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Boston Chapter 6: Going Deep Underground

I have never quite understood the romanticization of famous criminals.

I mean, I just don't get it. People look at, say, the Mafia, or serial killers, and make them out to be some sort of romantic mythic figures, blazing their own path through life, heedless of the laws and mores of ordinary folk and occasionally feeding ordinary folk into wood chippers. I've heard that imprisoned serial killers actually get fan mail, often from women who offer them sex or marriage or both, and frankly I find it all bewildering (and just a touch unsettling).

Take Jesse James, for instance. What is it, exactly, that was romantic about this guy? As near as I can tell, the man was an illiterate, slave-owning, narcissistic sociopath who discovered a taste for killing people as a mercenary for the Confederacy and, after the war, privatized his former government service job by robbing banks and murdering clerks, students, tellers, and random passers-by--sometimes while dressed as Ku Klux Klansmen.

Just the sort of person you want babysitting your kid, right?

I mention Jesse James because some hours after leaving the Glore psychiatric museum, and with brains still reeling from the experience, we opted to stop at Meramec Caverns in the once-Confederate state of Missouri.

Meramec Caverns is a large cave system that's noteworthy for a number of reasons. It's geologically unique, sporting some of the largest-known limestone formations in the world. It was a part of the folklore of the Osage tribe of Native Americans, who used it for shelter. The cave system was said to be used as a waystation on the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War.

And apparently, Jesse James hid in it once.

Of all these factoids, it's the last one that gets the most press. In fact, as soon as you arrive, there's no question at all about what you'll be getting for your entertainment dollar:

I quite like cave systems, so when the idea of stopping in Stanton to check out the caves was floated, I offered an enthusiastic "yes" vote. We arrived just before closing, and bought our tickets from a fairly indifferent park ranger who explained to us that the caves were once used as a hiding place by Jesse James. From there, we proceeded through a huge cavern that's been turned into a gift store to the tour entrance, where another park ranger told us he'd be taking us on a guided tour and that the cave system was once used as a hiding place by Jesse James. In case we were wondering why the cave was famous, a neon sign helpfully advertised the little-known fact that the cave was once used as a hiding place by Jesse James.

We walked past a model of a small wood cabin that was, apparently, similar to a cabin once stayed in by Jesse James, through an enormous chamber that was in times past used as a ballroom, and then brought past a couple of statues which, the tour guide explained, were placed on the spot where a sheriff had discovered boxes known to have been stolen by Jesse James.

Occasionally, I consider the fact that more people know about small-time thugs like Jesse James than about Norman Borlaug, the dude who got considerably less fame by saving the lives of over a billion people, but I digress.

The cave is actually quite lovely. In a lot of ways, it's absolutely the perfect, Platonic ideal of a cave, with huge chambers and small passages and even an underground river. An underground river! How cool is that? Our guide explained that when Jesse James holed up there, the local sheriff cordoned off the entrance, but Jesse James was able to make his escape by swimming down the river and discovering a heretofore-unknown exit.

It's quite dramatic all on its own.

Apparently feeling that the natural wonder of sparkling, crystal-clear water rushing underground along a path that's dripping with all manner of limestone formations isn't enough, the cave's owners have put in a bunch of colored lights, to make it even more dramatic.

I do have to admit it's pretty.

The cave is altogether lovely even when it's not being lit like a bad 80s hair metal band.

The passing time was freaking our travelling companion Erica out a bit, as she doesn't like driving at night, but Claire and I had quite a lot of fun on the tour. At least those bits of it that weren't about Jesse James, who as I may have mentioned was a murderous, sociopathic thug with bad hair and in whom I am almost entirely uninterested. I got a lovely picture of Claire some way through the tour.

Shortly after this photo was taken, we arrived at the end of the tour.

I have no pictures of what awaited us there. If I did have any pictures, I would be reluctant to share them with you, Gentle Reader, on the grounds that, unlike Jesse James, I am not a violent, sociopathic thug with bad hair, and I bear you, my blog-reading public, neither malice nor ill will.

Indeed, it is with some trepidation that I even describe the horrors that await those who take the tour in mere words, for the experience is not for the faint of sanity.

Imagine, if you will, a vast, bowl-shaped chamber upon whose sides have been poured many tons of concrete, to better accommodate the stadium seating set therein. Imagine that this seating faces a quite lovely, and very large, waterfall of solid rock, the slow accumulation of limestone carried by the endless drip of water over a period of hundreds of millions of years--a breathtaking example of nature's subtle and profound beauty.

And now imagine the part ranger--the one who talked to us about Jesse James--playing a tape recording of what might once have been stirring patriotic music, many many decades ago, while presenting a light show against that magnificent backdrop of rock, complete with projected images of the American flag, by...

...I swear I am not making this up...

...furiously toggling a large panel full of light switches to make colored lights flash on and off.

It's a spectacle that I don't think could be found anywhere else on Earth besides a cave in the American South, a simultaneously cheap and cheesy display of faux patriotism that's almost, but not quite, a parody of itself, and so very, very, desperate in its sincerity. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it, and the memory of the spectacle has, I feel, filled a much-needed gap in my life.

I'm not quite sure how we left the cave. It's entirely possible that the combination of lights and sounds to which we were exposed had temporarily stunned my ability to form short-term memory, my brain seeking some Freudian mechanism to cope with the essentially un-copeable. Or, and perhaps more sinister, it's possible that we were exposed to some highly advanced form of neurobiological programming, planting the seeds of behavioral conditioning deeply into our psyches, awaiting only a television ad for Fruity Oaty Bars to transform us into unstoppable killing machines, unwitting foot soldiers for the new Confederacy or something.

Our behavioral conditioning for our new Jesse-James-loving, cave-dwelling Southern overlords complete, we headed out into the night. The next day would bring with it an experience that the eight-year-old in me will never forget.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 11th, 2012 02:37 pm (UTC)
Sounds as though the 'user interface' has changed a lot since I was there as a kid, I-don't-want-to-think-how-many-years-ago. If they were doing the Jesse James theme then, it sure doesn't stick in my mind as a memorable part of it. I certainly don't remember seeing anyone like 'lovely Clair' at that time!
Jan. 11th, 2012 04:29 pm (UTC)
The tendency to glorify criminals probably arises from criminality historically being the single alternative to being a component in a machine somebody else owns. The concept of inside-the-system liberty is an extremely new one and really cannot be said to have been proven out.
Jan. 11th, 2012 07:13 pm (UTC)
I have a good work friend who insists that I will have to watch The Godfather (which I've avoided successfully up to this point). Her main point seems to be that she likes it because she's of Italian decent. We'll see what happens.

On the plus side, thanks for sharing those beautiful photographs. I've been to Cave of the Winds a number of times, and have gone to Carlsbad Caverns twice (its historical discovery story is much more interesting, IMO, than "a psychopath hid here"). I've also been to a few smaller cave systems in my travels, but it was great seeing your pictures with and (especially) without the lighting.

Jan. 11th, 2012 07:47 pm (UTC)
As a former Missouri resident, I must protest. Missouri is not part of the South. At least, the parts of the state with paved roads is not!
Jan. 11th, 2012 11:21 pm (UTC)
Mostly irrelevant nit: Missouri was never part of the Confederacy, per se -- it was that rara avis, a slave state that didn't secede. So what's the Jesse James thing? (a) Missouri doesn't have a lot of famous people, period; we take what we can get. (b) Rural Missourians, especially in the Ozarks which were heavily settled by mustered-out Kentucky regiments, admire him for having fought for the Lost Cause. (c) Urban liberal and moderate Missourians admire him for robbing banks at a time when the banksters were even more evil than they are now. So, really, he's the whole package.

To your broader point, the pimping out of Meremac Caverns, they've always had this problem: how do you persuade lots and lots of people to come and see what is, when push comes to shove, just a hole in the ground? So, yeah, they've turned it into a gigantic montage of low-budget (because low-budget is what they have) folk art projects. I go down there every couple of years, and I try to relate to those parts on their own terms, try to see and judge them as folk art.

You didn't mention my least-favorite and most-favorite parts of the cave, even though they come nearly back to back: the Echo Chamber, which makes me quite ill, especially in contrast to the part of the tour where they kill the lights and the blowers long enough to give us a taste of sensory deprivation, where I wish I could pull up a lawn chair and just sit there for an hour or two.
Jan. 12th, 2012 01:32 am (UTC)
I agree. My school's mascot is the Viking, and I just want to grab people and say, "You do realize the Vikings were criminals on boats, right? Raping, pillaging...ya know, bad stuff??". Sigh.
Jan. 12th, 2012 03:11 am (UTC)
Now I'm trying to think of people who can realistically claim to have saved at least one billion human lives.

The only other one who comes to mind is Stanislav Petrov.

He is also not as famous as he should be.

(ALSO: I cannot shake the idea in my mind that it would have been pretty awesome if that neon sign was up there when Jesse James was using it as a hideout.)
Jan. 12th, 2012 05:17 am (UTC)
Aughhhh -- the geology geek in me is *appalled* at the idea of pouring CONCRETE and flashing colored lights in caves . . . I much prefer them in their natural state!

(I'm okay with huge caves providing some lighting, although I've also done straight-up spelunking and enjoyed it very much . . . but this sounds tacky as hell, and I would not have been pleased to have my encounter with Nature's majesty interrupted by "stirring patriotic music of decades past." *shudder*)

-- A o___O
Jan. 12th, 2012 07:42 am (UTC)
I much prefer natural wonders in their natural state as well. I find all the defacing here offensive, actually.
Jan. 13th, 2012 12:50 am (UTC)
I went to this cave in 2004 and had the exact same set of reactions. It was good to see "natural" caves again after that horrible experience.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )