Friday, June 09, 2006

Visit to Mammoth Cave

Life in Christian County, Kentucky... History and Old Stuff...

We drove over to Mammoth Cave today and went on one of the tours. It's nice that a great natural wonder -- the world's longest known cave system -- is only a couple hours away.

When the kids were little, we made the drive to Mammoth Cave every year on a hot summer day when we could really appreciate the delicious coolness of the underground. I suppose we've visited the cave half a dozen times in all, and we've gone on a different tour each time.

LanternToday, we took the Violet City Lantern Tour. It was three miles and three hours long. This tour's theme is the cave's history. To simulate the experience of exploring the cave without modern lights, the walk through the cave is illuminated by a dozen lanterns, carried by the tour members.

The tour took us by the calcium nitrate leaching equipment that supplied gunpowder for the war of 1812 and the tuberculosis hospital of 1840. We saw walls scraped by prehistoric Indians for gypsum and read the smoked-on names of numerous 19th-century visitors.

The guide pointed out the place where a huge rock pinned an Indian man in about 300 BC. His body was found by the supervisor of a CCC crew that was building paths through the cave in the 1930's. The body has been buried inside the cave somewhere near where he was found, but only three people know the exact location of his grave.

We sat for a few minutes in total darkness in the room that is called the Star Chamber because of the sparkling crystals embedded in the stone ceiling. After touring the cave, Ralph Waldo Emerson arranged to spend a night in the Star Chamber. Reflecting on his Mammoth Cave experiences later, he wrote "Illusions".

Our guide told us many interesting bits of trivia and encouraged the group to ask questions. He is a retired school administrator who worked as a tour guide when he was a young man attending college and now is back in the cave again.

No camera flashes were allowed on most of the tour, but I didn't care because I've learned from previous visits that picture postcards provide far better images of the cave than my photographs.

The last half of the tour had a lot of steep uphill and downhill climbs and uphill stairsteps. The light provided by the lanterns was barely adequate for the stairs, in my opinion, but I made it safely despite my tricky bifocals. I was thoroughly warmed after puffing up the last climbs in the cave, and when we walked out into the sunshine of a warm June afternoon, it felt like we were walking into an oven.

After seeing just a few miles of Mammoth Cave by lantern while walking with my group on the broad smooth pathways constructed by CCC crews, I marvel at the courage of the Indians who carried a torch of bamboo ("cane") stalks and a bundle of unlit torches on their backs as they climbed over rocks and boulders on the cave floor to go deeper and deeper into the cave.

I also feel very sad for the patients of the tuberculosis hospital who lived for months by lanterns and firelight in the cold darkness of the cave and asked every visitor if the sun was shining outside. As much as I enjoyed the cool air of the cave, I shudder at the thought of spending more than a few hours in its blackness.

So little of the cave could be seen well by lantern light, even after the eyes adjusted. This very thing, this small experience of the tremendous darkness of the cave, is what made this tour memorable. I commented to my husband that I would remember this tour as three hours of trying to see my next step -- and yet, the early explorers had less light and no path to follow. They were brave, daring, curious, stubborn people.

PicnicDennis and Isaac, Mammoth Cave National Park

Highway to the caveThe highway leading to Mammoth Cave

Sloan's Pond at Mammoth Cave National Park

Wild roseA wild rose in the underbrush near Sloan's Pond

Old hotel chairsOld hotel chairs in the lobby at the visitor center's restaurant

LanternsStarting point of the Violet City Lantern Tour

Mammoth Cave entranceLast glimpse of daylight at the cave's entrance

More images of the cave


Wrkinprogress said...

I'd love to hear about other tours of the caves you've taken. Runaway and I have been wanting to tour Mammoth, and maybe this summer we'll make it up there, finally. :)


Genevieve said...

You can read descriptions of all the tours on the Mammoth Cave National Park website and even reserve your tickets online. They have changed around some of the names and pathways of the tours since we started going there a dozen years ago or so. All of the tours are interesting! I would just say this -- if the tour description warns that it's a strenuous tour, believe it. :D

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IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
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