I cave in to tradition again

A fine line might separate rut from tradition, and I think my son and I crossed one such boundary this past weekend. This is the sixth year running that we've booked lodgings at Mammoth Cave National Park for his birthday, a pricy trip I've offered annually in lieu of wrapped gifts - and one he's never refused.

Each year a pal is welcome to come along, and as it has happened it has always been Dan, a buddy in a million, with whom I'm on a middle-name basis. What I mean is I can bark "Daniel Scott!" at him just as I "Timothy Matthew!" my own son when I want to put a stop to something. And Dan has felt free to roll his eyes along with Tim.

The boys have matured from sixth-graders to high school juniors since we began the Mammoth Cave, Ky., tradition. Fortunately the cave lives up to its, and the town's, name, and we've repeated the same underground tours only by choice, not lack of options.

When they were younger, the boys so enjoyed the four- mile "Grand Avenue" tour - complete with lunch stop in the deep underground cafeteria - that we repeated it twice. This time we opted for the "Violet City Tour," a taste of old-time cave exploration with kerosene lanterns, along different trails lacking electric lighting.

I found it enchanting. Tim and Dan, I noted, kept checking their watches in the flickering illumination as we all tramped along the dirt paths of the snaking passages. This was not the first sign of disconnect.

Earlier in the day they had discovered - somewhat to their own amazement, I think - that the tourist attractions outside the park no longer quickened their pulses.

In past years, they'd worked a ridge-top go-cart for all it was worth, as I enjoyed the vista of the soft Kentucky spring unfolding in the valley below us. A chairlift had transported us all to the next peak, and we'd raced down the Alpine Slide over and over until our funds for such things were exhausted. Together we had haunted the local shops featuring everything from hillbilly calendars and local geodes to T-shirts and trinkets made in China and stamped with Kentuckiana. Back in the park, the boys would hit the wooded trails looping around the sinkholes and old guides' cemetery. They'd come back wild-eyed, replete with stories, sweaty, and marvelously tick-infested. As they took turns showering, I would shake their clothes out from the room's patio.

Yet, by last year they'd already turned a corner. Tim began to browse the tourist shops not for himself, but for his girlfriend. Dan's head began to bump the ceiling along the low passages of the cave tours. I had long since given up homework patrol, which one year delayed their trip to the go-carts until after each had written assigned essays on the patio.

And tonight, they are off on their own in my car, with whatever funds that remain between them. Feeling somewhere between free and abandoned, I hiked along one of the wooded trails we once traversed as a threesome to the big sinkhole above one of Mammoth Cave's impressive dome rooms.

Even before leaving our home in Indiana, I knew this would be our last birthday trip here. Tim and Dan do not yet view the past six years with the nostalgia I do. Certainly both prefer their real-life liberating transport tonight to the go-cart oval they once found so complete in itself.

In the cave, Tim's hand had not sought mine during the traditional lights-out experience of utter, utter darkness. But his large forearm had languidly rested on my shoulder once or twice as we walked along behind our guide, lanterns swinging.

And as I walked around the huge wooded depression and thought about the rich, intricate world of passages below, it all seemed somehow right. You can't always connect inner and outer topographies as easily as you can in cave country. With boys on the cusp of manhood, it's all but impossible to know what deep down within them shapes their behavior and fuels their enthusiasms. I do know that it wasn't the cave or the rides this year. The next time either Tim or Dan returns here it might be with their own sons or daughters. And then the tours and trails and go-carts may just come alive for them again.

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