Day 38 – July 4, Independence Day
Mammoth Cave National Park
Rain struck staccato notes on tent walls in the darkness of morning. It replaced the sounds of kids and conversations and campfires the night before. Welcome sleep came easily, free from the scratching and whining of cats so prevalent the last few days. I lay listening, drifting above a forest floor, a beach landing, stone walls, ocean waves. Sweet sleep.
A car horn, a child’s cry, glowing tent walls, dawn. I planned my journey to the men’s room. What to wear, what steps necessary for maintaing a dry tent. Dressing, extraction, mission, return. I collect my things for a morning in the cave. I have a 10 a.m. reservation. I will eat breakfast at the lodge, write, check emails in the visitor’s center, then go on the History Tour. Pack camera and iPad along with my rain pants (just in case) in a plastic bag for transport from the campsite, about a half mile. Plan, execute, stay dry.
It’s the 4th of July. The Park is crowded. The restaurant opened at 7:30, it’s now 8:30, it will be filled. I walk out of the forest across a lawn and parking lot to the lodge and morning coffee. I’m wearing my florescent raincoat and carrying a large white plastic bag. I wonder if I look eminently practical or homeless. Scamping walks a fine line. It doesn’t matter. No one is out to observe or judge, not even a squirrel.
The restaurant is empty. I’m the first one there. I’m astounded. “It’s a holiday, the kids don’t get up early,” I am told. It’s true. The campground was silent when I walked out. So they seat me at “the first single guy table.” It’s in a corner near the coffee dispensers. A good place if you are Wyatt Earp and like coffee.
I eat and then head for the hotel lobby and it’s wifi connection. The time is two minutes until 9 a.m. I have one hour until my tour. Everything feels perfect except for the lack of people walking around. Then I notice the wall clock. It’s one hour behind. Surely someone else would have noticed this. I decide to tell the desk clerk. Just as the words are coming out of my mouth, it dawns on me. I change from a statement to a question in mid sentence. “Have I wandered into the Central Time Zone?”
“Rejoice! Now I have more time to meditate!” That’s another story from another time, but it’s exactly what I told myself when I realized my error.
Eventually I queued up with about 99 other spelunkers under a lovely pavilion in the steadily pouring rain. Park Ranger Thomas gave a very well delivered opening address making it clear in the most pleasant way possible that this two hour hike would not be easy and if you had any medical ailments or newly replaced organs or joints, not to go. Down into the cave we marched.
Mammoth Cave was carved out by water from limestone layers laid down after eons of ocean activity, right here in central Kentucky. They say it’s the longest cave system in the world, 400 miles. I went on the two hour History Tour, focusing on ancient and modern human activities in the cave. Ranger Thomas was excellent, super-well prepared and able to answer every question. I’ve been in a number of caves and my personal assessment is that they are dank, dark, and dangerous. The surprise for me at Mammoth is that it is dry. The interior maintains a cool, but dry, 54 degrees. Nothing is slimy. It’s dry underfoot on the well maintained walkways. There are some very narrow and low passages, but nothing slippery.
Being dry means there are no stalactites, just carved out and broken limestone rock. Lighting the interior is practical, not spectacular like at Carlsbad Caverns. Nevertheless, Mammoth Cave is a fascinating geologic wonder. I believe I only saw .5% of it. I would need to be a real spelunker to see more. Maybe next voyage.
P.S. I shot photos at 800 & 1600 ISO with 1-2 second exposures while in the cave. This guarantees high grain and blur. I did not disappoint. These photos will never see the light of day. I wonder why I even try. The dining room photo was taken with the iPad.
We carried you in our arms
On Independence Day
And now you’d throw us all aside
And put us on our way
Tears of rage, tears of grief
Why must I always be the thief?
Come to me now, you know
We’re so alone
And life is brief
– Tears of Rage – Bob Dylan & Richard Manuel