When I tell Lilia that we are going to view bats, she is scared at first. She knows bats only from horror movies and vampire stories in her favorite manga. All the same, she is willing to go. My concerns, as usual, are about accessibility. My daughter is deaf and uses a wheelchair.
We are in the United States on our first mother-daughter trip. My husband and son are back home in Japan, busy with work, and summer school, and baseball practice. My thirteen-year-old daughter Lilia and I aren’t on our own, however. We’ve traveled to Tennessee with my extended family – my parents, my brother, his wife, and two kids.
We’ve come to Nickajack Cave, which was once a refuge for Native Americans, and a hideout for pirates who preyed on travelers who came down the Tennessee River. Now it’s a sanctuary and maternity roost for the endangered gray bat.
Luckily, there is a boardwalk leading through trees to the bat-viewing platform. It’s about an hour till dusk, but already another group of three has staked out a spot on the platform – a young pony-tailed woman sporting a pink T-shirt, shorts, and a nose-ring; another young woman with glasses sitting on the railing, and a bearded guy with a long-lensed camera. The young woman with glasses is holding a net, and Lilia wonders in sign language if it’s for catching bats.
The woman laughs when I inquire about the net. “No, it’s for catching insects.” Her sister, the woman with the nose ring, is a PhD. candidate at the University of Tennessee in the study of bats.
We can see that the cave is cordoned off, and a sign juts from the water at the entrance, declaring it off-limits to human visitors. This, the bat scholar informs us, is to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome, a disease that threatens the bat population. Once a colony is infected, the disease spreads quickly and has killed at least 95 percent of bats at some locations in only two years.
As dusk gathers, fireflies spark in the trees. Mosquitoes alight on my bare legs. I want the bats to come and eat the bugs. My sister-in-law and nephew return from their run. A family from Chicago joins us on the platform
Meanwhile, Lilia keeps asking me what people are talking about. I try to keep her in the flow – now we’re wondering if there is poison ivy in these woods; now we’re talking about how those guys in the boat weren’t supposed to go near the bats; now we’re talking about how a scuba diver in pursuit of a giant catfish illegally entered and got lost in Nickajack Cave for 17 hours 20 years ago, and how the cave had to be drained. (The diver, David Gant, thought that his rescuers were angels and became a born-again Christian after the event, which became known as “The Bat Cave Miracle.”)
Finally, there is a speck overhead, and I point to the darkening sky. The bats have begun to swoop and flutter above the cave. First, just a few, then there are a hundreds of them, a swirl of dark wings. They come diving for insects just above our heads, and then flap again into the treetops. Every night, between April and September, they feast upon thousands of beetles and moths and aquatic insects, devouring up to 274,000 pounds of bugs.
Lilia gazes in wonder at the bats, the fireflies, the stars in the night sky. When we go back to the car, the boardwalk is completely dark. We need a flashlight to find our way. It’s too dark to sign in the car, but later, Lilia writes in her notebook: “Don’t go in the cave! Bats! If you touch leaves, you will be itchy!” She also writes about the man who went into the cave twenty years ago and couldn’t find his way back out.
The following afternoon, we visit another cave on Raccoon Mountain, which according to a tourist brochure is “rated number one in the South,” with more formations than any other cavern in the region.
“Is it accessible?” I asked my brother earlier.
He’d called to inquire. “They said there are one hundred steps inside, but no more than ten at a time.”
One hundred steps?
He assures me that he will help carry Lilia.
We’ve already purchased our non-refundable tickets on-line via my brother’s smart phone. We pass by a group of muddy-kneed spelunkers, just back from a guided wild cave tour, and go into the gift shop/reception area. The young guy at the cash register insists that we need a print-out of our reservation, and that the cave is not wheelchair accessible.
“But we called in advance…” my brother protests.
No matter. Whoever talked to my brother, must not know the cave well. We can’t take the wheelchair into the caverns. And our tickets are non-refundable.
My first impulse is to launch into a rant. What do you mean this place is inaccessible? My daughter has a right to go into that cave and behold its natural wonders! If Mammoth Cave can admit wheelchair users, then so can you! What about the Americans with Disabilities Act? And what do you mean our tickets are non-refundable?
However, I don’t want to ruin this family outing by making a scene, and we’re already holding up the tour group, imposing on strangers. When the manager offers to allow us access to the first cavern and give us credit in the gift shop in exchange for our tickets, I’m willing to compromise.
I would like for Lilia to be able to see the stalagmites and stalactites, the rimstone pools and flowstone, the so-named Crystal Palace and Hall of Dreams. I would like for her to feel the spray of the underground waterfall on her face and to be able to cross the natural rock bridges formed by centuries of mineral deposits deep inside. But when I imagine the additional construction that would be necessary to make this cave fully accessible – the concrete and drills and saws – I’m not so sure it’s a good idea. Maybe not everyone should go into this wild place, especially if it would mean desecrating its natural beauty. Maybe like Nickajack Cave, we should let it be, a pure place of mystery. Maybe there are some places that Lilia in her wheelchair, and me with her, can do without visiting.
I urge my parents and my brother and his family to go ahead into the cave. Lilia and I wait for our guide, a lanky young man who takes us into the empty first cavern and shines a flashlight on rock striated like bacon, and a cave-dwelling salamander while giving us the official spiel. Lilia likes the sparkle of the quartz, the blue of the salamander. We learn that this dark place is home to a blind species of spider, and also to bats. She takes pictures of various rock formations – a straw, a stalagmite. Our guide lets Lilia hold the flashlight and explore as much as she likes, as long as we don’t touch the cave walls. The oil from human skin can hinder the natural flow of water and mineral deposits. When my daughter is satisfied, we go back out into the gift shop, into the light.
Lilia goes straight for the stuffed animals on display and picks up a plush gray bat. I discover that, as in the case of David Gant, our evening at Nickajack Cave has made something of a convert out of my daughter. Instead of being chiroptophobic, my daughter is now a bat fan. We get a T-shirt for her brother, and the stuffed gray bat to commemorate our trip.
When we are back in Japan, and she begins to tell about our trip, the caves are the first thing that she mentions. She tells how gray bats flew in a funnel up to the sky, how she saw seven states and scenes from fairytales, and how the stone in Raccoon Mountain Caverns sparkled. “Kira kira,” she signs, her fingers wiggling in the air.