A few months ago, driving south down Interstate 81 in no real hurry to get from New York to Georgia, I began to notice somewhere around central Virginia that I was surrounded by caves. It seemed strange how aggressively advertised they were in this part of the world. Their names tended toward the bombastic: Lost World Caverns and Endless Caverns and Forbidden Caverns and Lost Sea Adventure. They were the predominant genre of roadside attraction, their billboards jostling for space with those for nearby truck stops or for grim sentiments along the lines of “Lust Drags You Down to Hell.”
It wasn’t only an accident of marketing. Look at a dot map of cave systems in this country, and you’ll see a disproportionate concentration in Appalachia, a long and distinct smudge roughly parallel to the Eastern Seaboard. This is cave country, where there are enough holes in the earth that they’re split into two broad categories: “wild caves,” which necessitate athleticism and gear and courage, and “show caves,” their kitsch, consumer-oriented counterparts. Carefully stripped of all danger or spontaneity, show caves are engineered for tourism and maximum visual spectacle. The show-cave experience is less like spelunking and more like visiting the painted Styrofoam sets of a 1960s sci-fi movie.
Though show caves are not a specifically American phenomenon, their American iteration comes with a unique whiff of desperation and alluring entrepreneurial grift. See Virginia’s Luray Caverns, for instance, home to the “Great Stalacpipe Organ,” which produces tones via rock formations rather than metal pipes. See Niagara Cave, in Harmony, Minn., with its underground wedding chapel; Lost Canyon Cave, in Branson, Mo., with its subterranean bar; or Meramec Caverns, outside Stanton, Mo., which has been credited as the birthplace of the bumper sticker. They belong to that vernacular culture that developed in tandem with the flowering of America’s highway system, alongside motels, miniature-golf courses and roadside attractions like the world’s largest frying pan or ball of twine. See Ruby Falls, in Chattanooga, Tenn., where on billboards and barns for miles in every direction, you can’t escape the slogan: “See Ruby Falls.”
With its blend of equal parts hucksterism and natural beauty, Ruby Falls is emblematic of the show-cave business and its origins. Leo Lambert moved to Chattanooga in 1928 with a dream: to drill a hole into the center of a mountain. He hoped to restore access to some old caverns for tourists by way of an elevator shaft; in this way, he hoped to make a fortune. Several hundred feet into the sediment, however, a jackhammer hit a gust of air, revealing an entirely new entryway into some stranger, unexplored depths of the Appalachian Plateau. Lambert climbed into the hole and didn’t return for 17 hours. When he did, it was with breathless stories of a mystical-seeming waterfall, 145 feet high. “We travel through the valley,” he was known to say in those years, “but if God gives you a vision, that is a glimpse of the reality he has planned for you.” Lambert could understand this sort of discovery only in terms of divine providence. In any event, he was still a businessman.
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