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Maddy Frank | Longreads | June 27, 2023 | 15 minutes (3,981 words)
The caves of Missouri are bleeding. I had forgotten that—the way the rocks under the earth constantly drip, the water coming from places I cannot see. There is no singular source. It filters through the limestone like blood through lungs.
I write it down in my notes app so I remember: the caves of Missouri are bleeding. I don’t usually like metaphors like that. They feel scientifically false, a romanticization of something that is already astounding and beautiful enough without poetry. But I can’t help it. I feel inside.
I am inside—inside Meramec Caverns—a privately owned system of caves in the backwoods of Stanton, Missouri. It toes the line between natural wonder and tourist trap: At 400 million years old, this place has earned its awe, but there is also an extensive gift shop selling artificially dyed stones and nameplate necklaces. Lester Dill bought the cave in 1933 to turn it into a “show cave,” a place for tours and spectacles and entertainment. His picture is up on the Meramec Caverns website—he stands in a leopard print jacket, pointing up to something out of frame, smiling wide at the camera. A quintessentially American opportunist, he reportedly invented an early version of the bumper sticker to promote the caves, and this land has been in his descendants’ possession ever since.
Missouri, specifically the Ozark region spanning the southern half of the state, is prime real estate for caves. That’s why Missouri is called “The Cave State.” It has what is known as karst topography—soluble limestone and dolomite landscapes riddled with caverns and sinkholes. Swiss cheese, right under our feet. Acidic water moves through the ground, slowly dissolving the rocks, a process called dissolution. There was something, and then, unbearably slowly, there is nothing. A cave is an absence.
There are only three of us on today’s tour of Meramec Caverns. That leads me to believe the extensive advertising isn’t working, bumper stickers or otherwise. I drove past dozens of billboards during my hour-long drive down Route 44 from St. Louis. Some of the billboards, posted between anti-abortion and adult video store signs, just read, Cave. Others say, Cave Ice Cream and Cave 60˚ All Year. One reads, Meramec Caverns Salutes Veterans. as if these rocks are a human entity. My favorite asserts, Kids Love It. At 26 years old, I am the youngest person in this hole in the ground by a few decades, though I don’t have much competition. The middle-aged couple from Oklahoma on the tour with me are the only non-employees I’ve seen since I arrived at the almost empty parking lot.
Our guide is a man in his late seventies named Arthur. He’s dressed in a state park ranger sort of uniform. His hair is mostly gone, the perfect set-up for a joke: “Be careful, if the water from the cave drips on your head, it’ll burn your hair off.” He points to his own scalp. There’s even a fresh wound on his forehead, still red and the length of a thumb. The woman next to me looks concerned. He clarifies, “I’m just joking. It’s a very weak acid. It’s like, you guessed it, carbonated soda.” Despite telling us he’s from California, he talks in a thick Missouri accent, all the words running together uninhibited by consonants.
I can’t hear him very well over the sound of the running water anyway. I’m relying on my own observations to take notes: cave pearls and yellow icicles and smells like ROCK. If I don’t write this stuff down, I don’t know how long it will last in my brain. I have a terrible memory. I have lost large swathes of time—family vacations and childhood birthdays, months in high school and college when my mental health was especially bad, classes I took and presents I received. Even the recent past eludes me. I can remember crying last week, for example, but not what the crying was about. I can remember around a memory, but rarely the memory itself. Nothing is medically wrong with me, at least not as far as I can tell. It has always been this way. My brain is constantly leaking acidic water, and these facts are just being dissolved away, leaving a karst life behind. It doesn’t matter if the thing was traumatic or not. It is simply gone. So, I’m trying to take note of everything.
Everything is wet. The limestone looks rounded and glossy. The rock formations are drips and dollops, pillars of melted cream-colored candle wax and inorganic limbs. We weave and duck between these rooms of calcium carbonate and even with the path, I am aware of how one could get lost in here. Arthur keeps turning out the lights behind us so we exist only in the current space. It makes it hard to have any situational awareness. I can’t figure out which point of darkness we walked out of or which one we’re walking into next. He shines the flashlight on the floor where he wants us to go and the three of us follow it like moths.
Part of my disorientation is due to lack of information. I tried to research Meramec Caverns before I came here today, but because this place has been privately owned for so long, the largest source on these caverns is the cave’s own website. Buried among pages about panning for fake gold and purchasing tour tickets is a simplistic history page, nary a citation in sight. Fifty percent of the timeline is dedicated to Lester Dill’s feats of promotion.
Meramec Caverns seems to be operating almost entirely on lore. There’s science too, but they sell this experience through tales. The infamous outlaw Jesse James is plastered all over this place—his name, his likeness—but there is little evidence to confirm that he ever used this cave as a hideout like they claim. They call it a local legend, but it feels more like a rumor, a guess, a padding of the timeline.
There wasn’t much left behind here by Jesse James or the people who came before him, though it’s said that the Osage people did sometimes use these caverns, and others like it, for protection during bad weather. That name, “Osage,” is French, an example of the way certain stories in America are purposefully forgotten and rewritten. The Osage call themselves 𐓏𐒰𐓓𐒰𐓓𐒷 (Ni-U-Ko¢n-Ska, “Children of the Middle Waters”). Frenchman Philippe François Renault is credited with the discovery of Meramec Caverns in 1720, but the Osage natives are the ones who showed it to him. From Osage stories, Renault thought there might be gold in the cave, but instead he found saltpeter (potassium nitrate), a valuable oxidizing agent used in gunpowder. Over 300 years later, in 2021, the Osage Nation sought to purchase a different Missouri cavern, Picture Cave, but it was sold to the highest private bidder. That $2 million transaction took place despite the cave being a sacred indigenous site, one covered in prehistoric glyphs. We don’t just want to hear stories, we want to own them, profit from them, even if they’re not ours to begin with. Lester Dill was one of many.
Meramec Caverns contains no such drawings, though there is an unsettling statue of Jesse James and his brother crouching over their loot in one of the limestone rooms. They look surprised to see us. Jesse has his hand on his gun.
Someone once told me that geology is like storytelling: piecing together rocks of eras past to create a narrative, the earth’s narrative, our narrative. But that makes the missing facts, the missing chapters, even more noticeable. Geologists call these missing bits of time “unconformities”—layers of rock from vastly different time periods butting up against each other, the years connecting the two completely gone. In parts of the Great Unconformity (which is clearly visible in the Grand Canyon), for example, there are over a billion years missing. We don’t know where they went, at least not for sure. Our best guess is a large-scale deglaciation event. Receding ice, miles thick, can eat just about everything, it seems. Water has a knack for stealing time. The dissolution that created these caves is evidence of that.
My undergraduate degree is in geology. As time goes on, and as I’ve completed my master’s in creative writing, this science degree has become less an aspect of myself and more of a fun fact. It’s a way to say, hey, I wasn’t always a struggling creative. But I can no longer remember how to read a phase diagram, nor can I recall the optical properties of different minerals, and this hurts me. The me who knew those things seems like a different person. I can’t even place the absence of my geology knowledge in my brain. Most of the time, it’s like it was never there.
The things I do remember feel random. I remember that Herkimer diamonds are double terminated quartz (that means pointy at both ends). I remember that a species of eurypterid are the state fossil of New York. I remember that the mineral kyanite glows rainbow under cross-polarized light. I’m not sure what to do with this information besides hold it, wedge it between the two hemispheres of my brain in hopes it won’t slip out. It’s not useful to me anymore, maybe, but it must’ve been useful to me once. I am worried about losing these facts because I’m worried about losing the person I was when I needed them. She was smart. She knew how to read a rock’s deformational history.
I can’t even read my own.
Forgetting is a part of living. This issue of mine is more of an inconvenience and less of a cause for alarm. But an inconvenience it is, and I worry about the future, when my mom is gone, maybe my dad too, and there’s no one to fill in the blanks for me, no more geologists trying to complete the story. I won’t remember how many times I went to summer camp or when I started horseback riding or how to catch fireflies in mason jars in the hot Alabama evenings.
As we walk down a narrow hallway, Arthur talks about the formation of stalagmites and stalactites. The water seeps through the limestone, and over thousands of years, millions of years, the calcium carbonate precipitates out, forming the rocks—stalactites on the ceiling, stalagmites on the floor. That’s another fact I’ve always remembered. They reach toward each other like The Creation of Adam until they create a column. The rock is dissolved away and then spat back out. It’s the same composition, but it doesn’t fill up the space like before. It’s a retelling of an old story, a dissolution of the original.
Meramec Caverns is filled with little spotlights. They point at everything in all directions, and yet this place still feels dark. Every time I think my eyes have reached the back of the cave, they fall on a hold of pitch black, and I know there must be something else back there, more rooms and stories and geological hideouts, but I can’t seem to picture the ambiguous darkness. It’s a cave, but I can’t conjure up an image, despite having multiple references for what it might look like. There are too many unknown factors.
I’ve toured caves two other times in my life: once on a field trip to Howe Caverns in New York in college, and once when I was young, on a family excursion to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. On the way to Meramec this morning, I called my mom and asked about the latter. I told her I couldn’t picture much from the trip except for the gift shop. My mom said I was 8 years old. She said I was slightly timid, and then she said, “My recollection is that you found it fascinating…but there is something scary about going below the Earth.” Yes, I can still conjure up the feeling of descending the metal stairs into Mammoth, watching my feet the whole way down so I don’t slip. I know I was a careful child because I am a careful adult. Even now, I’m ducking when Arthur tells me to duck, holding the railings and staying away from the edges, watching my feet so I don’t slip into the depths.
We enter a room called Mirror Lake. Arthur tells us this area is sometimes called the karaoke room. He launches into “Heigh-Ho” from Snow White to demonstrate the lovely acoustics and the notes bounce off the rock columns that stand in the middle of the lake. It sounds beautiful in a way that makes me wonder about his past. He hasn’t turned the lights all the way on yet, and there’s no way to tell how far back the sound is going. The pool of water just beyond the guardrail looks dark, impossibly deep. When he finally flips the main switch, the couple and I say, “Oh, wow” in unison. The water is, in fact, not deep at all. The stillness of the surface just reflects everything—images of the limestone columns are doubled—six feet of stone reflected in 18 inches of water.
In a moment between looking up from the water to the stalactites, the lights go out and it’s as if the world has been deleted. There is no perception of any kind. There is only cave, only absence. It makes me want to hold my breath. My body tells me that even the air is gone. By the time we’ve all figured out what’s happening, the spotlights are shining again. “The power must’ve switched from the generator back to main,” Arthur says. That explains the noise I heard above ground. I had thought it was an excavator. There’s a terrible storm making its way across the entire region today. Arthur says the power has gone off a few times. Flooding prevents us from seeing the lower levels of the cave (we were refunded seven dollars of the tour price because of it). “I’m glad you got to experience absolute darkness,” he says. That’s the one part of a cave tour that I have always remembered. Absolute darkness is difficult to recreate in any other circumstance.
I don’t like picturing the flooding down below—guardrails and stairs drowned in water. Maybe there’s still a spotlight on down there, but probably not. I bet it’s like the deep ocean, past the twilight zone, the kind of place humans aren’t meant to go.
Despite this knowledge of danger, and my resistance to the image, I still want to see those places, look at what’s inside. Like cliff edges, I’m drawn there, as if whatever is visible beyond my current field of view will tell me something I need to know.
Over the last 200 or 2,000 or 200 million years, large earthquakes have opened new drainage pathways in the rocks at Meramec Caverns, emptying the water and revealing new rooms and entrances. In some places, like “The Wine Room,” you can see a dark line on the wall of the cave, a mark of where the water level used to be. Arthur is telling us about a formation that looks like a three-headed camel, a six-foot-tall structure named “The Wine Table” composed of grape-shaped aragonite clusters, but I’m busy looking up at that line. I am underwater.
I am reminded of grounding, a technique in which a person walks barefoot on the Earth’s surface to realign their natural energy. People claim it can help with all kinds of physical and mental ailments, but I don’t buy it. The Earth may have energy, but it uses that energy to destroy itself: tectonic plates slipping under and above one another, mountains breaking open, rocks dissolving and washing away. Even if that energy could be transferred, I’m not sure that I would want it. I am already missing enough of myself. The Earth creates too, of course, but it’s at the cost of itself.
My missing bits, my faulty memory, have become a more noticeable problem in recent years because I’ve been writing more. Memoirists are supposed to remember the things that happen to them; that’s kind of the whole point. My mom often jokes that I write fiction, not nonfiction, because my reconstruction of events is so unrecognizable to her. I have always been an unreliable narrator of my own story.
There’s a phrase that gets thrown around creative writing workshops: “present absence.” It refers to something that a reader can feel in an essay, but is not actually there—that is, written down. What is left is the shape of that thing. It might be the narrator’s motivations, or something more specific, like the narrator’s relationship with her family. The consensus is almost always that this present absence should not be absent. I received this comment several times in response to my vague references to my mental health and my sexuality and my thoughts on my older brother, among other things. I was told that all the substance was in the ether of my essays, floating around in the empty space between lines of dialogue and paragraph breaks.
I worry sometimes that my brain only functions in this ether. I worry that I am mostly ether, in fact. That so much is missing that my only hope is to write it down and trust that the reader can fill in the unconformities for me.
I’ve heard people describe limestone caves as “cathedrals” because the stalactites and stalagmites look like a massive organ or carved arches. I can almost picture the altar in Howe Caverns, an artificial glowing heart placed into the limestone floor. There’s something about caves that feel intimate to the point of being holy. Arthur points out a human-shaped stalagmite tucked away in a corner. “That’s the Virgin Mary,” he says. She’s lit up with a spotlight, turned away from us, head hanging low. Humans love to create meaning like that, place it somewhere quiet and damp and safe. We see the perfect version of us in a lump of stone. We trace our hands on cave walls. We want to remember what it felt like to be here.
I try to take a picture of her, but my phone just captures the rock. That’s nice too; it’s the truth of the thing.
I’d like to think that the truth exists outside of our memories and narratives, beyond photographic evidence, as if it’s written into the fabric of the fourth dimension, but sometimes that’s hard to believe. Memory is inherently fallible and endlessly moldable. We influence the witnesses. We are the witnesses. It’s a messy and unfair system controlled by those in power, the ones who write the stories. Consequently, peoples and landscapes and histories are crossed out and rewritten and retold, separate from the truth, especially in the depths of America, even down here in the belly of Missouri.
But sometimes the person writing is you, and the story is yours.
So what do we lose when we lose our own memories? Do we lose the story? The real one? Am I no longer the person who measured glacial striations in a geology lab in northern New York because I can’t remember what it felt like to trace the grooves with my index finger? Those lost days must still influence us; the shape of them must be present. A cave is an absence, yes, but you can still occupy it, wander around, see where the stalactites and stalagmites are almost touching. What I’m trying to say is, I am still the person who went to camp in the Adirondack Mountains three summers in a row; it’s in what the water spat back out, my tendency for homesickness and my dislike of cold morning swims. I am, in part, my karst topography.
I do not know what I will retain of this trip. It will still be with me tomorrow, I’m sure, but I cannot predict the days after that. I do not know where the water will seep.
The tour ends with a light show, which is less of a show and more of a slide presentation, with stock photos of soldiers and happy couples walking on the beach and bald eagles projected on a curtain of limestone 70 feet high. The three of us sit in the first row of some metal bleachers. If nothing else, this place does feel like a theater. “God Bless America” plays in the background over surround sound speakers. When Mount Rushmore appears, the faces of those long dead men distorted from the uneven surface of the cave wall, it takes everything in my power not to laugh. I think I am supposed to be feeling patriotic, as if these rocks, which have existed here for millions of years, hold that history in their forms. It takes 100 years to precipitate one cubic inch of limestone. We are nothing but inches here.
At the beginning of the tour, Arthur told us not to touch the rocks. “If it’s a rock, don’t touch it,” he said. “The oils from hands can be damaging.” I’m all for the preservation of natural landscapes, but what is the owner of Meramec Caverns doing if not leaving his mark? This place is not being refilled with precipitated limestone, but with polished, artificial narratives. Plastic stones.
After the music fades, we are asked to clap for the people who have fought for our freedom, particularly the ones who lost their lives. There is no mention of the stories of Pre-Columbian Native Americans who used these caves as shelter, or the enslaved peoples who used it as a stop on the Underground Railroad. We don’t talk about how Philippe François Renault, the man falsely credited with the discovery of these caves, was also the man who first brought enslaved Africans to this part of the continent. This American story is full of holes. Our reluctant claps hit the contours of the cave and then disappear.
We exit the caverns the same way we came in, though a large open space they call “The Ballroom.” Groups of people used to drive their cars in here for parties before they realized that the trapped fumes were dangerous. There’s a disco ball hanging from the bumpy dolomite ceiling. Arthur shines his flashlight on it and the light starts to bounce but with just the four of us standing here, it doesn’t feel much like a party. People gathered here because it stays a consistent 60 degrees, the perfect dancing temperature. I think the billboard should’ve specified that.
I move at a glacial pace toward the exit. I like feeling blanketed by these rocks, removed from my own head, occupying some other gaps instead. I finally make it to the gift shop. I browse through the T-shirts and baseball hats. I stop at the nameplate necklaces and look for my own name etched in imitation gold. I can’t find it and I take that as a sign to leave.
Arthur holds the door for me as I walk back outside. It’s still pouring rain. The water is spilling over the gutterless roof.
“I was hoping it would’ve stopped by now,” I say. I squint at the Meramec River raging in the background. I’m stalling. I don’t want to get wet.
“Not until 2 p.m.,” he responds, filling in the unconformity for me. That’s still an hour and a half off. I can’t wait it out. The water will continue to fall.
I thank him for the tour and make a run for it. By the time I reach my car, I’m soaked.
Maddy Frank is a memoir and science writer living in St. Louis, Missouri. She is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis’ MFA program. Her work has appeared in Brevity and Driftwood Press.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Peter Rubin