Mammoth Cave is the only national park in Kentucky. It's also the largest known cave system on Earth.
It unspools for over 405 known miles of passageways. It’s twice as long as the second longest cave system in the world, a series of underwater caverns in Mexico. While explorers have mapped this length, the subterranean systems are still vastly unexplored with each new tunnel leading to another new tunnel. According to explorers, there is “no end in sight.”
The caves below Kentucky began forming over ten million years ago.
In an assembly during third grade, a park ranger came into my gymnasium in Alvaton Elementary School, a small county brick building surrounded by rural neighborhoods, ponds, narrow two lane roads, and farmland. His shiny leather boots squeaked across the shiny yellow floor. He clicked through a slideshow of caves, and he told us about the karst system: how water had spent a millenia seeping through limestone rock until it formed openings underground.
We knew these as sinkholes. They were strewn across the landscape like horse chestnuts. Everyone’s backyard had a sinkhole. None were roped off. Kids could just tell by the slope of the ground, the shortness of a tree. The park ranger showed us photos of cave crickets, eyeless cave shrimp, bats.
On Sunday, I led two close friends through the woodlands and creeks that carpet the roof of Mammoth Cave. We hiked from the Maple Springs parking lot (via the Maple Springs Trail) to the Big Hollow Trail North Loop. It was about 7.5 miles of fairly flat hiking through a forest just waking back up to spring with clusters of daffodils and tiny buds appearing on oaks and maples.
Afterwards, we ate at the Blue Holler Cafe, a German-American hybrid.
The story on the back of the menu goes like this: a German man from Bavaria had always dreamed of moving to America. Then, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. He and his wife though, now or never. They moved to Kentucky, eventually settling into south central Kentucky and purchasing rental properties in Mammoth Cave. His cancer miraculously cleared up. They learned English. Their neighbors begged them to open a restaurant. They founded Blue Holler, and inside its log cabin-facade they decorated with old German mountaineering outfits, beer steins, lassos, and photos of James Dean. They serve giant pretzels imported directly from the motherland (with three types of mustard), schnitzel, spaetzle, alongside American favorites barbecque, baked potatoes, hamburgers, and green beans. It's an odd, perfect place.
We only had the afternoon -- a couple hours for hiking, a couple more for eating, all told about four hours for catching up. Next time, we'll splurge for a cave tour.
Mostly because of James Baker Hall. He's a Kentucky writer, who was once asked, on a radio show: Why are there so many great poets from Kentucky?
It’s in the caves, Hall said. It’s all underground.