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Journey into the underworld

 

How to be a Mammoth caver

 Every time I visit Mammoth Cave, I’m reminded why it’s a national park and one of our nation’s treasures. It’s the world’s longest known cave system—and no one knows where it ends. About 405 miles have been mapped and it just keeps going, like a plate of spaghetti beneath the surface.

Passageways are both gigantic and adorned with beautiful stalactites and stalagmites of every size. Other weird formations are called “soda straws,” “gypsum flowers,” and “cave bacon.”

I can no longer recall how many times I’ve peered down into  “Bottomless Pit” or gazed up at “Mammoth Dome.” But one day, while on one of these tours, I noticed a handful of folks with hard hats and headlamps emerging from a mysterious dark hole alongside the main route—and that aroused this old Mammoth Caver’s adventurous spirit.  I had to find out more.

They were part of the Wild Cave Tour, a 5-mile-long, adrenalin-rushing underworld journey.  The park service describes the Wild Cave Tour this way: “Face the darkness—and the challenge. Journey through some of the starkly beautiful yet physically demanding ‘wild’ areas of the cave.” That was all I needed to hear.

I made my reservations and off I went. The park service provides coveralls, hard hats, and headlamps, but you’ve got to remember to bring your own hiking boots.

The trek is guided, and with a small number of cavers per tour, it’s a lot more personal. However, it is not for the faint of heart and especially not for people with claustrophobia.

I remember narrow passageways nicknamed “the birth canal,” and “bare hole,” aptly named because the squeeze is so narrow cavers have been de-clothed while trying to wiggle their way through it. In fact, people with chest or waist sizes larger than 42 inches are not even allowed on the tour.

Although you’ll walk, stoop, and climb too, it was those tiny squeezes that finally got my full attention. As I pushed and pulled face-up through a hole only 9 inches high, it dawned on me that countless tons of limestone were just a couple inches from my nose.

The good news is the park service is not going to leave you down there. You will be pulled through those holes, no matter what.

So unforgettable was the Wild Cave Tour that I’ll have to put it among the top adventures of my life anywhere in America—and this place is right in our own backyard.

Reservations are required, and you should make them well ahead of time. Call (877) 444-6777 or go to recreation.gov

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