Elk, Horses and Saturn...Oh My? : The Land Between the Lakes

Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, Kentucky

by Samantha Adler

My drive across country was anything but straight; it was filled with loops, turns and zigzags according to where the next mini-destination lay. I had just left Nashville for Kentucky’s Bourbon Country, hoping to reach Memphis in a few days. My road trip buddy and I decided to make our descent back into Tennessee a bit creative by taking I-80 through the Land Between the Lakes.

This epically named plot of land is a long, skinny national recreation area placed between two large lakes, located half in Kentucky and half in Tennessee. If the name wasn’t incentive enough, I found that the area had several campgrounds and amazing wildlife scattered about its 170,000 acres.

We reached the bridge linking the Kentucky “mainland” to LBL around midday. The large metal structure was sturdy but narrow and the only way to access our destination. The car clanked over the metal grid as trucks sped by in  loud gusts of wind.  I held on tightly to the side of my seat as I looked over the metal bars at the large body of blue water beneath us.

The car hit a bump and we were back on solid road, cruising along the two-way I-80. There was little other than wild, green vegetation when we first began driving along the main road. The Land Between the Lakes was lush and wild.

Eventually we came across a sign for the visitor’s center. The signs were government created, and still were drenched in 1960’s style from the area’s inception; dark wood and light brown bold script (think any Disney font).

The visitors center was seated at the top of a hill, with a large dome extension. Children buzzed around us pointing at the taxidermied animals mounted on the walls and chasing each other. While we waited in line to ask the front desk for campsite recommendations, I read the local wilderness facts and event fliers nailed on the wood-paneled wall. I learned the dome was actually a planetarium and research center, and there was a free Saturn viewing party that night.  I tugged on my buddy’s shirt in excitement as he approached the desk. The woman who assisted us opened a brochure and circled a few campgrounds with open sites and campstores (as we were out of food).

The woman then pointed out the Bison and Elk Safari. This was a definite Samantha-approved activity. I had been waiting to see a bison in its natural habitat, to me they were a quintessential part of the american wild. We bought a ticket for our car and planned to head over at dusk, in hopes to catch a glimpse at some of these huge critters.

We hopped back in the car and went over our campsite options. I was all about the names on this trip and picked the most niche sounding one: Wrangler. We took off back down I-80 towards our campground.

At first glance Wrangler seemed quaint, friendly and a good fit for us. Their sign was etched in a western-inspired font and had an image of a cowboy and his horse. The land was mainly flat, with a small entrance hut at the front adorned in a few hanging flowers. The stable was adjacent to the hut, and horses used for tours galloped through their little field. As we purchased a tent site from the women in the entrance hut, a long trailer pulled up aside us. Three horses stuck their heads out in greeting. Thinking this was a rare sighting, I snapped a photo and cooed at the horses as they whinnied a hello.

We drove down the gravelly path towards our campsite. The tent sites were nestled in the back in a tiny little valley behind a wall of trees, beyond the campstore and bathrooms. As the car rumbled along the path, I gazed out at our fellow campers. Every single one had an equestrian companion.

The name Wrangler wasn’t niche, it was literal. We were the weirdos with no horse. Realizing our oddity, we choose a spot towards the back of the secluded valley. After setting up the tent I unfolded a lawn chair and opened a beer, waiting for dusk and bison. Sitting cross-legged facing the open field, I watched as strangers trotted by. 

When dusk hit we got in the car and drove a few miles to the pasture where the deer and the buffalo graze (get it?).  The cashier at the campstore assured us in a thick accent that we’d see bison and that they would probably serve as a lazy road block.

The “safari” was a driving tour of the pasture and a three mile paved road looped in a circle. We began the crawl, slowly inching forward behind a handful of other cars. Head out of the window, eyes glued to the dimly lit brush, I watched closely for any sign of life.

After about five minutes we came across a rustling in the tall grass ahead of us. Using my camera as binoculars I spotted a female elk grazing and popping her head up to check out the noise (noise meaning me squealing).

We continued the crawl around the paved circled and stopped when we saw the red glow of brake lights ahead of us. Two huge racks of antlers appeared from the horizon, gazing at the new vehicle in line. It was a huge male elk grazing close to us spectators.The elk were shy, peaceful and would never mess with the metal beast of a car.

We rounded the loop three more times at my request, seeing wildflowers and a handful of elk having an evening meal, but not bison. It was hard to be disappointed with all we had seen.

As the sun set, we left the elk’s valley and drove back to the visitors center in hope of meeting Saturn. Hopefully he wouldn’t allude us like the bison. We walked around to the backyard of the center where a crowd gathered, staring up at the sky. A back door was swung open to the dome, and a warm light spilled out. The self-identified scientist announced we had about twenty more minutes until we could line up for the telescope.

As my buddy stepped aside to take a quick phone call, I sat in the dewy grass. A grandfather sat on the dark lawn, with his little granddaughter in his lap, both gazing up at the stars. They were two people at very different points of life, with the same hungry curiosity, asking the same questions, with the same look of awe on their faces as they clung to each other.

We were all called in to line up for the telescope. Children scrambled up, and their parents who lifted them up to see, had an equally wondrous reaction. The scientist watching over was stiff and nodded at each group as they left the building.

To reach the massive telescope, you had to climb a few steps and brace yourself on the railing. When it was my turn I wobbled up, grasped the railing for support and narrowed my eye to focus. I was prepared to ask the scientist to point out exactly what I was looking for, but there was no need. Smack-dab in the middle of the lens was saturn, with it’s famous rings visible as day. It looked as though someone just stuck a sticker on the inside of the glass.

I stepped down from the ladder, wide-eyed and smiley. The stiff scientist gave me wink and I stepped back out into the starry yard.

The Kentucky night was hot and sticky, as we settled in for bed. I laid up looking through the tent at the stars, listening to the clicky-clack of our neighbors’ nighttime ride. I might not have seen a bison, but I got to peek into space. You never know what you’ll find when you stray from the ordinary. When you look for one thing, you usually find something much weirder and more extraordinary.