Written a few days ago, and posted now that I have the internet at my disposal again...
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
After about 4 hours on the road today. I arrived at Mammoth Cave park today around 2 pm. It was overcast, but not yet ominous. I negotiated a construction-complicated parking lot, checked in, and found my way to my cabin. The cabins I stayed in are very similar to those of my old summer camp and because of that false familiarity I immediately felt at ease. I headed over to to the visitor center under darkening skies to make sure things were all set for tomorrow’s “Wild Cave Tour” and figure out what to do with the rest of my day. I enjoy traveling on my own because I never have to compromise on what I want to do. The down side is (obviously) that there is no one to share the experience with. Anyhow, I realized that there was a 2 hour tour starting at 4 that I could do for fairly cheap, and figured this was perfect given the weather encouraging me to stay away from hiking. As soon as I had purchased my ticket for the “Historic Tour” we were all told to gather in the ticketing room because there was a Tornado warning. Apparently a tornado had been spotted nearby, and was heading right for us! This certainly made for good people watching. About 15 minutes later, under continuing but dissipating thunder and lightening we were the ok... tornado warning had turned in to severe thunderstorm warning. I went back to my cabin to get ready for the tour.
By the time the tour finally started I was excited. I have been in two other caves before, but none nearly this big. The tour group was very large, but I made my way to the front to get as much information from the guide as possible. The entrance to the cave was beautiful. We walked down a long staircase that cut down through limestone cliffs covered with lush mosses in varying greens. The side of the cliff was a forest in its own right only much smaller and growing out of a vertical surface. From underneath the top layers of limestone thin trees seemed to be squeezing out of cracks and immediately heading straight for the sky. At the back edge of the entrance, to the left of the stairs was a waterfall - halfway between a trickle and a stream - the water fell over the edge and seemed to disappear into the vegetation at the bottom. Once we passed under the that ledge we were in the cave. The first section of the tour took us through enormous spaces. It is hard to imagine the amount of water flowing through bedrock and the time needed to create such open areas. I am fairly certain this is what will come to mind from now on whenever I hear the word cavernous. Other than scale, what made this cave different from the few others I have seen is that it was dry, which means there were no dripstone features. No stalagmites or stalactites, no pillars, icicles or ribbons or calcium carbonate once part of in sedimentary limestone, then dissolved in groundwater, and then re-crystalized into unbelievable works of natural beauty. This is not to say that the cave was devoid of interesting geology or not beautiful. It was easy to see the evidence of other people who had visited or worked in the cave in the last few hundred years. Some mining (slave labor), some tourism, some exploration. There were names and dates all over the walls, some dating back as far as the late 1700’s.
We heard the story of one slave named Stephen Bishop who became famous because he was an excellent cave guide and explorer. He was (supposedly) the first person to find the strange blind fishes that inhabit the rivers that run through the cave. He was able to publish his map of the caves, which was nearly unheard of for a slave at the time. He supposedly learned to read and write, and speak 7 languages just from the visitors to the cave over the 19 years that he lived there. What an amazing story... this man was able to find some degree of independence, fulfillment, and maybe something close to freedom while he was exploring this underground world. This strikes me as a very strange type of leadership - being enslaved, but guiding tourists down below ground into a dark and foreign world. He mysteriously died one year after gaining his freedom and moving away from the cave.
One thing that struck me about the geology of the caverns we traveled through was the varying textures. They call the indentations in the walls and ceilings “Scallops”. Larger scallops are made by slower moving water, and smaller scallops are made by fast moving water. Much like fossilized ripple marks, the shape of the rock preserves a story of its history. On one large open area that had very large scallops in the ceiling I could not help but think that the color and shadows created by the dim lighting on these scallops looked exactly like sunlight passing through water and landing on an uneven sandy bottom. I love finding patterns in nature that resemble - more than resemble, that really feel like - some unrelated feature stored in my brain from a previous observation.
A moment that I really enjoyed during this tour was when all of the lights were intentionally turned out. It is nearly impossible to find true dark if you are not underground or deep in the ocean and it is a very cool feeling. The tour guide was able to get our enormous tour to be silent for a few seconds (surprising given all of the small children in our group) and that silence combined with pure dark was a very powerful experience. It was certainly not something I would want to experience involuntarily! However, without fear of being lost or deserted or in any danger it felt refreshing and cleansing. In yoga you try to let go of all the clutter in your brain... it is like meditation and takes a good deal of effort, but is very relaxing. I found that same feeling of calm in the few seconds of silent dark that I was able to experience in the cave.
It is now almost 8 pm and still light out. This means that I will have plenty of time to hike around tomorrow after my cave tour.
I just spent 6 hours 200-300 feet below ground walking, crawling, slithering, climbing through passages that ranged from hundreds of feet high to so small my head could only fit to one side. It definitely felt like somewhere people don’t really belong. I can only imagine what it felt like to be one of the early explorers... down there for maybe 24 hours at a time, carrying lamps and oil... Maybe people 100 years in the future will look at the gear we use for climbing and camping and think “wow, how did they do that”, but it feels to me like the early explorers were just a lot more badass... period.
One of the coolest parts of today’s adventure was one area called Cathedral Domes where one section of the limestone has eroded to form fluting. There is a layer about 3 feet wide that has all of these vertical features sticking out like pages. The amazing thing about them is that they can be played like bells. The different sizes creating different tones. I wonder if shape has anything to do with it. Anyhow, that was something pretty magical. A natural, stone musical instrument 274 feet below Earth’s surface. This area was just one of 4 or 5 huge domes that we walked through... we came out of narrow passages maybe 20 inches wide into these huge rooms. I could shine my headlamp directly up and it must have been 100 feet tall.
The first hour or so of the tour was dry. We were crawling through red clay powder and coarser gravel in these passage ways that showed little sign of the water that created them. I suppose all of that powder must have been deposited when the cave system floods, but it is hard to imagine a flood with enough water to fill the passageways that far up in the cave system. We rested at a little food stand... yes there are tables and you can buy lunch and go to an actual bathroom in these caves!
After lunch we went to areas of the cave that had much more water. At one point I was wading through thigh deep muddy water! At this point we did less crawling and slithering (although there was another long crawl right before the end of the tour) and more scrambling. The climbing would have been fine if the rocks were dry, but hiking boots on wet muddy rock is a far cry from the indoor bouldering I have become accustomed to. There were a couple of places that involved stretching your feet across a slot canyon that I really thought I was going to be too short to make. However I made it and didn’t fall like I half way expected to.
Towards the end of our tour we started seeing the dripstone features that I associate with caves: stalactites, stalagmites, ribbons, “bacon”... we also saw more of the beautiful gypsum flowers that seem to bloom from the ceiling. In many parts of the cave today the walls and ceiling sparkled with a microcrystaline gypsum coating that has turned black from human use of the cave (lantern smoke mostly) in the parts I visited yesterday.
I am so glad I visited this place. The size and scale of this cave system (300 miles discovered so far under a 7 by 7 square mile of ground) are something that has to be experienced to be believed. It today’s tour it seemed like everywhere you turned there was another passageway going off in some other direction. Someone described the system as being similar to a pile of spaghetti. I like that image. The geologic formations underground are also quite spectacular. It makes me wonder what else is out (or under) there that is truly magnificent that we simply haven’t found yet!