Monday, March 1, 2010

The Darkest Dark You've Ever Seen

Yesterday, Dan and I took the Historic Tour at Mammoth Cave National Park in southern Kentucky. I have just discovered that a cave is a wonderful place for reflection, which is one of my favorite pastimes.

Also, caves quench my thirst for something I like to call organic architecture. There's probably a better name for it, but I can't think of what it us. Anyway, I love studying cities and the way their buildings come together to create spaces, and thinking about how those spaces make me feel (Chicago - tall and smart; Detroit - sad and free). But I also love studying natural environments and the way organic elements come together to form useful and beautiful spaces for humans to enjoy. A forest is my most familiar example. On a cool drizzly day in the early spring, all those slightly leafy branches shelter you from the rain while the tree trunks and limbs cut the wind. On a blazing hot summer day, the thick canopy blocks the light and makes a cooler space amongst the trees. A walk through the forest can be a respite from bad weather, a peaceful and lovely sanctuary. Just like a church or a temple, it's a wonderful space for reflection and meditation.

I had never before considered how a cave can also be a wonderful place for thinking and just being. The architectural aspect is obvious - caves have floors, walls and ceilings. The Mammoth Cave is all limestone, which humans use to construct buildings and roads. But there are certain details I didn't anticipate, details that make that particular portion of the Mammoth Cave perfectly serene. For instance, it is always 54 degrees inside the cave. According to Joe, our tour guide, that's the average sea level temperature for the state of Kentucky. On any day of the year, it will be 54 degrees inside that cave. Now that isn't my favorite temperature, but it's a highly anticipated temperature in Michigan this time of year. In the summer, it would be refreshingly cool. But I just can't get over the fact that it's always the same. With all of the weird weather people have experienced across the US these past several weeks, I find enormous comfort in the fact that Mammoth Cave will always be 54 degrees.

One of the great things about the part of the cave that we toured is that it is so often traveled that there are no creepy animals around. No bats, rats or salamanders. As Joe noted, those few animals who can survive in such a dark, cool space don't hang around when they hear people walking. He assured all of us that we were not likely to see even a bug during our journey. The fear hadn't even occurred to me - I figure that the most basic tour at a National Park would be pretty safe and that anything I could encounter wouldn't hurt me - but once he explained that to us, I started to see how nice it is to not worry about that stuff. I fear snakes. I've gotten better about it, but there were times when I would catch a little wiggle out of the corner of my eye and then find myself running through the woods before I had completely registered the wiggle as a snake. So it was really nice to explore the cave without risking a sudden flight reaction, which could conceivably lead to a head injury in those spots with the low ceilings.

Joe's chief warning was that we stick together. "Every once in a while - not often, but once in a while - the lights go out, and then I'll need to light lanterns. And trust me, if that happens, it's the darkest dark you'll ever see." Being the good little obedient ex-Catholic that I am, I stuck very close to Joe for most of the journey, but he was also just a fantastic tour guide (a job he's been doing on and off since the mid-1960's). He spoke frankly about the slaves who mined the caves for saltpeter, which was later used to make gunpowder, that was then sold to the US government during the War of 1812, thereby helping to preserve a freedom that slaves would not have until decades later. I also loved the tour stop known as The Church, a cavern where locals held prayer service during the mid-nineteenth century. Joe pointed to a rocky ledge high on the wall that served as a pulpit, and the dark soot where the lanterns had lit the preacher. But my favorite part of the tour followed the labyrinthine journey through Fat Man's Misery (not for the claustrophobic). Joe sat us down in a large open cavern, told us to be still for a moment and then yelled to his assistant, "Hit it, Charlie!" And then the lights went out. It truly was the darkest dark I've ever seen. I felt scared for a moment, and then I found Dan's hand, and then I just let the blackness pour through me. It was so peaceful.

Joe said, "Now when I light this match, it's going to look like a torch." And it did! He pointed out that the flame blew a bit. "There's always a breeze flowing through here. The cave is breathing." That's when I noticed that there was a very gentle, constant draft, so consistent that you could barely notice it. And I wanted, just a little while longer, to get back to that darkest dark I've ever seen and feel the cave breathing and see what kind of strange thoughts would pop up inside my head.


  1. Oh Em GEE!! I always drive by that T-Rex on i-65 and I've ALWAYS wanted to stop. JEALOUS!!!

    PS - I always go to the Kmart and the Kroger in Bowling Green, Kentucky. You should do the same. :)

    - Mo-ra

  2. We found an awesome donut shop in Bowling Green. 59 cent coffee and super greasy donuts. Yum!

  3. I'm pretty sure I told Dan (and Dulce) about my tour of Mammoth Cave, when I drove all my things from storage in Texas up to Michigan. It was a beautiful day to go down into the dark for a couple of hours (the short tour) and then re-emerge to continue driving. I have a cool souvenir stone egg on my desk that I bought in the gift shop.

  4. Yeah, it's such an oddly transformative experience, perfect for the middle of a road trip. I've had so much on my mind lately, so it was good for me, too.