West Liberty, Ohio. Spring 2010.
When I was younger, we used to go to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky. For some reason (probably because we had to travel out to state to get there), I got it into my head that those were the only caves in the whole United States, so I was always very impressed, even if sometimes it got boring. I mean, how many stalactites can you see before they all start to look the same? Though even then I had to admit that there was something stunning about cave formations - all this activity happening below our feet, water and rock becoming beautiful things long before there was anyone around to see it. Colors and crystals building up below ages before the lightbulb was a glint in Edison's mother's eye.
Later I would learn that those caves are just the biggest in the country, but not the only caves. The Ohio Caverns are far from the largest cave system in the country - they probably aren't even the largest caves in Ohio. But it's a popular attraction because it is, by far, the most colorful cave you've ever been in.
(Not that you'll see any of those colors in these pictures. But I did my best with a little camera and bad lighting. Just trust me - it's colorful.)
John the Tour Guide explains that the colors come from three different minerals; the dark silvery purple is manganese, squeezed out of the rock walls under the weight of the cave ceiling. The bright yellow and orange honeycomb formations are iron oxide stalactites. And you can't miss the breathtaking white calcite crystals. "No artist in the world can match that," says John as we gaze, slack-jawed, at the cave ceiling, the lights dimly reflecting off its cosmic swirl of color.
We're a small group, only five, so John lends us his flashlight, and tells us to shine it on the low-hanging rocks in a part of the cave we won't be going. "That's where the original entrance to the caverns was discovered. A seventeen-year-old boy found these caves when he tried to find out where the water was going after the rain." The landowner would charge visitors for the opportunity to be lowered into the caverns by rope to wade through several feet of mud, until they could go no further. They'd leave their names in dark black ink - the flashlight dances over the name KATIE, written in big block letters. "We don't take the tour down there anymore, because there are no rock formations," says John. "They've all been stolen."
The cramped passage opens up into what they call the "Fantasy Room," and it's full of calcite crystals. At the far end is the one they call the Crystal King - at 4 feet 10 1/2 inches and 400 pounds, it's one of the largest and most perfectly formed stalactites in North America. John tells us it's 200,000 years old. "Columbus discovered America in 1492," he says, "and that thing's grown about an inch since then."
The Fantasy Room leads into the Big Room, so called because it is the biggest room in the caverns. John points out to us the Good Luck Crystal. They used to let people touch this formation for good luck, until they noticed a brown stain beginning to form. Now it's called the Dirty Crystal. It looks like a pile of gravy.
In the Palace of the Gods, John stops us to point out where iron oxide formations give way to calcite crystals. "These are dual formations," he says, "and we're the only cave in North America to have them. They're very rare - you're lucky to see them." And we are. The iron oxide is incredibly light-weight and delicate, and it's a wonder they don't collapse under the weight of the dense calcite. One of nature's odd little miracles, I guess.
In the Jewel Room, John flips a switch and the caverns echo with "Beautiful Ohio," the official song of Ohio State University. That tune has ended every tour since 1298. "To be honest," says John, who's been a guide here since the mid-1970s, "I'm a bit sick of hearing it."
There are sixty stairs straight up to the surface. It's a crisp 54 degrees down in the caverns, and the humid heat of this Ohio afternoon just can't wait to meet us. Walking back to the car, we try to pick out the underground route we'd just taken, but there's nothing around that would even indicate that America's Most Colorful Cave is underneath our feet in West Liberty, Ohio. Our house in on a hill, we remember, and if we didn't know there was a septic tank back there, we'd probably be taking a shovel to our backyard in search of our own personal crystal caverns.
If we find it, we'll lower you down on a rope for a dollar.
Learn more about the Ohio Caverns at their website.