Tennessee and Mammoth Cave Revisited

Nyssa's Hobbit Hole

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(Pictured: Passage within Mammoth Caves National Park, iStock.com/sreenath_k)

Now that we’re back home and I can safely post this on the Net–

I previously wrote about trips to Tennessee here and Mammoth Cave here.  Not much to add on to what I wrote before–it was too hot last week to do much of anything of interest in Tennessee, especially with a carsick boy, so we just hung around with family–but I’ve wanted to see Mammoth Cave again for years.

We did go to Dolly Parton’s Stampede.  We were crammed in and had to eat with our fingers, but the food (while messy) was good.  On the other side of the theater was an Amish family and a huge group of foreign exchange students.  I wondered what they thought about the end of the show, an over-the-top light show celebrating the Fourth of July at a time when Trump is giving the USA a black eye.  But hey, they wanted to come here, so maybe they were fine with it.  Anyway, with all the bluegrass and country music and hillbilly kitsch in those parts, I hope I won’t lose my Goth card.  😉  But it was the grandparents’ idea, so maybe not.  🙂  And there were horses!

One thing I noted and found odd: In Knoxville by a mall, there was a prayer tent set up in the parking lot.  A prayer tent?  In the parking lot?  At the mall?  Is this a new Southern thing? (I never saw this in trips to the South in the 80s.)

We thought about going all the way to Chattanooga, and I badly wanted to see Lookout Mountain again after some 30+ years.  But with last week’s brutal heat and a boy who got sick just from an hour-long ride squished in the back of the grandparents’ car, that wasn’t going to work.  But our last-minute thought of visiting Mammoth Cave–that worked out.

I don’t remember a lot of what the park around Mammoth Cave was like 30 years ago.  Was there a big visitor center before?  I don’t know.  Was the Spelunkers Café there before?  Heck if I remember.  Were there so many people there from other countries (especially Asian), or Amish?  (What crowds!)  Did they have a bunch of cute little cabins (with electricity!)?

I do know they now have excavated more than 300 miles and still feel they won’t finish in our lifetimes.  And I’m pretty sure the cars and vans were a lot boxier and there were more perms and mullets.

Hey, I’m just glad I can still fit through the tiny spaces on the Historic Tour, and could handle the entire tour without dying.  I even did better than the hubby.  Working out is doing some good, though after all these years I still don’t have my girlish figure back.  (I said good-bye to that shortly after my son was born.  A pity, because if I did all this work back in my 20s, I probably would soon be skinny.)

The Historic Tour seems to have changed a bit.  I don’t remember hearing the same stories we got last time (though it’s hard to be sure because some of us got far behind in the tiny spaces), and I think some of the fixtures changed.  Below, I mention a tower with winding stairs; now it was more of a metal mesh staircase with a bunch of landings.  But at the end of the two-hour tour, only two miles but “moderately strenuous,” I thought, “What?  That’s it?  We’re done?  Again!  Again!”

At the beginning of the tour, I saw “L– So. Bend” among the historic signatures all over the walls.  I asked my brother, but he can’t remember if he put that there, and I can’t ask my dad anymore.  So I guess the world will never know if that’s my brother’s signature, or somebody from the 1800s.

The disappointing bit is learning that the Echo River tours were discontinued 25 years ago for environmental reasons.  I was last there 30 years ago, and we were supposed to go on the river, but they cancelled all water tours for the day because the power was out.  So I had one chance–ONE!–to go on Echo River and see the eyeless fish, but never will again.  *sigh*  And, unfortunately, I think I will never be able to go on the Wild Cave Tour.  I’d still like to, but time has taken its toll in various ways.

As for taking one tape with me and getting sick of it by the end of the trip–That certainly changed.  Now I have an MP3 player loaded with nearly 400 songs, and a car to plug it into, which entertained us all the way to Tennessee and back again with good Goth and Industrial music, and no repeats!

Here’s what happened the last time I went to Mammoth Cave, 30 years ago as a teenager.  By the way, my post on this actually got some attention several years ago when somebody found it and posted on a forum, “See?  I wasn’t imagining the story about the guy banging rocks together!” :

I wrote this to a penpal back in 1988, as a sophomore in high school:

During August, my parents, my brother L– and I went to Bowling Green, Kentucky.

I went with my dad and brother to Mammoth Cave, but my mom stayed at the hotel because she’d gone through there before in 1965 (as did my brother and dad), and, since she hadn’t dressed properly for the cold down there–my dad was the only one in the tour group with pants on instead of shorts–she got sick.

(When it was my turn to go in this cave, which I’d heard so much about that it seemed legendary, I wore pants.)

Back then, the longest tour was somewhere around six, seven, eight hours.  Now it was only four and a half hours, unless you wanted to go on the “Wild Cave” Tour: I think that was six hours long, and it was one where they gave the people equipment and they’d pretend they were explorers.  (I’d like to go on that one sometime.)

The electricity in the cave is powered by two companies, one in Indiana, but when we were there, it wasn’t working in the Indiana Company’s part of the cave.  Most of the Half-Day (4 1/2-hour) Tour was in that part, so we had to stand outside in the heat for a very long time, waiting for the previous group to come back with the lanterns.

But, during that time, there was the oddest coincidence: During my freshman year at school, I had two best friends, and one of them–Jennifer–was on the very same tour I was on!  Neither of us even knew the other was going to be there!

Finally, we could go in the cave and cool off.  There were a lot of stairs to go down.  I’d brought a pocket flashlight I’d bought at church camp, which came in useful now.

(With at least two tour groups being shoved together for the tour, there was a shortage of lanterns, and anyone with a flashlight was encouraged to use it and lead a smaller group.  Of course, my flashlight was hardly big enough to lead a group with, so I didn’t say anything about it to the tour guide.)

After a while we reached the Snowball Dining Room and had lunch, chili if you wanted it (I had something else since I don’t like chili), then went into the next room and sat for an extremely long time.  It turned out to be cold in there, so our guide told us we should go back in the Snowball Room where it was warmer.

Some of us went in there, and the guide from the next group came up to us and said we should go in the other room because another group was going to come in.  Some people in our group started laughing; the other group’s guide asked, “Why are you laughing?” and someone said, “Our guide just told us to come in here.”

For a while during our wait in the other room, I had a chance to talk with Jennifer.  Before that, and maybe after, I talked with Dad about the link between the Great Flood and how the room looked like it was carved by water–which it was, as the guide later told us.

It was decided that the rest of the Half-Day Tour groups would join our group.  Our guide told us about the forks in the trail ahead and how easy it was to get lost.

He said that, usually, he could joke about how one person could go the wrong way and have forty people following, but now it could be a hundred (or maybe even 120, I don’t remember now), and it wouldn’t be so funny.

The guide was asked if anyone ever got lost in the cave, and he told about when a man, before there was electricity in the cave, left his new hat in the Snowball Room, and the guide let him go back and get it.  When he was going back to the group, he missed the turn and started going the wrong way–then his lantern went out.

He was lost for 39 hours!  They found him after he started pounding two rocks together.  They thought he was smart to signal the search party like that, but they found out the total silence–since Mammoth Cave makes no sound–had begun to get to him, so he pounded the rocks so there would be some noise.

As we went deeper and deeper into the cave, we could look up and see colossal walls on either side.  Some people were given candles, so now we had three or four flashlights, some lanterns and candles.  (I just remembered: One lantern had set on fire outside.)

I thought it was more fun without electricity.  Once or twice only a few of us were in front, and the others were so far behind we thought they were lost.

If I remember right, someone screamed when they saw one of the cave-dwelling animals or insects.  Along the way we saw a cave insect, and, in one room, we divided into groups to look for more.  We found at least one.

Some time later there were huge depressions on either side of the trail, and large rocks, which were in such positions that they looked like they would fall any second, were in the depressions, and one could see where part of the roof caved in when the cave was being formed–but it looked as if the cave-in had just occurred in the past few minutes!  One of the rocks in precarious positions was holding the roof up.

We reached a place with restrooms, and we found out those lights weren’t working either, so someone put a lantern in the girl’s restroom.

At one spot, we sat down on benches that were on either side of a trail with depressions on both sides.  Where I was, the bench tilted backwards, so I was uneasy until we all stood up again.  (L– noticed a heavily overweight woman panting and fanning herself here.)

There are so many steps in that cave, and we went up and down a lot of them.  We went down some more to see some formations, then came back up.  I believe the lights were on there.  Soon after, the tour was over.  Only my feet wanted to leave; they ached so much.

That “Half-Day” Tour turned out, for us, to be over five hours long.  People were joking that we should be given T-shirts saying, “I survived the 5-hour Half-Day Tour.”  I was disappointed when we came to the part where the lights were on, though as soon as they saw it some people cheered.

My dad, brother and I were going to go on the Echo River Tour the next morning, but all the water-tours were cancelled because the lights had gone out.  So Dad and I went on the Historic Tour, and heard from someone on that tour how he and a group were on the river when the lights went out.

On the Historic Tour, we, of course, went in the Historic Entrance.  All the lights were on in the part of the cave where this was.  Once, the lights were deliberately turned off, and we were told to be very still and just listen to the total silence: Mammoth Cave makes no sound at all, as I said before.

Then the guide took a kerosene torch and threw it on a ledge high above us, to light up the roof.  She said that a family of rats lived up there, and when they were “at home” they’d push the torch back off the ledge.  They weren’t home.

She also said a “fire and brimstone” preacher in the olden days liked to preach to his congregation here, where they felt close to Hell.  It was also used for mining at one time.

By the Bottomless Pit–which is 105 feet deep–is a tower-like thing that we climbed up–and up–using stairs.  (The stairs curved around and around the tower.)  It seemed to me to be just as high as the Bottomless Pit is deep.

On the way to and from Kentucky, I played Amy Grant’s Lead Me On tape, which I had just gotten, on my Walkman because it was the only tape I brought.  I played it as Dad drove down a road in a wooded area and then turned the car around because we were going the wrong way.  (We were close to the cave by then.)  By the end of the trip, I was tired of it.  I gave it a rest, and eventually was able to listen to it again.

Mom and Dad had told me the story of Mammoth Cave for years before this.  Mom had to carry my other brother La– (my brothers were that young), and L– ate too many hot dogs and got sick of them for life.  I think he eventually was able to eat them again, when he was grown up.