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Mammoth Cave - a subterranean stroll through history

(Page 2 of 3)

While rockhounds may enjoy learning the specifics of St. Genevieve Limestone, Girkin Formations, and geology's Tertiary Period, most lay folks will be happy to know that sometime during the Ice Age slightly acidic underground water, rushing toward the Green River across beds of limestone buried beneath an insoluble sandstone cap, created the longest dry caves in the world.

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While most people think of caves as tight, body-squeezing passageways dripping with water and populated by bats and opalescent stalactites, not so Mammoth Cave. Thanks to that sandstone cap, surface water is kept at bay and the underground tunnels sit high and dry. Frozen Niagara is the only park cave dripping with stalactites. (Nonetheless, underground water continues to drain through the deepest part of the cave, and park officials are increasingly concerned about water pollution.)

If you think this sounds dull - like sightseeing in a parking garage - well, you haven't had your cave ''interpreted'' correctly. A rich, mellifluous Kentucky drawl rumbling on about Mr. Houchins chasing a bear into the cave mouth back in the late 1700s can make all the difference. At least it did for me.

Dressed in regimental ranger khaki and brushed felt hat, park intrepreter Lindsay led me, in deck shoes and blue blazer (I'd advise against the blazer and in favor of deck shoes) on my first-ever visit to a cave. We took the Historic Tour. It's one of several available here, and it is true to its name. It's a two-mile, two-hour jaunt over modest hypogeal hill and dale. And a veritable walk through the centuries. First off I learned the mystical origins of the cave's discovery - Mr. Houchins's fateful bear chase - that revealed the only natural entrance to Mammoth Cave. (The others have all been the result of dynamite.) Of course, Pre-Columbian woodland Indians had known about and used the caves for previous decades untold - there is rock-hard anthropological evidence for this - but Houchins was the first white man inside. Or so goes the story, and there are a lot of stories to be told.

Like the one about the cave-mining operation that supplied 60 percent of the all the American gunpowder used in the War of 1812. You can touch the cool rocks worn smooth by the tethered oxen that waited patiently to haul out the cartloads of soil rich in nitrates from bat guano.

Next I learned from Ranger Lindsay that ''the lights do go out, so we always bring a flashlight.'' We are walking through Rotunda - 140 feet underground and one of the largest rooms of the cave - 50 feet high and 60 feet wide and lit, as it happens, by fluorescent fixtures. As if to prove his point, he flips a nearby switch and we are plunged into impenetrable darkness. ''Yikes'' is the word that springs immediately to mind, followed in a moment by the question, ''Who in their right mind would come in here without benefit of General Electric?'' ''Someone who was brave or didn't know very much,'' says my guide in response to this apparently common query.

He lights a cane torch - cotton rags wound around a hickory stick - and flings this native luminary up into a high crevasse. ''That's pulpit rock,'' he says, pointing to the exceptionally craggy stones and flickering shadows. ''In 1835 they held church services in here. Nowadays, somebody on a tour will sing. Sounds good in here.''

''Over there,'' he says, pointing in the direction of what looks like a side street, ''is Devil's Arm Chair.'' It's the site of Jenny Lind's performance. Did she sit in the chair during the performance? ''No, ma'am, I believe she stood,'' Lindsay politely answers. In 1876, Edwin Booth, the actor and brother to John Wilkes Booth, also gave a performance here - Hamlet's ''To be or not to be'' soliloquy. Was Booth here for a centennial celebration? ''No, I believe he had just come to visit the cave. After the assassination he was sort of out of circulation.''