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After a long drive down toward the Shenandoah Valley, passing southwest across Pennsylvania into the mountains of Virginia, Venue arrived near sunset at Luray Caverns, just in time for their final tour of the day.

The surreally ordinary door through which you access Luray Caverns.

Discovered in 1878, the caves at Luray remain on private property. This means that, unlike their counterparts in the National Park Service, whose educational and recreational programs are constrained by strict ecological and historic preservation guidelines, Luray is a show cave—an artful blend of natural and built subterranean forms, visited by roughly five million people a year.

State laws extend into the subterranean world.

Also a popular destination for school field trips, the caverns are by no means wild or remote; they are well-lit, family-friendly, and not insignificantly altered, with as much as twenty percent of the original cave, our guide explained, removed or expanded to accommodate human passage.


The caverns, which extend throughout an area nearly sixty-four acres in size, are home to an array of formations, from dripping pillars that look as much like lithified swarms of ancient jellyfish as they do columns of rock to semi-translucent rippling curtain forms known as "cave bacon" and an extraordinary reflective lake filled with crystal-clear (although very shallow) water.

Their showpiece, however, is a nearly four-acre underground musical instrument made from the stalactites of the cave itself.

Yes, that's acres.


This organ, the Luray Cavern's website explains, was "conceived" by a man named Leland W. Sprinkle, "a mathematician and electronics scientist at the Pentagon."

The keyboard of the organ.

The instrument visitors now encounter, extensively wired up to the labyrinth of stalactites hanging down from the ceiling, actually takes its inspiration from an earlier version, as Russell H. Gurnee explains in his informative booklet Discovery of Luray Caverns, Virginia.

"A wall decoration not far from the Saracen's Tent," Gurnee writes, describing the "original natural instrument" from which Sprinkle's invention takes its cue, was not invented, as such, but instead "consisted of fifty-six graduated columns arranged like the pipes of an organ."

These graduated columns could be played: tapped with hammers or a flashlight, and resonant tones would result.

The mallets are remarkably easy to miss.

Sprinkle's organ relies on the same principle—tapping stalactites of different size and resonance, like a xylophone—but at a much more awe-inspiring scale. The organ keys are connected to small rubber mallets strung up to the rocks by way of five miles' worth of wires.

In the words of Luray's administrators, this "stalactite-tapping instrument" apparently took thirty-six years to perfect: "Three years alone were spent searching the vast chambers of the caverns to select and carefully sand stalactites to precisely match the musical scale. Only two stalactites were found to be in tune naturally."


The deliberately theatrical, Willy Wonka-like red keyboard adds to the sense of tourist gimmickry that pervades most show-caves—the addition of manmade wonders ("the largest musical instrument on earth!") sitting uncomfortably alongside the subterranean sublime.

The organ's music is, nonetheless, sonorous, omnidirectional, and highly atmospheric, as well as a virtuoso display of mechanical invention.

Instagrams of mallets and wires cobwebbed across the cave.

Only one man plays the organ, our guide informed us, but in his absence, we instead listened to a preprogrammed sequence, a kind of geological piano player; the song we thus heard was an old hymn by Martin Luther, called "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."

It percussed and rang across the cobweb of rubber hammers in speleological surroundsound, indicating through echoes that there were yet more distant parts of the cave we would not have time to explore.


We stood there for three or four minutes in appreciative silence, listening to this electrical contraption that formalized the otherwise random actions of an earlier generation of explorers who merely tapped on the rocks around them. A habit, you might say, became a machine.

Hearing the Earth ping with music written centuries ago, it was hard not to wonder how literally fantastic it would be to have one's own, secret access to some vast subterranean instrument wired together in tangles of valves, mallets, and wires—sitting alone at night in a mansion in the mountains of Virginia, perhaps, as a fog sets in, playing this buried machine that uses the planet itself as a resonation chamber, hollow cavities, from the smallest tunnels to gigantic chasms several counties away, shivering with the induced seismicity of your own music. Sounds hum up through your old wooden floorboards, and glassware in the kitchen begins to vibrate.

Until such a day, it's easy enough just to listen to Luray on CD: indeed, we picked up a copy of a 2001 album offered by the shop upstairs called Midnight in the Caverns by Monte Maxwell. In that recording, the triggering of the mallets is clearly audible as a kind of secondary clicking beneath the music, which gives the songs a slightly robotic feel—an extra layer of strangeness that, like the addition of the organ to the caverns, it didn't need but, in the end, isn't any the worse for. We put the CD on repeat for the next few hours as Venue left Luray behind.
 
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