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Going Underground

August 13, 2014

Lost Sea Adventure

Today we saw very little sunlight for two reasons.

For one, both of our activities were under ground. We started with a visit to the Lost Sea, the largest underground lake in America. The lake is, of course, inside a large cavern. A tour was starting just as we got there, and they held it up for a minute so that we could buy tickets a join them. This was a good sign.

The tour starts with a walk down the yellowest cave entrance ever.

Lost Sea Adventure

Then there’s a guided stroll through the cavern. The cavern is rather light on interesting cave formations and thus not all that exciting to walk through, but it does have one extremely rare cave formation that we haven’t seen anywhere else: anthodites, which are little clusters of crystals that look a little like frozen Fourth of July sparklers,

AnthoditesOK, so this is not a great photo, but trust me, anthodites are pretty cool. In fact, you have to trust me, because they appear in only a handful of caves in the world (50% of the entire world’s anthodites are in the Lost Sea cavern).

We also learned a bit about the history of the cavern. Like many caverns throughout the country, it was used during prohibition not only as a secret place to make moonshine but also as a speakeasy. However, in a cave like this one the low altitude and high humidity allow the human body to consume much more alcohol than usual without feeling the effects. This was great for business at first, as people drank like crazy. But then as they walked up the jagged staircase to leave, the altitude rose, the humidity dropped, and the alcohol hit them like a ton of bricks, often knocking them out entirely, at which point they fell back down the stairs and took with them anyone else on their way out. The cavern tavern thus went out of business pretty quickly.

The walk ended at a floating dock and turned into a very slow boat ride across the underground lake. That, too, was not especially exciting, mostly because even with the artificial lighting it’s too dark to see more than 40 feet away or so. Even without seeing it was interesting to be floating on a lake inside a cave. And the water is naturally high in minerals so dipping our hands in the water made them feel all soft and nice, like after you come out of the Dead Sea in Israel. Making it a little more interesting were the rainbow trout. Yes, there are a few hundred rainbow trout living in the underground lake. How did they get there? I’m glad you asked because it’s an odd little story …

Lost Sea rainbow trout

Apparently in the 60s when the cave was opened as a private business, the government populated the lake with rainbow trout to conduct experiments on their adaptability. Rainbow trout need a real current to reproduce, though, so when the original batch of trout died out there were no babies taking their place. As a tradition, the cavern repopulates the lake with trout every year and feed the trout every morning.

Overall the experience was not supremely exciting but it was a fun way to start the day. Two things made it even more enjoyable. First, our tour guide, Julia, was awesome: funny, friendly, and really knowledgeable, not just about the cave but about the country in general. (People asked some weird questions.) Second, there was another father and son on the homestretch of a multiweek cross-country road trip. They were from Texas and had gone west to California, then north to Montana, and then all the way to Boston before heading back toward home, where they’ll be in a few days, just like us. The son looked like he’s maybe three or four years older than Sam, but it was really great to meet a pair of kindred spirits, even briefly.

From there we had a five-hour drive into the heart of West Virginia. I’m not much more of a fan of five-hour drives than you are, especially after the miles we’ve covered over the last few days. But a few things made the drive more enjoyable.

Before we left Tennessee we finally got that car wash we’ve been needing so desperately. I know it may not seem like a big deal to go without a car wash for a while, but when you drive at dusk or later and you’re not in a major city, the amount of bug splatters all over your windshield and grill gets pretty gross. Windshield wipers have no effect in cleaning this mess, even with copious amounts of washer fluid, and there’s only so much you ca do with the dirty little scrubby/squeegie at the gas station. So the car wash didn’t just make the car look better, it provided piece of mind.

We also started the drive with the top down, which always adds an element of fun. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate for long. It quickly got cloudy and even a little chilly, and stayed that way for the rest of the day. Considering the ridiculous flooding going on at home I am not going to complain about the weather

Also, we’re now a mere Rhode Island license plate away from getting all 50 states for a second time. We saw yet another Alaska plate today. It’s kind of funny how Sam is now so familiar with each state’s license plate design that he often knows the state just by the color. Of course, when you spend too much time staring at cars, they sometimes stare back.

Cow on a truck

Creepy. Just creepy.

Another thing you notice when you spend a lot of time driving in unfamiliar territory is the sometimes odd names of the towns. Today, for example, we drove through Bland, Virginia. The best part, though, had been building for days. On Monday in Arkansas we stopped for gas in Palestine. Then on Tuesday we stopped for gas in Lebanon, Tennessee. We joked that on Wednesday we’d drive through Syria, Virginia. And sure enough, we did.

Damascus, Virginia

Eventually we made it to West Virginia. We’ve been to West Virginia twice before but we didn’t do any sightseeing there; we just drove through on our way to somewhere else. This time around, partly to avoid retracing earlier steps and give us some new places to see and partly to give West Virginia its proper due, I decided we’re going to get home by cutting right across West Virginia from south to north and seeing some of the more interesting places along the way.

West Virginia is known for four things. In no particular order:

1. beautiful mountains and lakes along the Appalachian mountain range

2. widespread poverty

3. racism

4. coal mining

For various reasons I decided not to include numbers 2 and 3 in our itinerary. Number 1 we’ve seen plenty of already, like when we visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park and drove a large stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway two road trips ago. That left number 4: coal mining. Lucky for us, there’s an actual coal mine in Beckley, West Virginia, that gives tours.

Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine

We got there a few minutes before 5 p.m. On the coal mine’s website it says the tours are given every half hour and last for about a half hour, so I assumed we’d get on the 5 p.m. tour. Of course, in real life, the tours last for 45 minutes and run on a rather irregular schedule. The next tour was at 5:30. When a business’s website and its reality don’t match up, that’s often a sign that they don’t quite have it together.

The second sign came as we toured some supposedly original wooden buildings on the grounds of the mine while we waited for our tour time. Looking inside one of the buildings, Sam noticed something out of place in the back corner:

Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine

It’s right above that bucket in the back. Don’t see it? Here, let me zoom in for you.

Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine

Yes indeed, ladies and gentleman: an “authentic” electrical outlet, preserved ever so carefully from the 1880s.

Sign number three came a few minutes before our tour started, when an older man who was clearly a tour guide walked into the ticket office and said to the ticket clerk, right in front of Sam and me, “Please tell me we don’t have anyone for the 5:30 tour.” Thankfully, that guy was not our tour guide.

And back underground we went.

The guy who was our tour guide was by far the funniest person we’ve encountered on this trip. Unfortunately his humor was all unintentional. I’m going to be as polite as I can by saying he’s a bit past his prime as a tour guide. He was certainly knowledgeable, and he even mentioned casually that he used to be a coal miner himself. BUT … he was the slowest talker I have ever met, and that is saying a lot, as I come from a family of extremely slow talkers. Each … sentence … took … minutes … and … then … he … would … pause … interminably … before … beginning … the … next … one. Every. Time. And he found other ways to make words take extra long, too, like telling us that the mine opened in “the year eighteen … hundred … and … eighty. And it wasn’t just his speech that was slow–everything he did looked like it was being played back on half speed from a recorded version. Every time he pointed out something to us with his flashlight, he continued flashing on it long after he had finished describing it. Every time he stopped the tour tram it took him a few minutes just to get out to walk over to whatever it was that he wanted to show us. I swear the same exact tour could have been done in 15 minutes if the tour guide spoke at a normal pace. It certainly didn’t help that he focused on the most mundane details possible, like the miner’s lunch pail. Yes, toward the end of the tour we got a 10-minute explanation of a cylindrical metal lunch pail that was used by an actual miner. Mr. Slo-Mo explained that the lunch pails had to be metal or else the rats would get into them. This could have turned into an interesting story about dealing with rats as a miner but instead it was like that scene in Forrest Gump when Forrest meets Bubba and Bubba starts listing all the ways to cook shrimp.

If … your … hands … are … dirty … and … you’re … eating … a … Little … Debbie … cake … and … you … throw … the … last … part … of … it … away, … the … rats … will … get … it. … … … If … you’re … eating … a … baloney … sandwich … and … you … throw … the … last … part … of … it … away, … the … rats … will … get … it. … … … If … you … have … your … lunch … in … a … paper … bag, … the … rats … will … get … the … whole … thing. … … … Rats. Will. Steal. Your. Food.

I was trying to focus on sympathizing with the impossibly difficult conditions under which old-time coal miners had to work, but the guide was far too distracting. By the end of the tour Sam and I could barely contain our laughter. The mine “campus” is next to a public park that has a swimming pool, and when our tour ended and we were alone I did a spot-on impression of the coal mine tour guide giving a tour of the pool, including an explanation of why it’s filled with water. Sam was in stitches.

When we left we had a situation we haven’t had to deal with in a long time: no major driving to do. Thursday morning’s activity isn’t far from the Beckley mine, so we checked into a nearby motel, grilled dinner on the motel grounds, and spent the next couple of hours watching Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, which I’ve been wanting Sam to see since we took the Warner Bros. studio tour two weeks ago. We don’t own the DVD so I immediately ordered it on Amazon. Although the DVD was of course delivered to our house in New York and not our car in who-knows-where, it came with free access to the movie on Amazon Instant Video. So instead of waiting until we got home, we logged onto the motel wifi, snuggled in bed, and watched it here. Sam LOVED it. He laughed at all the parts I knew he’d laugh at, and he repeated all the lines that my little sister and I repeated to each other throughout our childhood.

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