OF MAMMOTH CAVE AND A LITTLE PHILOSOPHY

JANUARY, 2017 AT MAMMOTH CAVE, KENTUCKY

I am always fascinated with the themes of perception and reality, ignorance and truth. In fact, when I was a young girl, I noticed some numbers adjacent to the inside door, close to the check out counter, in our local convenience store. These numbers were arranged in color-coded blocks, similar to those near the exit door at Lowes. I asked one of my parents about these brightly colored numbers, and one of my parents described that they were there to help identify the heights of any thieves that tried to steal from the store. The numbers represented the heights of the suspects, and the colors were designed to help the store clerk remember the numbers. Fascinating, especially to an older, inquisitive child. This really left an impression on me.

These numbers allowed me to see that everyone sees and remembers things differently. Our conception of reality is based on what we know or have seen, our personal biases, and our interpretations of what we’ve experienced. Fast forward to when I was young adult. Someone very dear to me and I went into a local field to fly a kite, believe it or not. College exams were over, and we were looking for a way to fly a kite as a way to unwind as I recall (based on my perception from many years ago, of course). We were laughing and joking, making a lot of noise, when out of the corner of our eye, we saw someone laying face down in the ground. Surely the person would have roused if asleep we thought. As we walked closer, we realized the person did not move at all, and the person’s calf was exposed and a bit mottled. We touched the person’s calf, seeking a pulse, when we realized the calf was cold. Stone cold. We looked at each other and came to the same realization at once. The person before us was dead. This was long before the days of the ubiquity of cell phones, so we RAN to call the police. Police arrived, and so did the local news reporters. I put my hood up, as it was cold in New England that day, the day we grew up, and I knew we would be there a while. More and more reporters arrived but were kept at a distance from the crime scene by the police while we gave our statements. The next day, reporters said a brother and his younger sister found the deceased person, likely due to the difference in heights between my companion and myself. Reporters said also that two young lovers were coming out from the woods that day, and nothing was further from the truth. Discrepancies upon discrepancies were reported to the public by the news media. We later learned that the poor deceased woman was an inmate from a local state hospital mental health ward and had ground privileges. The story that was told to the media by the police was that she fell asleep and died from exposure to the cold that day.

In Plato’s “Republic”, a story is told about a cave. In this “cave allegory” as it has been called by many people, there is a group of prisoners who have been chained since childhood in a cave such that they can face only one wall, and there is a fire burning behind them. As such, the fire casts numerous shadows in front of them, and they have come to accept that is what is real. This is the only stimulation these people have had in their dreary lives. The focus of their lives, in fact, are the shadows, which are the only things they have come to know.

One day, one of the prisoners escapes from the cave and makes his way out of the cave. Outside of the cave, he is shocked and afraid to learn that he sees numerous things he had no idea existed. He squints to see the sun, then focuses on the sights before him. He realizes there are other people outside the cave as well as real animals, too, and he delights in this knowledge. He returns eagerly to the cave, almost blind from the sun, and tries to explain to the others, with joy, about the world that exists beyond their little cave beyond the shadows. There is some suggestion in the story, too, that if the man tried to free the others from their confines, they would kill him, as they would rather remain in the cave with their eyesight healthy, just as it was.

So many of us live in a similar cave, surrounded by what we THINK is the truth, either metaphorically or in reality. Our versions of what we have come to know is based on our limited exposure and understanding to the events, people, places, and things around us. While some of us seek to see beyond the cave, despite the risks, others of us prefer to remain inside the cave among our own limited knowledge, perception, or ignorance. Of course, some of us prefer to live only sometimes in that cave, depending on the situation at hand. Sometimes we venture out of the cave, yet other times we are more content not to explore beyond our comfort zone. Human behavior and the motivations for such are fascinating.

On a separate note, I have never encountered a cave that I didn’t love. During this period of self-isolation, I am reminded of a few of my visits to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky during a moment of my own armchair travel. This cave is known as the longest cave system in the world and is over four hundred miles long. At time of this writing, the cave is currently closed due to the covid epidemic but is normally open 364 days a year, closing only on Christmas. Normal hours are from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM (Central Time) . Plan ahead before you go, as year round cave temperatures can be around 54 degrees Fahrenheit, so you likely might want a jacket. Reservations are strongly recommended, as cave tours often sell out in advance, but some self-guided walk up tickets are available at times. Ticket prices vary, depending on the tour you select, and there are many tour options to meet your needs. Some tours require passage through tight spots, and others do not. Other tours require long distances with hundreds of steps and steep inclines, yet others require limited steps through short distances. One way to experience something different might be the Violet City Lantern Tour, during which the only light for visitors is from lanterns. There is also an accessible tour for those with limited mobility as well.

It’s best to check the website below to plan your visit and to check on the status of any changes to park operations:

https://www.nps.gov/maca/index.htm

Find your way out of the cave a little from time to time….live life well and experience life as fully as you can.

Life is good; carpe diem, friends………………………

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