The bowels of Kentucky

We took a vacation to Mammoth Caves. This account is lifted from my journal.

We got up early and had breakfast at Frisch’s. Then we drove. I slept in the car. We had breakfast at “Aunt Bee’s Country Restaurant”. Then things got more interesting.

We found Diamond Cavern, and bought tickets for the next tour, which left in about five minutes, so we had to hurry a little. Our tour guide was Jimmy; he had a southern drawl, but despite that he didn’t live up to the stereotype and was actually pretty smart. He showed us all sorts of pretty awesome formations as we descended into the bowels of Kentucky. The floor was slick and we weren’t allowed to touch anything, but it was still a pretty excellent tour. Everything was brown. The air was moist and the temperature stayed normalized at 58°. The owners had strung lights not just for lighting, but to really emphasize the structures. One light hung behind a strip of “cave bacon”, which is a translucent sheet of calcite with streaks of different colors to it. Other lights stuck onto the ceiling next to stalactites bigger than our tour group and collections of infinitely detailed filigree. Flowstones jutted out of the walls and onto our isolated, concrete-paved path. Jimmy turned out the lights for us and showed us what the cave was like when there was no electric lighting – they used candles, and it was pretty darn bland. We walked by a now-defunct altar made out of broken-off stalactites and stalagmites and such (salvaged after people from the area’s rivaling caves had broken them off). The trail was sometimes cramped and constricted, and sometimes huge and open. Things you’d never expect hung from the ceiling. In fact, there were three structures – dripstones, I think Jimmy called them – that geologists say cannot grow above one another, and they were all stacked right on top of each other. “What happens in the cave stays in the cave,” he said.

Eventually, past all the frozen waterfalls and illogical rock forms, we hit the end of the line, and turned around. At the time I was a bit unsatisfied, but now I realize – there’s not much else I could ask rocks to do for me. It’s a pretty special cave all-around.

I bought some magnetic hematite rocks at the gift shop, and we found a hotel: the Mammoth Cave Hotel, located I think in the middle of Mammoth Cave National Park. On entering the room, I found a sheet of paper detailing a walking trail next to the hotel, so I suggested it. Only Dad and I went; Mom and Micah stayed in the hotel instead and watched Family Guy. We drive two hundred miles and they stay inside not a hundred feet from the edge of what Dad and I think may be a real old-growth forest, at the onset of spring. It boggles the mind.

The first thing Dad and I did was get good and lost, because that’s the only way to have a proper hike. This we did by forsaking the trail and skipping down a scattering of boulders slicked down a steep hillside until we found a brand new trail. We took that one past a few pretty capacious sinkholes. One was probably fifteen feet deep. I think they all drain to a series of caves below, or something. I was barefoot, and the sharp gravel woke up nerves that had been hibernating all winter. We found a little out-of-order cottage, and then picked one of two trails at random at a forking, heading to the Echo River Spring. The forest was pine and cedar, Dad guesses, and really wide and spacious. I could feel its health, even though trees aren’t budding yet.

The Echo River is green and wells up from a spring at the bottom of a deep, green pool. The pool sloshes ever so slowly and silently and we couldn’t figure out why at all. There are dead trees growing in the middle of it. Why? We approached it from two different angles but neither offered answers.

We took a trail that promised to take us to the Campground. It ascended the hill we’d descended, through a series of switchback and oxbows. We saw some standoffish deer. “They’re Ohio deer,” Dad said. “They’ve got an O on the license tag.” At the top of the hill, the trail diverged with no clues, both ways leading off into scenic nowheres. We picked the one that seemed right; it petered out, and we found another one nearby. That one took us through a huge bowl where no roads came, and not even any road noise. Beautiful – but when you’re trying to find civilization again, unnerving. Daylight was fading fast. We kept following the trail, and it led us up a hillside to some lights that proved to be our hotel. Mom and Micah were both inside watching the Griffins evade Y2K.

We spent the rest of the night playing a long, distracted game of Scrabble. Then it was TV until bedtime. My feet are still tingling.

[I haven’t written this part in my journal yet, so this is all on the fly.]

We woke up today and packed up our stuff into the truck. We walked to breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant, and from there we walked across a bridge to the Visitors’ Center. I was taken aback – it was teeming. We found the information desk and the guy told us that the 4-hour tour of Mammoth Cave was sold out until sometime in April, and the longest tour still available for today was the 2-hour New Entrance tour. So we bought tickets for that at noon, and kind of waited around until then. I read a few books in the bookstore part. Mom did crossstitch in the truck, and Dad sat on a bench outside enjoying the fresh air. I think Micah kind of wandered. The tour bus smelled of urine.

This tour group was 119 people, said the tour guide. As such, it wasn’t as personal as the Diamond Cavern one. We got into a line, and all descended one after another down a steep and cramped stainless steel staircase into a shaft about a hundred feet deep. The staircase spiraled around perplexingly, so that we were frequently walking above or below another section of the line. Water trickled through the ground into our giant hole, and through all the dark cavities on its sides. There were stalactites and stalagmites, but not as numerous as they were in Diamond Cavern. This cave had an altogether different character. Or rather, several different characters. After we came out of the shaft, we kept descending through other passages until we came to a huge auditorium – wooden benches set in the rock floor, fifteen-foot rock ceiling. The tour guides gave a little presentation there, showing us the total darkness like Jimmy had, and then we all got up and kept moving. The next section was a dry, open one with no stalactites or anything, a section that had stopped growing. Here, huge rocks balanced precariously over us. There was more maneuvering room in general. One chamber had a big, flat ceiling. The tour guide answered questions from some people there, about mummies found in the cave, and things like that. And we kept walking through the huge, dark, light-brown chambers. Rock tumbles stretched out below us into black depths, and the ceiling was a jumble too, which was different from any other ceiling I’ve been under before. From time to time we saw things that people had left there. One pile of rocks had an old lantern on it.

Finally, we came to the last chamber we would visit, another one full of structures. There was the Frozen Niagara, thirty-foot flowstone. There was a ceiling that consisted entirely of glistening stalactites. There was a pillar in progress that, when it comes together sometime in the next few millennia, will be about fifty feet high probably. I enjoyed it all. I breathed the cool damp cave air. Then, abruptly, I found that the trail had led me back out to the bright outdoors. So I waited for the rest of the family, and we got on the buses and rode back to the Visitors’ Center.

Pictures to follow sometime.

File under: adventure, dad jokes

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WOW!! I’m impressed. Actually, I really love caves and have been to many of them. i enjoyed your descriptions and look forward to the pictures. G.Pa.


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