Jessica and I are Mole People.
True thing. We both love caves. We didn’t know this about each other when we first met, but during the process of romantic discovery, we realized we both had a lust for the subterranean. Perhaps a bit of the Arne Saknussemm DNA in our genetic code.
Perhaps you’ve already seen the previous blog regarding Carlsbad Caverns. Well, while the main Carlsbad tour is cavernous in its size, the historical tour of Mammoth Caves is claustrophobic with small passages, kneeling and moving sideways to get through the tunnels.
But I’m ahead of myself. When we left Charleston, we’d planned to head for Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. More than a ten-hour drive, we had to split it into two days so we could travel a leisurely pace and explore the country. Which, of course, we did. Although beautiful, we don’t have a blog about the drive (although we will be doing a blog later about the countryside across America).
We arrived in Mammoth Cave area late, so we bedded down with the anticipation of visiting the cave the next day. Now it should be known that unlike Carlsbad, Mammoth strongly requests reservations in advance. The reason for this is that while Carlsbad has a self-guided tour, Mammoth’s tours are guided by Park Rangers and, thus, must be scheduled for a specific number of people in each tour. We had been trying to make reservations for several nights, but they were all booked. So we just figured we’d show up and see if they took walk-ups for the day.
We traveled through the beautiful Kentucky countryside and made our way to the Park, arriving in the early morning. Once there, we headed to the tour desk and asked about availability. SUCCESS!!! They had openings for the Historical Tour! But that particular tour was for later in the day, around 4pm. No worries, there was a lot of the park to see, so we got our tickets for the tour.
During the wait, we decided to drive around. As we did, we discovered some trails, a wooden church, a somewhat suspicious outhouse, and a cemetery. Driving the backroads in the park was a lot of fun and, as someone who loves history, I enjoy looking through old graveyards, imagining what the people were like back then, their lives and seeing their final resting places.
We also ran into a bit of the local fauna. The wooly booger caterpillar and centipede are featured in this area.
It was getting close to the tour time, so we headed back to the Visitor’s Center and parked in one of the spaces reserved for hybrid vehicles. There was actually plenty of parking, but we’re still getting a kick out of the fact that our Jeep is a hybrid. Checking in at the front desk, we joined the group as it formed up and started the walk toward Mammoth’s original entrance.
I’ll pause here to say this was not my first time at Mammoth. When my family was stationed just north, at Fort Knox, we had come down once and explored the area. I was a kid then, about ten years old, and I vividly remember how amazing I thought it all was. And the tour we were about to take now, the Historical Tour, was the same my family took back then. Of course, I was a lot smaller then…
We began the descent into the world of darkness. As mentioned, we had Park Rangers as guides. One was at the front of the group, the other was tasked with trying to keep the stragglers from straggling. I had to admit, we belonged to that group. Mainly because I like to take photos and that takes some time. As a result, I don’t have as many as I took for Carlsbad and the ones I have were taken mostly on the move. Still those, and the videos especially, can give you a small sense of what it was like down there.
Mammoth Cave is the most extensive cave system known in the world. It has over 365 miles of explored passages with what geologists believe to be 600 miles of unexplored areas. To put that in perspective, just the known areas of Mammoth are twice as long as any other known cavern system on the planet.
At one point, the Ranger had all the lights turned off in the deeper part of the cave. Absolute darkness is a strange and somewhat unnerving thing. The original explorers of the caves were the indigenous people of the area. They were here 10,000 years before Europeans entered the scene. 2,000 to 4,000 years ago those natives began mining mineral from the caverns for their own use. When Europeans discovered the caves, they began mining for minerals as well, including potassium nitrate. Slaves were used in much of the mining and a few of them became famous as experienced guides for the tourists who began to visit. `The family of one of them remained as guides for over 100 years, through the Civil War and Emancipation. Stephen Bishop, Mat Bransford and Nick Bransford, those slaves, are now recognized as the ones who set the pattern for the future exploration of the caverns.
We also passed by the reminders of others who had come before us. Apparently back in the early history of European-American discovery, tours were given with torches and the visitors paid to be allowed to write on the walls using the smoke of the torches.
If you have a chance, visit it. If you’re claustrophobic, well, the park above ground is also worth the visit.