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Big Wyandotte Cave. Exploring the mysteries of an underground mountain

Sitting at the foot of Monument Mountain, you are struck mostly by the isolation and remoteness of it. Especially when the lights go out.

Then, what was simply silence and aloneness becomes absolute darkness, and you get a feeling that everything you ever knew is farther away than you ever imagined it would be.

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That's because Monument Mountain is actually below ground. It is what is commonly referred to as a ``breakdown mountain,'' something that happens when slag and earth and rock fall from the roof of a cavern or cave and leave a pile of debris. This giant slag heap sits at the center of a vast underground cavern, topped by a nearly flat ceiling with concentric circular patterns left by the fall of materials that made the mountain. In this case, roughly 135 feet of the stuff rises to a ceiling that looks li ke a clouded sky when the artificial lights play shadows against it.

Monument Mountain lies at the heart of Big Wyandotte. This giant sister to a tiny sibling cave right next door lies just west of Corydon in the southernmost reaches of Indiana, halfway between the Hoosier National Forest and Louisville, Ky. It is easily accessible by Route 62, through some country that bears an astonishing resemblance to New England.

Wyandotte is one of the oldest commercial caves in the United States, and as wild a place as you'll want to find. So wild, in fact, that you'll need an experienced guide, lots of time, and much stamina to properly explore it.

We found our way into Big Wyandotte last August. My son and I took an abbreviated version of the two-hour tour down through the cave's most traversable passages. It was a tour that wound through various levels of the cave system, sometimes near the ground surface and sometimes much farther down.

We were shown all the usual cave features: stalactites and stalagmites; a rock that seemed to bear the profile of George Washington; stacked stone ``monuments'' left by groups of Boy Scout explorers; signatures with dates like 1872, 1919, and 1948.

Early in our tour -- not far beyond the ``twilight zone'' between outside light and inside blackness -- we passed a sassafras pole leading down into a tiny hole. ``That's the `animal pit,' '' our guide explained, adding that it is the point of departure for five-hour tours leading into the less accessible mysteries of the cave system. The other route, leading away from the pit, is far more traversable and less deep in the earth.

The five-hour tour takes one somewhere between a free-and-easy walk through the cave and a for-experts-only belly crawl and death-defying clamber up its slippery entrails. It seemed a reasonable thing for a journalist seeking places with a special feeling of wildness to follow a guide through that tiny hole into the ``animal pit'' and the twisted passages and sudden discoveries that lay beyond it. More reasonable, in fact, when I found that only the week before an elderly grandmother had taken the same route.

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What she found down there, my son and I discovered, was a world arduous to reach but abundantly rewarding once you get there. We followed John King (who worked as a naturalist aide at the cave then) down into the pit, twisting ourselves around the pole and finding precarious footing over a pretty sheer drop. Mr. King went belly down into a hole in the wall, calling back cheerfully, ``Ready to crawl?''

He led us on a far more twisted and multidepth tour than the previous one. We squirmed through passages that went now steeply up, now gently down, in an unrememberable series of turns and dips. As we went, we listened to him rattle on pleasantly about the cave and its history.

This cave, like many, was used by prehistoric people as a source for rock and flint. The ``animal pit'' got its name because native Americans used to drag their game down here and keep it in the constant 54-degree preservation chamber provided by the caves. The first white man to see it, according to cave literature, was F. I. Bentley, an early pioneer who made his foray in 1798. The cave was used during the war of 1812 to mine saltpeter. Then, in 1819, it was purchased by Henry P. Rothrock as par t of a huge land deal. Rothrock commercialized it in 1856 and joined the raging competition among Midwest cave-owners, most of whom made wild claims about having the cave that Jesse James hid out in, or having the biggest cave in the world, and such things.

Wyandotte Cave was widely advertised as having 25 miles of passageways. That figure was drastically revised downward to eight miles after the cave was bought and surveyed by the state of Indiana. (This figure is disputed by the cave's manager.) Recent discoveries may push that estimate higher.

We inched past the hundred black holes opened by the underground water that has cut and shaped everything in this cave system, suddenly emerging into a huge chamber some 60 feet high. And I thought to myself as I sat there looking at a 400-foot wall, ``Water did this. Water did all of this.''

What water did, over the centuries, was to move slabs of stone, polish them, etch them, and leave them as forms to gape at in wonder. We found traces of epsom salts in it, suddenly coming across an eruption of outreaching fingers of stone, and then slipping down farther into a deeper region of rock.

Even without the multicolor lighting, which seems a bit like bringing extra icing to a wedding cake, the stone has taken on various unstonelike textures, becoming at one time fleshlike, then again moonlike. The hanging curtains of stalactites look almost lacy in places. Clusters of bats, as many as 100 in a cluster, hang from overarching ceilings, far above and quite harmless. Round nodules of stone have been flattened into pancake proportions.

Nowhere is one more aware of the mass of stone in this cave system than at the site we had passed earlier in the tour, Monument Mountain, which John King says is the largest underground mountain in the country. The peak of the mountain, thrown into weird aspect by the artificial light, looks like a creature from ``Lord of the Rings.''

Then the lights go out.

And for one second you are in the indeterminate belly of the earth, a place as far apart as anything you can find. Practical information:

The cost of tours through Big Wyandotte are is $3 for adults and $1.50 for children for the 2-hour tour. The more rigorous 5- and 8-hour tours are restricted to groups of 10 people, must be reserved in advance with a $20 deposit required. The cost is $7 a person for the 5-hour and $9 apiece for the 8-hour. Both of the longer tours are for those who are willing to do some rigorous crawling and climbing. The 8-hour trip is for advanced cave explorers. The cave is open 7 days a week until Labor Day, a nd then it is closed on Mondays. Summer hours are 9-6, winter, 8-5. Jackets are recommended on all tours, as the year-round cave temperature is 52-54 degrees. Next month: Wisconsin Wilderness

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