Chamber of formation

Chamber of formation

Nothing prepared me for the subterranean wonder that is Luray Caverns, one of 4,000 known caves in Virginia, US. Not the brochures and websites touting it as the ‘largest and most popular in the East Coast’, or the vivid photographs from my husband’s earlier visit, or my visit to a similar cave system up in Montana called Lewis & Clark Caverns.

A fortuitous opportunity to explore Luray presented itself when we visited a cousin in Richmond, Virginia, 100 miles south of Washington DC. The route took us 113 miles northwest of Richmond through a picturesque countryside, where oak and pine forests alternate with vineyards and rolling farmlands.

Tobacco farms, I asked, remembering ‘Virginia tobacco’ and learned that tobacco cultivation is further south in the state. Virginia has over 62 per cent forest cover, but closer to our destination, it is 95 per cent in Shenandoah National Park.

Nostalgic fragment

Excitement leaped as we spotted the gentle swell of the approaching Blue Ridge Mountains. My mind raced back to 1983 when we students, with lusty, full-throated voices, had sung of a region far-removed from our North Indian realm, “Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah river...” never imagining that I would step into Shenandoah some day.

We had fleeting glimpses of farmlands dotted with massive brown rolls — bales of hay! Speeding past sparkling rivers, we learned of the confluence, further north-east, of impossibly meandering Shenandoah river’s South Fork with North Fork, to then become a major tributary of Potomac.

Intersecting the scenic Skyline Drive that weaves over Blue Ridge, we arrived in Cave Hill where Luray Caverns is located, diagonally across from the 117-ft-high Luray Singing Tower equipped with a carillon of 47 bells.

Luray Caverns, a registered ‘US Natural Landmark’, is privately owned and operated. Tours are aplenty; during summers, there is one every five to 20 minutes, from 9 am to 6 pm. For the hour-long tour, we forked out a hefty $24 each and rued over how on our trip to Patal Bhuvaneswar caves in Pithoragarh district, Uttarakhand, not a rupee was charged.

Gentle descent

We began the descent gingerly, recalling the challenging constricted passageway of Lewis & Clark caverns and Patal Bhuvaneswar’s steep 93-step near-vertical entryway, but here, it is facile enough. Inside, temperature year-round is 54 degrees F. A grill marks the spot where the first spelunkers slid into the caverns in 1878. The guide urges us to hold the rails along the paved walkway and not to stray from the group as lights are on timers.

A warm ochre glow fills the chambers. In shades of yellow, brown, gold, white, rust and cream, the earthy womb throws up dense clusters of ridged, columned, tubular and gnarled speleothems of all sizes. In hushed silence, the group treads softly, intensely soaking in the stunning grandeur of nature’s patient sculpting with tools — water, carbon dioxide and limestone rocks — happening beneath the Shenandoah Valley for over 400 million years.

Minerals dissolved in water form the colour palette, the guide informs. While white is caused by calcium carbonate, yellow, rust and orange show the presence of iron; blackish tinge is attributed to manganese dioxide, and occasional green streaks is the result of copper.

Apart from dripstones like sleek soda-straws, jagged stalactites and stalagmites, there are curtained flowstones like bacons, draperies and frozen waterfalls; stepstones like popcorns and blisters; poolstones like cave pearls! Certain speleothems grow one inch in 120 years, sometimes even 300 years!

In Pithoragarh, we found speleothems assigned names, and their associations deeply rooted in Hindu religion and mythology — Pandavas, Shiva, Airavat, Garuda... In Luray, the dramatis personæ are Washington Column, Shaggy Dog, Saracen’s Tent, Fish Market, Pluto’s Ghost, Titania’s Veil, Bride and Groom and two Fried Eggs!

We noticed that delving first 60 ft, then 100 ft, then pressing deeper to 160 ft below ground level on the 1.25-mile trail, formations progressively startle the imagination, and chambers widen enormously until Giant’s Hall, the largest and deepest vaulted space. Here, Double Column soars 47-ft-high.

Earlier, I was particularly enamoured by Dream Lake whose clear and shallow waters mirror stalactites above, utter stillness accentuating the fantasy element of the exquisite scene.

Stygian chasms & crypt

At times, the walkway borders forbiddingly stygian chasms. I peered into one when our guide pointed toward a massive stalagmite that had collapsed 7,000 years ago. We learned of skeletal remains of an American-Indian girl dating from 500-700 years ago been found near a formation, Skeleton Gorge. In the spacious Cathedral chamber, we assembled for an ultimate musical experience.

The world’s largest musical instrument developed 60 years ago, the Great Stalacpipe Organ, which uses rubber-tipped mallets to strike stalactites across 3.5 acres of the caverns. The solemn, sobering sounds intensified the enigmatic appeal of the caverns.

A smaller lake, Wishing Well, was tinged an astonishing green. A closer look revealed thousands of copper pennies thrown in by visitors. A board informs of annual collections being diverted to charitable purposes. Later, after a dekko of the superb vintage cars collection nearby, as well as a quick round of Luray Valley Museum, where I was delighted to see a 500-year-old Bible printed in 1536, we smugly departed from Luray.