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    Bit to Do

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    Photos by Mickie Winters

    Cave City and Mammoth Cave packaged as one, downsized and wedged forever in the nearby limestone hills of Southern Indiana. That is the promise of Marengo Cave, off I-64 about 45 minutes west of Louisville, past pastures, quaint farmhouses and a graveyard. A natural wonder with the kitsch one craves from roadside attractions. When your phone loses service, you’re moments away.

    At the cave on a cool but sunny spring day, banjo music strums from outdoor speakers at a wooden lodge that houses a gift shop heavy on insect jewelry and prairie nostalgia. Schoolchildren on a field trip squeal somewhere above or below the surface. No park rangers at privately owned Marengo Cave. Instead, our tour guide is a shy, sweet 17-year-old only two weeks into the gig, her serious hiking boots barely scuffed, a 40-minute script for the Crystal Palace tour (one of two offered walking tours) burned into memory. We enter the cave through a small metal door not much larger than a refrigerator door and descend 22 steps.

    Inside, the cave feels like a breeze-less San Francisco evening — chilly (a constant 52 degrees) and soggy. Parts of the cave’s ceiling drizzle like a low-pressure shower. Even in a seemingly dry corner, drips echo nearby. But those drips decorate the place, minerals deposited by the water creating formations like cones or canine teeth. Our guide starts with a tutorial. Stalactites, she says, “hold tight to the ceiling.” Stalagmites, she continues, “Well, they might reach the ceiling or you might trip over them.” And finally, columns — where stalactites connect to stalagmites. “That’s just what we call ’em,” she says.

    With a flashlight, she points to various formations that look like tobacco leaves, an aircraft carrier and a praying monk. “You guys hungry?” she asks, setting up a rehearsed punch line: “Here’s some bacon.” Her beam of light showcases a ribbon of mineral deposits that looks identical to a marbled, fatty slice. When we reach a place known as Discovery Falls, our guide cues a light show that tells of Marengo Cave’s beginning. An image of a boy and a girl with candles pops up on a far wall, like shadow puppets. I strain to hear audio that battles with the plop plop of cave life. “Oh, Orris, this is amazing!” a young woman’s recorded voice says. “Hey, what’s over there? It looks like diamonds!” (Modern technology bares no responsibility for the light show. Did you ever make it to the wax museum in Cave City before it closed? Similar feel here. Retro? Yes. Memorable? Oh yes.)

    So the story goes that in September 1883, a 15-year-old named Blanche Hiestand and her 11-year-old brother, Orris, found a sinkhole, lit two candles and went exploring. Ta-da! Marengo Cave. Soon thereafter the property owners set up tours for 25 cents. Since then, the cave has been used to store vegetables in the mid-1900s, as well as to act as a potential shelter during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It has hosted square dances, weddings and overnight trips for Boy Scouts. In 1986, the U.S. Department of Interior proclaimed it a National Natural Landmark, citing it as “the most profusely decorated cave known in the interior lowlands.”

    Warning: Marengo Cave is not for the claustrophobic. At barely five-foot-three, I had to duck occasionally and shimmy between rock formations that I desperately wanted to (but wasn’t allowed to) touch to make sure no trickery was involved, perhaps papier-mâché and Fraggle Rock blueprints. Maybe that’s when you know nature’s magic is working. It’s right there before your eyes, a scripted tour enforcing its truth, but it seems too spectacular.

    This originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

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