From the mouths of caves -- to the gift shop

May 04, 2000|By Kevin Cowherd

I HAVE just returned from a visit to the famous Luray Caverns in Virginia, discovered in 1878 by a tinsmith who gazed at the awesome subterranean formations before him and thought: Someday this will be the site of a really cheesy gift shop.

Actually, I hadn't been in a cave in years, not since a fifth-grade field trip to the famous Howe Caverns and its cheesy gift shop in upstate New York.

But touring the Luray Caverns with my wife and 8-year-old son, I was again reminded of that old caving axiom: If you've seen one stalactite or stalagmite, you've pretty much seen them all.

Oh, sure, the formations are breathtaking in their beauty. And so are the enormous chambers that you walk through, and the huge stone columns and shimmering lakes.

But all this breathtaking beauty seems to run together after a while.

And pretty soon you find yourself thinking: How late is that gift shop open again? What'd they say, 7 p.m.?

In any event, our tour got off to something of a shaky start when, five minutes after we began, our guide, Beverly, announced that she was about to throw up.

You think I'm kidding about this, but I'm not.

Apparently, the smell of Clorox, which is used throughout the caverns to kill fungus, had made her sick to her stomach.

"I don't feel very well," she said suddenly, her face ashen. "There's a trash can up ahead, and I think I'm going to ..."

Then she hurried off around a bend, never to be seen again.

Well.

So now there are about 25 of us standing there in the semi-darkness of this enormous cave, each wondering silently: Where is the brave man or woman in our group who will step forward to guide us out of the shadows and into the light?

Suddenly the man standing next to me said: "We're never getting out of here."

This, of course, set just the right tone of panicky desperation you want at a time like this.

Fortunately, at that moment, a guide named Andrew came hustling along.

Andrew's voice was not quite as loud as Beverly's, and he seemed a bit more business-like. But the important thing was, he didn't appear as if he was about to hurl.

Let's face it, this is always an important quality in a tour guide.

You can talk all you want about the guide's knowledge of the subject, ability to impart it, enthusiasm, etc. But for my money, all that isn't worth a damn if the guide throws up on your shoes.

So once again we set off to explore the cave as Andrew pointed out various formations, some with colorful nicknames such as Snoopy's Dog House and the Flying Camel.

Actually, some of these nicknames seemed to be a bit of a stretch. For example, as we stared at the mass of stalactites identified as Snoopy's Dog House, Andrew said: "You have to use your imagination and imagine those two bumps over there are, um, Snoopy. Y'know, sitting on top of the dog house."

Ohhhh-kay, then.

About 45 minutes into our hourlong tour, we came to the Wishing Well, a large underground pool of water into which thousands of coins are pitched by visitors each year.

Once a year, the coins are removed and the Luray Caverns staff uses the money to throw a large, drunken party at which pigs are roasted on spits and nude games of Twister are played until all hours of the morning.

No, that's not true. Actually the money is donated to various charities, as Andrew took pains to point out.

(By the way, there was still no word from Beverly at this point, and we all hoped she was OK. We also hoped that whatever trash can she had, um, visited had been discreetly removed.)

Near the end of our tour we came to the Great Stalacpipe Organ, billed as "the world's largest musical instrument."

This is your basic, garden-variety organ activated by an automated system that taps various stalactites with electronic mallets to produce tones of "symphonic quality."

This sounds like it should be pretty impressive, right?

But basically all you're seeing are a few tiny pieces of metal hit a stalactite, which is impressive only if you think clinking a spoon against a glass is impressive.

Then it was time to wrap up the tour and climb the steep stairway to the cave's exit, conveniently located at -- ta-daa! -- the gift shop entrance.

Boy, you talk about being a visionary.

That tinsmith back in 1878 was good.

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