From the Notebook: Beneath Luray

During our whirlwind tour of the East Coast,

my wife and I stopped in Luray, VA, to visit my uncle.

While this article and video were ultimately not accepted

by the newspaper to which I submitted it,

I’m still fond of how they turned out.

Many years after my Uncle Bill moved to Luray and opened a deli on Main Street, my wife and I finally carved out some time to visit him. From the highway, the Shenandoah Valley sneaks up on you: Flat greenery gradually sculpts itself into hills and ravines. Quaint farmhouses and meadows emerge at the foot of Appalachian mountains. By the time you reach Luray, the landscape is calendar-perfect.

Bill greeted us in front of his store, on an afternoon so humid that the streets were vacant. He served up a couple of gourmet paninis, and before we had a chance to thank him, he said, “Friend of mine stopped in about an hour ago. Told him you were coming, so he gave me two free passes to the Caverns.”

We’d been fighting fevers for the past few days, which had ruined our plans to camp and hike in the Shenandoah backcountry. But we knew the value of the tickets ($25 each), and we couldn’t pass up such generosity. After we’d exchanged some small talk and gratitude, we promised to come back next summer and headed down the road to the Caverns.

At first glance, the Luray Caverns smack of tourist trap. A ring of souvenir shops circumscribes the parking lot, and the visitors looked like the socks-with-sandals variety. Like Wall Drug and Jellystone Parks, the Caverns had the potential to swallow us in low-rent commercialism, which felt particularly off-putting with runny noses and sinus headaches.

Yet the Caverns are breathtaking: Once inside the visitor’s center, you open a door, descend some steps, and there you are, within the massive grotto, surrounded by a symphony of stalactites. Fifty or so tourists pooled in the main chamber, until a skinny girl, bespectacled and looking barely pubescent, announced: “WEEEELCOME TO LURAY CAVERNS. MYYY NAME IS REANNA, AND IIIII WILL BE YOUR GUIDE TODAAAAY…”

Nerdy and atonal as she was, Reanna (not her real name) was a pip. She led us down the concrete walkways, identified the major landmarks, and explained their significance in a shockingly robust voice. Now and again she would offer a corny joke, delivered so flatly that it took us a second to catch it.

“So what is the difference between a cave and a cavern?” I asked. “We were trying to figure that out on the way here.”

“Okay, so a cavern is one chamber connected to many chambers,” Reanna said, tapping her fingers together with each syllable. Her voice became surprisingly pleasant at close-range. “A cave is just one chamber.” She started to walk away, to attend to guests tarrying in a distant corridor, but then she stopped and added, as if suddenly remembering: “Or an R and an N.”

I mouthed this response, confused. “R and an N…” And then it clicked. “Oh, cave, cavern. Got it.” But she had already skipped away.

What can’t be overstated are the mythic geological forces that shaped the Luray Caverns, and how perfectly these formations are arranged. At one point, near the end of the tour, Reanna informed us that we’d walked more than a mile underground, yet the promenade was easy. Instead of the stifling claustrophobia we might have expected, the Caverns felt like a movie-set, carefully arrayed to maximize its scenic possibilities. And yet the only human imprint was the walkway; everything else was shaped by water and sediments, drip by drip, for hundreds of millions of years.

We surfaced into the gift shop, and I stashed my camera. The Luray staff encourage photography, and I’d taken a decent amount of video. Filming underground isn’t easy, but I had a vague notion of piecing together a poor-man’s IMAX film. When we reached the parking lot, the day was still sweltering and lazy. Although we’d just explored its bowels, it was still hard to conceive of the world of tunnels and catacombs that sprawled beneath our very feet.