Travel Log: Deep in the Heart of Kentucky

Travel Log 2

(Dec. 15, 2017) I found a Barnes and Noble bookstore in northern Elizabethtown a few miles south of Fort Knox. Go back a few articles, and you’ll recall that Elizabethtown is where Abraham Lincoln’s parents met and married.

I’m still trying to catch up, and I suspect as this journey continues this will be a repeated pattern: some articles written in real time, others caught up a few days after the fact. My journey will also be taking a major detour next year. I have to go back to Virginia in late January to take care of some business with the Department of Veterans Affairs, so my continued westward exploration will be put off until into February. In January after Virginia I’ll swing back through the southeast to Florida to wrap up a couple of other things, then launch again into the Great Unknown. It’s all part of this exploration; I’ll just move the Mid-Atlantic and southeastern parts of my journey to early next year instead of later next year (still have to figure out when to get to New England…).

Tuesday (Dec. 12) I was able to really get deep into the heart of Kentucky by visiting Mammoth Cave National Park.

Get it? Deep into the heart of Kentucky? Mammoth Cave?

Sometimes I just kill myself!

Kentucky is largely made up of karst terrain. Karst is created by water eroding soluble rocks like limestone, dolomite, and gypsum while leaving behind the harder rocks…and lots of caves. When a cave roof collapses, a sinkhole is formed (remember the sinkhole at the National Corvette Museum?). In fact, Kentucky is as riddled with sinkholes as is my home state of Florida.

Mammoth Cave is famous for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it’s the longest known cave system in the world. There are over 400 miles of tunnels that have been mapped…and more are being surveyed all the time. So far there is literally no end in sight (even with a flashlight).

Two underground rivers, the River Styx and the Echo, carved out the system as they emptied into the above-ground Green River. The Green River is still cutting an ever-deeper channel for itself, slowly lowering the level of the local water table, and the Styx and Echo have followed it down, thus carving out and abandoning the tunnels of Mammoth Cave. The rivers are still down there, deep and flowing, cutting and carving. Now and then, if the Green floods and backs up the system, the Styx and Echo back-flow up into some of the usually dry parts of Mammoth Cave. During normal water levels, you can see the River Styx spring upwelling to the surface and finishing its trek to the Green River.

Mammoth Cave National Park
The spring where the River Styx upwells and exits the Mammoth Cave system on its way to flow into the Green River.

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting two distinctly colorful characters, Jesse and Shayna Geurin. They are a bohemian couple of undying charm, sharp wit, and (in Jesse’s case) a truly epic beard! They’re living out of a small RV (they strongly recommended I get one as I continue my travels) and, when not working on farms during season to earn money, are wandering as aimlessly as I am, determined to see as much, learn as much, and do as much as they can. Shayna has taken the trophy for one of the most singular acts I have ever heard of—she licked a glacier in New Zealand!

Yep. Licked. A glacier. How in the name of John Q. Arbuckle do you beat that?!

Jesse makes hand-crafted jewelry under his own brand, Earth Touched Designs (you can find him on Facebook under, you guessed it, “Earth Touched Designs”). Another reason for their travels is to find stones and other items Jesse can incorporate into his uniquely imagined pieces.

The three of us made it just in time to catch the 10:30 tour from the Historic Entrance. Mammoth Cave has several entrances, and there are at least four regular tours that depart from various entrances. For the best general overview of the system and a glimpse at several types of passages, formations, and historic sites, you want the Historic Tour. It enters the dark underground world at the most traditional entrance, winds for two miles over two hours, and then brings you back to sunlight.

The human history of Mammoth Cave goes back over 6,000 years. Native Americans explored it using reed torches and mined it for the gypsum found inside. Several Native American bodies were also found inside during the 19th century, naturally mummified by the cave conditions.

A saltpeter mine (for use in making gunpowder) was built inside, and the cave conditions have perfectly preserved the wooden pipes and vats from 200 years ago! The saltpeter mine became exceptionally important during the War of 1812, but then petered out after the war (yes, the depletion of saltpeter mines is where the term “petered out” comes from). However, as soon as the mine died tourism began, and thus began one of the great inversions of American history.

Mammoth Cave National Park
A Park Ranger tells the history of the saltpeter mine seen in the background.  The wooden structures and tools are the originals–and still lying in place–from 200 years ago!

The pre-Civil War cave guides were all slaves. Whereas, up on the surface, slaves were powerless and controlled, underground the slave truly became the master. Without the lamp the guide brought, the tourist was lost and going to die. Many slave owners allowed the slaves to keep any tips they earned underground (normally money a slave earned was given to the master), thus enabling many slave guides to become rather well-to-do on their own. These slave guides were so respected they were often requested by tourists who had either toured with them before, or else had heard of them from their friends. The slave guides were master story tellers, spelunkers, pitchmen, and even businessmen. In many ways the guides were as big a part of the cave’s pre-Civil War attraction as was the cave itself.

At the deepest part of our tour, Jesse and I both saw a bat soaring through Mammoth Dome (a rather epic natural dome that will take your breath away). As we listened to our guide (today, the guides are Park Rangers), Jesse and I were distracted by a bright flash out of the corners of our eyes and looked up in time to see the cute little furball. This was doubly sweet because bats are becoming more rare due to a fungal infection (harmless to humans) that invaded the cave and targets the bats. The Park Service is taking steps to mitigate the spread of this fungus, but it’s there now and the bats are threatened.

Mammoth Cave National Park
Looking up to the top of Mammoth Dome.

Mammoth Cave is a cave, not a Disney theme-park ride. While the Park Service has built concrete trails where possible, don’t expect it to be easy. There are low ceilings (Tall Man’s Agony, anyone?), narrow, keyhole-shaped passages that demand a squeeze around the waistline (the name Fat Man’s Misery is no accident), and a twilight world of lamps where you do need to look where you’re going.

This is a part of our world that most people never get to see, so take the time to get deep into the heart of Kentucky! The amazing amount of exploration by Native Americans with only reed torches is stunning. The underground world of freedom and even equality the slave guides carved for themselves is an amazing glimpse into the boundless human spirit. And, finally, the geological and ecological education provided by this mighty natural university will truly broaden your mind and understanding of our world.

Mammoth Cave National Park
Our party squeezing through the key-hole shaped and aptly named Fat Man’s Misery.

#Kentucky #cave #mammothcavenationalpark #nationalparks #NPS #mammothcave


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