Can you describe a cave as beautiful? They're dark with rough edges and sharp formations pointing up and down like a set of skinny teeth and it's impossible to tell how many bats might be laying in wait in their darkest corners. Perhaps worst of all caves are moist. Brush your hand across the slick walls and you'll feel the moisture sticking to your fingertips. It hardly seems like a place you would call beautiful, but that's the word I found in every description of Mammoth Cave National Park. Beautiful stalactites, beautiful and murky rivers, beautiful formations. I wasn't sure, but I was on my way to see for myself.
"Why Kentucky?" just about everyone had asked me when I told them about my upcoming trip. "They have caves," I'd say explaining Mammoth Cave, the world's largest cave system and Kentucky's little known natural wonder. 400 miles of linked passages made up the park and those are just the rooms that have been discovered and charted. Looking at the cave map was not like looking at any map I had seen before. Two-dimensions couldn't accurately portray the passages and chambers that flowed out in all directions like veins suspended in zero-gravity. Though it's not likely the ancient mammoths every set one wooly foot in the cave, its name was justified.
As we walked through the cave, yellow lights illuminated the rocks and in the more precarious spots we held on to metal bars for stability. The caves had been outfitted for the utmost safety of the visitor and for good reason. Though we passed through many chambers with smooth and even floors, we came across plenty of precarious drops and dark abysses and I felt thankful for the rails and our guide leading the party ahead.
As the lights cast shadows on the formations, I saw what was so beautiful about them. They were the fossils of rain drops--moving water cast in stone. In fact the whole cave was a monument to the underground rivers that once cut through Kentucky's limestone valley, carving out the caves we were now standing in. I've felt small next to oceans and mountains before, but nothing compared to this feeling as I stood 200 meters deep inside the earth's crust, inside the skeleton of a once great river. And when our guide turned off the lights, for just a moment, we experienced the calm dark quiet of the underground. We heard nothing but each other's breath and the distant dripping of water becoming stone. It was what it was--beautiful.