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On our way west across Arizona, Venue read about—and made a spur of the moment detour for—Grand Canyon Caverns, a once-landmark tourist site found just off historic Route 66, now somewhat left behind and forgotten after the construction of the I-40 highway bypass.



Our interest was piqued by one anecdote in particular: the story that explains how the caverns—which are not very close to the Grand Canyon at all—originally got their name.

"The caverns went through many names until 1962," reports Arizona Central, "when an experiment was performed to determine their size." It turns out there is quite a strong internal breeze in the cave, as tides of air move through the underground cavities in tune with daily atmospheric temperature changes outside. This is sometimes referred to as "cave breathing."

But one passage that was far too small for human exploration appeared to be where the air was originating from and then disappearing into again everyday. This presented a bit of an impasse. Would it be possible to determine where the air was coming from and whether or not the capillary-like series of passages too small for humans to enter might not reach the surface again nearby? This would not only help to determine how large the caves really were, but could potentially lead to the discovery of other explorable subsections and entry points.



Serving as tracers, "[r]ed smoke bombs were set off in the caverns," Arizona Central adds. "Two weeks later, red smoke was spotted wafting from a crack in the Grand Canyon, 63 miles away."

This vision of the earth's surface as an unmappable labyrinth of lungs, smoking 63-miles' worth of passages from the Grand Canyon to these caves, as underground red clouds slowly worked their way through invisible passages of geologic space, was too much for us to resist. Venue thus pulled off the highway to visit this old mainstay of western road trips, now slightly past its prime, its unpaved parking lot lined with sun-bleached dinosaur statues and cowboy figurines.

Of course, Venue has spent a great deal of time over the past year of travel visiting mines and caves, hiking or riding elevators deep underground more or less whenever possible. But Grand Canyon Caverns was unique for our subterranean visits in several unexpected ways, as the site had a few surprises in store for us.

The most obvious of these was the fact that Grand Canyon Caverns had actually been chosen to serve as a civil nuclear shelter for emergency use during the Cuban Missile Crisis.



The site is thus as much a show cave as it is a disused bunker, this dual-use made explicit by a surreal, stadium-sized room stacked full with old barrels of crackers. Yes, crackers—this would have been the food of the post-apocalypse.

Our guide here seemed understandably dumbfounded by the idea that anyone at all would want to survive a planet-irradiating nuclear war by hiding underground with hundreds or perhaps thousands of others, eating Saltines, praying for the batteries not to go out, and using the cave itself as a giant latrine.

The desperate absurdity of it all was only heightened by her claim that the planners responsible for stocking the cave with sufficient food provisions and fresh water to sustain 2,000 people for two weeks had only included three rolls of toilet paper.



As it happens, there is also an open-air hotel room in the middle of the cave (it can be rented for a mere $700 a night).



The room—really just an elevated platform with waist-high walls and no ceiling—comes complete with heated shower, emergency telephone (whose primary purpose seems to be to warn you when tourists are on their way down the next morning), TV/VCR, and several shelves' worth of old VHS tapes for your viewing pleasure.

Apparently, comedian Billy Connolly has slept there.



Because the cave is privately owned, there is no legal compulsion for, and seemingly no owner interest in, preservation of the cave as such. This is a shame, because it is one of the largest dry caverns in the world (shortly after Venue's visit, explorers broke through to a new, never-before-seen cave), and filled with gorgeous flowstone formations and selenite crystals.

Instead, Gertie the Ground Sloth, a laser show, and a New York City fire escape compete with their astonishing surroundings.



Having said that, though, the over-riding effect of all this—a kind of Brady Bunch Baroque, or suburbanized faux-extravagance installed below the surface of the earth—is historically and spatially interesting in its own right, if for no other reason than to see how one generation of human owners tried to make sense of, and inspire popular interest in, their subterranean holdings.



Indeed, the colored lights and dusty VHS tapes perhaps make the lifeless, breathing silence of the cave itself, and its 63 miles or more of invisible passages, stretching all the way to the Grand Canyon, all the more extraordinary.

While the ticket-holding public stands there, thinking of Billy Connolly on an emergency telephone in the darkness, eating Saltines, the planet itself calmly inhales and exhales through huge and unmappable lungs successfully disguised as the disco-lit underground space all around them.
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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