Day 414: Spelunking For Dollars

originally published February 17, 2013

If you’re a fan of the earth, so much so that you enjoy being completely ensconced in it, do I have some vacation spots for you. You see, ever since humankind moved out of caves into 4-level split duplex suburbia, we have been fascinated with returning to caves, shining lights on walls and marveling at the twists and turns inside.

I’m sure some psychologist would point out the phallic imagery of poking our noses into Mother Nature’s forbidden crevasses; I’m not quite bold enough to spend a kilograph juggling those cerebral chainsaws like an amateur. I’d like to hang out with that guy though. I bet he’s a riot at parties.

Fortunately, nature has given us a number of show caves, dank troughs of murky curiosity, ready to accept your tourist dollars. Also fortunately, some of them are endowed with an interesting backstory.

Like the Cave Without A Name.

Located in what I like to call the Pelvic Tissue of Texas, about eleven miles away from the town of Boerne (motto: “Home Town Of Ann B. Davis From The Brady Bunch – Suck It, Fair Oaks Ranch!”), the Cave Without A Name is stacked to the gills with limestone, with rooms large enough to host a dozen concerts every year. Even more fascinating is the vast repository of cave bacon.

My heart skipped a beat when I read that term, and my finger twitched in that way it always does when I suddenly need to call my travel agent and get somewhere immediately to try a new kind of bacon. Alas, ‘cave bacon’ is just another way to describe flowstones, sheets of calcite that hang like curtains where the water flows. This seems like an unnecessarily cruel prank by nature, hanging stuff on its walls that looks porcinely succulent and edible.

The Cave Without A Name housed a moonshine distillery in its uppermost cavern during Prohibition, and was finally opened up for public exploration in 1939, once a staircase had been built from its sinkhole entrance to the fun stuff below. Proprietor Jim Horn held a contest to name the thing, and was struck with a pang of sentimentality when a young boy suggested the cave was too beautiful to name. Wiping a tear from his eye, Horn proclaimed it to be the Cave Without A Name, and the boy – who won $250 for winning the contest – was quoted as saying, “Fuck yeah! They bought it!”

If you’ve ever read The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer – and if you haven’t… really? – then you probably remember that a cave factored into the tale, when Tom and Becky Thatcher were in danger from Native American Joe (I read the censored version – the word ‘Injun’ would have marred my delicate nature). The place is based on an actual cave near Hannibal, Missouri, where Mark Twain grew up. Tourists began flocking there because if its place in literary history, so someone wound up calling it Mark Twain Cave.

Of course, that’s not the only credit that earned this cave some notoriety. Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell, who toiled by day mending wounds in Hannibal, found the cave to be a perfect spot in which to conduct his fiendish, downright wonky experiments. It seems ol’ Doc McDowell liked to do some funny things with corpses. Not kinky-funny (I hope), just some odd experiments. Like the time he tried to petrify his dead fourteen-year-old daughter.

He placed her body into a copper pot, filled it with alcohol, and suspended it in a musty corner of the cave. At one point, some kids wandered in and found out what he was doing, and an angry mob of Hannibal citizens – probably armed with pitchforks, torches, and maybe a large butterfly net for the good doctor – stormed in and forcibly removed the girl.

A couple decades later, Mark Twain Cave (still without a name at this point) housed a secret cache of weapons for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. A young Jesse James, who was a member of the savage group known as Quantrill’s Raiders during the war, learned of the cave’s handy location. So when he happened to stage a train robbery years later in the Hannibal area, he used the cave as a convenient hideout. He even signed and dated the wall of the cave, a sight that tourists can gawk at and post blurry pictures of to their Facebook walls.

If you’re tired of that oppressive Austrian summer, why not head to the Alps and track down Eisriesenwelt, a massive limestone ice cave about forty kilometers south of Salzburg. It takes seventy-five minutes to tour one kilometer of caves; there are actually forty-two kilometers to the whole thing, but only one is open to tourists. That’s just as well – spending just north of an hour walking around icy stalagmites whilst frozen stalactites stare down at you from above, evoking memories of that scene in the second Die Hard movie when Bruce Willis stabs that guy in the eye with an icicle, that’s probably enough.

The gem inside this cave is an urn containing the ashes of Alexander von Mörk, a speleologist (that’s a spelunker who went to cave school) who used to lead expeditions into the depths of Eisriesenwelt. He was killed in 1914 during WWI, and I guess some little frozen corner of an inner mountain was where he’d wanted to spend eternity. Creepy? Maybe.

Lastly, there’s Peak Cavern in England. Also known as… the Devil’s Arse.

Until 1915, the cave was populated with troglodytes, people who actually chose to call a cave home, despite the availability of indoor plumbing elsewhere. The proper name for the cave was actually Devil’s Arse for years, because of some growly, flatulent noises that emanate from it when flood water drains away. When Queen Victoria was due to arrive for a concert at the cave, the name was formally changed to Peak Cavern so as to avoid shocking her with the vulgarity of the common people.

Queens hate that shit.

Of course nowadays there’s money to be made in guiding the peasant class on walking tours through caves like this, so the website proudly invites people to ‘Visit the Devil’s Arse’. How could anyone pass up an opportunity like that?

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