Lanterns and Microbats: A Nighttime Tour of Mammoth Cave

Mammoth Cave NP, KY: August, 2018

Mammoth Cave National Park is the nearest to where I live, just edging out Cuyahoga Valley by minutes, but I had yet to visit. It is not named for the prehistoric elephantine species, but the cave’s position as the world’s largest, though the adjective itself comes from the ice age creatures so in a roundabout way I suppose it is. Most visitors crowd into Cave City or Horse Cave, little tourist towns where you can get hot browns and ride over a rusty go-kart track. Just outside Cave City is the entrance to Dinosaur World, a Jurassic Park-like archway sprawling beneath a massive perched Pterosaur. A forest of similarly sized faux dinos follow the road for a while, and the attraction has never failed to catch my attention each time I travel south past the caves. However, even though I may miss the life-sized model reptiles, I was thrilled when Lauren found a bed and breakfast in the historic center of nearby Glasgow.

Tiny Glasgow wasn’t even near the interstate, but yet US 68 was routed around the city, and several square miles of parking lots and cardboard retail castles inhaled the actual town and spit it out up the road and stealing its identity like a corporate Kirby. Was driving through a small city that much of an imposition that it warranted a bypass? It’s strikingly sad how often people’s tax money is used to pave their own town’s doom. Interstates themselves are necessary encumbrances, but when bypasses suddenly have bypasses the rate of returns must begin to diminish. As such, finding actual Glasgow proved to be difficult even with Lauren’s phone announcing every turn but we finally descended a hill and into an area where the buildings were more than two decades old.

The real town was quite pleasant, laid out around a central square with storefronts on three sides, most of which were occupied if not presently open. The inn sat a block from the square and was brick and of early Victorian vintage. We were the only guests, which made it 25% occupancy and the owner, a middle aged woman with long blond hair and a short brown dog led us to the room. She was called Shelly and she had moved to Glasgow from Arizona to reopen the inn with her sister, neither of which had any connection to the town or Kentucky at all.

“What’s it like living in a place this small knowing nobody?”

“It can get lonely, but the business owners all hang out together.”

There was a group that met at an open mic bar just inside the city limits (dry county otherwise) and most of the local entrepreneurs do that every week. Shelly invited us to check it out but we were tired and would likely just walk around town and then sleep.

The room was clean and cozy, with theater-red drapes hung on two sides, and a windowside nook that occupied the third. The ceiling slanted toward the nook and the wooden beams were exposed, creating a right triangle on the far wall. I did not care for the half dozen dolls around the room, sitting on chairs and dresser tops, looking at me, telling me with their eyes that I better turn around and walk back down the stairs if I knew what was good for me. Lauren sat down on the bed and sighed a good, comfortable sigh so I joined her and it was so perfect that my eyes began to droop before I even completed the action. “Uh oh” I said and fell immediately into a dreamlike, anesthetic sleep. When I woke to the sound of Lauren brushing her teeth in the bathroom, it had been an hour but only felt like seconds. I stood up, turned the dolls around so they faced the wall, and went right back to bed.

“What kind of beer is this?” I asked at Yancey’s Brewery, opened on the main square of Glasgow just a month before our arrival. The light amber, not-quite opaque liquid that once filled my glass was now two-thirds gone, yet I still couldn’t figure out what style of beer it was, too hoppy for a Belgian but there was something different there. The manager wildly misinterpreted my question.

“Believe it or not, it was brewed right here!” he said like a proud father.

He walked away before I could clarify the question, but it was nice to be in a place where craft beer was still a fascinating concept. We had an evening tour scheduled of the caves and so dined in midafternoon, a time where restaurant managers tend to skulk around out of boredom. Both local businesses we had visited so far were brand new, having opened or reopened that summer, but we finished our early dinner and headed off to see one that had been there for millennia.

The tour began outdoors, and we walked downhill on a paved trail behind a middle aged couple who were frantically searching through each other’s backpacks.  The guy, a larger fellow in a black Led Zeppelin tee shirt, handed an aerosol bottle to his wife who began spraying him with it as he writhed around in a bit of a panic. They then swapped positions and she began to dance.  I couldn’t tell if it was bug spray or sunscreen, but seeing as we were about to head into a cave, the former would be a fantastic waste of time and the latter too idiotic to fathom.  Their fuss allowed us to catch up to them and a distinct smell of about fifty spritzes of Off filled the air and I took minor solace in the fact that we would be sharing a tour with the reproachable type of buffoon instead of the more worrisome sort.  Still, after nearly suffocating from their half-bottle output, Lauren and I picked up the pace and decided they best be avoided.

The ranger’s name was Jackie and looked to be younger than us, an occurrence that has become more common yet no less jarring as I neared my fourth decade. At the cave’s entrance she discussed the history of how it was discovered which was interesting to me at the time but less so now as I can’t remember the details, and we then picked out our lanterns.  Not everybody got one, so after Lauren was given a lantern I passed them up and let the man with the Zeppelin shirt take the last one and he looked quite happy.  We followed Jackie down a large flight of stairs and she asked us a few basic questions. 

“Why is it called Mammoth Cave?”, “Does anybody know how many miles the cave has all together?” Zeppelin made an awful joke as the answer to one of these questions and I immediately regretted letting him have the last lantern.

Nobody likes the funny guy on a tour.  Picture yourself, taking in the splendor of a natural wonder in silence, or listening intently to a story the ranger is telling and then getting an elbow to your left rib from a guy you met twenty minutes ago followed by a giggle and a “So how much do you think it would cost to get a pizza delivered down here?”  The worst part is that brief moment where he looks at you expectantly and you have to decide between polite laughter and ignoring him and continuing what you were doing.  You really want to make this go away so you think you’ll give it to him, just this once, not a howling guffaw but a break-the-awkwardness little chuckle.  But you must hold back, even the slightest of smirks and you’re done for.  You’re now his buddy and the target for any and all attempts at humor for the rest of the tour.  As much as it hurts, you must ignore.  It’s a tough moment but you only have to do it once before he moves on to somebody else. 

I was thankful we decided to take the lantern tour.  Jackie pointed out all the lights that would normally be on for all other tours and explained that the first several miles of the cave are well lit most of the time, which I felt would make the cave seem more like a warehouse or an empty shopping mall. It was not a particularly strenuous tour, but there were a few steep staircases up to rooms where the taller folks had to duck. Jackie reminded us not to touch the drooping stalactites as tempting as it would be to do so, and that the stalagmites, piled up like termite mounds or in spiky groups like the Disney Castle, were not for leaning against. Lauren and I always found ourselves near the front of the tour, and she and the ranger held out their lanterns to avoid the newer growing cave formations, which were rounded like a reverse dimple and at an easily trippable six inches high.

Well into the cave was a stone building that used to be the nation’s first tuberculosis hospital. We rounded a bend and in front of us was the abandoned rooms where patients idled away in hopes that the crisp subterranean air would cure their consumption, occasionally startling tourists with their pale spectral appearances and leading to ghost stories to be told upon resurfacing. Even the cave’s saltpeter miners, their occupation implying they were not typically a cowardly lot, avoided this area due to its spooky vibe.

The highlight was in a large open chamber where Jackie instructed us to douse our lanterns and experience what true quiet darkness would be inside the cave. Though not novel to Mammoth Cave, I always enjoy this part of cave tours. As we did so, she walked away with her own lantern and we watched the flickering light squeeze its way around a curve and then disappear like a sudden sunset. All was silent as we took in the wide-eyed vantablack, and I realized how bizarre it is to blink and see nothing change. After a moment, the peace was broken by someone in the group, who I could only assume was funny guy, flicking his cheek to make it sound like a dripping stalactite. Drip. Drip. Giggle. Drip. The experience was shattered and before long Jackie’s light began to reemerge from the opposite direction it had gone, another solar quality brought to us by the intersecting and often circular paths of Mammoth Cave.

“Surprised we didn’t see any bats.” I muttered as we approached the cave’s exit.  Within seconds, a small furry winged thing flew over the group.  Much smaller than any other bat I had seen, its wingspan well less than a foot.  The ranger called it a Microbat and told us that we probably had walked past plenty on the tour and didn’t notice because they are no bigger than your thumb when curled up and dangling.  The creature doubled back, lower to the ground this time and headed unswerving towards our group. Lauren threw her hands to block it and I heard a smack. 

“Did that hit you?”

I was hoping the lantern light wouldn’t reveal a face full of bat scratches. 

“No. But it was close.”

The smack turned out to be Lauren’s hands hitting her own face for cover while the bat had darted to the side at the last moment, missing her right ear by inches.  She felt the rustle of its wings on her hair but fortunately there was no contact, as a waiting room expecting a rabies shot was not the way we wanted to spend our last night of the trip.

Leaving the cave was like walking into a sauna, our bodies already accustomed to the cool, dry air. Nighttime fog lay along the woods like a weighted blanket, and walking up the same paved trail that we descended earlier was made much more difficult by the chewy August heat. A bard owl hooted from somewhere above and silver dollar-sized spiders weaved umbrellas between thick trees just feet from the trail. The bed at the inn was even more comfortable upon return, something I had not thought possible, but with cave-like air being blown in from a vent in the wall and rafters like stalactites hanging from the ceiling, we fell into yet another wonderful sleep.

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