Limestone caves are formed over thousands of years. A fissure forms in rock and the space is pried apart by the relentless force of water. There is nothing down there that resembles life above ground. Animals are scarce, save for the solitary fist-sized sleeping bat, the crickets that resemble hermit crabs, the translucent salamanders. Water drips both from above and seeps out of its cracks. Every curve requires thousands of years to form.
Some caves have rippling walls whose surface is smooth to the touch—the result of speed and pressure over thousands of years, ghost rivers long gone. Other passages in that very same cave present thin pools of still water framed by small walls that grow from the ground up. Caverns are often marked by jaw-like formations of stalactites and stalagmites. Formations might fan across walls that allow light to pass through, tap them and they’ll echo with brief noise before falling silent again.
A cave dies when the water runs dry. I don’t know why this happens but I don’t mourn its occurrence. Such is life.
But it’s always thrilling to see caves with water still in them. One cave in China has a waterfall TK feet underground. A cave thirty minutes from my front porch has a lake whose floor is pocked by the 85-year old footsteps of a curious man who mustered only a few steps before turning back.
To walk through one is a kind of splendor.
It’s not uncommon in the Ozarks to have caves on your own property. I amazed by people who aren’t constantly in them. I suppose the appeal wears away over time.
You can buy caves. One nearby long-known as Truitt’s Cave has been for sale for years. There cave restaurants, allowing diners to eat in its shadowy throes. There are many now closed local caves that used to be show caves, back when Highway 71 was the only suitable route between Chicago and New Orleans and road-weary travelers sought distractions.
Indians used caves for shelter. Jesse James famously pirated them as hideouts. Today’s tourists flock by the millions to bear witness to caves across the globe, entries into some mythic underworld.
There is nothing haunting in them to me, nothing particularly spiritual. I love allegory. I love the idea of sinkholes. When the ground opened up below a Florida man’s house and swallowed him whole, my heart skipped for the grotesque thrill of it. They never found him again. It is believed that the river Styx ran in the subterranean, and I love the allegory of rivers running underground, but they do not move me in any way.
But most of all there is this: we humans do not belong here in these caves. It is not our earthly place. We belong on the outside, above the cave walls, we belong where our footsteps move across hollow ground.
What I love is this: the moment when you’ve gone too far, when the cave walls narrow as to prevent passage and you must turn back, return to where you came from. The air warms as you near the exit. Step from a cave’s shadowy mouth and out into the blinding, glaring day. Continue on. Walk forward into the light.
These photographs were taken in Bluff Dwellers Cavern in Noel, MO.