Garrett (garote) wrote,

Cross-Country Trip Day 8: Tue Aug 21

The weather was glorious when I left the motel. This was my first daytime experience in Kentucky, and I was mesmerized. The tangly forests and rolling hills got even more majestic as I entered the Mammoth Cave National Park, where I signed up for a three-hour guided tour. Cost: Twelve bucks. Excellent!



I had a half-hour to kill before the tour started, so I strolled around taking photos and relaxing.


These Kentucky skyscapes impress me. I keep spotting clouds shaped like the state itself.


The guide gave us an overview of the caves during our shuttle ride to the entrance. He threw in a lot of snarky jokes. I'm surprised he didn't make a joke about that little suitcase mounted on the wall.


The shuttle ride was about ten minutes, and part of the tour price. Pretty damn good for twelve bucks.


A short staircase led to a platform built at the bottom of a sinkhole, and the cave entrance. It was strange to see a door of the kind you'd use in a parking garage, built into the side of a low hill in the middle of a forest. This entrance had originally been dynamited through, then rebuilt and covered over.


The initial descent was amazing. Solid rock all around us. Metal stairs and railings. You could see the decks below, between your feet. Single-file, with bulbous walls pressing in along the sides. Rather than cut the rock, the builders simply ended the railings where the walls intruded into them, preserving the natural contour of the cave.


Down, down, down we went. The space opened up around us. The guide informed us that the staircase we'd just traversed had cost a million dollars to install. "Your tax dollars at work," he said. "Might as well enjoy it!"


At times I couldn't help imagining that I was standing in a very long line for a Disneyland ride, gazing at a bunch of plaster cavern walls and foam-rubber rocks. At any moment I could turn a corner and see a miniature trestle, with a line of comfortable chairs and safety bars, broadcasting pleasant muzak. Then the guide would buckle us in and say, "enjoy the ride!" ... and in five minutes we'd be outside in the rancid Los Angeles air again.


There were a few large standard light bulbs like this one, but most of the illumination was from arrays of LEDs encased in boxes, daisy-chained along the walls. Nicely modernized.


Eventually we emerged into a large room lined with benches. It was an interesting space - no wind, no sound, a wetness to the air, and a smell of dust that was difficult to place. The temperature was surprisingly pleasant. I liked it more than the surface, in fact!


I propped the camera on a bench and used my fancypants remote control clicker to get myself into this shot. I'm leaning against the railing on the right. It's funny, I think I actually overexposed it by accident. It was rather dark in these caves, I swear!


While we were in this room, a fellow tourist asked the guide if he had ever witnessed an earthquake in the caves. He responded that we were already so deep underground - about 200 feet - that unless we were directly over the epicenter, the waves of the quake would pass harmlessly overhead and we wouldn't even feel it. I wonder if that's true?

I asked Erika the Awesome Geologist about it, and she had this to say:

"The caves are mostly bedrock, which is pretty good insulation. You might see it in the water, though, depending on the strength of the earthquake. In a nearby M8 or M9, you'd feel it. But the chances of a quake like that are quite low. The east coast has been a passive margin for many millions of years -- not much seismic activity, and over the long term, most of the seismic activity is small quakes. So, your tourguide is ... mostly right."


... And then things got REALLY impressive!


Solid rock. Not like a sandcastle; you'd need a hammer to break a piece off. But that would be lame of you. It takes the water a thousand years to grow a stalactite by one inch.


Just incredible.


Not tree fungus; not jellyfish; not Metroids; not cake ... but solid rock!

Incidentally, they offer daily runs of a "crawling tour", where you put on a jumpsuit and a caving helmet, and go through really tight spaces and strange curves deep underground. It lasts SIX HOURS. I was sorely tempted to stay another day just to do it. Maybe next time through...


Earlier in the tour, the guide shut off all the lights with a control box, and we stood there in the dark for a few moments. Then he lit a cigarette lighter. The tiny flame cast wicked shadows on the wall.

"Now imagine you're a Native American," he said, "in sandals and a loincloth, holding a grass torch, walking through here with no railings. Those were some brave people. Also, as far as the cave is concerned ... as far as the bats are concerned ... that was less than a blink of an eye ago."


Stopping for an awesome photo of an awesome photo.


A few stairs and a ramp led up to a spinning exit door, again evoking the feel of a parking garage.


... And then we were out again!


As part of the return trip we were asked to walk over a mat soaked in disinfectant, to destroy any traces of the fungus that causes White-Nose Syndrome in bats. The park is very concerned about spreading this plague between caves and bat populations.

"Why didn't you have us walk through this before the tour, instead of after?" asked one visitor.

Out guide responded with, "Well, we know the fungus would be damaging, but we also know that five thousand people treading disinfectant through the caves every day would be worse."

I was tempted to go an another tour of some other part of the caves right there, but I knew my schedule wouldn't allow it. So I got on the road, but I took my time driving out of the park.


Got lots of eating to do before winter!


The park is covered over by a very lush, dense forest. I had to stop and walk around in it for a few minutes at least.


The first thing I noticed when I got into the woods was the smell of the air. It went right past my sinuses and into my brain, and said:

"Stay here. Stay here for a week. Stay here for an entire year, and walk here every afternoon, in the sunlight and the rain, touching warm bark and dry grass and breathing mist and sap and hearing only birdsong. Abandon everything else and stay here. Let someone else change the world. Spend your time keeping this piece of it exactly as it is."

It was surprisingly intense.

Yep, I need to get out more. Even more.


If you take the alternate route out of the park you get to ride across a river on this awesome miniature ferryboat.


I love those little red fungusy bits...

IMG_2223_20120821 Panorama

Here's a semi-panorama of three stitched photos. I just had to get a good view of this valley. I didn't realize Kentucky was almost as lovely as Kansas...


I am continuously surprised at how, in parts of the world where earthquakes are not a concern, people can get away with some really slipshod - but also very charming - architecture.

Of course, if I lived in this building, I would probably have a very different attitude. I'd spend all my time patching the roof, smacking bugs, and grousing about the winter heating bill...


Like the dwarves say ... "Why go over the mountain ... When you can ... BULLDOZE RIGHT THROUGH IT!"


WHOOO RAINBOWS! Please excuse the filthy windshield!

I drove until it was dark, and kept driving until about 9:30pm when I made a to-go order from a Thai place 20 miles up ahead on the highway, and rolled in to pick it up just as the restaurant closed. Then I checked in to a big Motel 6 on a hill. An hour later the food was demolished and I was crammed into the bed. For the second time on the trip, I was in a room nice enough that I didn't feel the need to bust out my sleeping bag.

What a lovely day!
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