Day 3: Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Fourteen hours after arriving at our campsite in Mammoth Cave National Park, we had the tent packed up and were back in the car heading toward the Visitors Center for our cave tour. Originally, we wanted to do the Starlight Tour where a guide leads a small group of people through the cave by the light of a gas lamp. We failed to realize Mammoth Cave is a tourism machine and most of the smaller or more adventurous tours book-up weeks in advance. By the time we got around to actually planning our trip, we were limited to a few options – the most attractive of which was the Historic Tour. This one herds 120 people through two of the most notable miles of the cave while a guide tells the cave’s back story.
We located our tour group and walked en mass toward the Historic Entrance of the cave. It was early, but already the day was hot and muggy. The closer we got to the entrance, the cooler and damper the air became. Our guide introduced himself and read a list of safety precautions. After everyone agreed not to run off down a dark corridor or needlessly touch EVERYTHING, we descended the stairs and entered a gaping black hole in the Earth’s surface. I pulled on a jacket and allowed my eyes to adjust to the darkness as we walked into the massive Broadway cavern.
Our guide gathered us around an old work site and started to tell the story of the cave. In short, Late Archaic and Early Woodland Indians mined minerals and crystals from the cave 4,000 to 2,000 years ago. Then European-American settlers moved into the Green River valley in the 1790’s. They mined the cave heavily for saltpeter, a key component of gunpowder, during the War of 1812. Tourists started visiting the cave around 1816, clearly evidenced by their names etched into the cave’s walls.
In 1838, a teenage slave named Stephan Bishop began leading tour groups through Mammoth Cave. He spent more time exploring and mapping the cave than any other guide of his time. Steven was the first to cross the previously impassable “Bottomless Pit” and the first to see the eyeless cavefish. It is said (and documented) that Stephen’s spirit still inhabits Mammoth Cave’s corridors. He’ll occasionally turn up to evaluate the tour guide’s performance, greet surprised guests or stand in the back of a group photograph. 1
We traveled through the same corridors that Steven discovered in a single-file line for two hours. Both the line of people and the carefully placed accent lighting tricked me into thinking I was inside Space Mountain. The lights went out for a brief moment and we were surrounded by total blackness and frantic shrieking (me). It was a gentle reminder that we were indeed inside the world’s largest cave system and this was no Disney ride.
Near the end, we entered a corridor known as “Fat Man’s Misery.” It’s so narrow, visitors are required to shimmy through it sideways, or remain in the cave for the rest of their lives. I was behind a larger man who was struggling to get through such an ungodly tight space. A faint sense of panic started to grip my insides and a tiny voice inside my head started hinting at the fact that there might not be enough air in this cave for everyone. My limbs began to tingle as the impulse to thrash my way to freedom grew stronger.
I tried to calmly voice my concern to Luke, saying something to the effect of, “I’m starting to freak out, man.” Luke responded with a simple, yet pointed statement: “Robin, you’re fine.”
I calmed down once we were back in the open and realized it’s a damn good thing we didn’t do the Wild Cave Tour – a six-hour, four-mile crawl/slither through Mammoth Cave’s tightest nooks and crannies. I desperately wanted to be brave enough to explore the cave this way, but after reading other people’s first-hand accounts of just how tight some of the spots were, I knew I would need to be extracted prematurely.
Our guide wrapped up the tour with the conclusion of Stephen’s story: he was freed one year before passing away around the age of 36.
Now that we got to experience the park’s underworld, we wanted to escape the crowds and explore the park’s surface. Before leaving Minneapolis, I spoke with Vickie Carson from the Mammoth Cave Media and Public Affairs office, who urged me to spend some time exploring the park above ground. “Surface travel is under-utilized, but growing,” said Vickie. “A vast majority of visitors come for the cave and never get to see ‘true oddities’ like the Cedar Sink.”
She had me at “true oddities.”
The Cedar Sink is a window into our water table and the driving force behind what created Mammoth Cave, according to Vickie. She recommends visitors see both the sink and the cave in order to get a well-rounded experience in the park. We spent a few hours walking the two-mile trail and exploring the forested area around the sink. Everything was incredibly warm, green and lush – a major contrast from the cold darkness of the cave. Tiny periwinkle butterflies landed on my shoes. Birds sang from the tall rock ledges surrounding us. Inch worms decorated the wooden railings with their neon-green bodies. All the while, we saw only a handful of visitors. While Mammoth Cave is a well-oiled tourist machine, Cedar Sink is a private paradise.
We finished the day by crossing the Green River on an old ferry, which was a thrill, and drove up to Ugly Creek Road to do some off-roading in the backwoods. We bounced along the gravel road, passing through beautiful forests and collecting some interesting insects inside our vehicle. We made a brief stop at the Old Jordan Cemetery to wander among crumbling headstones dating back to the late 1800’s. They were arranged by family name and were well maintained despite their remote location in the backwoods of Kentucky.
Nothing we experienced today was familiar – the cave, the sink, the accents, the insects – but everything was pleasant and memorable. Along with this realization came the familiar sensation of my brain clicking into vacation mode.