“Out of the womb of nature” in the middle of Kentucky

I’m currently in Ohio visiting my sister and her family on a short Labor Day Weekend vacation. Sure, Ohio might not be the most glamorous of States to visit, but I love coming here nonetheless. A visit to my sister’s West Chester home is everything a vacation should be: relaxing and refreshing, with good food and better company in abundance.

Yesterday we took a family road trip two hours south into central Kentucky, and on the way down we saw a wild turkey, some white-tailed deer, and a turtle crossing the I-75 (who we thankfully did not see lying belly up on the Interstate on the way home). We finally arrived at the Mammoth Cave National Park with an extra hour, having forgotten to take into account a one-hour time difference, and so had the opportunity to explore more than we’d anticipated.

Now, the surrounding countryside on the surface was a sight to see unto itself.  Being raised in the Fraser Valley gave me an appreciation for the great outdoors that I’ve carried with me into the concrete jungle where I’ve resided for the past seven years, and getting out of the city is always my favourite way to spend a long weekend.  It doesn’t happen nearly enough, but with landscapes like these all over North America, that could change soon…

The view from the trails above the caves.
The view from the trails above the caves.

After a quick picnic lunch and a ¾-mile nature hike, we piled into one of three buses alongside 130 other guests, drove four miles out into the wild, and descended 280 steps on a narrow metal staircase into the world’s biggest cave system.  Over 400 miles of cave systems have been explored underneath nearly 53 000 acres of densely-forested land, and as we walked ever lower into this “grand, gloomy, and peculiar place” on the “Domes and Dripstones” tour, I felt like we were entering a new world entirely separate from our own. Though adequate light sources few and far between – set up mainly to illuminate the more elaborate and interesting rock formations and features – we filed through the tunnels at an easy pace, congregating in three separate cave chambers to learn more about the caves and the park’s history from our fearless leaders, the amusing duo of Rangers Jason and Jeff.

This was probably the most amount of light we got down there.
This was probably the most amount of light we got down there…
...while the rest of it was more or like this.
…while the rest of it was more or less like this…
...and, more often than not, like this.
…and, more often than not, like this.

Even in these spacious caverns the lights were dim, and in one of them the Rangers turned the lights off entirely so we could experience the total stillness and utter darkness of the caves as they were before man came with firelight to illuminate their grandeur. According to the park’s lore, in the early days an explorer was left behind by accident in one of the chambers and was found nineteen hours later sitting on a boulder banging two rocks together. When praised for his clever thinking to use sound to guide his team back to him, he explained that it had been more for his benefit than anyone else’s: the total silence and darkness had been enough to drive him crazy.

I can believe it. What I’m still trying to wrap my head around is that some people were intrepid and daring enough to venture down into places like the Mammoth Caves with little more light than what’s afforded by a Zippo.  But nonetheless I’m glad they did, and the two-hour trip to the grand finale was well worth the careful stepping and occasional fumbling in near to total darkness.

The Frozen Niagara feature of stalactites and stalagmites at the end of the tour took my breath away. It’s one thing to see these formations in photos or in documentaries, but to experience them in real life is almost indescribably amazing and downright cool. There was so much to take in from that one section of the tour, and if we could have stayed down there longer it would not have been long enough for me to take in everything I could have. Alas, with the buses waiting at the surface to take us back to the visitors’ centre, I had to pull myself away from that underground display and ascend back into the light of the surface world.

Heading down into the
Heading down into the “Drapery Room” once we reached the Frozen Niagara formation.
Looking up from the bottom of the
Looking up from the bottom of the “Drapery Room.”
Just outside of the
Just outside of the “Drapery Room,” on the way back up to the surface.

It’s hard to imagine any degree of beauty or creation existing so far away from the surface where humans are best suited to life. But the wondrous subterranean landscapes of caves proves that beauty not only exists but truly thrives even in the dreariest, darkest places – and their surprising closeness to home reminds us that once you’re able to see beauty in the dark cold depths, you’re not as far as you think from the light and warmth of a beautiful day.


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