Mammoth Fail in Mammoth Cave

“Those had been the toughest months, anyhow—the last months of the divorce...Could I have survived myself, by myself? I don’t know. That’s the thing about human life—there’s no control group, no way to ever know how any of us would have turned out if any variables had been changed.”

–Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love, 52

“We are pilgrims on a journey.

Some of us are ready to deviate from the safety of the well-marked highways and byways.

We are pilgrims on a journey. ...

But we never journey alone.”

–Trinity Presbyterian Church, Indianola, IA, Call to Worship, 8.7.2016

Four months before I went to Mammoth Cave National Park, I left North Carolina and moved home. It was about a month prior to my originally planned moving date, and I was going alone.

I was getting divorced. I was moving back in with my parents. At 25, I was going back to living at home after being mostly independent for five years. The word "divorce" and all its forms sound bad coming out of mouth. I’m getting divorced. I’m a divorcee. I have to file for divorce. I’ll have a divorce decree. Failing. Failed. Failure.

So when I planned my Mammoth Cave trip, I did it on a whim of “I need to do something with my life.” I purchased Exploring Mammoth Cave National Park by John Molloy—a Falcon Guide book—packed my car, and left with a full tank of gas. All I knew about the park was that it was a damn big cave in Kentucky. I pre-purchased a ticket for the 3-hour, 3-mile Violet City Tour—led by lantern night out of nostalgia for the old ways of exploring the cave.

(When I sat down at a coffee shop in St. Louis, MO on 8.5.16 to write down all that I had learned on the tour, it came out like the stories I used to write in second grade: faster than my hands could type. But after much editing, my understanding of the history of Mammoth Cave National Park is as follows.)

African American slaves were the first cave tour guides. They explored by the light of pig’s oil lanterns, which produced a mere flicker of light in the dark depths of the mammoth cave. Stephen Bishop—one of the more well-known first guides—was the first person to cross the Bottomless Pit (a place whose name is mostly self-explanatory). He took wealthy white people on tours and made money selling the creation of “stars” in the starlight room, creations of state “monuments” made of stones and a placard, and writing visitors’ names in candle smoke. The latter is also how Bishop learned to read and write—in three languages by the end of his life. He was working to buy his own freedom. The flat rock paths the slave guides like Stephen Bishop used to guide white folks through the cave are still there, stuck in time with the candle smoke names and blackened gypsum burned into the ceiling of the cave.

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Our guide walking on one of the old trails through the cave once used by Stephen Bishop and other guides. These trails were used by all visitors until FDR's CCC boys made crushed rock trails that were more suitable to heavy traffic.

Before Bishop and other first guides took people on tours of the cave, African American slaves were forced to work in the cave extracting nitrites from the dirt to make into black gun powder during the War of 1812. The coffee-like filtration system mine—with “pipes” made of hollowed out tulip poplar trees and connected with a hot metal hoop that contracted as it cooled to make the pipes water tight—looks like it could be back in working order immediately should another need for the production of black gun powder arise. A constant 54-degree temperature and a lack of decomposing bacteria mean what originated in or was taken in but not out of the cave stayed and will remain there forever.

That includes long-dead first human explorers of the cave. Geologists and archeologists estimate that there may have once been a few hundred early Indian people living or frequenting the cave as many as 5,000 years ago. They have as evidence of their presence cane reed torches, pictographs, crude tools, moccasins, and perfectly preserved bodies. There are bodies buried in the cave entrance, reburied in the cave after being extracted by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCCs) or a modern explorer, or “discovered” but left in their stone and stagnant air tombs exactly as they were placed there by their people thousands of years ago. My ranger guide told us we had walked right past where one of the found bodies was located, but he was “not legally allowed to point that out.”

When one perfectly preserved ancient Native American corpse was found in the cave by the CCCs, in what I would call true “American fashion,” they hauled the 2,500-plus-year-old man out of the cave and put him on display. I remembered what Ari Kelman said in Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek about the bones of native people at the Sand Creek Massacre site being removed (read: “desecrated”) so that scientists could study the effect of firearms on human bone. Like at Sand Creek, Native tribes from the Mammoth Cave region fought the government for the right to remove the body from public gawking and re-entomb their ancestor in the cave.

The tour was long, dark, and moderately strenuous, but the ranger was the most knowledgeable ranger I’d had in a park so far. He was a retired geology and biology teacher who had worked at the park for 25 years. He answered every question from the group as if he had studied them ahead of time and established a charismatic answer to each one—despite the one group member who seemed determined to stump the ranger while showing himself to be intellectually superior. He wasn’t.

The same guy asked how the archeologists could possibly think the native people risked life and limb for gypsum powder, which archeologists assume the early native people used for face paint. “It seems like a worthless thing to risk your life for,” he said. He was wearing an army shirt. The ranger said he couldn’t possibly have any way of knowing why they would risk their lives for the harvest of the mineral. (Duh, dude. He can’t read the minds of 5,000-year-dead people.) But when I learned that one of the tribes to historically occupy the lands surrounding Mammoth Cave was the Black Feet, I had to stop myself from spouting an argument defending the idea that the harvest of gypsum powder to use in face paint could in fact be worth the loss of life to an ancient Black Feet Indian because of what historians know to be true of the warrior culture of the Black Feet.

In divinity school, in a class called Ethics and Native America: American Indian Life and Literature, I read the novel Fools Crow by James Welch, a member of the Black Feet Indian nation. Welch illustrates the world of the Black Feet nation in the nineteenth century as a culture governed by war with other native tribes and, just beginning in the timeline of the novel, white settlers. For the Black Feet, Crow, Sioux, etc., face paint is part of a warriors “medicine,” a bundle of artifacts and pieces of clothing that are culturally, personally, historically, or experientially meaningful to the warrior and/or the warrior’s tribe. Warriors decorated their faces and bodies with paints made from various substances that were deemed valuable to the tribe or that were believed to increase a warrior’s strength, courage, and resiliency. When war governs the lives of your entire people, your medicine bundle is of vital importance to your personal identity as a warrior.

Medicine men painted themselves when they performed healing ceremonies. Tribal women painted their bodies for ceremonies to bless the tribe’s dealings in war, hunting, and migrations. Warriors painted their faces and bodies when they went into battle to defend the honor and land of their native tribe. In other words, like the army uniform this Mammoth Cave National Park visitor likely donned when he fought for his country, the face paint made from gypsum harvested by the ancestors of the Black Feet tribal warriors was, indeed, worth risking life and limb for.

My ranger guide was also a big proponent of the parks. On the bus ride back, he said, “In my opinion, the national park was one of the greatest ideas we as Americans had. These parks belong to you—every one of you who pays taxes to keep them running. I hope you will continue to enjoy more of your national parks.” The tour clapped as he sat back down.

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My name on the White Oak Trail Register. 

My plan was to complete the Violet City tour by 5:30 PM, drive half an hour to White Oak Trail head, and hike in 2.5 miles to the White Oak backcountry campsite for the night. I chose the trail because it said it went by a still-standing stone chimney from a fireplace in one of the old homes.

On the tour, the ranger told the group some about the work the CCCs did in the park—both above and below ground. The CCCs pulverized boulders to create a brown pathway through the dark. You only know it to be brown when the park bus drops you off back at Mammoth Cave Hotel and you walk across a sponge rug to clean off your shoes. They were also on orders from FDR to tear down all non-natural structures in the newly established park boundaries and plant thousands of trees. They demolished buildings and homes, leaving only pieces of the history of the former land owners intact. Only the underground world was preserved. Learning this made the old homestead on the White Oak trail even more appealing, but I wouldn’t get far enough in on the trail to see it.

The drive to the White Oak trail head had me nervous already. I kept thinking this was a dumb idea—that I should have just stayed at Mammoth Cave Campground. I was right.

There were more red flags on the trail. I walked through hundreds of spider webs until the sticky strings covered my bare arms, stuck in my hair under my hat, and wove themselves into my eye lashes. Horse flies orbited around me, only landing to bite. Fallen trees covered the trail; the only path by was under, where my pack was caught and pulling it free meant smashing my shoulder into the trunk. My headlight failed just as it was getting too dark to see the trail clearly. I sunk in fresh mud up to my ankles.

Red flags in my failing marriage didn’t look all that different. I walked through webs of half-truths, faked opinions, and empty promises. I heard and said words that bit a little too hard and then followed me around, buzzing in my memories. I tried to get by the obstacles I was unable to avoid, but I came away bruised, scraped, and crying. I squinted in the dark, looking for any light of hope that I could save it, but it finally flickered out—batteries dead. Eventually, I was so sunk in the shit of it all that I stood ankle deep, breathing heavy, and glaring at the trail ahead through my tears, realizing this was as far as I could go.

So I turned around. I failed. And I cursed nature. I wailed in pain, frustration, and disappointment. I blamed myself for being weak. I blamed my failed marriage for teaching me how to fail instead of persevere. I blamed the breakup for the crack in my mental fortitude on the trail. I reached my car bruised, sore, blistered, and whimpering. I had failed again. It felt like all I could do lately was fail.

I should have stayed at a front country campground. Would I have felt such nagging failure if I had? I wouldn’t have had to ask my parents to bail me out of trouble for what seemed like the billionth time in a few months. I wouldn’t have been covered in bug and spider bites that drove me mad for days after. I wouldn’t have had a bruised shoulder and ego. If I could have just played it safe—not strung myself out on a trail I didn’t know with gear that was too heavy, daylight that was fading too fast, and a body that wasn’t yet trained for strenuous hiking—I wouldn’t have had to feel this shame. Failure. “That’s the thing about human life—there’s no control group, no way to ever know how any of us would have turned out if any variables had been changed” (Eat Pray Love, 52).

Five months before, I was out on another trail, a far less strenuous trail, at Eno River State Park in Durham, NC. I walked faster and faster until I was sweating and out of breath. I was trying to walk it off, the feeling that had been haunting me for the last few months. I had been digging as much as I could to find the root of the problems my husband and I were having, but the closer I got to the truth, the more nervous I became. Something was going to happen; something was going to go wrong. I hiked on, pushing my lungs to get oxygen in and out of my body faster and faster until I felt like I couldn’t get any air in. I walked until I cried for want of air. My subconscious—or, at this point, almost conscious—knowledge that the break was near was pressing down on me, not enough to crush me, but enough for me to notice its presence and its effect. I strung myself out on that trail. What if I hadn’t kept digging? What if I hadn’t refused to give up on figuring out what the problem was? What if I could have just suffered through and stayed married? “...there is no control group, no way to ever know how many of us would have turned out if any variables had been changed...”

When the break came, I felt like the ancient plains Indian who had been harvesting gypsum under a large boulder in Mammoth Cave—the one whose body the CCCs found fully preserved in the stagnant air. Archeologists surmise that he had dug a little too close to the keystone and became stuck. The rock didn’t even have the decency to crush him. Nature didn’t have the good grace to end him quickly. My ranger guide said they think he died from an inability to inhale. He was caught in an eternal exhale.

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The rock the ancient Native American mineral hunter's body was found under--not crushed, not broken...but eternally exhaling.

Miraculously, I had cell service at my car back at the White Oak trail head. I pulled up the google maps route back toward St. Louis and started driving in the pitch black on winding, middle of B.F.E. Kentucky roads. I stopped for gas across the street from a horse and buggy and a group of Amish folk who looked to be enjoying themselves far more than I was and somehow sweating less despite their head-to-toe clothing.

When I reached a state highway, I called my parents. They “found me” on the map and reserved a hotel room for me in the closest bigger town, Owensboro, KY. Too tired to eat and too sweaty-nasty to go out in public, I spent half an hour in the shower peeling spider webs off my arms and nursing my bruises, blisters, and scrapes. I fell asleep to the sounds of mariachi music and men jovially speaking Spanish to their pals as they dipped their legs in the outdoor pool and threw back some beers. The words of the popular country artist Cam’s song, “Hung over on Heartache” played on loop in my head: “The world outside is moving on, how can they act like nothing’s wrong?”

I woke up before my body would have liked and searched for breakfast places nearby. My stomach was finally empty but not knotted, and I felt like I could eat a mammoth. I found a small diner called Mendy’s Kitchen and ordered the “Large Breakfast”: 2 eggs, bacon, breakfast potatoes, a large order of biscuits and gravy, and coffee. The waitress probably thought I was a pig, but I downed the biscuits in minutes and then moved on to the bacon and potatoes. I didn’t finish it all, but it was just what, well, I ordered (I’m not a doctor, but sometimes I know what I need). The ladies working at Mendy’s Kitchen were the source of one of the only good things that happened on this trip, so asked them if I could take their picture to include in my post about my travels, and then I left for the return trip home.

I felt like I was returning, for the second time this year, a failure. I wore my “Discover Mammoth Cave National Park” shirt out of something like spite. I had “Discovered” plenty in the park: the brutality of the natural world, the fragility of my skin and my “everything is fine” facade, my own physical and mental limits. I had discovered my capacity for failure.

I limped (from a right calf muscle strain, which I contracted on the muddy trail) into church the day after I got home and was hit over the head with a brick of irony. The Call to Worship read:

We are pilgrims on a journey.

Some of us have traveled familiar roads throughout our lives.

We are pilgrims on a journey.

Some of us are ready to deviate from the safety of the well-marked highways and byways.

We are pilgrims on a journey.

Help us to move forward from wherever we are, to leave the comfort of familiarity in order to travel to the lands where you are calling us to go.

We are pilgrims on a journey.

But we never journey alone.

My dad nudged me and smiled as we read aloud with the rest of the congregation, “Some of us are ready to deviate from the safety of the well-marked highways and byways.” I whispered, “Psh...I clearly wasn’t,” and laughed quietly at my failure on the trail, gingerly shifting weight off my right leg as it began to ache. I could laugh about it already. That was the gift my home repeatedly returned to me: it never tried to increase my feelings of inadequacy...my feeling a failure.

I then remembered the first paragraph of the preface of Norman Warnell’s book, Mammoth Cave: Forgotten Stories of Its People, which I read at the Mammoth Cave National Park visitor’s center two days before:

Contrary to Thomas Wolfe’s famous lament, ‘you can’t go home again,’ we must all go home again—perhaps just in memory, but when we don’t, our lives lose their structure and their ability to find in the past the answer to the present.

I knew I would find some answers at home; I had already found answers there to questions that had been nagging at me for years.

But I knew I would also have to keep leaving—again and again. In leaving, the return home would continue to hold meaning.