Two more stops on my August adventure to make it back home. Have you seen where I’ve been so far?
The moments spent with BAM and his parents flew by. Though life would always be different for them, they began to fall into the regular routine of their lives. Time for Nani to get out from underfoot.
Sent off with big hugs and a few tears, I headed out early on a Wednesday, with lots of time for reflection during the eight-hour drive. I decided to take a quick detour to a place that had been calling me to exit the interstate and explore it for decades.
Write Anywhere #73: In A Cave
leading the way to the caverns
Meramac Caverns has long been on my ‘explore this’ list. I can remember from my youth the billboards and barn roofs painted with the familiar advertisement along Interstate 44, which follows much of the path of the original Route 66 through Missouri.
Meremac Caverns Barn advertisement, photo courtesy Brett Moore, Creative Commons
Meramac Caverns is the largest cave system in Missouri, which is known as ‘The Cave State’ with about 6,000 identified caves. After exiting the interstate, I followed a beautiful tree-lined road about ten miles to the entrance.
Meramec Caverns from the outside
The outside of the cave looks rather kitschy, with some storefronts, a restaurant, and a ton of gaudy souvenirs for purchase, but once you walk into the actual cave system itself, the atmosphere changes, literally. Even though it was ninety+ degrees outside, plus high humidity from an abundance of rain the day before, inside the cave the temperature stays at a steady and cool sixty degrees.
At first I thought I’d get the chance to walk through the cave on a self-guided tour, but it ended up being much bigger than I thought. All visitors must take the tour with a uniformed guide. Our group gathered to about 75 people before they herded us into the first wide opening.
According to historical accounts this area of the cave held an abundance of saltpeter, also known as potassium nitrate, an important ingredient in gunpowder. It was mined for saltpeter from the 1700’s right through to the Civil War.
While the cavern was in Union hands, a small contingent of Confederate soldiers attacked the Army’s mining venture. Legend has it that one of those soldiers was the infamous bank robber Jesse James, who along with his brother Frank, later used the cave to hide from the law. The owner of the cave, Lester Dill, found some artifacts that were traced to a train robbery at Gadshill, Missouri that Jesse James was known to have been involved in, so it could be true.
After its saltpeter days up through the 1940’s the huge entrance was given a floor and used as a dance hall, and today is known as the ‘Ballroom’. They built a stage for bands to play Saturday night dances and Sunday night gospel singalongs. The echoes in the room would make for a freaky awesome sound. Wonder what some modern-day electric guitars might sound like?
After the Ballroom, the tour guide took us back further into the cave system, and the air became damper, and of course, it was pitch black without lights. The guides would flip a switch and lights came on ahead of us, then flip another and the lights turned off behind us. I could see why they didn’t want people just wandering around on their own. The roar of an underground river bouncing off the cave walls combined with the dark gave me a bit of vertigo. The group had to cross a bridge over the river (which was really the size of a large creek) and I have to admit I tried to hold on tight to the rails. Only problem, everything is coated with a film of dampness, so that didn’t make me feel any more secure.
Several areas offered a close-up look at stalagmites and stalagtites, the perfect recipe of water and minerals that happen in limestone caves, dripping and growing centimeter by centimeter over thousands of years. They placed clear plastic walls between visitors and mineral formations to prevent any contact with them, as something as innocuous as skin oils can damage them and stunt their growth. It was very hard to take any good photos in the dark and cramped conditions (seventy-five people trying to look at the same rock in a cave is cramped!) but here are a few that turned out:
stalagmites and stalagtites with a pool of water
Botryoid formations: grape-shaped
We moved up and down throughout the cave system, and at one point a climb of almost forty very steep stairs had the tour guide asking ‘those with knee and cardiac issues’ to wait at the bottom. I climbed the stairs huffing and puffing with most of the group to view the famous ‘Wine Table’. It’s a very rare formation, with only one other in the world in Italy. My lungs did not appreciate the rarity, but instead complained about how out of shape their owner was.
The final stop on the tour was the spectacular Stage Curtain. You can tell where it gets its name:
The Stage Curtain
And harking back to a time when Americans were much more easily entertained, we sat down in theatre seats in front of the Stage Curtain for a light show.
Hokey and simplistic now, it was a technological thrill during its time. It’s the original light show owner Lester Dill installed to showcase this natural wonder. The tour guide has to throw switches for all the lights throughout the show, so if you are there in person, you mostly hear the clicking of the switches. Dill was very proud that Kate Smith actually came to sing ‘God Bless America’ there in front of the Stage Curtain in the 1940’s, and the governor of Missouri gifted the cave with the American Flag light. They can only leave it on now for 25 seconds or the bulb burns out.
After the tour guide led us back to the start of our journey, I found a bench near the tour start, and pulled out my phone. It was a little too dark to see my own writing on paper, so with a note-taking app, I wrote down some of my impressions and worked on sensory phrases that described what I experienced. A scene in my in-progress historical fiction calls for my protagonist to sneak into a series of limestone caves being used to store and age kegs of beer, and the sensory phrases I came up with will hopefully enhance that scene. My lungs appreciated the bench rest as well.
The strangest part of my visit to Meramec Caverns had to be coming out of the cave into the noonday sun. It took a while to adjust to the brightness and the heat seemed so much hotter than it should have after spending almost two hours in the cool of the caverns.
I headed out back onto Interstate 44 with plenty of time to spare to make it back to Tulsa. Or so I thought. The last and most bizarre part of my adventure would start only about thirty miles ahead.
Where did you write this week?