Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Meramec Caverns

After a long hiatus, I'm back to writing about my cross country adventures! Where did we leave off? Ah, yes. I was discovering and sharing the wonders of the great Route 66. And so we continue...

My first Route 66 stop was Meramec Caverns in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. I saw a crumbling billboard along the highway advertising it as a one-time hideout of Frank and Jesse James (Frank who?). I figured, why not? and headed over.

Welcome to Meramec! You should see the signs I don't have pictures of.

Meramec was a classic road trip destination, a great mix of old fashioned fun and kitsch with some history and geology thrown in. The approach was via a dusty road, faded billboards marking the way. The fairly empty parking lot didn't exactly inspire confidence, nor did the seemingly unfulfilled promise of boat rides on the adjacent Meramec River, docks connected to the cave complex. I think maybe the boat rides weren't yet open for the season; too bad, that would've been fun*. I'll get to the James thing later but I think there is a connection (literally, like with water) between a river in the cave and the one flowing right outside, which I think supposedly allowed Frank and Jesse to escape from the cave. I say supposedly a lot because the James-Meramec connection is, from what I've read, very tenuous at best.

Boat? Check. River? Check. Someone to steer? Uh...
Thanks to a crappy YA book possibly called Cave of Wonder, I knew of Missouri's title as the Cave State before this visit. The Ozarks are filled with caves, many of them likely unexplored. Since most of my recollections of the Ozarks come from Lois Duncan books (fear not, I'll be talking about her when I write about New Mexico) I immediately think of the mysterious lore associated with the region. Although I didn't even exactly realize I was in the Ozarks, Meramec brought out the mystery and I was satisfied with the feel I got. I know that's ignorant of me since there's so much more to any area than some fading signs and a crumbling roadside attraction, impressive though the cave itself actually was. The cave certainly offers a ton of local flavor--it's a major Missouri tourist attraction, played a role during the Civil War, and--get this--has a "ballroom" where the locals used to hold parties. Awesome, right?
The cave tour at Meramec is a lot of fun, very accessible, and not remotely frightening for the claustrophobic. I used to think Howe Caverns, a cave about an hour's drive from where I live, had the corner on the kitschy cave market thanks to the in-cave wedding chapel complete with inset stone heart. That ain't nothin' compared to Meramec. 

First to note are the life size James Brothers figures during their daring hideout and planning the subsequent great escape. As the story goes, Frank and Jesse hid in the cave, knowing of a deeper, unexplored cavern or something while the sheriff waited outside. And then they rode an underground river to freedom. Historical evidence says maybe not but it's a good story. Aside from the James brothers hiding out in the cave, Meramec has a couple of other claims to fame. One: it was the sight of an episode of a TV show (People Are Funny? I'd never heard of it) where a couple was offered a honeymoon in the Ozarks, not realizing they'd be spending their days--and nights--in a cave. 

The other claim to fame has to do with a convention of some sort that took place in the cave. There's a kind of theater area deep underground where a political event took place. (Details? Who needs those?) As a special surprise, Kate Smith was engaged to sing God Bless America. I can't seem to find any information on what the event actually was and since I clearly don't remember you can tell how interesting the guide was. Nevertheless, the Kate Smith event was indeed a thing and apparently someone was so impressed that now there's this amazing light to show for it:

Yes, that's the American flag projected on rock
The most ridiculous part of the cave tour came at the end. Before leaving, everyone was escorted into the theater space where we were treated to--get this--a sound and light show featuring the Missouri Waltz and our tour guide flipping switches, constantly changing the colors and illuminating the rock wall in front of us. It was awesome. That spectacle was followed by a recording of Kate Smith singing God Bless America, you know, to semi-recreate or honor that past event whose details I've completely forgotten, with the flag light pictured above. It too was amazing.

Meramec is also geologically interesting! It has a stalagmite so massive you really can't see where it comes from or its height or width. I couldn't even tell it was a stalagmite until the guide said so. Unfortunately he wasn't too enthusiastic about it--if I had a stalagmite that big I'd be proud of it, damn it!--but at least it's part of the tour, There are other neat formations including a famous "wine table" and the usual hangy and sparkly bits that accompany your average cave tour. A better geologist than I could explain this stuff for real so I'll just say it's very cool and leave it at that.

Overall, Meramec had no shortage of kitschy moments from the illuminated stalactites and stalagmites to the sound and light show to the James Brothers diorama. The cave entrance itself set the tone: you're already in the cave when you buy your ticket. If you're seriously into caves (or into serious caves) Meramec might not be for you despite its impressive geology, interesting enough in natural rock shades. I'm interested in the science and I've done plenty of more natural cave tours and enjoyed them. But as a little piece of Americana, as a classic roadside tourist attraction, as something that marries local culture, history, and geology, it just doesn't get any better than Meramec Caverns.

*I'm quite sure this paragraph used to contain the key to world peace or something but somehow it got garbled and I have no clue what I meant to say. Sorry, world.