1988 Trip to Mammoth Cave–When the Lights Went Out Underground
(Pictured: Passage within Mammoth Caves National Park, iStock.com/sreenath_k)
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.