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Mammoth Cave - a subterranean stroll through history

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We stroll on down Broadway Avenue, the largest passageway in the cave. It becomes Gothic Avenue, where, I am told, weddings were held during the peak of cave popularity, right after the Civil War. As time went on, other caves opened up, which is more than can be said for our next encounter - Fat Man's Misery - a belly-scraping passageway in the cave which children apparently love but adults apparently do not. ''Sometimes people do get stuck in here,'' Lindsay says, pushing on through the curving limestone.

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''Fat Man's Misery'' is followed by, what else, ''Tall Man's Misery'' - a footpath roofed by a particularly low-slung ceiling. This mercifully opens into the soaring, dome-shaped Great Relief Hall. It's apparently named for its welcome height, but today it includes restrooms and a drinking fountain.

We are working our way gradually downward and also back toward the mouth of the cave. ''There are 294 miles of connected cave, but no one as far as I know has ever walked the whole way,'' says Ranger Lindsay, striding on past something called ''Bottomless Pit.'' It is possible to walk a good four miles on the strenuous ''Half Day Tour.'' This jaunt takes the intrepid by such enticingly named cave formations as the Frozen Niagara, Grand Central Station, Grand Canyon , Rock of Gibraltar. ''Things were labeled with names people might be familiar with,'' Lindsay explains.

There is also a stop for lunch at the underground cafeteria - the Snowball Dining Room, named for the white, gypsum-encrusted ceiling - before continuing on past the Black Hole of Calcutta, Ole Bull's Concert Hall, Shakespeare's Galleries, Sahara Desert, and eventually emerging, like some marathon mole, at the Historic Entrance.

I am almost tempted. I'd like to catch a peak at the eyeless fish, first discovered in 1842 in the underground Echo River, and any of the 300 other species of cave flora and fauna discovered here. But the faint stirrings of a cool breeze signaled our approach to the entrance.

Blinking in the pale afternoon light, we emerged in what seemed a leafy paradise after the dim, rocky recesses of the cave. It was a feeling like no other I had ever encountered. I felt as if I'd crawled inside my planet - and not simply walked on its back. That I had marched down to the earth's limestone innards and found them rich with their own history as well as the paths of men. Even the hickory trees, wagging in the breeze, looked better for this journey.

I wondered if Jenny Lind and Edwin Booth or even the Hoosier brothers had felt the same way. Ranger Lindsay seemed to read my thoughts.

''I'd rather be working in the cave than outside,'' he said, squinting into the Kentucky sun. '' 'Cause when you're home you can have all the outside you want. But you can never get all the cave you want.''

Practical advice:

Mammoth National Cave Park is about 80 miles south of Louisville on I-65, near Cave City. With more than 400,000 visitors a year - 60 percent arrive in June, July, and August - reservations are recommended and are available through Ticketron. A visitor center is open daily 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. in summer and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in winter. Tours, leaving the center every 15 or 20 minutes, vary in length and price and demand good walking shoes and a willingness to occasionally scramble. One tour has been designed for those in wheelchairs.

For the nature buff and serious hiker, the 52,000 surface acres provide an alternative to spelunking. They deserve exploring. There are numerous campgrounds and hotels in and near the park.

For reservations and information write Superintendent, Mammoth Cave National Park, Mammoth Cave, Ky. 42259, or phone (502) 758-2328.