I was amusing myself by listening to the peculiar way the park ranger was explaining tour rules and guidelines to the group gathered around him. In the last 7 days, I had found out that Americans like to talk with a lot of animated expressions and gesturing. They modulate their voice quite often too. I was quietly enjoying his way of talking and the tongue in cheek statements when he announced that it was time the tour begins and we lined up with tickets in our hands.
Random trips are an integral part of my life. In the past, random trips is where I have met friends I would later become close to. Random trips is where I got opportunities to write my own adventure stories and those trips are where I got to see a lot of interesting stuff, that I would not have seen otherwise. So you know, random trips mean a lot to me. When I landed in USA about 9 days back to join a master’s course and found that I have a lot of free time before school starts in which I could tag along with new found friends on a drive to Nashville, it was natural that I would not miss the chance.
Nashville, Tennessee is about 270 miles away from my town Bloomington, Indiana. Highway drive takes about 5 hours. This was my first ever journey on an American highway. It took us only 15 mins to get out of Bloomington and hit the road to Nashville. Unlike Indian road trips, we had a GPS device mounted on the dashboard of the car. We also had google maps to show us the right exit and direction. One hour in the drive, I found myself marveling at the lush greenery on both sides of the road. It was a typical American sight. Smooth tarmac in the middle of green trees running around the entire length of the highway. Sometimes, we would pass by empty fields. But they would also be inevitably ploughed and nicely maintained.
2 hours in the journey and the sight had still not changed a bit. It was beautiful, no doubt. But it was just same all over the place. As my friend described it, it was as if somebody had copied a scenic piece of land and had just kept on pasting in the same piece throughout the journey. In one word, it was nice but monotonous. Or may be I still haven’t left my Indian tendencies behind and haven’t got used to the discipline of the US. I think after first couple of hours, I had started to miss the change of sight that is on offer around every corner on Indian roads.
But there was one attraction for us in the journey – the ability to visit Mammoth cave in Mammoth Cave National Park, which was on the way to Nashville. After entering Kentucky through Louisville, we drove on for another hour. Taking the exit that would lead us in the park, we got on to this even greener stretch of land leading to the tourist center. Once at the center, we wasted no time in buying the tickets and that’s how we got that interesting ranger to guide us in our underground tour.
Mammoth caves are one of the three world heritage sites in USA, other two being Niagara Falls and Grand Canyon. It is world’s largest cave system and more than 400 miles of the system have been explored so far.
Air in the cave is constantly being recirculated by a vacuum like system. Cracks in the cave suck air in from the outside and warm air from the cave is blown out the entrance/exit of the cave. Once you walk up the the cave, within 20-30 feet, you can feel a very strong cold draft. Living up to its name, the cave system is really massive. You get that idea right after entering it.
Path inside the cave is very well maintained and protected from all kinds of dangers. The ranger keeps giving you tidbits of information, mostly history and some science, related to the cave. The cave has been in use since pre-historic times, although there was a long stretch in which nobody used it before it was rediscovered by one of the borthers in a Houchins family. Caves played a decisive role in the war of 1812 between Americans and the British when Mammoth Cave’s saltpeter reserves became significant due to the British blockade of United States’s ports. The blockade starved the American military of saltpeter and therefore gunpowder. As a result, the domestic price of saltpeter rose and production based on nitrates extracted from caves such as Mammoth Cave became more lucrative. Find extensive information on the interesting history of the caves here.
The tour lasted for about an hour, in which we moved from one cave to another. Most were huge and were connected to each other by long passageways. It was an unreal experience for me. Something so big, lying below the ground surface, full of darkness and mysteries- it felt ethereal.
We stopped at various points to listen to the ranger talk about significance of those particular sites. Soon, it was time to return back to the surface. We would have to take the stairs to the Mammoth dome, for doing that. On the way up, we also crossed a couple of bridges. The bridges stretched across pits going down deep below. Stopping in between and peeping over the rails to look down at the pit was one of the highlights of the visit, for me. Unfortunately, light in the cave was too less to click any pictures without using a flash. So I am uploading wikipedia pictures, just so that you would have an idea of where I was!
We came back up with a satisfied smile on the face. The road trip was completely worth this visitation to the caves! Unexpectedly, we had ended up in a very very interesting place!
Rest of the drive to Nashville was uneventful. Our friends lived in the outskirts of the city. As a result, we missed out on any big city sights and instead, took a walk along a scenic path going through the woods along a river. In a day, we had come across two states – from Indiana to Tennessee via Kentucky. Feeling pretty awesome about the spontaneous trip, we returned home to crash on the beds as fast as we could.