Each episode of Tennessee Uncharted documents the experiences of Erick and his crew across the State of Tennessee. This is the full text of the short story that resulted from their adventures in Sparta.

There are some places you visit that from the moment you get there, you can’t wait to leave. And then there are the places that from the moment you leave, you can’t wait to get back. Sparta, TN, and the surrounding area was one of those places I couldn’t wait to get back to.

Named after the ancient Greek city, Sparta nearly became the capital of TN but lost to Nashville by only one vote. Today, Sparta may not have the batman building, but it does have an abundance of outdoor recreational opportunities and natural beauty, which is what has brought us back for a 2nd look.

After spending some time here in Season 1, we realized that we’d barely scratched the surface of all this area has to offer. So on this episode of TNU, we’re revisiting Sparta, and actually going below the surface to dig a little deeper and enjoy some of the other local attractions.  

Caving and White Nose Syndrome:
Today I am going in a cave for the very first time to observe a TWRA survey of bats for white-nose syndrome, a disease that’s devastating the bat population in North America. And the loss of these little bats has the potential to cause some really big problems.         

Our journey started with a mile-long hike to the mouth of the cave through a private land owner’s property.  But the mouth of this cave was really nothing more than just a glorified crack. I had to get on my back to squeeze through. It’s definitely something that I could have easily walked right by without even seeing it, but apparently this is a very popular cave.  There was graffiti everywhere, which shocked me to see how many people had been down there.  I could instantly see the impact that people have on these ecosystems and the part they’re playing in the spread of WNS. But it’s not the graffiti or the empty bottles and beer cans that are spreading the disease. It can be spread by something as simple as a footstep.  So after we hiked back out, we went through a lengthy deacon process, which is extremely important in helping to prevent the spread of any WNS that may have made it into our clothes and boots.

Today we saw a lot of amazing things, but sadly not many bats.  And of the bats we saw, many of them were suffering from WNS. In 2012, TWRA surveyed over 400 bats in this cave.  In 2014, they surveyed only 92 bats.  Today, we only found 42.  If you’re counting at home, that’s 90% of the bat population in this cave dead in just 3 years.

There is currently no cure for WNS, and the only true tool the state currently has to combat this disease is to close off caves completely. So, right now, in an attempt to use them as a refuge, all caves on state and federal land are closed.  But due to the fact that there are so many caves on private land, it’s going to take a partnership between landowners and TWRA to win the battle against WNS.

Cumberland Caverns:
As I mentioned earlier, when we were here before, we barely scratched the surface of all this area has to offer, and what we discovered is that the natural beauty you can see above the ground is only the beginning.  

If you’ve ever driven down I-40 from Nashville to Knoxville, there’s a pretty good chance you might’ve seen a road sign or two telling you to, “See Cumberland Caverns!” Well, over the years, I’ve passed these signs hundreds of times, but the closest I’ve ever come to seeing Cumberland Caverns is reading their name on the sign.  But today, for the first time ever, TNU is going subterranean on an adventure that’s been 3.5 million years in the making.

With more than 32 miles of caves and underground passageways, incredible underground rock formations, beautiful underground waterfalls and gleaming pools, I promise that this place is unlike anywhere you’ve ever been. I instantly felt like I was on another planet, or that I was an extra on the set of Raiders of the Lost Arc. Thankfully, though, there weren’t any booby traps, golden idols, or giant boulders to run from.

We signed up for the Parts Unknown spelunking tour, which they describe as a high-adventure caving trip, involving high climbs, ladders, ropes, and a lot of guts. However, there are a few tight squeezes along the way, so I’d recommend not bringing too much gut.

In my lifetime, I’ve done a lot of hiking. I’ve hiked all over the Smokies. I’ve hiked in the Rockies. I’ve hiked down into the Grand Canyon.  And for me, Cumberland Caverns ranks right up there at the top.

And did I mention the dark? I never knew dark could get this dark. It was a darkness like I’ve never seen before. It’s the kind of darkness you wish for when you want to sleep in on Saturday morning.  

Looking around, it’s pretty amazing what a little water and a whole lot of time can do.

Bluegrass Underground:
The grass around here may look green, but if you look close, you can see that it’s actually a distinct shade of blue. For the ground grows more than just crops in this part of the country. Cultivated deep into the soil here is the unmistakable sound of music, but not just any music, bluegrass music. And for many years, the hills and valleys of this area have echoed with front porch pickers and singers, but the echoes have never been as loud as they are today. But if you’re looking to find the root of this current “roots music” movement that fills the hills and valleys here, it turns out you’ll have to look a little deeper. About 333 feet deeper to be exact. Because Cumberland Caverns isn’t just the home of world famous sites, the sounds here are just as celebrated.

Musky Fishing/SUP:
I couldn’t come back to this area and not revisit the site of my greatest heartbreak, my greatest loss of Season 1. There are many moments in my life that I can’t remember, and then there are moments that I’d like to forget. These are the moments that keep me up at night. The moments that swim in the currents of time, yet never seem to wash away.

In case you missed it, last season I landed a musky, the fish of 10,000 casts, on this very river, but sadly, just as I got it up to the boat, it somehow avoided one of the biggest nets ever made as it jumped off my hook and swam to safety.  For me, this is one of those moments I’d like to forget.

So, somewhere in these waters is a musky with my name on it, and I’ve returned to reclaim my pride as well as my heart.  However, I’m changing my approach.  Hopefully, this time, fishing on top of a Jackson SUP, nothing will stand in the way of me snagging my elusive musky.

Unfortunately, though, I am not very good at multi-tasking.  At the beginning, it was all I could do to stay afloat and in the middle of the river.  I’m by no means a fishing expert, but even I know the fishing is going to suffer some when every cast is actually more of an attempt not to lose your balance and fall in the river. But as the day moved on, I started to get the hang of it, and by the end, the fun of the float ended up being a great distraction for the lack of bites.

My second chance didn’t quite turn out the way I’d planned. But I guess that’s why they say, “Third time’s a charm.”

Hot Rod Popcorn:
As important as it is to expand your horizons, sometimes you need to stop by somewhere familiar to get your bearings. When returning to an area, I feel it’s always best to start in a familiar place to help get your bearings. So in search of a new direction, I’ve retraced a few of my steps from last season back to Calfkiller Brewing Company.  However, it’s not the pop of a top that’s brought me here today, but a pop of another kind.

Like most humans with a heartbeat, I love popcorn. I’m the guy in April and May who’s not afraid to reach down in the big Christmas popcorn tin for a big handful of whatever’s left.  At our house, no movie is complete until we fill our old turquoise Tupperware bowl with some of that light and fluffy buttery gold. All that I ask is that you save the slightly burnt ones for me. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I know popcorn…Or at least, I thought I did.

A lot of great ideas are popped out of people’s garages every day, and Hot Rod Popcorn is no exception. Each bag is made by hand with only the freshest kernels and seasonings, and after trying some of their inventive flavors, I must say that this popcorn has got some real horsepower. Some real get up and go! Built out of a love for hot rods, spicy food, and my favorite snack food, Hot Rod Popcorn just made movie night at The Baker house a whole lot tastier.  

Fragrant Mushroom/Thor:
There’s no doubt that art can do many things. Art allows us to express ourselves. It allows us to communicate. To feel understood. Art has the power to heal and connect. These facts are undeniable, however, the great debate lies in the question, “What is art?”

Many would argue that a pottery studio is one of a skilled laborer, not an artist. But after just a couple of steps through the front door of the Fragrant Mushroom, I must say that I respectfully disagree.

Thor McNeil is an artist. And for over 20 years, he’s been making “The world’s most affordable pottery”, separating his work from the rest with high-quality craftsmanship, forms that follow function, glazes that alone are a work of art, and all at a reasonable price.

Sadly, as the pottery wheel started to spin, Demi Moore did not appear. However, I’d swear I could still hear the faint whisper of “Unchained Melody” in the air.

If you take a look around, it’s not hard to see that Sparta truly is a special place. It’s like a really good song where each time you hear it, you catch something new. It’s a place where exhaust pipes lead to popcorn, and where the dark silence of a cave can shine a light of sound on some of the best music in the world. It’s a place where drinking a cup of coffee can be considered performance art. Where diseases can be defeated and broken hearts can be healed. It’s a place where anything is possible. Simply put, this place is TN.