Below the Surface

Our park ranger, Earl, which is pro­nounced in three syl­la­bles in south-cen­tral Ken­tucky, asks one last time to recon­sid­er this jour­ney if any­one suf­fers from a bad heart, high blood pres­sure, or claus­tro­pho­bia. He waits at the steel door at the base of a sink­hole. On this “Domes and Drip­stones” tour at Mam­moth Cave Nation­al Park, no one objects. We are silent in anticipation.

As the park ranger unlocks and opens the door, the cave emits a blast of icy cold air. With a moment of hes­i­ta­tion, I leave the for­est of leafy green behind and begin the descent into dark­ness. My eyes begin to adjust. Peri­od­ic bat­tery-pow­ered lights illu­mi­nate the cave. Ahead, the guide’s flash­light beams. I grip the met­al tubu­lar rail­ing, moist with humid­i­ty. Here and there, the cave plum­mets into fore­bod­ing chasms. I take each steel step with care.  A hun­dred years back, tourists fol­lowed this same path, but the steps were made then of wood, prone to slipperiness.

Photo: Navin75 ( [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
pho­to by Navin75

In spots, the cave press­es in around me, and I squeeze through pas­sages. Where its ceil­ing drops low, I duck to avoid bash­ing in my fore­head. There is the per­pet­u­al plink, plink, plink of water. It per­co­lates down the sink­hole, carv­ing into sand­stone, it drips from the cave walls into pud­dles, rivulets, and streams that flow down, away, deep­er and deep­er into dark­ness. Our group is silent. We are in a sanc­tu­ary, a place of awe and deep mys­tery where eye­less fish and translu­cent shrimp nav­i­gate the cave streams, where bats have birthed their young for eons, where humans stepped foot 2,000 years ago.

Around us, sta­lag­mites cre­ate tow­er­ing fairy­land cas­tles. Above us, sta­lac­tites appear as ici­cles in var­i­ous hues. Earl reminds us that the last inch formed on each sta­lac­tite took 100 – 300 years, drop of water by drop of water — cav­ernous rooms with a labyrinth of daz­zling for­ma­tions resem­bling cream-col­ored silken drapes, walls of can­died pop­corn, frozen gold­en water­falls, a swish of a many-lay­ered skirt, a cav­ernous dragon’s mouth.

Earl checks his watch. We find our way out of the cave and into the world of trees and sky. The tour con­cludes. But I keep think­ing of the caves and the slow con­stan­cy of change. With the pass­ing of time, new caves form daz­zling worlds while old caves even­tu­al­ly fill in and “die.” Each drop of water, each grain of sand leaves its mark. Vis­it­ing a cave means bear­ing wit­ness to the artistry found in the accu­mu­la­tion of time.

This gives me com­fort. I like to think that each foot­step we take leaves its mark, too, in an ongo­ing colos­sal work of creation.

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