It was overcast when I woke up on Thursday and the radar showed it was going to storm at Mammoth caves, but I figured… It’s a cave, who cares?
I was pleased to read online that they had kennels available for rent that you could put your dog in while you go on a tour, and the cost was pretty reasonable. What they did not tell you was that the kennels were really just outdoor cages with a roof over them, exposed to the expected severe thunderstorm. Unfortunately, this meant Penny would have to stay in the car while I explored the keys. The tree hugger in me hated doing this, but I left Penny in the car with the AC on and the windows cracked just in case it turned off for some reason. It wasn’t too hot out, so she may get a little uncomfortable if it were to turn off, but it wouldn’t be dangerous. I went in the visitor center to buy a ticket for a tour but the next one I could get on was called “domes and drip stones“ in 45 minutes.
This gave me enough time to browse the gift store and find a shotglass to add to my collection. While looking, I found a National Parks passport. Essentially its a book with brief descriptions of all the National Parks and National Monuments. The visitor center at each has a cancellation stamp that you can put in your book showing the date you were there. I figured it was a kinda cool way for me to keep track, especially given that it was only $10 and came with a map of the US showing all the different National Parks, something I had been looking for.
While I pay, the store employee explains to me where various things in the book are, and how it works. In the middle of this another customer comes up with a passport in her hands and says “Excuse me, is this the passport for the kids to get stamped?” Thanks, lady. I knew it was more likely to be used by kids, but it certainly isn’t exclusively for them. It’s not like I’m connecting dots to make the shape of the National Parks. I unwrapped my new passport and proudly walked over to get my stamp. Whatever, lady. I’m just a big kid.
After getting my passport, I realized I could probably use a little gas. There was a station just 12 minutes away from the parking lot where I needed to be to start the tour in 35 minutes, just enough time to go get gas and come back. That is, unless you’re following a completely oblivious driver. The entire ride to the gas station I was following a truck pulling a 5th wheel trailer. The truck certainly had the power, however the driver seemed scared to apply it. The speed limit was 45 and in some sections 55, but he rarely topped 30. As you can imagine, I was getting quite frustrated. The road to the gas station bobbed and weaved through the forest, so there weren’t any safe opportunities to pass. The ride ended up taking close to 20 minutes.
As I pulled in, a ragged car from Texas took the last available pump. I patiently waited for a spot to open up, however many of the pumps were occupied by people not pumping gas, but getting food inside, talking on the phone, or literally just leaning up against the car. It seemed like time had stopped for everyone but me. I kept watching all the pumps, seeing who was close to being complete and where I could get in. As I’m watching, two barefoot, mostly toothless people poured out of the car from Texas. Immediately they both started asking others in the parking lot for gas money. In shockingly quick time, they managed to convince a guy to not only put gas money in the car, but also to hand over some cash for cigarettes and gas. I, of course, avoided eye contact the entire time. Finally a spot had freed up, but the barefoot duo had no made their way inside, leaving their now full car sitting in a precious gas pump spot.
Annoyed, and now with no one behind me, I drove around the back of the building to get to a pump from the other side. Just as I did that, the vehicle that had been blocking my way moved, and a new truck entered the lot and pulled into the spot I was circling around to take. I threw my hands in the air, annoyed this would likely make me late for my tour, and said a few choice words. It wasn’t the trucks fault, they couldn’t see me around the back of the building. I was just annoyed about the timing. Fortunately the truck driver saw me, and backed up to the spot behind him. I thanked him and told him what had happened and he laughed, and we agreed that no one seems to pay attention to anyone other than themselves, leaving cars sit in front of a pump for 15 minutes while waiting vehicles stack up. He joked that despite waiting in line being one of the first things we learn as a kid, people really struggle with it. He was even nice enough to back out of his spot when he was done so that I didn’t have to try to back up my trailer in the tight, busy parking lot. After all the frustration, he restored my faith in humanity a bit.
I was all fueled up and ready to hit the tour, but I was supposed to be there in 10 minutes and the tour leaves in 15. I drove…a little faster than I probably should have, but I made it to the lot. I sprinted through the rain (as much as I’m capable of sprinting) and made it to the meeting point, which was filled with older people and young families. Those in their late 20s was clearly not the key demographic served by this tour. I caught my breath and looked around. Our tour time came and went, but still there was no ranger. I was worried I’d missed my tour and this group was waiting for another one. I asked someone and then was told the tour was delayed 15 minutes because of the rain. Something I wish I had known prior to doing Mach 80 back for the tour.
The tour started with a lecture on why you shouldn’t touch anything in the cave, a request (demand) that you not use flash photography, and instruction to stay close to the person in front of you, because power occasionally goes out and its easy to get lost in the pitch black. The ranger suggested anyone that suspects they may be more slow moving to go to the front of the 120 person group so that they would be setting the speed.
Once the ground rules were covered, we took a quick bus ride to a cave entrance. It wasn’t just an opening in the ground, but rather it had been made a formal entrance. There was a medal door that seemed to just be placed in the middle of a rock face. The ranger unlocked the door and guided us down some steps. 300 steps that is, which I was able to handle with ease. It was at this point that I was reminded the sad state of American health. The group was filled with people getting exhausted from walking DOWN just 40 or so steps. We’d get to tight areas where beer bellies would prevent men from passing through without help. Constantly people were reaching out and touching rocks and formations, oblivious to the instructions they had just received. I’ll admit I was pleased when the inconsiderate slob in front of me got reprimanded for using his flash.
During the tour we saw a number of large “rooms” within the cave where all 120 of us were able to gather around for stories of the cave’s history. Unsurprising for an American attraction, it had a long history of shady business and lawsuits before becoming a National Park. We finished our tour and the clouds had broken. I hurried back to the car to find Penny curled up in a ball, happily sleeping.
It was getting late in the day, so I needed to start making moves towards my next campground. I wasn’t sure exactly where I’d end up, but knew I was aiming for St. Louis, so we hit the road in that direction. We ended up landing at Beaver Dam State Park, in a nice, fairly populated camp ground. I arrived after dark, so I had to pull into a back-in spot, which got some funny looks in the morning. The site had showers nearby, and water and power at my campsite. After a quick and sweaty site setup, it was time for Penny and I to hit the hay.