it in formations looking like spaghetti or flowers.

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After about an hour of hiking, we reached the Snowball Dining Room. Much to my surprise, it was an actual dining room that served food. Although it was pretty dark, picnic tables lined the large room and a serving line allowed you to buy hot soup and sandwiches. They even had flushing toilets and running water! The guide explained that an elevator had been installed to descend the 300 feet underground and carry the supplies. Megan and I sat down at a table by ourselves and ate the sandwiches we had made before we left. The first picture is Megan sitting at the table, and the second is of the serving line in the Dining Room.

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I had on long pants, but the short sleeve shirt did little to keep me warm in the cave. Sitting still for the 30 minutes we were given to eat let a chill creep into my bones. Megan and I got up and explored the areas surrounding the Snowball Dining Room to get the blood circulating again. It was hard to take any pictures, as only the pictures taken in the most lit up areas of the cave turned out. And even when there was a light, you often had to choose whether to show the rock formation with a black silhouette, or turn the flash on to show the person and wash away the background. You can barely see the people just behind Megan in this picture, that is how dark it was in the cave.

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The first section of cave that we had traveled through had been carved out by an underground river. The second part was carved by the same river, only it was faster moving. The faster current cut more vertically through the rock, so instead of 20 ft wide passages, we only had enough room to move single file through the passages. Rock ridges sometimes forced you to duck through tight openings, and we often had to use ladders to climb up and down the steep passageway. Visibility was limited to only a couple of feet due to the tight turns and lack of light. It was awesome! Unfortunately, it was too dark to see anything in the pictures.

Our guide stopped us as we finished passing through the tight pass and collected us in a big room. He said he wanted to show us what it was like to be in complete darkness, and then he turned off the lights. He asked us to wave our hands in front of our faces and try to see anything. Just as I was thinking that I could see the shadow of my hand, the guide said the brain will project an image of the hand where it thought it should be to keep our sanity. The guide flipped the lights back on and we continued on our way.

Sometimes the cave would branch off and someone would shine a flashlight down the alternative passageway. We could never see very far, but the kid in me imagined bottomless pits and trolls living just out of sight (or maybe a Fraggle). We passed pits that dropped 50 and 100 feet below, carved out by water falling from the ceiling of the cave.

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The final couple miles of the trail were "wetter" than the rest of the cave. Water was running along the walls of the cave, and waterfalls leaked from the ceiling. This falling water formed crazy rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites and walls of shimmering rock. The largest formation was called Frozen Niagara, because it looked a Niagara Falls had been frozen in place.

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We walked down a set of stairs to see some of the best formations, and I was glad we saved this section of the cave for last. The rest of the cave seemed more bland after seeing this artful display of rock.

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In this section of cave, there was a little more wildlife than we had seen earlier in the day. If a light was shone on the wall, you could see dozens of cave crickets moving around.

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We started to make our way out of the cave, often crouching to move past the low ceilings. We crawled through more narrow openings and ascended steep ladders. You had to keep your eye out for stalactites hanging from the ceiling to prevent from being stabbed in the head.

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We finally emerged from the cave, and turning around, it was hard to imagine the miles and miles of caves hidden just below the surface. Here is the view of where we left the cave (see the stone wall on the right side of the picture).

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I was glad that we got to see Mammoth Cave and all its natural wonders. The cave had more of a touristy feel than a natural feel, and I think the main reason was because we had to stay with a guide and a larger group. The boy scout troop in my group had become bored after the first couple hours and had resulted to running through the corridors to entertain themselves. The cave would have been perfect if I had been able to move at my own pace, faster through the large walkways and taking more time to explore the more interesting sections.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 13:55 Archived in USA Tagged hiking national_park world_heritage_site Comments (0)

The Bourbon Trail

STATE 17 - KENTUCKY

overcast 65 °F

Kentucky is a beautiful state, one that I absolutely love driving through. You get a taste of the Appalachian mountains before arriving in the rolling hills in the center of the state. Rustic barns and horse farms dot the countryside, and a multitude of rivers and lakes make this state a scenic wonder. Kentucky is the birthplace of many important men, namely Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and ME!

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Kentucky is also the birthplace of most of the bourbon that travels across the world. There are more barrels of bourbon in Kentucky than there are people! There is so much bourbon in Kentucky, that some distilleries only distribute their bourbon internationally and totally skip the domestic market. Megan, Greg, and I aim to tour six of the bourbon distilleries located in central Kentucky, a pathway called "The Bourbon Trail".

Before we get started, a little foreword on bourbon itself. Bourbon is a special type of whiskey which can only be produced in the United States (in 1964 Congress named bourbon the native spirit). Bourbon is whiskey that is aged in a brand new, charred oak barrel, made from a mash consisting mostly of corn, and has no added flavors (the only flavoring after distillation comes from the oak barrel). How can there be such a variety of bourbon if they all have to follow the same procedure? Distilleries use different combinations of grains to make the mash (stuff that is fermented and distilled into moonshine), but the real magic comes from the oak barrels. A lot of the distilleries use barrels from the same manufacturer, but they vary the amount of time the whiskey is aged in the barrels, how the barrels are positioned in the warehouses, and the blends of different ages of whiskey to create the unique flavors.

We left Somerset (where my grandma lives) and drove north two hours to reach the first distillery, Wild Turkey.

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In college we called Wild Turkey the "Kickin' Chicken" due to the involuntary leg kick after taking a drink of Wild Turkey 101 (hence me doing the Kickin' Chicken dance in the picture above).

It felt a little weird to be waiting on the front porch of the distillery at 9am to start drinking straight bourbon, but we weren't the only ones. About 10 people sat around the small porch waiting for the doors to open. Megan opted for the seat of honor.

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A little after 9, the doors opened and we were directed to sign-in for the tour. It was a short drive over to the new distillery (in 2010 Wild Turkey built a new distillery to allow for increased production). Once we got within a half mile of the distillery, you could smell the bourbon. My mouth watered in anticipation of tasting it, while my stomach flipped with the thought of taking a shot. We pulled up to the distillery just as a grain truck was offloading a new shipment of grain.

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After a quick video about Wild Turkey, our tour guide began the tour around the distillery. We saw the yeast production room (nothing special there, it was just a room) before making our way into the fermenting room. At least 12 30ft tall fermenters sat in the giant room. The corn and grain mix is steeped and boiled to release the stored sugars and enzymes. Yeast is added to the mixture, which then feeds on the sugar to produce carbon dioxide and alcohol. This is the same exact procedure that a lot of breweries use to make beer, which is why the distilleries often refer to the liquid at this stage as beer mash. You could feel the heat coming off the fermenting "beer" as we stood above the fermenter.

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Since the room with the fermenter is not temperature controlled, most distilleries shut down during the hot summer months. The heat in the rooms is just too much for the yeast to work properly. I leaned over the vat and took a big whiff, and it nearly knocked me off my feet. There is no oxygen above the tank (with all the CO2 bubbling up) and you get a nose full of alcohol (it reminded me of the feeling after taking a stiff shot!). We left the fermenting room and walked to take a look at the still.

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The still is what actually extracts the alcohol from the fermented "beer". Sophisticated heating techniques evaporate and condense the alcohol from the mixture. You could actually see the clear alcohol running down the first still and going into the secondary still. This is "moonshine" or "white lightning", but instead of adding a piece of fruit to add flavor, the distillant is stored in oak barrels. We walked out of the distillery and over to the filling warehouse. Here barrels upon barrels waited to be filled. Greg tried to "wheeze the juice" from one.

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Here is a video of the barrels being filled.

From the filling room, we drove over to look inside one of the warehouses. These things were huge, and there were a lot of them. It takes around 3 days to create the mash, ferment, distill, and barrel the whiskey. The whiskey then sits in a barrel in a warehouse for at least 4 years, and often 6, 8, 13 years or longer.

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Inside the warehouse was nothing fancy, just racks and racks of barrels. In the middle of the warehouse, you could look up and see how high the barrels were stacked.

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Throughout the years as the bourbon sits in the barrels, it moves in and out of the pores of the wood through the charred layer. The summer heat opens the wood so that that the bourbon can penetrate, and in the winter the barrel contracts to move the bourbon through the other way. Over time, the flavors of the wood and auburn color is extracted. Wild Turkey has 6 different brands of bourbon, all of which use the exact same mash recipe and age in the same barrels. The only thing that is different is where the barrel is stored in the warehouse. Some zones in the warehouse promotes the bourbon to move more throughout the oak than others, and this is what creates the different flavors.

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After leaving the warehouse, it was time for the tasting! Wild Turkey allowed us to have 2 shots of whatever we wanted, so Megan, Greg, and I coordinated so that we could try as many different bourbons as possible. First we tried Wild Turkey Rare Breed, which is barrel proof (meaning it is bottled straight from the barrel without adding any water). Bourbon has to be at least 80 proof, but often distilled water is added to bring down proof. Rare Breed is not cut with water, but instead is very full flavored. We then sampled Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, which only uses one barrel to bottle (it is not blended with bourbon from other barrels). This is one of the bourbons that had a specific location in the warehouse. We also sampled Russell's Reserve (Jimmy Russell is the master distiller at Wild Turkey, and this bourbon is aged a little longer than the others), Wild Turkey 101 (my favorite from college), and Megan tried the Wild Turkey American Honey (which isn't a true bourbon since flavors are added after it comes out of the barrel).

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On the way out of Wild Turkey, Megan stopped to feed the Wild Turkey some Wild Turkey.

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It was about a 20 minute drive to Woodford Reserve. We had about 8 hours to tour 6 different distilleries spread from Lexington to Louisville (about 3 hours to drive between all the distilleries), and the Wild Turkey tour took about an hour and a half. Needless to say, we were behind schedule. The drive to Woodford Reserve was beautiful. We drove through back roads lining horse farm after horse farm.

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Woodword Reserve was pretty scenic. Woods and horses surrounded the distillery, and their warehouses were covered in stone instead of wood.

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Woodford Reserve is the only distillery that charges for its distillery tour, so we decided to skip it to save some time. We walked through the gift shop (surprisingly the bourbon they sell on site was more expensive than the stuff I could get at the ABC store back home) and took a seat at the tasting bar. Woodford Reserve only gives a single shot of their bourbon, and there wasn't nearly the presentation we had at Wild Turkey. Still, the three of us went through all the steps to get a taste for the bourbon (my leg didn't involuntarily kick at all). After about 30 minutes of taking in the scene, we hopped back in the car to head to Four Roses.

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Four Roses had the look of a Spanish Monastery, distinctly different than the back country feel of Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve. I had never heard of Four Roses, but I am not the most refined bourbon connoisseur. The lady that was doing our tastings informed us that Four Roses had been around for 100 years, but only until recently only shipped overseas (they are now in 47 states, all the contiguous states except Alabama). Four Roses was delicious, nice and mellow. We sampled a single barrel (bottled from only a single barrel), a small batch (bottled from a select number of blended barrels), and their yellow label. I will certainly be looking for their brand next time I buy bourbon.

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The tasting room had a series of charts and a mockup of the distillation process. We smelled the various grains they had on display (wheat, rye, and barley) so that we could identify them in the next bourbon tasting. Greg took the opportunity to try and educate us on the distillation process (everything that he had learned from the Wild Turkey guide). Greg's lecture was filled with lots of jokes and giggling, meaning either the bourbon making process can be humorous, or the samples were starting to take their effect.

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It was a 2 hour drive to the next distillery, which gave us time to eat our lunch and see a little more of the countryside. Once again, we took twisting and winding back roads. We knew we were getting close when the smell of bourbon filled our noses. We had arrived at Maker's Mark.

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The tour was similar to Wild Turkey's tour, just not quite as big. We found out that Maker's Mark rotates their barrels in the warehouses (the warehouses were all painted black to absorb more heat), which contrasted how Wild Turkey kept the barrels in the same spot throughout the aging process. Maker's Mark Bourbon is different from their second brand, Maker's Mark 46, in that additional charred oak staves are added into the barrel at the end of the aging process for an additional 46 days for additional flavor and color.

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At the end of the tour, we got to sample both of Maker's Mark bourbons.

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Maker's Mark's trademark is the wax sealed bottle. At the end of the tour, if you buy a bottle of their bourbon, you can dip it in the wax yourself. Greg wasn't passing up the opportunity, so he got first in line to dip a bottle. After putting on the apron and gloves, he stepped up to the wax and dipped his bottle. It was pretty cool getting to see the hand-dipped process.

They also sold the Maker's Mark 46 staves that had been soaked in bourbon. They smelled like bourbon, and they suggested you cut them up to use on the grill to add a little extra flavor. I bought 5 to use for the 4th of July.

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The next stop was the home of Evan Williams Bourbon, Heaven Hill Distilleries. Heaven Hill is the largest independently owned distillery, and the black label Evan Williams is the most popular in the US and across the world.

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Heaven Hill was set up a little bit differently than the other distilleries. Heaven Hill has a Bourbon Heritage Center, a museum-like visitor center detailing bourbon and how it is made. There were displays that allowed you to smell moonshine, bourbon that had been aged for 6 months, and bourbon that had been aged for 6 years.

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The had old stills on display and descriptions of how bourbon had affected the life of Kentuckians. The museum was definitely more kid friendly with interactive panels. Heaven Hill also offers a variety of tours, none of which were leaving within the next hour. Bourbon tastings are only allowed at the end of the free tour, so we instead sampled the Heaven Hill barbeque sauces. It was a shame we didn't have more time to wait for the next tour.

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We went outside and looked around the Heritage Center. Warehouses were in every direction, and you knew that they were all filled with barrels of bourbon. Each barrel holds about $10,000 to $20,000 worth of bourbon, and with a warehouse holding hundreds and hundreds of barrels, every warehouse had over $1 million of bourbon just sitting inside.

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The last distillery of the Bourbon Trail was Jim Beam, which was another 30 minutes down the road.

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The Jim Beam tour was more of a historic tour. Instead of taking you through the fermenting and distilling processes, you instead go through Jim Beam's house, see the family pictures, and see a toy distillery that actually works.

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The Beam family was one of the earliest bourbon distillers in Kentucky. As a result, they didn't stick to just one distillery. Cousins and brothers each opened their own distilleries, sharing the knowledge passed down along the lines. One of the Beams started Heaven Hill, and other Beams could be seen in the histories of the other distilleries. As we walked out of the house, the tour guide pointed out the pump that they used to use to get the water to make the bourbon. Greg teased that bourbon would come out now, and the guide told him to try it out.

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Although it looked like Moonshine coming out, it was still only water.

The tour continued to see the original still used by the Beam family and the original distribution method. The Beams would keep their the bourbon on site, and people would bring their own containers to buy the whiskey. The container was weighed after it was filled to determine the cost (50¢ per quart, 75¢ per quart for aged bourbon).

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The guide also pointed out the trees around the distillery. He said the one of the by-products of the distillation process causes the trees to turn black. The trees themselves aren't harmed, but occasionally Jim Beam has to polish the tombstones located in the cemetery across the street.

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We walked through one of the Jim Beam warehouses, and it looked very similar to the warehouses from the other distilleries. Jim Beam also rotates their barrels, but uses barrels from different zones to create certain brands. I knew what was coming after the walk through the warehouse, the tasting!

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Jim Beam didn't actually offer their Jim Beam whiskey at the tasting, but instead let us sample the top shelf brands. We got to try a Knob Creek single barrel (which was super smooth) and Basil Hayden Small Batch (which was also fantastic). The Jim Beam tour guide was very personal, and even offered suggestions on other distilleries to try out while we were in the area.

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Overall, I was very impressed with all the distilleries. They were all very open about how they make their bourbon and how their bourbon process may be different from other distilleries. No guide claimed their bourbon was the best or even their bourbon process was the best, but instead just promoted the idea that all bourbon can be appreciated. It was refreshing to not have to hear them slander one another, like I had to sit through when we went on the beer tours in Wisconsin.

We had one last stop before heading back to Somerset. Jim Beam sits right on the edge of Fort Knox. Fort Knox was built when Franklin Roosevelt outlawed American citizens from owning gold bullion and gold coins (everyone had to sell their gold to the Federal Reserve). Fort Knox is now the second largest collection of gold in the world (second only to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in Manhattan, which was robbed in one of the Die Hard movies). Fort Knox has held other valuables other than just gold, like the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the Magna Carta, foreign royalty jewels, and even a supply of morphine during WWII.

You can't actually go into the Bullion Depository at Fort Knox (for obvious security reasons). In fact, you are not allowed to even approach the gate or the fence without repercussions. Instead, you have to pull off on the highway that runs past Fort Knox to take pictures. The three rows of fences certainly screamed, "STAY OUT".

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Our run down the Bourbon Trail was over, but we had successfully visited six distilleries in one day. We even get an official t-shirt for completing the trail (which has yet to come in the mail)!

Posted by Mike.Flynn 05:56 Archived in USA Tagged beer museum tour brewery local_food Comments (0)

Oklahoma City & The Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial

STATE 16 - OKLAHOMA

sunny 95 °F

Flowers on the prairie where the June bugs zoom, Plen'y of air and plen'y of room, Plen'y of room to swing a rope, Plen'y of heart and plen'y of hope. I'm off to where the land is grand, the great state of Oklahoma!

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The opening paragraph may seem strange to some of you, but it is exactly how the state of Oklahoma was explained to me. I couldn't wait to have a circle of people surround me, singing and slapping their knees, and telling me about all the great wonders of their state. This is the official informational video on Oklahoma:

In light of all the devastating tornadoes that have hit the US over the past few months, going to Tornado Alley may not seem like the best idea. Thankfully we experienced nothing but clear skies the entire time I was there (as well as scorchingly hot 95 degree temperatures that seemed unnatural for the first week of May).

I actually flew into Dallas to meet up with Jason since it was a direct flight and Jason was driving to Oklahoma City anyways. It was only a 4 hour drive, and it gave us a chance to see the countryside of Oklahoma. Southern Oklahoma didn't differ that much from Northern Texas. Few trees, and even fewer hills. You could see forever in any direction. Oklahoma was much more green than I expected (not sure why I expected something a little more desolate, I guess countless watchings of Westerns showing dusty plains skewed my perspective). There were hardly any exits off the interstate, only fields filled with cows. As we got closer to Oklahoma City, oil wells were everywhere. I guess when gas gets over $4 a gallon, every well in the state was operating.

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We stopped in Norman just south of Oklahoma City. Norman is home to the Oklahoma University Sooners, so we parked the car and began making our way around the campus. Our first stop was the football stadium which was right in the middle of campus.

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We also stopped to watch the Kansas Jayhawks warm up before their baseball game with the Sooners. The wind was always present, a strong breeze that never seemed to stop. The breeze was blowing straight out to center field, so in the short time we were watching warmups, several homeruns were belted only feet from where we were standing.

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When then turned to walk through the main part of campus. Most of the buildings seemed to be made of brick, and the campus was smaller than I expected (I was expecting it to be about the same size as NC State). We walked around the majority of campus in under 30 minutes, stopping to read some of the historical plaques and take a couple pictures.

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We still had a couple of hours to kill before we had to meet up with Brian in Oklahoma City, so we did what most people do in a college town, head to the college bars. We found a place called The Library and stayed through the duration of happy hour.

It was a quick drive to downtown Oklahoma City, and since we still had a little time to kill, we stopped by Tinker Air Force Base on the east side of town. They had around 10 retired jets lined up in front of the base (stealth bombers, giant carrier jets, and a variety of attack aircraft). Most of the jets were actually on the base and behind a giant fence, but one jet sat in a small park in front of the base.

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The sun was starting to set, so we headed back towards downtown to check into the hotel. Since it was pretty flat, we had a great view of the skyline and the sun setting behind the buildings.

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Jason and I met up with Brian (a friend of mine who is stationed in Kansas) and made our way to the entertainment district of Oklahoma City, an area called Bricktown. Like a lot of cities, the old warehouse district of town was being remade into the weekend hotspot. The baseball stadium overlooked a number of bars and restaurants. After hopping through a couple bars, we got a recommendation from one bartender for a good place to get something to eat. The "great pizza" ended up being a choice between a supreme or veggie DiGiorno that I pulled out of a freezer. At least PBR was on special.

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We woke up early the next morning to head back down to Bricktown and check out the canal that runs through the city. A Mexican restaurant overlooking the canal looked like a good place for lunch. Tour boats worked their way up and down the canal, offering the lazy man's approach to check out some of the sights.

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After lunch we walked along the pathway next to the canal. Restaurants, bars, and some shops lined both sides. We passed by the first Sonic, past Toby Keith's "I Love This Bar", and eventually made our way to the Land Run Memorial. Back in 1889, the previously restricted Oklahoma Territory was opened to homesteading. One of the main ways the land was divided was by having aspiring homesteaders line up and race to claim territory (as portrayed in the movie Far and Away). Giant metal statues reenacted the land run. Sooners were the people that hid in the fields to claim territory instead of legally racing the other participants. It was estimated that 50% of the land was claimed by Sooners.

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After walking through all the statues, we walked back down the canal and into Toby Keith's bar (primarily to escape the brutal heat). After rehydrating with a couple waters and cooling off with a couple beers, we walked back through downtown to head to the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial.

We came to the block that contained the Murrah Federal Building that was destroyed in the April 19, 1995 attack (which was the most destructive terrorist attack on the US before 9/11). At 9:02, Timothy McVeigh detonated a Ryder truck filled with homemade explosives that was parked on the side of the building. The blast destroyed a large portion of the federal building (and 323 other buildings in the area, some of which are still condemned today). The blast killed 168 people, including 19 children under the age of 6. One of the floors in the building housed a preschool, and a YMCA was only a block away.

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The building was selected because of its proximity to a road where the rental truck could be parked. The motive for the attack was in response to the Waco Siege (a standoff between armed militants and the ATF beginning when several agents were killed trying to serve a search warrant), and the attack marked the second anniversary of the date when FBI ended the 51 day standoff by using tanks and gas.

We first saw the Murrah Federal Building Promenade, which featured a waterfall and several ramps. Thinking we had reached the memorial, we took a picture in front of the fountain.

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However, upon walking to the end of the promenade, we realized that we were only in the remains of the federal building. The memorial stretched out below us. 9 rows of chairs marked where the building used to stand (one for each person killed in the attack with little chairs representing children, and the 9 rows representing the 9 floors), a memorial pool marked the road that ran next to the building, and the Survivor Tree stood on the far hill (a tree that survived the blast and served as a symbolic reminder of perseverance).

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We walked around to the Gates of Time, which are two giant walls marked with 9:01 and 9:03 that indicate the moment before and following the attack. The tranquility pool was crystal smooth and very shallow. Water slowly trickled over the edges of the pool and it was very calming. The children's playground was still visible over their chair memorials.

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We circled the memorial, read the informational signs, and then decided to go through the museum. The museum was very detailed, painting a picture of life before the bomb, the background on McVeigh and his co-conspirators, the rescue effort, and the aftermath of the bombing. A section of the museum still contained some of the original wreckage.

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The memorial and museum tugged at the heart strings, really letting you feel the impact of the terrible attack. One of the the lasting impacts from the attack may have been increased security around federal building, but the final displays in the museum focused on how the citizens of Oklahoma City, the US, and countries around the world came together to help out one another. The clear, sunny day perfectly complimented the feeling of hope and togetherness that you felt leaving the museum.

We left the museum and walked back down to Bricktown. The Oklahoma City NBA team, the OK City Thunder, were playing in a playoff game (unfortunately they were away) and we didn't want to miss cheering with the local fans. The English pub we entered had the game on every screen, and fans filled every seat. The fans were passionate, and all over the city we saw signs of "Go Thunder" (one sign spanned the side of a building). The Thunder ended up losing the game in overtime, despite the loss we still enjoyed the game.

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After the game, we took a cab over to Stockyard City, the world's largest cattle market. Our destination was Cattlemen's Steakhouse, the oldest restaurant in Oklahoma. President George H. Bush raved about the steak at Cattlemen's, dubbing it as "The Presidential Steak". Man vs. Food also recently went to Cattlemen's and loved the steak as well. Instead of starting with the steak, we eased into the meal with Cattlemen's own beer, "The Double Deuce" and a signature starter, the lamb fries.

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The lamb fries are not made from lamb or potatoes. I didn't tell Jason or Brian what they were until we were almost finished. They are, in fact, fried bull testicles. Mmmm, mmmm!

We each ordered a steak, and they were humongous. Each steak came with a potato, salad, and bread, but after eating just the steak, I had no room for anything else. It was huge, but tasted fantastic. I would say it is a must-do in Oklahoma City.

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Oklahoma had been a lot of fun, and I can say that the land was indeed grand. As we drove back to Texas, I tried one last time to find that hawk doing lazy circles in sky.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 14:36 Archived in USA Tagged beer museum state_park local_food Comments (0)

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