Superman effortlessly flew through the air. As Clark Kent he carried himself with dignity and restraint. Batman lived in a cave. Next question. – L. Bryce Bolger
To get to Mammoth Cave from Shenandoah, you have to pass through a town that has great meaning in my life. Morehead, Kentucky carries the weight of my mother’s history, the memories of my childhood and where an immature 19 year old kid enrolled as a college freshman in 1974. It’s where my grandfather rode a mule over the ridge to Hogtown and the Louisville & Portsmouth Fire Brick Company and where my mother left home at the age of 13 in search of a tethered lifeline. It’s where we came every summer of my youth. Where I worked in my uncle’s tobacco fields for ten cents an hour and watched my great aunt tenderly braid my grandmother’s hair. Morehead and its people, have always held a large piece of my heart. I thought I could return and reclaim it, but it slipped away in a blink. Stones thrown at my feet for the price of my thoughts.
With perhaps the exception of the Grand Canyon, Mammoth Cave may be the most aptly named National Park. As currently surveyed, Mammoth Cave is an underground system of 390 miles, with the potential to grow in excess of 1,000 miles. On any given day, researchers are crawling into small clefts and crevices in an effort to find and detail additional passages. Over 200 caves, in the form of disconnected fragments of the larger system, dot the park’s 80 square miles of rocky outcrops, yawning valleys and flat ridge tops. Many are associated with local drainage features, known as karst basins, the most thoroughly understood conduit flow aquifer in the world. Or in terms even I understand – water draining through limestone to create magnificent otherworldly caverns that even Dante couldn’t imagine. All made possible by a thick protective cap of shale and sandstone.
There are two ways to explore many of the caves at Mammoth. Since the park is riddled with holes, you can strap on a headlamp and dive into the opening of your choice. (I believe this is frowned upon.) Or you can choose from a variety of ranger guided tours. I opted for the ‘history tour’. A two hour, two mile tour that begins at an opening in the earth discovered by settlers in the 1790’s, but inhabited by Indians thousands of years before their arrival. As you begin the decent, you enter a ghostly world, where the only sound is the echoing of water falling on porous rock. A world void of light, but warmed by the subtle movement of air. You’re lead through roomy passageways that suddenly open to a vaulted space called the ‘Rotunda’. Large relics of the nitrate mines that were instrumental in the making of gunpowder during the war of 1812, still lie intact. Hollowed out logs, hauled into the cave by slaves, were filled with water and sand from the cave floor, producing nitrate crystal laced brine – the residue of which was used to make gun powder. I tried to imagine the electricity-less working conditions of 200 years ago. Where a wind prone lantern was your only source of light in an environment suited for bats and eyeless, colorless amphipods. My imagination, for all its wanderings, failed.
Leaving the ‘Rotunda’ behind, ever descending, you enter a series of large halls known as ‘Methodist Church’ and ‘Booth’s Amphitheater’. They believe church services may have been held in ‘Methodist Church’ in the 1800’s, and it is said that Edwin Booth, brother of the man who ruined Lincoln’s night out, recited Hamlet’s famous soliloquy in the amphitheater that now bears his name. I can’t help but think that if Edwin’s best known gig was in a cave, be probably wasn’t a great Shakespearean actor.
The most unique part of the tour was following a tall, chubby, gaseous man in jorts through ‘Fat Man’s Misery’. A length of thin, low ceiling passages, rubbed smooth by centuries of hands and bodies, forces you to contort your body. Much to my astonishment and displeasure, with each new distortion Earl would let one squeak out, always followed by an apology. “Sorry. Taco Bell.” Or, “Sorry, too many beans.” Or the forever memorable, “Sorry, blame my wife.” Thanks Earl, you’re a real gem.
A large chamber known as the ‘Great Relief Hall’ marks the end of our descent, 310 feet below the surface. Here we are given a brief talk preparing us for what lies ahead – ‘Mammoth Dome’ and the winding staircase that lifts us from the depths via 150 steep steps. Like we have a choice. (Note to self: Look into viability of starting Uber underground.) The staircase was as advertised. A winding set of seemingly never ending, metal fire escape-like steps that you can look through as you climb. Fortunately, Earl had moved further ahead and the climb was only punctuated by the sounds of panting and puffing, with the occasional ‘sheeeeeit’ thrown in. Along the way, there were several small landings where you could step out of line and look up or down the 192 foot hole, created by water dripping through a sink hole over millions of years. Standing on one such platform, it was easy to think of hellish analogies, and I did. Then I looked up and my mind drifted to a summer’s day on the fire escape overlooking the George Washington Bridge at 181st and Broadway. I smiled and started to climb.
As we were exiting our tour – I am always in the back of every tour I have taken since 4th grade – I struck up a conversation with Park Ranger Abby. When the subject of a decline in young visitors came up, she said something that rang basic and true. “They’ve lost their sense of wonder.” In many respects Abby nailed it. I believe this ‘loss of wonder’ is an unintended consequence of Al Gore’s internet. We should remind ourselves that we are only a single generation removed from a time when the great mysteries of earth couldn’t be found and explored in less than 30 seconds. One generation removed from a time where the only form of exploration was exploration itself. Unless they are introduced to nature and experience it in it’s purest form – the very essence of our National Parks – current and future generations are in danger of believing a screen is a viable substitute for the nobility, grace and wonder of life itself.