First Impressions from Mammoth Cave

“All ‘bout filled up,” came the Kentucky drawl over the phone. My heart skipped a beat as we cruised down I-71 on that beautiful Saturday, April 16th. “How many sites are left?” I asked. “8 right now – oh – make that 7”. And no, they don’t take reservations until May.

We were two hours from Mammoth Cave National Park and I was figuring out a camp situation for the very first night of our National Park Quest. Why wouldn’t the campground be almost full on such a day? The sky was radiant, moods were bright, and it seemed a little slice of Heaven had descended onto Earth with the beauty of that day. I wouldn’t let the thought of sleeping in the car at Walmart on our first night bring me down.

I let it go and we drove on, deciding to skip Cabela’s to reach the park. We’d forgotten plates.


As these things go, everything worked out just fine and even the weather stayed clear these last three days. After our first night tucked between a Swedish couple and international college group, we decided to move camp and settle down into one spot for the next four days. The Mammoth Cave campground is a well-oiled machine with clean bathrooms, plenty of potable water and a camp store complete with $3 showers, laundry, and a post office. It all seems too convenient to be true. There’s even free WiFi and the visitor’s center is a 5 minute walk away.

We know the experience in Mammoth Cave is spoiling us just a bit – can’t imagine these luxuries in Alaska – but it’s been a comforting way to ease into our new lifestyle. The mornings start early as dawn’s blue glow paints the sky before 5 AM. The soft night murmurs are soon washed out by the first birds who seem to burst out of the trees with their sudden song. It’s as if one starts the chorus and all others wake up with such enthusiasm in their efforts to sing over the others.


We can only let experiences happen and embrace them with eternal optimism.

The Mood of Mammoth Cave

Mammoth Cave is a peaceful place; that’s easy to sense despite the bustle and engines of other visitors. It’s not hard to find a little lane or trail leading into the humble woods where you might just stumble upon an old cemetery. We walked down one such lane to see Good Spring Church with its quiet cemetery. There are several families buried there and I caught my breath when I read “Sanders” among them. An omen of some kind?


We’re always looking for signs. As the evening sun bathed us with her warm glory, I couldn’t believe the magnificence of all that lay below my feet. After two cave tours it’s incredible to feel the contrast in the layers of this park. You descend into such darkness only to emerge again into a world where trees are dusted with the bright green of new life.

While walking with the Domes and Dripstones tour, I thought of myself descending into Dante’s Inferno, the way the lights gave everything a warm glow. Except the cave doesn’t feel fiery. The mood I project onto the cave is melancholy, almost wise in its solitary stillness. There’s a sense of timelessness in those ancient tunnels. They exist as we move on so quickly, some parts never changing, other parts changing ever so slowly with each drip, drip, drip. You can learn a lesson of patience by spending time in a cave.

It all feels quite safe with railings and stairs and electrical lights. But so many tragic stories have unfolded in these caves, from the slaves who mined for saltpeter during the War of 1812, to the tuberculosis patients who were brought here in an effort to help them. It was a big failure. You can see historical graffiti marked on many of the walls, names and dates of those who don’t wish to be forgotten in the sands of time.

The moon has been growing each night here and it illuminated our campsite last evening. We have our 6-person work tent set up which is too warm to work in during the day, but offers a nice retreat in the evening. The little “porch” i.e. vestibule shelters our cooler and gear, while the camp table next to a tree makes a fine dinner or work spot. So far our power set up with a battery and inverter has worked out fine and we haven’t had to use the solar panel yet. Using our hot spot for the first time has been a dance of checking the data usage, wary of going over the 12 GB limit. At 3 GB usage with two weeks to go in this cycle, we feel pretty good about it.

The Challenges so Far

But I wouldn’t want to paint too rosy a picture. We realized we forgot a number of things and made our first site-seeing stop at the local Walmart, picking up camp plates, a first-aid kit, and a few other miscellaneous items. We’ve produced more trash than I hoped in this first park, challenging our initiative to produce as little trash as possible. There are a few packaged food items we can’t go without, like coconut oil, and of course any new product comes with packaging. Most of these things are recyclable – minus the organic waste like fruit peels – and the campground has an organized recycling system. Despite the showers, we’re trying to cut corners so our morning bath has been a huge jug of cold water to freshen up. Makes for a nice mini-shower. And wake-up call!

Everything takes more time.

Setting up camp, cooking, and cleaning dishes. We left feeling organized but I can’t tell you how many times we’ve asked each other “Where’s this thing, where’s that thing?” We’re finding our balance and adjusting to this new rhythm, reminding ourselves to stay patient with the changes. The time has been a mix of exploration, writing our first artist story and sketching for the Mammoth Cave Poster. We manage our shop each day and broke out of the park once to visit a nearby library in Horse Cave. The friendly librarian was our only companion in that tiny place where a surrounding of worn books enveloped us for two hours.

In a couple of days we’ll head out, stopping in Nashville for a brief stay before venturing on down to Hot Springs National Park. Is it all that I would imagine it would be so far? It’s too early to tell, but one thing I know is that we can never truly imagine something we haven’t experienced. We can only let experiences happen and embrace them with eternal optimism.

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