My first morning in the west opened to a glorious sunrise. I was up with the dawn, for after a ride into town to eat breakfast, I intended to drive the twenty miles out to the Caverns to be there at their opening.
After a hearty breakfast of sausage and waffles, I returned to the wide-open plains south of the town, very much enjoying the 75 MPH speedlimit. After close to two hundred miles of open horizons, the turn off into the national park area brought a staggeringly impressive change.
A winding path carved into a rocky hill took me further and further up; this was not a path cut into dirt, but one which surrounded me with walls of rock. As I neared the top I could feel my small car buffeted by something, and realized upon parking that I was standing in the strongest wind I've felt since Hurricane Ivan. The grass growing alongside the road was virtually flattened, and I could not decide which was more impressive: that steady and exhilarating, force...or the view.
I've gazed down from mountains before, but the view from Chattanooga's rocky tops was nothing like this. There, the view was hemmed in by other hills, by the abundant forests, by the city itself. Here, I looked across a seemingly infinite landscape. I was riveted, and the view was made all the more spectacular by the vault of the heavens. Far above me the sky threatened with dark gloom, but at one point the sun was breaking through; a half-dozen beams of light pierced it and created a radiant fan. Reluctantly, I broke off from staring into eternity to enter the park. It had just opened, and only a middle-aged couple entered the trail downward before I did. A park ranger briefed us on the rules before our descent into 'the big hole'.
The entrance smelled, faintly; I couldn't put a finger on it but it had the smell of damp, rot, and possibly bat waste. That aroma disappeared as we followed the hairpin turns into the cave -- though it's more likely we simply grew used to it. The natural hike takes nearly an hour to complete, and is a spectacle in itself. The cave lighting is spare and tasteful, providing as little illumination as possible while giving the place a strange atmosphere. The lights are there, but hidden. Our party grew larger, including a pair of younger couples and another middle aged set, this one from Taiwan. I spent most of my time in the caverns traveling with the Taiwanese, who proved very friendly. The path down was often dark, and we used the faint gleam of the metal handrails to locate it; although signage urged travelers to use the rails to steady themselves on the damp path, the rails themselves were moist. If all was still -- if treading steps and beeping cameras were silenced -- the water can still be heard dripping, and in one area we could see the water falling upon the tip of a stalagmite.
Neither my phone nor my camera were up to the task of turning the dim light of the trail or the Big Room into many good pictures, but I will share a few snatches. One memorable sight wasn't captured at all; this was the Iceberg, an enormous rock the size of a small house, which had fallen from the cathedral-like ceiling above us. There were moments on the trail when even the petite pair I was keeping company with had to duck: personally, I had to crouch-watch.