National Parks

Mammoth Cave – Thoughts from 300 feet Under.


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Something just doesn’t feel right about sitting on stadium bleachers with 100 other people when you’re 300 feet underground.

My Mom always tells people that I am her child that saw everything as either black or white and my brother tended to see things a little more grey.  When you look at things as only right or wrong, it makes life easy, you don’t have to think, you just do the right thing.  Recently though, I’ve been finding myself in a world that’s turning more and more grey, and to be honest it’s kind of uncomfortable.  It feels as if I’m in a constant state of searching for answers, but there isn’t always a right answer.

Here are two examples:

Do I support Leave No Trace? Absolutely, 100%. Do I support the park regulations to minimize impact on protected areas? Definitely.  So far everything seems black and white, right?  However, when Scott Jurek (who recently broke the record for the FKT to thru hike the Appalachian Trail) was summoned for littering (spraying) champagne at the top of Mount Katahdin, it rubbed me the wrong way.  Even though the ranger was enforcing something I agree with through my black and white lens.

I whole-heartedly agree that overusing the same trails has a significant impact (just look at a college campus), but when I heard that park rangers in Denali were urging the public not to post their hiking routes online, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I use a lot of that personal trip information from others that have gone before me to plan my own adventures.

Being an advocate for the outdoors and the parks, my thoughts float in a grey world between preservation and promotion.  It’s a delicate balance.  I often wonder what John Muir or Teddy Roosevelt would think about these situations.  The Roosevelt Arch outside of Yellowstone boldly proclaims “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” but what would Teddy say today if he saw the parking lots packed full of RVs and Subarus?  John Muir was a huge promoter of the parks, but he traveled by foot with nuts and berries, he wasn’t stopping for a hot dog at the cafeteria built on top of the largest cave system in the world.  Of course I want others to enjoy the parks and outdoors, it is life changing, but I also cringe when I pull into a park and it feels like an amusement park instead of the wilderness.

That brings me back to the underground bleachers.  It was here at the bleachers that our tour stopped for a break, so the park ranger could teach the group more about the early cave explorers while we rested before getting ready to climb the 150 stairs out of the cave.   As I sat there on a bleacher inside Mammoth Cave, I found myself thinking, “How did they get these down here? Why on earth do they need a bathroom down here? Can’t people stand and hold it?  It’s only a two mile hike.  And speaking of hiking, this is more of a walk considering all the hand rails and pavement they laid down here..”

But then looking around, at the senior citizens and families with young children I start thinking, these people have a right to enjoy this too.  It’s one thing to watch a movie about the parks history in the visitor center, but actually seeing the explorers names painted on the walls is inspiring.  Experiencing the darkness of a cave doesn’t have to be reserved for only the audacious spelunkers.  Because that moment where you can actually feel the weight of darkness, complete darkness, and right as you start to feel that a panic could rise up from deep within you, a single match is lit and the entire cave is illuminated again.  That moment, small and insignificant as it sounds, can be all it takes to change your perspective.

While sitting on bleachers underground, was a bit unsettling, I think the park service does a good job walking the line between promotion and preservation. Most of the parks have countless miles of backcountry where the crowds, hot dogs and pavement are long gone.  If making small parts of the parks more easily accessible will inspire others or help to educate future generations, so be it.

Mammoth Cave Bleachers

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