Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Lost Corvette


Recently, I read that a 12-metre sinkhole (40 feet, in old money) had opened up under the National Corvette Museum in Kentucky, with the loss of several classic cars. 

Sinkholes result when sub-surface limestone (or similar) is eroded by groundwater passing through the pourous rock, leaving small gaps and fissures that eventually connect into larger voids. Beneath its rolling "bluegrass" and rugged woods, Kentucky itself is one big chunk of limestone, the result of the area having been covered by an inland sea several hundred millions of years ago. 

I know this, not because I'm a geologist, but because I was born there, and lived there for more than thirty years. Walk along any country path and you'll find that the stones and gravel beneath your feet are in fact petrified shells and plants from this ancient sea.

One summer, probably around 1958, my family drove down to Mammoth Cave National Park, and stayed in a small local hotel for a day or two, to explore the vast cave system there. It was at that time in its earlier incarnation as a commerical venture as part of the U.S. National Park Service.

"The Park preserves the cave system and a part of the Green River valley and hilly country of south central Kentucky. This is the world's longest known cave system, with more than 400 miles explored. Early guide Stephen Bishop called the cave a "grand, gloomy and peculiar place," but its vast chambers and complex labyrinths have earned its name - Mammoth." So much for the brochure....

The groundwater erosion over thousands of years created the vast system, and I think at one time explorers thought the system linked into a large group of caves in Tennessee. Not sure what happened with that.

A few things come to mind about that visit. As a family, we never had holidays in the sense of contemporary expectations of travel, so it was a big deal to go anywhere. As tourists, we saw what still are unusual things: a long, low (stone) ceiling space set out as a cafeteria, cavernous (literally) spaces that could be described as cathedral-like, an underground river with boats, and small, semi-transparent fish with no eyes.

I also remember walking along a narrow passageway, itself the result of erosion through rocks, the smooth, sheer stone faces rising vertically on either side of the trail. We made our way along, as part of a larger group of tourists, and I suddenly stopped, pressing my hands stiff-armed against the walls either side, shouting back to my parents and sister, "Quick! Go through! I'll hold back the walls!" I noted that both my parents were struggling not to burst out laughing, as their eight-year old son did something stupid, and funny.

The other thing I remember was that as we made our way through the passage into another space, I felt my Father's hand rest on my shoulder, which I registered with a thrill of delight. I can say with some degree of conviction that he was not a physically demonstrative man, apart from punishments, and to have this display of spontaneous affection from him was as strange as rowing along a dark river, a darkness that remained "gloomy and peculiar" unless struck by the light of a guide's torch.

I like to imagine one of the missing Corvettes eventually popping up though some deep fissure, sliding along silently through dark water, and reflected there in its candy-coloured lacquer, a fish, eyeless, through its soap-bubble skin its tiny white heart, beating and beating. 

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