Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Virginia Travel Journal - Day 2 - April 25, 2011

Today began with an all you can possibly gag down breakfast buffet of industrial strength, commercial grade food-like substances. Alex and Tori were both greatly enamored of the “Make Your Own Waffle” attraction featured in the hotel feedlot.

I waded my way through some coffee and even rashly attempted a waffle before setting off in search of an auto parts store for more brake fluid and some brake cleaner. It seems that having a car that stops on demand will be desirable when driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I eventually found what I needed and got busy making the hotel seem even more attractive by jacking my car up and fixing the brakes in the parking lot. An angry, sweaty guy doing auto repair in the lot can’t help but class up any hotel.

After I was sure that the car would stop, we packed up and headed off to spend the day underground exploring the caverns that all of Virginia seems to be built upon.

We began at Shenandoah Caverns (“The Only Caverns in Virginia with an Elevator!”), part of a sprawling entertainment complex so tacky that it made me tingle with joy. Our guide through the caverns–Cleatus or Cooter or Jeb, or whatever his name was–seemed intent only on getting through the caverns as quickly as possible. Early in the tour he asked a visitor what time it was.


“Well, that ‘splains it,” he drawled, “If’n I was at school now, ‘steada here, I’d be at lunch.”

I don’t know what that explained exactly and I really had no desire to probe the matter any more deeply.

We saw some very cool rock formations including the Bacon Formation. Sadly, it looked much better than the waffle I had eaten at breakfast.

(Bacon rock!)
As we wound our way through the incredibly beautiful caverns, the guide snapped off the lights in each room as soon as we left it, no doubt in an effort to remind us that this was his lunch time. He seemed to hesitate at one intersection.

“Usually we go that way next,” he said, indicating one passageway, “But shoot, I been doin’ this here tour for like two and a half years. It’s boring. I think I’m gonna mix up a little today.”

He then ushered us down the other passageway.

Throughout the tour, Kerri was pursued by a slightly creepy guy in sweat pants who was insistent upon telling her about his experiences climbing through the sewers of New York City in his youth. He seemed to find some parallel between the sewer systems of New York and a network of stunningly beautiful natural caverns in rural Virginia. If that parallel exists, I have been grievously misinformed about New York’s sewers.

When our tour ended and we finally released the guide so he could have his lunch, we slipped over to the other attractions included in our ticket price. Main Street Parade USA was a sprawling warehouse of parade floats “From ACTUAL Parades!!”
 (creepiest parade float ever.)
We wandered around for a bit and then went to The Yellow Barn, which did not have a motto or a slogan, but I will happily supply one for free. “Lots of cheap, Chinese crap for sale at unreasonably high prices!”

We slipped away for lunch before heading off to Luray Caverns, alleged to be the largest caverns in the eastern half of the country.

What these caverns lacked in elevator service, they made up for in sheer volume of people crammed into the caverns. The caverns were breathtakingly gorgeous. They went on and on, each room opening into another, even more amazing spectacle. We went on a 1.4 mile stroll through the most gorgeous rock formations I have ever seen. They were even more beautiful than I can possibly imagine New York’s sewers to be.

We meandered through the caverns, listening to the self-guided tour and allowing hundreds of people to race past us. They all seemed to be in a terrible hurry to get to the gift shop so they could buy a souvenir from the caverns they barely saw. They raced from point to point along the path, listening to the self-guided tour headsets at ear-battering decibels.

“Did you hear that?” a wife would yell to her husband.
“What?” he would yell back.
“It says that the formations grow one cubic inch every hundred and twenty years!” she would yell.
“I’m not at that part yet!” he would yell back.
I saw one lady ask one of the many guides posted throughout the caverns, “How many more rooms are there until we can go to the gift shop?”
“A lot,” he answered.
And she seemed disappointed.

The only person who didn’t seem to go whizzing past us was one old man, tastefully bedecked for a day of caving in a three piece suit. He pottered along near us, seeming to match his pace to ours solely for the purpose of irritating me. He struck up random conversations with everyone he passed. He began a few conversations with me, but the tour headphones gave me an excellent cover for pretending that I did not hear him.

(Me ignoring the creepy old guy.)
He eventually gave up on me and turned to another man nearby. “The air seems remarkable pure down here,” he observed. Then he chuckled and added, “But I just polluted it a bit.”
We ran a little then.
In the caverns, we saw some amazing sights. My favorite was Dream Lake, a shallow pond so still and smooth that it gave an amazing illusion of depth by reflecting the stalactites above it.
 (the stalagmites on the bottom are actually reflections of stalactites!)
There was also a small pool that served as a wishing well. Our audio tour explained that it was nearly six feet deep, but typically it was filled with up to four feet of coins. Last year–because whenever people see water, they feel compelled to throw coins in it–they shoveled over $50,000 from the well and donated it to charity. I’m considering installing one of them in my front yard.
Or applying as a charity.
After the caverns, we exited through the Olde Tyme Gift Shoppe and managed, somehow, to resist buying the ubiquitous polished rocks that seem to be a staple of every gift shop in the world.
We went across the street to the Historical Museum. It was sadly devoid of people, most of them were busy to buy huge foam hats at the Gift Shoppe cross the street.
The museum had some fascinating displays, including an actual Civil War field shower so amazingly complicated I realized that the south lost the war because they were too busy trying to figure out how to set up their showers.
There were also old clothes, ice skates, weapons, and, perhaps most exciting of all, a dog-powered butter churner. For real.
And then there was another Gift Shoppe. Sadly, they did not sell replica dog-powered butter churners, but I asked to be put on the waiting list should they every start production again.
Satisfied with our subterranean exploits for the day, we headed back to the hotel so the kids could swim and Kerri could spend the rest of the evening scrambling to change all our hotel reservations for the rest of the trip.

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