Southern Comfort: Mammoth Cave’s Labyrinths

By Emily:

We went spelunking! We didn’t actually go on our own, but after leaving Nashville (more late), we decided to drive north to Kentucky to visit Mammoth Caves.

Mammoth Caves (Official Site) is the longest series of caves in the world, stretching for over 360 miles. Wow! We only walked through about six of those miles. The first tour we did was the longest tour the park now offers. It is a 4.5 hour, 4.5 mile hike that provides a good background to the caves and allows the walker to learn more about the history of how the caves were discovered and how they were originally explored.  We really enjoyed this tour, walking through some cavernous rooms and some spaces where Rob had to bend in half to make it through. Some of the areas looked like they had a lazy river slowly meandering through the space, and others look like a narrow column of water shoved its way through.

We learned a great deal about the early exploration of the caves on this first tour. Back in the 1800s, slaves led most the spelunking adventures. In a world when blacks were treated as less than human when they were above ground, slaves who acted as tour guides were treated with respect and admiration. Our tour guide was the great, great, great-grandson (?) of one of the most famous slave guides. That history made this magical location even more special, as the guide’s voice reflected reverence for what his ancestor went through.

After a couple of hours above ground, Rob and I headed back under to go on another tour. On this tour, all the lights inside the caves were turned off, and we were given lanterns to carry like the original tours. There were only about 20 people on this tour, making the experience much more intimate. We had another knowledgeable guide. This tour was only about 1.5 miles long, but it went through some neat spaces that we hadn’t seen on the earlier tour. This guide explained to us that the slaves, though they weren’t paid for their labor, were allowed to keep any tips they earned while leading tours. Thus, a few practices came about. One really interesting practice was called candle writing. The slaves would take the dark-sooty candles and write people’s names and the year on the ceiling of the cave. The guide told us that some slaves actually learned their abc’s this way and pointed out how the slaves’ penmanship candlemanship improved over time. We found some of the writing to be quite beautiful.

We really enjoyed our first tour, but we loved the intimacy of the second tour and thought that the caves seemed even more mystical with the limited lighting lanterns can provide and with only handful of voices and footsteps echoing around us.



~ by Emily Page on November 15, 2011.

One Response to “Southern Comfort: Mammoth Cave’s Labyrinths”

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