In honor of the last week’s Independence Weekend, I’d like to jump ahead in time and geography to Stanton, MO, where we’ll find what claims for 200 miles preceding to be “America’s Favorite Cave.” I was drawn to the site primarily by an incessant, completely crazed advertising campaign carried out on I-44, which was once Route 66.
Some of the roadside signs, like the one above, are older and anchored on the walls and rooftops of barns or other buildings. As you can see from the barn, one important draw for the caverns is their purported use as a “Jesse James Hideout” back in the days of armed train robberies.
Other signs advertised the Meramec Caverns Restaurant, the Meramec Caverns Motel, the Meramec Caverns canoe and raft rentals, the Meramec Caverns boat tours, the Meramec Caverns free parking lot and the Meramec Caverns campsites.
Each sign and reference and attraction gave me a new reason to pull off of the highway, so when the sun began to set just as I approached the Stanton, MO exit, I decided immediately to pull a sharp right and pray for a vacancy at the Meramec Caverns Motel.
I drove through a short stretch of national park before the narrow road opened up into a giant parking lot filled with school buses and canoe trailers. On my right was a turn off up a small hill to the motel and on my left were a smattering of campsites, RVs and pick-up trucks blasting music and having barbecues.
Above the overcast parking lot a blob of dark clouds began to swirl and expand, and a lot of cars began to pull nervously out. It seemed we might soon be facing a hurricane-tornado-electric storm scenario, so I figured I should get down into the caves stat. I drove up the hill to the motel first and had no problem checking in. The older woman behind the desk chatted with me about my travels and, winking through her granny glasses, told me, “Now I don’t want you to worry sweetheart, we’ve got security here all night so there won’t be any problems now. Take care baby.”
Feeling more nervous about my stay at the Meramec Motel than I’d been before that statement, I jogged through the drizzle across the parking lot to try to make the last tour of the day. It turned out I had about 20 minutes to kill so I wandered around in the gift shop for a while.
Despite the excessive number of museums, truck stops, gift shops and souvenir stores I’ve been to in the past couple months, I don’t feel out of line characterizing the Meramec Caverns Gift Shop as the most insane place I’ve been to.
Most items had nothing to do with either the caverns, Jesse James, the surrounding area, or any time periods discussed on the tour. There were a huge number of items for the home, like this sailboat sign, even though the only body of water near Meramec Caverns is a river, and there’s no sailing on it, only canoeing.
Since there is canoeing, maybe this sign is a little more relevant:
Maybe. Then again none of these seem to say anything about the caverns themselves, so we should check out that stuff probably.
And finally, my genre-defying favorite:
Throughout it all, a nervous bat hung from the ceiling trying to blend in.
When our tour was finally called, I went to the back of the visitor’s center towards the entrance of the caves. Our tour group consisted of a family of five that had just gone swimming and were still wearing their suits, a man in his late thirties in a trucker hat, and me. Our guide was a young rail of a man who gave us a full force tour performance, complete with long pauses for laughter as his jokes echoed awkwardly over the heads of our small group.
Our first stop was an old shack that used to be used my moonshiners. Curators of the caves found the shack in a nearby hillside and transplanted it into the cave’s entrance.
Adding a lifesize moonshiner for ambiance.
Next we saw the “Ballroom,” a giant open area in the caves where residents used to hold square dances or perform plays, now used mostly for gospel performances, Easter sermons and the Caveman Classic Bodybuilding Contest.
Musty smelling red and white folding chairs lined the “room” and a disco ball hung from the “ceiling.” We all nodded solemnly as our guide explained the process for renting out the space and then moved further into the darkness.
Next up was a drafty spot where someone named Art Linkletter sent a couple to “honeymoon” in the 1950s as part of a show called “People Are Funny.” After staying there in caveman outfits for 10 days, they were sent to Hawaii for being good sports.
As we wound through the lower levels of the cave we saw some really cool stuff: caverns, stalagmites, stalactites, etc.
The three little girls on the tour all tried to take pictures of the darkness without flash (so as not to disturb the bats… shudder), their damp mother joylessly grilled the tour guide asking whether the government had come in yet to make sure everything was being preserved properly, and me and the thirtysomething man decided together which rock formations were the coolest and scientifically tested the sturdiness of the railings along the path.
Along the way — — — — – — — — — — — — — — — — — — – — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — – —- — —————————————————————————————————————————
Along the way we saw one of the biggest stalagmites (or maybe it was a stalactite?) in the the world, which from certain angles just looks like Jabba the Hutt.
We also saw a site where they filmed an episode of Lassie:
Along the path you could actually see a couple wheel marks from where they were rolling equipment around for the filming, which is pretty cool.
Another crowd pleaser was the history of Jesse James’ gang, told to us next to a lifesize representation of one of their heists:
Legend has it that in the 1870s Jesse and his gang would hide guns, loot and horses in the cave and ended up hiding in the caves themselves for three days straight after the Gads Hill Train Robbery (during which the James-Younger gang allegedly checked all the train passengers’ hands to make sure they weren’t robbing any working men). An excited Sheriff thought he’d caught them when he staked out the entrance, but the ever-ingenious Jesse found another way out.
A similar statue marks the entrance to the visitors center:
Our final stop was a rock formation called “The Stage Curtain” because it looks like a stage, complete with curtain, orchestra pit and balcony.
Our guide told us to grab a seat on some wet mesh benches, so the mother of three grumpily wrapped her towel tighter around her as her kids scattered and me and the other loner found seats higher in the stands. We knew we were nearing the end of our long, chilly walkabout, but none of us knew what our guide was talking about as he prepared us for a “finale performance” on the “stage,” which we knew to be an immobile piece of stone. As the lights dimmed and the orchestra music began to swell, I realized this might be a good time to get out my camera.
The lights were done live by our tour guide at his podium (at certain points you can here him frantically pushing buttons and pulling levers) and God Bless America was sung by Kate Smith, although a friend suggested it sounds a lot like Ethel Merman, and I think I have to agree.
Kate Smith (with Dean Martin and a little bit of Lucille Ball)
By the time the tour was over, the rain had stopped and the sun was down, so I strolled through the campsites up the hill back to my motel and went to bed. At about 10:30pm I heard a man arguing loudly with his wife a few rooms down from me. Unfortunately that’s not an irregular event in the world of cheap motels, so when I heard the security guard knocking on their door I rolled over and went to sleep. I was awakened circa 11:30pm by yelling outside in the other direction. The woman’s voice was different now and sounded like the older woman who had checked me in earlier in the evening. The man’s low, angry mumbles were the same though. I couldn’t here what he was saying, but the conversation seemed to go like this:
Mumbling Man: ::mumble MUMBLE mumble::
Loud Old Lady: Oh so you’re gonna use THAT word? Why are you gonna go and use THAT word?!
Mumbling Man: ::mumble mumble::
Loud Old Lady: OK WELL FINE IF YOU’RE GONNA US THAT F***ING WORD MOTHERF***ER THAN WE’LL F***ING USE IT. YOU CAN GET THE F*** OUT OF HERE MOTHERF***ER JUST GET BACK IN YOUR MOTHERF***ING CAR AND TURN THE F***AROUND OUT OF HERE MOTHERF***ER
Mumbling Man: ::mumble::
Loud Old Lady: YEAH THAT’S F***ING RIGHT MOTHERF***ER GET THE F*** OUT OF HERE.
The next morning I went to the office to check out and she was still working. “Have a good sleep sweetie? Are you gonna go on the steamboat ride today maybe?”
“Good morning, um, well maybe, I haven’t decid-“
“Oh you’ve got to, baby, it’s the perfect morning for it. Don’t forget to grab some coffee from the restaurant, now take care honey and drive safe now.”