I am a sucker for a lot of things. A pretty smile, a nice pair of legs, a bottle of bourbon. I’m also a sucker for a good cave tour, or even a bad cave tour, and if you want to read some horrifying Freudian meaning into that, be my guest. It won’t affect my enjoyment of women, liquor, or cave tours in the slightest. A grew up an easy day trip to Mammoth Cave, the biggest cave system in the world, or at least that’s the record as I remember it. And my grandfather’s farm was pock-marked with caves, many of which were large enough for a kid high on Mark Twain adventures to explore, provided they weren’t staked out by a pack of wild dogs. That I have never outgrown my fascination with caves means that, even at my more advanced age, I rarely pass up a cave tour.
Meramec Caverns is one of the big ones. Not Mammoth Cave big, but plenty big in terms of the amount of tourism advertising they’ve done. It was a mainstay on the Route 66 drive, and an easy day trip from St. Louis. We packed up and headed out early. We had two must-see sites for the day: Meramec Caverns and the Route 66 Toy Museum, which I thought I might be able to turn into another article for a magazine, though that was a pretty dumb thought that came to me at night, when thoughts have freer reign and come to you without the benefit of consideration or rationality. Exactly why a magazine about modern action figures would be interested in a travel tale about some crazy old guy’s mad menagerie of old toys didn’t make much sense when I thought about it in the warm blaze of the morning sun. But we were still going.
Meramec Caverns — America’s Cave, as it had dubbed itself — is the largest single cave formation in the world, with 26 miles of underground passages spanning seven stories. All but two of the levels are open to the public. The two closed levels are, assumed, occupied by boxes full of secret government files detailing our various contacts with alien life forms, and by cryo-freeze units containing the DNA of the great conquerors of the world, which will one day be combined to give birth to the ultimate leader, who will spend an inordinate amount of time wearing a ridiculous snake-head bodysuit and green cape and yelling, “THIS I COMMAND!”
Missouri itself is known by some as the Cave State, with over 6,000 surveyed caves, many of which are open to the public. Meramec, at least according to Meramec, is the jewel in this subterranean treasure trove. Tracing its origins back some 400 million years, the cave served as shelter for the local American Indian tribes, who I assume used to hide in the cave whenever their native brothers from nearby Branson came by with flyers advertising Chief Red Moon’s Osage Stampede and Dinner Theater featuring the comic stylings of the Osage Nation’s number one comedian, Drops His Breeches. Some time in the 1700s, a Frenchman by the name of Jacques Renault discovered that the cave was rich in saltpeter, which was mined for use in gunpowder production just in time to facilitate America having had just about enough of the King of England getting in their face.
Gunpowder production at Meramec Caverns continued up until the Civil war, when a band of Confederate rebels blew the powder mill up. Among the rebels was a guy by the name of Jesse James, who would rise to some prominence and who would use the caverns as a hideout throughout his illustrious career as a bandit and hellraiser. In 1933, the full extent of the cavern was surveyed, and in 1935, it was open to the public for guided tours. Once the home of local Indians and infamous bank robbers, Meramec caverns was developed, walkways were put in place for easy access, and the main hall became the site of a grand ballroom and, judging from the advertisements hanging up, an occasional roller disco. A gift shop and restaurant, all within the cave, were also opened.
After trying on various novelty hats in the gift shop (do you know that the guy who invented the baseball cap with the fake mullet hair attached to the back became a millionaire because of that moment of inspiration???), we began our tour. A sullen teenager, with the look of a sullen teenager forced to do something by his parents while on vacation, decided Ellie and I were the best company of the lot, most of whom were retirees and bikers (everywhere I go, bikers are always taking tours and stopping to read historical markers). From the teen’s opening salvo of, “Heh, caves are like big pussies,” we knew we were in for a treat. When we came to the rock outcrop that looked like a penis, he pretty much imploded with juvenile glee, where as we merely studied it in a sophisticated and responsible manner.
Despite our impromptu teenage narrator, and despite the high level of development in the cave to make it tourist-friendly, Meramec Caverns is really pretty impressive. Among its signature formations include: the Wine Table, a massive six-foot high slab of onyx propped up by three naturally formed legs; the Mirror Room, in which a naturally occurring pool so perfectly reflects the cave ceiling that it creates the illusion of it being a massive cavern rather than a shallow pool; and the Hollywood Room, where various TV shows and movies that tended to feature young boy protagonists getting in a heap a’ trouble (Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, that kid from Lassie) were filmed.
I still found the coolest part of the cave to be the massive, natural-looking tunnel right at the beginning of the tour after you pass through the Ballroom. Statues of Jesse and Frank James seem surprised to see you at various points along the tour. At some point, as the difference between stalactites and stalagmites was being explained to the group, our teenage ward offered up the sage observation, “Stalagmites, heh. Looks like big piles of shit,” which caused a rotund elder gentleman in a checkered shirt, suspenders, and a WWII Veteran baseball cap to whirl around and angrily bark, “Look, you little jerks, you may not give a damn about any of this, but some of us want to be here, so shut up!”
“No!” I wanted to cry. “We’re on your side! I don’t even know this asshole!” but it was too late, and in the book of that guy who probably stormed Utah Beach alongside my Grandpa Harley and punched Hitler in the face, I am just another disrespectful teen who deserves a slap upside the head. Alas.
The tour winds up with the Greatest Show Under the Earth. We took seats in a naturally formed auditorium facing a massive, amazing cave formation that serves as the “screen.” As patriotic anthems were blared over a tinny loudspeaker from 1930 or so, the tour guide flipped on and off various colored lights — always with an audible “ka-chunk” of the switches — culminating at the crescendo of “God Bless America” with a projection of the American flag being cast upon the wall of the cave, the vocals being eventually drowned out by the raucous applause of those in attendance.