I was OK with Mammoth Cave until they turned the lights out.
After all, I was with a tour group. It was a National Park. Two park rangers were there as guides. The path we took was sidewalk smooth, there were guardrails (there are even restrooms inside Mammoth Cave). And there was plenty of light. Until there wasn’t.
When we’d been inside the cave a few minutes, one of the park rangers said she wanted us to see what the cave was like in its natural state and cut the power. The darkness that engulfed us was total. I’ve been in places so dark that I wanted to say I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, but really, that’s just a figure of speech. I could always see something, some motion. But in Mammoth Cave, I did put my hand in front of my face and… nothing. I couldn’t see my hand. I couldn’t see motion. I couldn’t see anything.
I didn’t have time to become terrified. The lights came back on in less than 30 seconds. But that was more than time enough to become distinctly uncomfortable. Even when the power was restored, my first thought was, can we leave now?
Caves give me the creeps.
Don’t most of us feel this way? A week after I was in Mammoth Cave, 12 boys on a soccer team and their coach became trapped in a cave in Thailand, and the world was riveted until they were rescued. Yes, it was a terrific human interest story. But I think our fascination with the plight of those tweens and and teens went much deeper, connecting us with all those monkey-brain fears of darkness, entrapment, and being buried alive. It wasn’t just that those kids could be my kids. It was even more personal: That could be me.
I know, irrational, right? But what’s rational about caves? Womblike, tomblike, and irreducibly mysterious, they crop up in the mythologies of cultures around the globe. No amount of modernity can erase that power—in the less than 30 seconds that I spent in darkness, I could feel my thin veneer of civilization evaporate like dew.
No wonder America went crazy when Floyd Collins became fatally trapped in a Kentucky cave in 1925.
Like the story of the Thai boys, Collins’ plight mesmerized the public while rescuers tried to free him for more than two weeks. Thousands of people, as well as newspaper reporters and radio announcers, mobbed the site above the cave where he was pinned. Congressmen took breaks to rush from the floor of the House and Senate whenever there was an update. (The Collins story did not single handedly inspire the federal government to designate Mammoth Cave a national park a year later, but it surely hastened that decision).
Starting in childhood, Collins was obsessed with the caves that lay beneath his homeland in central Kentucky and, like many of his neighbors, even more obsessed with discovering new ones. Mammoth Cave, of course, was the end all and be all of caverns, having attracted tourists by the thousands since early in the 19th century. For decades, Mammoth’s success as a tourist draw spurred the locals to investigate every hole and crevice they could find in hopes of opening up a similar treasure house. Collins was one of the few successful searchers.
Illiterate and foolhardy to a fatal degree, Collins was nonetheless admired by his neighbors as a man with a deep understanding of caves and how they worked. He was one of the first people, for example, to correctly argue that the caves around Mammoth weren’t discrete caverns at all but part of one vast system—so it’s not any stretch at all to say that in fact Collins died in Mammoth Cave.
By all accounts, Collins’ biggest discovery, Crystal Cave, wasn’t huge, but it was beautiful. Much smaller than Mammoth and harder for tourists to reach, Crystal Cave did not make the Collins family much money. So Floyd persisted in his search. When he did find a promising crevice on a neighbor’s farm, he brokered a deal with the farmer to go halves on what he’d discover. And so, on a chilly Friday in late January 1925, the 37-year-old Collins crawled into what would be known as Sand Cave.
To call it a cave is generous. For the most part, it was a damp, slippery little tunnel—not even a tunnel, really, but more like a series of barely connected passageways through limestone rock and gravel. For most of its length, the passage curling down into the earth was smaller than an air-conditioning duct and a lot twistier, and much more dangerous.
When the one lamp he carried went out after several hours, Collins started back to the surface. He was wriggling through a particularly tight passage, his hands to his sides, when a rock fell on his left foot, pinning him. It wasn’t a huge rock. Shaped a little like a country ham and weighing less than 30 pounds, it was still big enough and heavy enough to hold him fast, chilled and wet and screaming for help in utter darkness..
It took almost 24 hours before he was found. And then all hell broke loose. Rescuers, some knowledgeable, some not, began pouring in. The attempts to extricate Collins lasted two weeks and ultimately involved family members, friends, state and local law officers, miners, stonecutters, college students, the National Guard, college professors, physicians, and reporters from all over the country, including William “Skeets” Miller, a 21-year-old reporter from the Louisville Courier-Journal who not only interviewed Floyd but tried as hard as anyone to free him (for his reportage, Miller would win the Pulitzer prize in 1926).
Everyone had a different solution. A fireman’s hoist. An oxyacetylene torch to burn away the rock. Vaseline. A car jack. A shaft sunk straight down into the earth near the trapped man. None of it budged Collins so much as an inch, which only fueled the acrimony and arguing on the surface.
As the crowd grew around Sand Cave from dozens to hundreds to tens of thousands on Sunday, Feb. 8, they found themselves beguiled by pop-up stands peddling hamburgers, balloons, patent elixirs and tonics, and drinks hard and soft. A succession of stump preachers prayed for Collins’ soul. The curious parked for four miles along the road in any direction.
It was a media circus, too. Newspapers everywhere kept it on page one for at least two weeks. It was also national radio’s first major story and the first time that the entire country could stay abreast of a tragedy as it unfolded. (Collins’ story is considered one of the three biggest news stories in the U.S. between the wars, along with Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic and the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby—weirdly, among the airplane pilots who gathered to ferry news reports and film from the Collins rescue to the major city newspapers: an as yet unknown Charles Lindbergh).
After 5 days, two collapses left the cave tunnel impassable, cutting contact between Collins and the outside world. Until then, his rescuers were able to talk to him and bring him food and drink. Skeets Miller went down several times, interviewing Collins but also shredding the flesh off of his own hands trying to scoop the gravel away from Collins’ body. After the cave ins, the shaft was the only option, but the digging was slow going. By the time they got to him on Feb. 17, Collins was dead.
As Robert K. Murray and Roger W. Brucker put it in their definitive account, Trapped! The Story of Floyd Collins, media reports spellbound the nation because “Floyd’s plight touched in every person a fear of darkness and isolation, a primordial cave fear that stirred a feeling akin to nothing else in the human experience. Suddenly, millions of Americans were vicariously trapped alive with Collins…” (Brucker, a caver himself, has been down in Sand Cave six times and does not believe that Collins could have been rescued successfully even had things run more smoothly, given the cave’s terrifying instability.)
The nation’s obsession with Collins did not end with his death. His story has inspired songs (Vernon Dalhart’s 1926 version of “The Ballad of Floyd Collins” sold 3 million copies, making him sort of the Michael Jackson of his day), novels, movies, television productions, and, most recently, a Broadway musical. A century later, we are still fixated.
The whole time I was keeping up with the story about the soccer team trapped in Thailand, I kept thinking of Collins. The Thai rescue was obviously more successful and much better coordinated. But it wasn’t a lock. The death of one of the rescue divers inside the cave proved that caves are treacherous even when you know what you’re doing. And with the Collins story lodged in my head, I checked for news updates every morning with my heart in my throat. I, too, was “vicariously trapped.”
The Collins story was another reason I was ready to exit Mammoth Cave long before I got to the gift shop. Mammoth is mostly dry and full of big rooms and navigable channels. Tourists certainly never experience anything like the nightmarish squeeze that trapped Collins. And yet, at some level, a cave is a cave, and Mammoth’s complexity alone would make it terrifying to anyone who lacked a guide.
A map of Mammoth Cave looks like a) a plate of spaghetti; b) a cutaway of an ant farm; c) a subway system designed by a madman. The underground arteries run not only horizontally but vertically, and overlap and crisscross each other like piping in a multistory building. The world’s longest cave by far, Mammoth’s tunnels, passageways, and rooms extend underground for some 410 miles, and that’s just what’s been charted. No one knows for sure just how much bigger the cave system might be, although geologists think there could be another 600 miles of uncharted cave left to explore.
The Park Service urges visitors to think of Mammoth Cave not as a nether world separated from the bucolic landscape that lies above but as one giant ecosystem, and from a scientific perspective, that’s fair enough. But as soon as you step inside the cave, you realize that this is alien territory, well lit or not. The only thing it shares with other National Parks, the ones above ground, is awe inspiring immensity. But where places like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite lift your spirits as soon as you catch sight of them, Mammoth triggers emotions that are considerably more complex. Both treacherous and beautiful, it simultaneously attracts and repels. It is not a place to feel comfortable. It is a place to feel lonely, even in a crowd. It is literally the underworld, a fact frankly acknowledged by those 19th century explorers who dubbed its subterranean rivers names like Lethe and Styx. Like its sister parks aboveground, Mammoth makes you catch your breath, but it also haunts your dreams.
I am glad I saw it. I couldn’t wait to get out.