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Mammoth Cave

A journey underground for the clarity that comes from the dark. Light and darkness in Kentucky's Mammoth Cave.

Mammoth Cave
by Dave Karlotski

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Dear Rudy,

Today I spent three hours under the earth, not even dead, and walked beneath it for four miles, and still I saw only a fraction of the things I shouldn't have seen.

cave walls

Mammoth Cave has 350 miles of passages that they know about and they estimate there may be twice as many more yet undiscovered. I walked along only a few of these but it was still very strange to slip into the ground in one place and come out in another; it isn't just a cave, it's a secret way. My group was led through grand corridors 15 feet high and 40 feet wide, gently curved like a pipe under the ground. Other passages were much taller and rougher, like a riverbed with a ceiling. We filed for several hundred yards through an underground slot canyon just three feet wide and extravagantly curved, a rippling ribbon of air through the stone. We rested and walked, rested and walked, as if we were characters in The Hobbit on an epic journey and had to conserve our strength; I watched for Gollum and kept my hand near Sting, my pocketknife, in case the lights failed.

We weren't the first. People began exploring the cave 4000 years ago by the light of reed torches, and made it not just a hundred yards or a half mile, but many miles under the ground. That's staggering bravery, and I can only hope they found that passage to the other side that has so far eluded us.


Most of the passages we traveled through were dry, but haunted by water. Stalactite and stalagmite free, the mighty network of tunnels was cut by dark children of the Green River millions of years ago and then abandoned for deeper levels where they play still. There were white gypsum growths on the rough walls like flowers, tufts of hair, or lichens, as if when rock dreams it dreams of life and then extrudes those dreams through a slow stone alchemy.

As the ranger said, we are creatures of light. Not only are we solar-powered, but our minds are like shuttered lanterns full of colors. We have other senses but sight rules over them so the world we perceive around us and the copy we keep in our heads are both full of pictures. To us, darkness is just the absence of light, a temporary condition. But light in this cave is like sound in space -- it's just not one of the features. When we turn on the lights to walk through and look at the cave, what we're looking at is something we invented; we might as well paint the cave blue from end to end because light is just as foreign a pigment.

We have to go down in our capsule of light, though, to make some sense of the place or else we could barely even tell it existed, just as the little fish and bugs that live in the cave would come up to the surface world in dark capsules if they ever undertook that journey.


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