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Mammoth Cave National Park: Journey to the Center of Kentucky

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When you take your first step into Mammoth Cave National Park, you are immediately transported into a subterranean fantasy. Every step leading farther into the cave system, takes you a step further into Jules Verne's classic novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth. I kept thinking that if the 80s epic classic film Goonies was ever reimagined, it should definitely be filmed there. Then, as I traveled deeper, my thoughts went deeper as well...

...Whatever compelled ancient natives to venture into these dark places? It's difficult to comprehend what could have been going through their minds taking first steps here, into the blackness of a cave system armed only with the light of a lit tree branch while wearing the modern-day equivalent of underwear.

The grand entrance to the largest cave system ever mapped: Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky. | Image credit: Jonathan Irish

The rediscovery of the cave is credited to a European hunter named John Houchins, who as legend has it, followed a bear to what is now known as "the grand entrance" somewhere between 1798 and 1802. Then came the settlers, and with them came continued exploration which unearthed the presence of valuable natural resources that helped turn the cave into a money making machine. Slaves were enlisted to mine the resources--the main one being potassium nitrate, a component of gunpowder. It did not take long for the cave owner of the time, Franklin Goring, to realize that the real attraction of the cave was tourism--the wealthy were dying to explore it. Goring enlisted one of his slaves, 17-year-old Stephen Bishop, to learn the system well so that he could guide elite visitors underground. Bishop became enthralled with the caves and learned them so well that he became the go-to expert on subterranean navigation through the depths of Kentucky. Late in his life, he was freed. But he loved Mammoth Cave so much that continued to guide there until his death, his reflections living on and enduring with his legend. He called it "a grand, gloomy and peculiar place."

And he was right--it is a grand, gloomy and peculiar place indeed. More than 400 miles are currently mapped and it is believed that there is double that length yet to explore. And explore it they will. This otherworldly place calls cavers, as well as those involved in research and conservation to Mammoth regularly--to explore, to discover. For those of us visiting under more casual circumstances, it is a wonderful yet vulnerable feeling to be surrounded by Earth and at the mercy of the limestone walls and a sandstone cover that has saved the roof from collapse for millennia.

Stefanie Payne follows Ranger Jackie as he leads the way into the cave. | Image credit: Jonathan Irish

When I snapped out of my daydreams, I had plenty of inquiries for our guide, Ranger Jackie, a true champion of the park. "Hey Jackie! When you tell your wife you are spending your day off in the cave, do you tell her that you are going spelunking?" His reply: "Spelunking? What's that?! No. We go caving." He told us that apart from the abysmal depths of the sea, you will never experience true darkness the way you will in a cave system like Mammoth. To prove it, he led us into one of the darkened trails and turned off his lamp until we were standing in complete blackness. It was not darkness; it was blackness. Once I wrapped my head around that feeling, he lit a match that quickly illuminated the cave and our faces. It was mesmerizing.

It was no season (though outside it was winter), it was no time of day, there was no year, we were not educated or not, or wealthy or poor, young or old, male or female ... we were just humans tucked inside of Earth, at her mercy, on a path that leads to many others not yet explored ... right here in America, land still to be explored for the first time. How amazing is that?

Hiking stick medallions from Mammoth Cave National Park. | Image credit: Stefanie Payne

6 parks down, 53 to go on The Greatest American Road Trip! | Image credit: Stefanie Payne