Mammoth, in Depth

By Ben Brazil
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 17, 2005

Exhalation causes the chest to contract.

Most people do not attach great importance to this fact. But imagine that you are belly-crawling through a 10-inch-tall opening in a cave passageway, 250 feet underground. Your face is flat against the clammy limestone floor, and your legs are frantically trying to force your rib cage through a space where it does not seem to fit.

In this context, the physiology of breathing seems quite important indeed.

I know. In this position during the Wild Cave Tour at Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park, I remembered the advice of my guide: Exhale. The extra centimeters allowed me to squirm forward and continue my crawling tour of the world's longest cave.

With about 365 miles of explored passageways -- and counting -- Mammoth Cave is one of the nation's oldest tourist attractions. It began luring visitors just after the War of 1812, when it was mined for saltpeter, one of the raw materials for gunpowder.

Its charms were obvious: passageways the width of boulevards, underground rivers, towering vertical shafts and concert-hall-size chambers. Often led by slaves, early tours attracted European adventurers, famous actors and even transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, who mentioned the cave in an essay. A national park since 1941, Mammoth ranks with New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns and South Dakota's Jewel Cave among the country's most impressive underground attractions.

I visited the park for five days in early June, ready to rediscover my muscles and uncross my eyes after my last semester of graduate school. I'd never been to Mammoth and had only a murky sense that crawling through its tunnels might be cool.

But wait a second. Can't cave tours be a little, well, hokey? I think of cheesy advertisements on billboards in cow pastures. Fanny-packed families gawking at stalactites. Gift shops with geodes.

The drive to Mammoth does nothing to alleviate these concerns. The interstate exit for the park is guarded by a large, tiger-striped T. rex, an ad for an attraction featuring life-size depictions of dinosaurs. Drive farther toward the cave and you'll pass a variety of miniature golf courses, a wax museum and at least a couple souvenir rock shops -- offering geodes.

But the kitsch ends where the national park begins. Ranger-led tours offer nothing more gimmicky than history and geology, and many involve moderately long walks and hundreds of stairs.

And for those seeking a bit more adventure, there is another option still. But it involves crouching. Then crawling. Then slithering through muddy tunnels like an earthworm. In fact, a week after taking it, I still had the scabs and ruined jeans to prove it -- the park's Wild Cave Tour is no joke.

Mammoth Cave is spectacular, but the national park is more than a monumental hole in the ground.

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