Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Caving on

We celebrated K’s birthday weekend with a trip down to Mammoth Cave National Park. Caves are not really our thing; I enjoy the sound of the word “spelunking,” but I have no desire to enact the word’s meaning. However, this was the closest National Park, a not-too-terrible five hours’ drive away, and we’ve been trying to get in as many of the parks in as we can before they get turned into oil fields or bases for the Space Force. What’s more, even though I was a lot more excited about hiking the back-country trails, you don’t go to a place called Mammoth Cave only to spend the whole time above ground. (You also don’t go expecting to see any mammoths. Not only are they extinct, they never made it to the caves. The “mammoth” in this case just means big.) As such, we grudgingly allotted two hours to a cave tour.

Our cave guide looked a bit like Jerry Garcia, though he acted like everyone who has held a once-loved job just a bit too long. He seemed weary, tired of telling people not to litter, not to deface the cave walls, not to take the cave tour at all if they didn’t think they could walk two miles that included very tight passages and a lot of stairs to climb. “The cave is dark,” Weary Jerry warned. “Parts may be wet and slippery. There’s a section that’s extremely narrow—they call it ‘fat man’s misery.’” There were chuckles, though I sensed anxiety, and I wondered if a name change was in order so no one would feel fat-shamed. K, however, was immune to fat-shaming. “Guess I’m gonna be miserable,” he joked cheerfully.

We did not end up being miserable, though at first we weren’t all that enthralled. Last year we’d visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park and taken a self-guided tour of some truly astonishing cave formations. You would not believe what can happen when water meets limestone. In contrast, the cave at Mammoth was big, empty, and nearly featureless. But then after all, we’d chosen the “Historic Tour,” which turned out to be less about what the cave looked like and more about how we had come to be in it in the first place. Why had people ever entered it? What made anyone think that going down a dark hole through slippery, narrow, miserable passages leading who knows where with who knows what lurking ahead—how could this possibly be a good idea? But they did go. Thousands of years ago, well before it was “discovered” by Europeans, people explored the caves.

“This,” said Weary Jerry, some of his weariness receding as his eyes glimmered in the very faint light he held up. “This is all the light you would have if you were one of the first people here. How far would you have gone if this was all you could see?”

People murmured indistinctly, though “not far” seemed to be the general buzz, and not at all was what went through my own mind. Ironically, at that moment many friends of mine were finishing an ultramarathon back home, one that I’d done several times in the past. The idea of running in circles under the hot August sun for eight hours is a definite “not at all” to most people, and yet it made so much more sense to me than the idea of spending any amount of time here, without proper lighting or footwear, a paved path or a guide, even a jaded one counting down the days ‘til retirement.

“We’re coming to the ‘bottomless pit,’” the guide went on, the edge returning to his voice as he no doubt was making bets with himself as to how many morons would toss coins down there this time. “Up until about 1840, this was the farthest anyone had dared to go. At that time, a slave named Stephen Bishop, who was one of the cave guides, extended a ladder over the pit and became the first person to go beyond it.”

Bishop, we learned, opened up a whole new part of the cave full of wonders to discover, including a river with eyeless fish no one had known even existed. He continued to explore the subterranean world and ended up creating some of the first extensive maps of the caves. And thus were we here, because one person, and others after him, and untold numbers before him, not only asked a question—What’s out there?—but decided the answer was worth pursuing no matter what.

People are bizarre. You think an eyeless fish is weird? It isn’t. If you live in a river in a pitch-black cave, what is there to see? People meanwhile can see, yet they willingly go where they can’t—and try to anyway. The human condition is crazy with contradictions, our stubborn belief that unswerving persistence will pay off paired with an openness to possibilities, an insatiable curiosity, the desire to delve into the unknown and find out what’s there. Let’s see how far this cave goes. Let’s see how long we can keep running. There’s a bottomless pit ahead of us that seems to mark our absolute limits. Let’s try to cross it, shall we?


  1. You're on to something in the final paragraph. Why do we do tasks and adventures like that? Because we can try. Your description reminds of Twain's "Jim Baker's Blue-Jay Yarn."

    Weary Jerry would be proud.

    "Oh he may be weary
    Them tour guides they do get wearied
    Wearing that same old shaggy garb, yeah, yeah
    But when Jerry gets weary
    Try a little tenderness, yeah, yeah"

    1. Thanks, QBN. I don't know how many times during my travels I've had these kinds of thoughts: what on earth made people DO this? Why did they climb crazy mountains or go into caves or a million other seemingly irrational things? But they did. (Love the altered lyrics, btw.)