“How much of the cave is underground?”
Yes, that is a real question, but far from my oddest interaction, no matter how many times I heard it.
“Are you a Power Ranger?”
That was a cute kid.
Excuse me Officer/Agent/Trooper/etc…”
Is it that hard to comprehend?
The winner for strangest interaction that comes to mind is more than a simple question and occured off duty. Mammoth Cave is one of the uncommon National Park units to have what amounts to a small dorm complex for staff that is not local. I was headed to the car one evening to go pick up my mail and maybe drive to town for some dinner. Yeah, I know, I shouldn’t eat so much fast food. I’m doing better about it, though.
It’s not uncommon for park visitors to wander down that road, even though there are ample signs indicating it is a no-outlet road. Initially I wasn’t surprised to see an unrecognized car drive down, but did get curious when it rounded the corner and drove into our parking lot. After a moment’s hesitation, I thought I should check and see if they were confused about directions. What followed was a 45 minute discussion that was so strange that I could not remember much in the way of details afterwards. The kid made little sense to me, although I did my best to answer his questions without irritation. A large part of it dealt with cave exploration, using robots to do so, whether there was gold inside, and a host of questions without any discernible purpose, although some of it sounded like a variation on the Hollow Earth Theory. I finally couldn’t stand it any longer and asked: “Son, what ARE looking for?”
Without missing a beat: “A hologram of Jesus.”
Needless to say that it took me a moment to respond to that one.
Moving on from that, religion in general could be tricky, but particularly among Young-Earth Creationists. Some were aggressive and combative at any mention of geologic time and could be a disruption to everyone’s enjoyment of the tour. Most, though, were respectful that other people did not share their views and might ask a question along those lines, but remain pleasant and respectful. There were a number of tours were I had groups from a Christian university and they were a delight. They would wait and listen, pay attention as though they were listening to a class lecture, and ask quite thoughtful questions. It’s always the smaller segment of any group that tarnishes everyone else’s reputations. However, my most unusual encounter with religion as a park ranger was with a Muslim.
They were a lovely family, polite and jovial. The father in particular was having the time of his life walking the cave. It was heartwarming to see someone marvel at everything around them without complaint or missing their surroundings by staring straight ahead. He tried to watch every inch that passed by. I was trailing the tour, making sure the group didn’t lag too badly or if there was a medical emergency. It was when we made our last group stop before entering the Frozen Niagara area that he asked me if it would be permissible to pray. He explained that it was such a special place that he was moved to thank God for it’s creation. I didn’t have the heart to say no to him. I did my best to get compass points lined out for him and we waited for the group to get out of sight, and he prayed. I have steadily become less of a religious man as I have become older due to past experiences, but this man’s faith and humility cut through my cynicism and struck a chord. Once he finished, we hustled forward to get caught up so I could resume my duties.
Shifting gears, there are few stories I am willing to share about activities at our seasonal quarters, mainly because we could get goofy during the summer to blow off steam. I will note, though, that a roll of plastic makes for an excellent slide. Mostly staff would come by just to enjoy camaraderie around the yard, play some volleyball, and sit around the campfire. Some of these gatherings were notable events that drew in higher ranking staff. Once, when a sudden downpour brought things to a halt, a division chief shouted out to get under the building eves as it would pass quickly. He was enjoying himself and didn’t want the party to end. He was right, too. It was late before the last person left and gathering like that helped with morale and cemented loyalty among staff. I miss those days terribly.
Possibly the most unique experience, which I did not entirely enjoy while it was happening, was being allowed to swim in some of the rivers at the bottom of the cave. On rare occasions an after hours trip for staff will be scheduled. The signup list was short and they were typically prizede slots to gain. Every division chief has to sign off on these trips, particularly in assessing potential danger and with regards to disruption of sensitive cave areas. It had been many years since a trip through the waters had been authorized, but it happened again and I was able to get in. I have never been a sound sleeper, and would often pass on trips I could have taken because I didn’t want to rob what little sleep I might get the night before a shift. This was not one to miss, though.
I should have rented a wetsuit, but trusted in heavy weight Patagonia garments for insulation under my caving gear. That was a mistake. I also decided that it was worth the trip in spite of my fear of deep water. Again, I was wrong. I had a panic attack during the first swim and suffered hypothermia from the temperature at that level of the cave and being completely drenched. Live and learn. I now treasure the memory of seeing the remains of old walkways when tour groups were taken through there. Seeing the submerged tunnel mouth where explorers connected Mammoth Cave Ridge to Flint Ridge, vastly increasing the known system. I saw a blind cave fish. It was a grand adventure that my poor choices robbed of enjoyment in the moment. But, I always remember the silver lining when looking at the trip through hindsight.
I don’t have a set rota for posts, but the next installment of the ranger series will talk about some of my obsessions as a historian, particularly with regards to the Bishops and Bransfords of Mammoth Cave, and the curious (almost) ghost town of Thurmond, West Virginia.
Thank you for sharing these memories with me and, as always, take care of yourselves. I’ll see you soon, my friends.