Our park ranger, Earl, which is pronounced in three syllables in south-central Kentucky, asks one last time to reconsider this journey if anyone suffers from a bad heart, high blood pressure, or claustrophobia. He waits at the steel door at the base of a sinkhole. On this “Domes and Dripstones” tour at Mammoth Cave National Park, no one objects. We are silent in anticipation.
As the park ranger unlocks and opens the door, the cave emits a blast of icy cold air. With a moment of hesitation, I leave the forest of leafy green behind and begin the descent into darkness. My eyes begin to adjust. Periodic battery-powered lights illuminate the cave. Ahead, the guide’s flashlight beams. I grip the metal tubular railing, moist with humidity. Here and there, the cave plummets into foreboding chasms. I take each steel step with care. A hundred years back, tourists followed this same path, but the steps were made then of wood, prone to slipperiness.
In spots, the cave presses in around me, and I squeeze through passages. Where its ceiling drops low, I duck to avoid bashing in my forehead. There is the perpetual plink, plink, plink of water. It percolates down the sinkhole, carving into sandstone, it drips from the cave walls into puddles, rivulets, and streams that flow down, away, deeper and deeper into darkness. Our group is silent. We are in a sanctuary, a place of awe and deep mystery where eyeless fish and translucent shrimp navigate the cave streams, where bats have birthed their young for eons, where humans stepped foot 2,000 years ago.
Around us, stalagmites create towering fairyland castles. Above us, stalactites appear as icicles in various hues. Earl reminds us that the last inch formed on each stalactite took 100-300 years, drop of water by drop of water—cavernous rooms with a labyrinth of dazzling formations resembling cream-colored silken drapes, walls of candied popcorn, frozen golden waterfalls, a swish of a many-layered skirt, a cavernous dragon’s mouth.
Earl checks his watch. We find our way out of the cave and into the world of trees and sky. The tour concludes. But I keep thinking of the caves and the slow constancy of change. With the passing of time, new caves form dazzling worlds while old caves eventually fill in and “die.” Each drop of water, each grain of sand leaves its mark. Visiting a cave means bearing witness to the artistry found in the accumulation of time.
This gives me comfort. I like to think that each footstep we take leaves its mark, too, in an ongoing colossal work of creation.
This article originally appeared in Bookology Magazine, September 15, 2016.