Friday, March 30, 2018

At Mammoth Cave National Park: Two Adults, Two Kids, and One Flashlight on a Four-Hour Tour

I think that the kids were looking forward to our time at Mammoth Cave National Park more than they were our time in Nashville--my personal recipe for happy kids is to put them in the woods and add plenty of snacks.

And all the caves added just the right element of mystery and discovery to get them down that last half-mile of trail, each and every time.

Well, except for the last time. I'll tell you about that in a bit.

Mammoth Cave National Park is gorgeous, looking much like the most well-preserved parts of our own native South-Central Indiana. And indeed, we've got caves, too, in South-Central Indiana, but none like these.

The caves at Mammoth Cave are closed except by booked tour, and frustratingly, most of them don't even have tours to book, but even hiking out to see their entrances is interesting, and we took several hikes like that.

Here, for instance, is the original entrance used for Mammoth Cave tours:

Here's the entrance and overlook of Dixon Cave:

It was still ridiculously cold on this day, and it seemed to sap the kids' energy quite a bit later on--especially Syd, who somehow managed to get her feet wet every single time we hiked--but as you can see, kids who complain about plans for going on a hike generally, if you don't point this out, change their tunes as soon as you've put them in the woods:

See? Happy hikers, and only one of them has wet feet!

We spent a day and a half at Mammoth Cave, all total. On the first day, we went on a few hikes on our own, explored the museum and visitor's center, and the kids, of COURSE, earned their Junior Ranger badges: 

On our second day at the park, we were up early, ready for our four-hour cave tour. I had booked us the Grand Avenue tour--it is described as being physically demanding, something that I figured was at least somewhat of an exaggeration, to put off sedentary people who would struggle with four miles of walking.

It was not an exaggeration. It was an awesome tour, and it was exhausting and I thought that I might die. Also, I need new hiking boots, because it turns out that going up and down giant, slick, damp rock slopes in sneakers is a terrrrrible idea, and I made it only by clinging to the railing and hauling myself to safety each time. 

As you might imagine, a cave is also a terrible place to take photos. The lighting is dim, obviously, when there's lighting at all, and when they do light up features they use some sort of horrible, orange bulbs. Here's about all I got from the trip--the rest of the experience just has to be lived and remembered without photographic aid!

This is an artificial entrance to the cave system, made with dynamite.
historic graffiti, made with candle soot
gypsum flowers
one of the few areas of the cave system that boast stalactites and stalagmites
I survived! Also, we finally have some photographic evidence of my presence on this vacation.
We had to disinfect our shoes on the way out, because White-Nose Syndrome is a terrible disease.
 So on this visit, I developed a new obsession. The visitor's center in the museum had half of one display that discussed a guy named Floyd Collins. Before Mammoth Cave National Park was formed (fun fact: much of the land for the park was seized by means of Eminent Domain, something that we discussed endlessly. On the one hand, I would be soooo sorry if I owned this gorgeous piece of property, with a cave on it even, and the government took it away from me just because it was so pretty. But on the other hand, that is, of course, the best way to preserve and protect that land, and to provide a means for it to be safely explored. But back on that first hand, someone's land had to have been just turned into the parking lot for the visitor's center, and that would have suuuuuuucked!!!!!), private citizens owned pieces of the land, and if they had a cave entrance on their property, they could make money by offering private cave tours.

Floyd Collins was one such guy. His family property included Crystal Cave, and he ran cave tours there, except that back in the day, Crystal Cave was off the beaten path (it actually still is, as you'll soon see!), and he didn't get enough people wanting to go so far out of their way just to see one more cave.

Floyd found another property owner, this time on the beaten path, and he convinced that property owner to let him explore a likely-looking cave on that property. If it panned out, they were going to cut a deal.

It did not pan out.

Crawling his way back towards the entrance to Sand Cave, as he called it, Collins shifted a rock, which fell on his foot and trapped it. He was squeezed so tightly that he couldn't reach his foot to free it, and when rescuers finally arrived, nobody else could free him, either. When they tried, there was a cave-in and then they couldn't even reach him.

Rescuers worked to find and free Collins for weeks, as the area around the site turned into an absolute circus--seriously, a circus. People brought their kids. Vendors sold snacks. It was the third most popular news story between the two world wars, and the only two more popular news stories were Charles Lindburgh's flight and then the abduction of his child.

Collins had died by the time rescuers were finally able to reach him, and then there was a whole other circus involving how and when to recover his body. Eventually it was, and he was buried on his family property.

The story does not end there! Later, the family moved, selling the property to another private owner. That guy reopened Crystal Cave to tours, and you know what else he did?


And apparently, Collins' family couldn't do anything about it, because they'd left his body behind with their property.

He's not still there. Eventually, he was reburied in a nearby cemetery--a fact that I didn't know at the time, or you'd be seeing photos of that, too.

As it is, I managed to drag my family everywhere else that I could find that was connected to Floyd Collins. Here is our hike to see the opening of Sand Cave:

And here's the crazier hike. The former Collins property is now on the grounds of the national park, and the park map clearly showed a 2-mile hiking trail leading to Floyd Collins' actual house. The map showed that there was a gate in front of the trail, though, so Matt double-checked our route with a park ranger, who assured him that it was open.

Friends, I am not sure if she was correct.

We dodged the gate, then walked down what must have been the road that tourists drove to visit the Collins property. It was absolutely abandoned, vacant and unvisited, if the trees fallen across the road were evidence that even park rangers didn't come here.

Mind you, this was the same day that we'd already hiked to the Sand Cave opening, AND done that strenuous four-hour tour, and now I was asking the kids to hike for four more miles into the middle of the woods in the bitter cold, down a trail that clearly didn't have the same upkeep as the rest of the park. We were likely walking to our deaths, Will explained, and refused to continue. Mad with desire to see the Collins property, I abandoned my child to the forest and walked on.

Eventually, the rest of us did happen upon signs of civilization, of a sort:

The site held up, but didn't show any more evidence that this was a place that people actually went. The houses were all unlocked, so of course we poked around them, and Matt turned up a newspaper from the 1950s.


Not being able to leave well enough alone, I left Matt and Syd to exploring the houses and I found a narrow trail that led down the hill. The remains of fence posts and stone steps, as well as a large planting of daffodils at the bottom of the hill, told me that I was on the right track:

And indeed, at the bottom of that hill I found the entrance to Crystal Cave:

I would LOVE to tour it, but it's not on the list of available tours.

About that time, just when the spookiness of being all alone in the middle of nowhere, nothing but abandoned houses and abandoned caves around us and the gloomy sky above us, I remembered that I had seen a truck parked on the side of the road about a mile from the area where we'd parked to hike in here. Why would a truck not park in the designated parking area, unless it was to hide evidence that they were there? Why would someone wander the woods not on a designated trail, unless it was to sneak up on someone? I had left my child at least a mile back, out of shouting distance, all alone on an abandoned trail in the middle of the woods. We didn't even have cell service. What if that truck driver found her and snatched her? What if she got scared by someone and left the trail?

Funny that even all alone in the middle of a national park, my greatest fear was other people.

Anyway, I freaked out, we quick-time marched our way back down the trail, Syd and I doing our special family call every now and then, then listening and me freaking out some more, until we finally heard Will call back, and there she was over the next hill. She was fine, of course, but my nerves were shot, and I was more than ready to leave Floyd Collins to lie and drive on to Nashville.

Except that I didn't, of course. Before the night was over I had put this book about Floyd Collins on hold at my local library, and it was ready and waiting for me when we got home later that week.

And a musical.

And oh, my lord, the Floyd Collins musical is being performed next month FOUR HOURS FROM HERE!!! That would surely be the most ridiculous weekend road trip that I've ever planned, right?

I should do it though, right? I mean, RIGHT?!?

Anyway... caves are one of our favorite science and geography subjects that we've explored in our homeschool, so if you're interested in studying caves, too, then 1) you should totally go to Mammoth Cave, and 2) here are some of our other favorite resources:

P.S. Like resources? You should follow my Craft Knife Facebook page, as there are lots more there!

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