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Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Cave Without a Name (Boerne, Texas)

The following article originally appeared in my "Canyon Lake Outdoors" column in The Hilltop Reporter weekly newspaper, for which I am the assistant editor. The Cave Without a Name is just such a terrific place that wanted to share it with my readers on this site as well.

Amazingly, of more than 4,300 known caves in Texas, the vast majority are on private property and a mere seven are run as commercial enterprises that are open to the public. One of those, however, is not just down the road from Canyon Lake, it is an exceptionally beautiful natural site and a genuine Hill Country treasure.

Located north of Boerne and just off of FM 474/East Blanco Road, “the Cave Without a Name” is worth a visit by anyone in the area interested in doing something a little different or looking for a fun way to occupy out of town guests for the afternoon. One of the most appealing characteristics of the cave during much of the year, especially one as hot as this has been, is its constant cool temperature, which can make a visit to it on a hot day a particularly pleasant experience.

“It was discovered in the late ’20s, when ranchers noticed steam coming up around a big rock that used to sit here,” said site manager Mike Burrell, who has worked at the cave for about 11 years. “The cave is always about 66 degrees, always about 100 percent humidity, so on really cold winter days, that relatively warm, moist air hits the cold air and condenses.”

When the landowners eventually moved the rock, they discovered a sinkhole descending 55 feet into the ground. (That hole is about 30,000 years old and eventually converged with the cave itself, which is about 500,000 years old.) Great numbers of prehistoric animal bones have since been found in the cave but no evidence of a human presence. Indeed, it would seem that the first people to make any use of the cave were moonshiners, who set up a still in one of its upper chambers during Prohibition.

“It was not until after Prohibition was over that some kids snuck in here,” Burrell said. “They were the first ones to go beyond where the still was and find the big part of the cave.” After they reported what they had found, people started to explore the cave with ropes and ladders.

In 1938, an entrepreneur from San Antonio named Jimmy Horn purchased the site, installed lights and gravel trails over the natural muddy floor, and in 1939 opened it to the public as an attraction. The following year, Burrell said, Horn held a contest to name the cave, and it was won by a little boy who said that it was too beautiful to have a name, and it was thus simply called “the Cave Without a Name.” For a brief period in the 1960s, one of the site’s subsequent owners did dub it “Century Caverns,” but this caused resentment among locals, who expected to see something new associated with the unfamiliar name but instead discovered it to be the cave they already knew.

Features of the cave include several large galleries containing stunning arrays of stalactites and stalagmites of every size, towering columns, and formations such as flowing draperies, soda straws, and pools of water. One of the most striking attributes of the place is how different one chamber is from another and the variety of features that can be found within them. One great cavern even functions as a natural amphitheater and is used for events like concerts and weddings.

Today, visitors to the cave are able to experience about a quarter-mile of its overall length, much of which has a subterranean stream running through it. There are, however, about three miles of explored passageways at the site — some underwater and accessible only to people with scuba gear — and portions of both that and some upper galleries that can be viewed from the cave floor have still not yet been investigated.

“We have not found the end to it,” said tour guide Luke Pennington. “We’ve kind of reached the end of where [scuba] tanks are going to take you.”

The Cave Without a Name is located at 235 Kreutzberg Road, Boerne, TX 78006. It is open year-round every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas, 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. Memorial Day to Labor Day and 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Labor Day to Memorial Day. For more information about visiting the cave or upcoming special events at it, call 830-537-4212 or go to www.CaveWithoutAName.com.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Fairfield Inn & Suites, Gadsden, Alabama

GADSDEN, ALABAMA -- For anyone passing through northeastern Alabama I recommend the Fairfield Inn & Suites off of I-59 exit 181, where I am currently staying now on my way back home to Texas. This beautiful facility just opened in April 2009 and still has that "new hotel smell." The staff is also very professional, and the desk clerk, Gerald, was so kind and helpful that my wife described him as a "sweetie." There is also a very good Ruby Tuesdays restaurant right across the street and an easy walk from the hotel at which my wife and I had a very enjoyable meal.

Fairfield Inn & Suites Gadsden is located at 116 Walker Street,
Gadsden, AL 35904; (256) 538-2100.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

'Ghosthunting Maryland' Book Tour

Left Monday, October 5, on a three-day drive from Texas to Maryland and kicked off the book tour for Ghosthunting Maryland on Friday with three events! Was on the road for nearly 12 hours and during that time did signings at Costco and Sam's Club and a talk to the Inspired Ghost Tracking paranormal group (http://www.americashauntedroadtrip.com/profiles/blogs/inspired-ghost-tracking-etc).

For anyone who is interested, I will be posting more detailed accounts of my promotional activities on the America's Haunted Road Trip social networking site, at http://www.americashauntedroadtrip.com.

Many of my upcoming events are listed at http://www.booktour.com/author/michael_j_varhola.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Restaurant Report: Iron Skillet, Knoxville, Tenn.

KNOXVILLE, TENNESEE -- Just had a somewhat disquieting and ominous experience at the Iron Skillet restaurant at +/- Exit 360 off of I-40, just west of Knoxville. I was, admittedly, tired, hungry, a bit irritable, and still somewhat hung over from the night before -- but probably half the people at Iron Skillet at any given time are suffering from at least two of those conditions, so presumably it was not just me.

In any event, I was driving west on I-40, en route from Maryland to Texas after finishing up fieldwork for my latest book in the former state. It was a little after 10 p.m. and I had just got done meeting with an author who is doing work for my Skirmisher Publishing LLC and was looking for a place to spend the night and get a bite to eat. When I saw the roadside sign for the Iron Skillet, which noted it was "open 24 hours," it sound like just the right thing.

I exited and drove over to the restaurant was, which was affiliated with a Petro travel plaza. I seated myself, as per the sign at the entrance, and pretty quickly my waitress, an older white woman, came over, gave me a menu, and asked what I wanted to drink. I told her just water while I was deciding what I was going to eat.

After a few minutes, she came back and I ordered the chicken-fried steak and eggs and a cup of coffee. She asked me how I wanted my eggs, etc., started to turn away, and then, almost as an afterthought, asked me what kind of toast I wanted. I asked if they had rye toast.

"Rye toast?" she said, turning to look me full in the face for the first time and the pausing momentarily. "Yes, we have rye toast."

Alright, so call me paranoid and exahusted, but the first thing that struck me is, "Oh my God, she thinks I'm Jewish because I ordered rye toast!" Now I certainly do not consider there is any shame in being taken for Jewish, and it actually happens to me fairly frequently. But there is a certain horror associated with being picked out as a member of a particular group, especially when one is tired, alone, and in a part of the country that -- fairly or unfairly -- is not necessarily known for its love of minorities.

And things did not improve after that. I waited and waited for my coffee, and after about 10 minutes ask for it again. Amid profuse apologies, my waitress went and got it.

I then waited, and waited, and waited for my food. At some point, I heard my waitress yacking in the kitchen and in the midst of it heard her yell the words "rye toast!" and every five or 10 minutes or so whe would shamble past and tell me my food was coming. This was, keep in mind, near 11 p.m., the restaurant was by no means full, and it appeared to be fully staffed.

After nearly half an hour, my food finally arrived, couched in apologies and along with a couple of moderately scorched pieces of rye toast which the waitress offered to replace if they were "too dark" for me. Not wanting to do anything to prolong the experience or draw any special attention, I said they were fine and started eating ... and discovered the eggs weren't hot. The chicken-fried steak definitely was -- and did not seem to be a chicken-fried pork loin, which I was afraid they might give me just to sabotage whatever attempts at keeping kosher they might have thought I was making -- and the hash browns were midway in temperature between the other two items. I don't even want to go into how eggs not being hot is one of my pet peeves, because lots of people like them hot, and if there is one thing a place called Iron Skillet should be expected to get right, it is eggs.

There are a handful of other things associated with my dinner I could bitch about, but won't bother; it's 1 a.m., I am not any less tired than I was before, and I am now riding a case of heartburn on top of everything else. My odyssey continues in the morning and I should probably turn in.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Mill Street Inn, Cambridge, Maryland

Just had a very pleasant stay the the Mill Street Inn in Cambridge, Maryland, while in the field doing research for my current project, Ghosthunting Maryland! Was very impressed with this historic little establishment and would heartily recommend it to anyone traveling out to the Eastern Shore or looking for a fun and relaxing place to spend a few days.

Built in 1894, this beautiful Queen Anne home was designed by a local architect and lived in by the original family until just five years ago. The current owners, innkeepers Jennie and Skip Rideout, purchased it in 2004, converted it into a very comfortable bed-and-breakfast, and opened it to guests in 2006.

For me and my photographer, Chip Cassano, the location of the Mill Street Inn in Cambridge's historic district was very convenient, and made it very easy for us to visit a number of nearby sites of interest. This makes it an ideal base of operations for anyone interested in visiting local historic or reputedly haunted sites.

Monday, May 18, 2009

America's Haunted Road Trip


At the moment I am diligently working away on a book called Ghosthunting Maryland for publisher Clerisy Press and as one of the upcoming entries in its America's Haunted Road Trip series of travel guides. This fun, exciting, and sometimes scary project is, naturally -- or maybe supernaturally -- taking me all over the state (that's me in the "catacombs" of Westminster Hall in Baltimore a few days ago), so keep an eye on this spot for useful and actionable information that I gather and post here.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

San Antonio Has Free WiFi

SAN ANTONIO -- I am pleased to be able to add San Antonio International Airport to my list of the most civilized and user-friendly airports I have encountered. My main criteria for this determination is due primarily to the availability to a free wireless Internet connection in the gate areas (and secondarily to the availability of decent eateries, at least one of which serves alcohol, in the same).

Having relocated to Texas Hill Country, I will likely be using the airport in San Antonio for at leat half my flights, so it is nice to have an airport with such good amenities just 36 miles due south of my new home. Almost as close is Austin-Bergstrom International Aiport, a little further away and to the northeast, but I am sad to report that it does not offer free WiFi and is thus not nearly as desirable as a point of departure.

Other airports with free Internet access through which I have recently travelled and posted about include those in Denver, Rapid City, South Dakota, and Charlotte, North Carolina.

Had lunch and availed myself of the free local Internet connection at Rosario's Mexican Cafe y Cantina, across from Gate 34, where I had a decent Mexican BLT and Bloody Mary (my travel drink of choice for several years now).

Saturday, April 25, 2009

No Sleep 'til Texas

It is usually not worth noting in travel-related materials that I am very pious person and, out of respect for other peoples' beliefs, I tend to keep my own to myself. It is only proper, however, that I start this post by sincerely thanking God for watching over me and my six cats and bringing us in safely on our non-stop journey from Virginia to Texas.

This trip was, in short, a 1,580-mile trek that I made straight through in 26 1/2 hours, moving at an average speed of 60 mph and stopping only to refuel, use the restroom, and buy more coffee, caffeinated soda, and energy drinks.

Under normal conditions, I would say that it was unnecessary and maybe even a little foolhardy to try to cover so much ground without a backup driver, at least one overnight stay, or both. The purpose of the trip, however, was to relocate our six cats and to get them out of the house the night before the packers came to our house. My original plan was to have a co-pilot and to spend one overnight in Memphis, just past the halfway point. My travelling companion dropped out at the last minute, however, citing a "miscommunication" and leaving me without enough time to create an alternate plan. To say that I set off from Virginia with at least a little sense of doom hanging over me would not be inaccurate.

...

As I added to this post my third night in the house, I was still physically exhausted. That old saying that “The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long” would seem to apply to micro-instances and not just whole lifetimes; for just over the span of a day I burned as brightly as I ever have but it took a toll on me, to be sure. As I wrote this over a strong cup on green tea, I had been up only a little more than 12 hours and was struggling to stay awake and focused. I was not able to keep going much longer then in any event and, after writing a few paragraphs for a handful of other projects, read a few more pages on The Knight and Knave of Swords, a book I have deferred reading for almost two decades, and then passed out for awhile.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Charlotte Has Free Wi-Fi

It is always a pleasant surprise to discover an airport with free Wi-Fi, and to the short list of those that do I am pleased to add Charlotte-Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, North Carolina. (That was not the case at Austin-Bergstrom International in Austin, Texas, where I started my trip this morning, and where a connection for the half-hour I wanted to spend online would have cost me $7.95 -- the balance of the 24 hours I would have paid for being extraneous).

(Name: CLTNET/Charlotte Douglas International Aiport Wireless Internet Public Access Network)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Pho is a Phull Meal

If you've ever had pho -- a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup that is one of my favorite foods in the whole world -- then odds are you either love it or hate it (very few people tend to have middling views on the stuff). And if you have never tried it, it is a treat that I recommend you try at least twice (assuming you aren't addicted to it after the first bowl).

About half the time I take someone out for their first bowl of pho, they completely blow me off when I tell them that it is a full meal. Even knowing that I tend to have a good appetite, they quite often assume that somehow it isn't going to be enough for them, and order a plate of spring rolls, a spicy beef salad, etc. I have never seen someone do that and then be able to eat both meals.

Pho is, in fact, very filling, and a large bowl -- which, typically at just 50 cents more than a small bowl, is the way to go -- is more than enough for just about anyone, most people being hard-pressed to finish even that.

My brother-in-law Dean Minnick and I are currently on the road and staying overnight in Austin, Texas, where we were lucky enough to discover Hai Ky, a little pho shop just down the street from our hotel. I enjoyed my large #1 bowl of pho very much, and I think Dean would have enjoyed his small #13, his first bowl of the stuff, if he had taken my advice and not also ordered that huge plate of vermicelli and roast pork! But, like I said, they don't always like to listen ...

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Kansas Travel Advisory, etc.

WICHITA, KANSAS -- Perhaps if I spent some time in Kansas I would be a bigger fan of the state ... to date, however, my experience with it has pretty much been confined to long, dreary drives across it east and west on I-70 and my current long, dreary drive south on I-35. As things stand now, I can only wonder that Dorothy Gale expressed apprehension rather than relief at realizing she was somewhere else.

My brother-in-law, Dean Minnick, and I are currently holed up for the night in the La Quinta on Kellogg Drive in Wichita. It is nice only in comparison to the Budget Inn Dean had allowed his GPS to guide us to, where we most assuredly would have had our throats slit during the night. Pros and cons to our current digs follow:

Pros
* Young woman at the front desk was very friendly and professional and, after we mentioned some of the cons that follow, offered to switch our room for us.
* Our room was right off the lobby and has a back door directly into a very pleasant atrium pool area.
* Received a military discount of about $10.
* Room and public areas, while somewhat worn, were clean (with the exception of the perintent "con" listed below).

Cons
* Hot tub in the pool area, which I would have gladly availed myself of after our long day's drive down from Minnesota, was busted. (The hotel in general has seen better days and shows signs of wear everywhere; I would be surprised if it was not torn down in two years.)
* Light switch in our room was broken, so we could not use the three lights on one side of the room.
* Frames of both beds in the room have an ankle-level metal flange sticking out of them that can cause a painful bag to the leg for anyone not being careful.
* Coffee maker was set up in a spot without an outlet and had to either be perched in the bathroom or set on the floor to use.
* Washcloth in the bathroom had one corner neatly turned back to display ... an imbedded pubic hair. Yuck.

In short, nearly $100 was a lot to pay for what we got. There are other places east of this one -- going west will take you into increasingly-seedy downtown Wichita -- and you should probably just stay at one of them instead. Either way you go on many of the main drags through town, the roads are under construction -- a perpetual condition typical in towns with a traditional mob influence.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Thanks to the MPS AFSC

I would normally avoid using so many acronyms in the title of a story but, because of its relation to the military, thought it was appropriate in this case ... In short, I am posting from the Armed Forces Service Center at Minneapolis - St. Paul International Airport, where I am laid over for about three hours, and wanted to thank the ladies that run it for doing such a wonderful job. For anyone eligible to use USO/AFSC facilities when they are travelling, I strongly recommend it.

The one I am at right now is especially nice and graciously provides food, free Internet access, and a quiet place to work and relax (and even bunk facilities for people delayed overnight). It is an independent facility that was founded in the early 1970s by a woman whose son was killed in Vietnam and is operated completely by volunteers and private funds.

Sprawling MPS is not a bad airport in itself and, according to a press release by its management, "has been recognized as the 3rd Best Airport in the World among airports serving 25 to 40 million passengers a year. MSP also ranks as the Best Airport in North America in that size category. The recognition is based on traveler surveys conducted through Airports Council International's 2008 Airport Service Quality Awards program."

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Delayed in Denver ... But It's Not That Bad

DENVER INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT -- Transfers and layovers are never a treat, but Denver is the best place I have found in a long time to spend some downtime en route to somewhere else.

For one thing, the airport has free Internet access! This is certainly welcome in an age when airports routinely charge usurious fees for WiFi (e.g., if memory serves, Newark International charges $7.95 for 24 hours of access -- and, if you really got to use it that long, something would have probably gone really wrong anyway). You would think the airport would aggressively advertise this -- and I helping them out with that here, of course -- but I spoke with at least one fellow traveler who was as pleasantly surprised to learn this as I was.

If you're looking for a place to eat, I would recommend Lefty's Mile High Grill. It's nothing to look at, but the wait staff is consistently pleasant and efficient and I can vouch for the Pork Green Chili, which is exceptional and reminds me of the "white" and "green" chilis I used to eat when I lived in Denver many years ago. It is less expensive than most of the other items on the menu but comes with two tortillas and, if accompanied by a glass of Coors, makes for a pretty filling meal (I have also tried it with a glass of red wine and substituted the tortillas for some corn chips, which made it somewhat lighter fare).

Farewell to South Dakota

RAPID CITY REGIONAL AIRPORT -- Getting ready to board my flight to Denver, the first leg of my trip home, and wanted to get in one last post before leaving South Dakota. My time at the airport here is actually pretty limited, as I got here late and United people offered to get me out an a flight leaving almost an hour earlier than the one I on which I was booked.

Did not get to see or do nearly as much as I wanted in South Dakota but that just means I will have to come back again before the Air Force sends my daughter Lindsey somewhere else! In the meantime, I enjoyed spending a few days with her, my grandson Carter, and her friends Daniela, Josh, and Ben.

Also, thanks to the ladies at the "Destinations Dakota" food concession for fixing me a very nice bloody mary! Travel is always at least a little stressful and a decent drink can go a long way toward taking the edge off.

Deadwood, S.D.


For the past couple of years, the HBO series Deadwood has been one of my favorite shows, so I was glad for the opportunity to visit the historic town during my recent unscheduled trip to South Dakota. I have sometimes characterized the show as "Gunsmoke with the 'F' Word" and, while the modern town is somewhat more refined than that, it cannot completely escape a past in which some of its most prominent citizens were pimps, prostitutes, and cardsharps. And, by all accounts, its biggest industry today is gambling, so it still has some aspect of a Western sin city to it.

Will add more to this post as I am able, so if you are interested at all in Deadwood, keep your eye on this spot.

Restaurant Report: Firehouse Brewing Co.

Had a very palatable dinner at the Firehouse Brewing Co. at 610 Main Street in downtown Rapid City, South Dakota, this evening with my daughter Lindsey, her son Carter, and her friend Daniela (who is sort of a James Bond girl lookalike). It is one of their favorite restaurants and it was easy for me to see why.

I had a very good jambalaya that I think was listed as "Spontaneous Combustion" on the menu, having made a hard choice for it over the fish tacos and the "Gorgonzola Ale," a twist on the traditional beer-cheddar soup. Will have to try both of those items next time.

Lindsey had a Reuben sandwich that she said was very good, Daniela had very nice ribeye that was cooked exactly to her specifications (very rare, the only specifications that matter with regard to a good piece of meat in my opinion), and both of them loved the mashed potatoes. Carter had chicken fingers, which he picked at in exactly the same way he always picks at chicken fingers, his food item of choice whenever it is available.

Also chatted with our very helpful server Jared a bit about the history of the restaurant, which really is set in a historic firehouse (one of the things I have always liked about my current publisher, Clerisy Press, which has similar quarters in Cincinnati). After learning that I wrote travel guides about haunted places, he mentioned that the Firehouse Grill itself and another property owned by the same people had some haunted lore associated with them. That last bit of information confirmed my intention to come back to the area sooner rather than later and to get started on a Ghosthunting South Dakota entry to the America's Haunted Road Trip series for which I am an author (have visited a few haunted places during the current trip, so keep your eye on the AHRT site for more information about them).

And thanks to both Lindsey and Daniela for taking me out to dinner my last night in Rapid City! It was very much appreciated.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Snowed In, In South Dakota

As things stand now, my first visit to South Dakota has turned out to be a little less auspicious than I had hoped ...

To start with, my daughter Lindsey and I had all sorts of ambitious plans for today and are, unfortunately, pretty much snowed in and dealing with very unpleasant temperatures that would be unseasonable almost anywhere else in March (high of 9, low of -4). We could actually make it out into town without too much difficulty, but would have much more of a tough time making it out to any of the places on my wishlist for this week -- including Devil's Tower, in Wyoming, historic Deadwood, S.D., and nearby Mount Rushmore -- all of which would necessitate our driving up into the Black Hills, where road and weather conditions are only going to be worse. Suffice it to say, visitors to the area should take the likelihood of such conditions during almost half the year into consideration when making their plans.

Have also had trouble getting a response from local hotels, restaurants, and other local businesses I have wanted to feature in any number of articles, Websites, and other projects I am currently working on, including the book Mysteries of the Old West for Pagan Publishing and various e-books for Clerisy Press. People can blame bad government, corporate CEOs, minorities, or whatever else they want for the current economic problems plaguing our country -- and I am inclined to think that the first two of those factors have definitely played their parts -- but it is pretty clear to me that the indifference with which so many companies are run these days plays a much bigger role than any of those. Hardly a single hotelier in the country is entirely pleased with business at the moment, but I never cease to be surprised by the ones that won’t even bother to respond to a proposal from a travel writer. (Look for my upcoming book Malaise, which will include numerous case studies and examples of the sad and failing institutions I am referring to.)

What brought me to South Dakota in the first place, of course, was the necessity of driving my daughter and her son to and from Minnesota for a funeral, and the importance of that venture clearly took precedence over anything else. And I have very much enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with Lindsey, her son Carter, and her friends Daniela, Ben, and Josh. So, perhaps, more was not meant to come out of it.

And so we sit at my daughter's home in Box Elder, east of Rapid City, the two of us watching Brideshead Revisited and me posting philosophical rant to my travel blog instead travel information. But I almost never give up and might yet make this trip bear publishable fruit, so keep your eye on this space for more!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

South Dakota, Ho!

Just found out that I have to go out to South Dakota for several days and, as it is somewhere I have never before been, I am going to take the opportunity to do some fieldwork in support of several ongoing projects! Keep your eye on this site in particular for reviews of local hotels, restaurants, and the like, along with photos and useful travel information you can use on your own ventures to the area.