Thursday, December 8, 2011

Mammoth Cave National Park

One of the largest cavern systems in the world is Kentucky's Mammoth Cave. On one of our road trips to Kentucky my travel buddy, I and our hostess decided to pay it a visit as it was just 2 hours away from her home on the Ohio river. We thought it would be fun, interesting, educational and allow me to add another National Park to my "been there" list.

The line between the Central and Eastern time zones runs down the center of both Kentucky and Tennessee. Our hostess lived in the Central zone, Mammoth Cave lies in the Eastern. Since that made us an hour late before we even got started we opted to take the 4 lane interstate there and afterward meander back along the smaller, more scenic state roads. As we neared the cave we entered a realm of delightful American kitsch. A Jellystone campground stood on a hillside. There are several of these spread across the country. Inspired by The Flintstones they contain fake rock buildings and concrete statues of the main characters waving at the passerby on the road below. A small, preserved retro amusement park, closed and vacant as it was early spring, accompanied it.

We had arrived between two tour times so grabbed a snack from the visitors center to fortify ourselves. While we were waiting, a van pulled up and a group of Mennonites, ubiquitous in Kentucky, emerged. Boys and girls in their mid teens and several adult chaperons. The girls and women wore the typical Mennonite mid calf dresses and white caps. The boys all had bowl haircuts and wore low rise pants with button front flaps, similar to the old Navy blues. Although their shirts were loose and bell sleeved one could sense their lean, taut muscularity, the result of long hours of hard physical labor on their farms. The adult men, all broad shouldered and powerfully built, wore the same bell sleeved shirts as the boys and loose black pants tucked into boots. One of the things I learned about the Mennonites that day, they do not wear deodorant. I discovered this as I followed one of the Mennonite girls down a staircase during the tour. Several people have confirmed since that Mennonites do, in fact, not wear deodorant and that this was not just an isolated case. Just something to think about if you see one waiting at your gate as you are about to board a plane.

Our forest service guide gathers our tour group together. We are led down a steep metal staircase inside the cave. The first thing I notice is a diminutive waterfall cascading down the cave wall. The water catches in one crevice, then spills over to the next as it travels down the wall to it's destination deep inside the cavern. It is at this moment that an albino bat appears. For some reason it decides to dive bomb my bald head. I instinctively duck down and cover my head with my arms just as it changes course inches from me. Occasionally someone still chides me about this reaction. My stock answer has become "Well what the fuck would you do if a fucking bat was dive bombing your fucking head?"

We are led into a spacious area inside the cave. We sit on benches as the guide relates the history of the cave, it's vastness and the unique subterranean creatures that reside there, many of them blind and lacking pigment after eons of adaptation to an environment completely devoid of natural light. He also mentions that the cave is completely earthquake proof since it has withstood several without incident. Being trapped underground in a collapsed cave in Kentucky as the result of an earthquake was something I had not even considered until he brought it up. Despite his reassurances, it was a vision that was difficult to put out of my mind until we returned topside.

The most spectacular portion of the tour is the "Drapery Room". Over the centuries deposits of water and minerals have created long wavy formations resembling drapes. A staircase carries you down to a landing where the length and enormity and sheer beauty of them can be fully appreciated.

Returning to the daylight we saw several of the albino cave bats emerge from a small opening created by a sinkhole and fly about flapping their opaque, fragile looking wings in the sun. The rangers were surprised saying that they had never seen the bats come out of the cave day or night. We were fortunate to be there at that time to witness this rare sight.

We returned to the car to begin our scenic country road trip back. This being Kentucky we passed horse farm after horse farm. From the looks of the large homes set back behind expansive gated lawns horse farming is either a highly profitable business or a hobby for the already wealthy.

As it was mid spring trees and shrubs were in full bloom, resembling puffy pink and white clouds floating along the roadside. The famed bluegrass of Kentucky, while not as blue as the name might imply, does indeed have an azure tint to it.

We stopped in Louisville for dinner. A small city famed for the Kentucky Derby and a baseball bat. Many streets are named for famous racehorses. None that we encountered are named for bats.

As we climbed the steep stairs up to our hosts home the scent of blossoming lilac added a soft spice to the spring night air.

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