The August heat in Kentucky felt like a trek through an invisible, slowly boiling swamp.

Heat and humidity slapped us in a one-two punch, and the first vacation my girlfriend (now wife) and I took together looked to be a bust. You can escape rain and cold while camping, but heat makes us all equal. Unless, of course, you’re one of those “campers” who parks a sheet metal house on wheels, fires up the rooftop AC unit and considers that the great outdoors. It’s not.

But as my wife and I walked to Mammoth Cave National Park’s yawning cave entrance after forking out a small fortune for tickets, paid showers and gas, I would gladly have snuggled up to an AC unit. To hypocrite is human.

We followed the gathering group of tourists and ersatz cave explorers. Like us, they had snacks, water, cameras and, even though it seemed silly, coats. A dozen signs strongly suggested we bring a jacket into the caves, no matter how hot the Bluegrass State became.

When we crossed the walkway and headed down the step stairs into the cave entrance, we instantly knew why. A chilling stream of air fanned out of the entrance, the greatest lesson in thermodynamics ever wrought. The air at out backs was easily a 100 degrees, but that cave air couldn’t have been above 60. And…it…felt…GOOD.

Our first cave tour lasted four hours, and after the first hour the heat aboveground became an afterthought. 

I won’t detail the sites and sounds and dry, dustless air of the caves. Hundreds of pamphlets, websites and documentaries detail those. Dirt and rocks that haven’t seen sunlight in hundreds of millions of years, ghostly hands scrawling names from the soot of candles…fascinating, but nothing like what awaited us.

I’ll sell you on the caves with an experience so unique, it could only be found in this cave system.

THE ROTUNDA

About halfway through the Historic Tour, our young guide brought us to the Rotunda, a massive circular void in the buried rock. It felt larger than two theaters side-by-side, and the perimeter of foot lights added to the cinematic effect. We plopped down on rows of benches, the wood worn smooth with armies of tourist asses.

Our guide waded into his lecture, discussing the early days of cave exploration, the people and lives lost in the four hundred miles of serpentine caves, and even a story of a young man who became lost and was discovered only because he had the presence of mind to crack a rock against a wall until searchers found him. When they asked where he got the idea to signal them with the rock, he shook his head and said he hadn’t done it for possible rescue, but because the darkness, stillness and silence needled his sanity. He needed some noise. Any noise.

Continued…