We paid a visit to Mammoth Cave National Park Friday. That was the first day the park was fully operational after that ridiculous government shutdown. I figured there would be nobody at the park. I was wrong. It was busy.
When we hit a National Park I usually do a lot of homework on what to see, where to go, and what do these things cost. But since we’re so close, and will be for another nine weeks, I had done next to nothing. It turns out that every underground tour at Mammoth Cave (who wants an above ground tour?) is guided by park rangers, and every tour comes with its own price tag. America the Beautiful gets you into the park free of charge, but unless all you want to do is ride the Green River ferry and leaf peep, you will pay. Furthermore, you can only visit a cave exactly when your paid-for tour departs.
We toured the Great Onyx Cave within the bounds of Mammoth Cave National Park, and in the process learned that we had not yet seen any part of Mammoth Cave. Spelunkers are fairly confident that there is no connection between the two cave systems. 60 years ago Onyx Cave was to Mammoth Cave as Rock City is to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park: one is a purely commercial venture while the other’s protected as a national treasure. Today Onyx is part of the NP, but they only tour it the old fashioned way.
At Great Onyx we found ourselves carrying Coleman lanterns a half a mile into the earth examining a cave whose owner used its proximity to the National Park to sell meals, lodging, and tickets as though it were part of the national park. It was fraud, but an interesting fraud, much better than snake oil, and way better’n cod liver oil with vodka. We learned about stalactites and stalagmites, their rates of growth, and oddities such as helictites. It was chilly and damp, very dark, and eventually, scary.
I began to wonder about seismic activity moments before our ranger repeated one of the slogans handed down from the guides way back in the cave’s for-profit days: “If the roof caves in, you know you can’t be buried deeper or cheaper.”
We are over a hundred feet underground. This could happen. Is it just me, or is cremation more appealing?