UNC Press Publicity Director Gina Mahalek talks with Douglas Reichert Powell, author of Endless Caverns: An Underground Journey into the Show Caves of Appalachia.
For generations, enterprising people in the southern Appalachians have turned the region’s extensive network of caves into a strange, fascinating genre of tourist attraction. Show caves, as Douglas Reichert Powell explains in Endless Caverns, are at once predictable and astonishing, ancient and modern, eerie and sentimental. Their story sparks memories of a fleeting cool moment deep underground during a hot summer vacation, capturing in microcosm the history and culture of a region where a deeply rooted sense of place collides with constant change.
Endless Caverns is now available in both print and ebook editions.
Gina Mahalek: First things first: what exactly is a show cave?
Douglas Reichert Powell: A show cave is, most basically, any cave that has been fixed up so people can visit it. It’s definitely going to have lights. It’s probably going to have pathways, handrails, and a tour of some kind led by a guide. Typically, that tour is going to begin and end in a gift shop, because most show caves are privately-held, for-profit, commercial operations, and they’d like for you to part with a little more money beyond the admission ticket. Looking at the whole bunch of caves in Appalachia as a group, I’ve come to think of show caves as something like a genre of art: the cave itself is the canvas; lights and paths and narration are the medium.
GM: When did people first think to give a tour of a cave?
DRP: Really, who knows? There are a lot of ways you can answer that question. Cave art is the oldest creative work on the planet; I think the current record are some paintings in Indonesia believed to be over 35,000 years ago. Maybe that was the very first show cave? It’s hard to say exactly where the show cave as such started, since the line between show caves and the use of caves for cultural purposes like art or rituals is kind of blurry. Many of the caves in the Appalachian Valley that I write about have been in continuous use for pretty much as long as there have been people. Indigenous people decorated the inside of many of the region’s caves from the Paleolithic to the Cherokee Removal in 1830s. Sometimes the caves that have indigenous art in them were not used by Native people for anything else, like minerals or burial—meaning they went deep inside them just to express themselves creatively. The oldest full-fledged show cave in North America is Grand Caverns in Grottoes, Virginia, which opened for business as Weyer’s Cave in 1807 and has operated pretty much continuously since then. It’s a real gem of a show cave, once a standard stop for plantation gentry summering in the mountains, and now owned by the town and operated as a public park.
GM: How did you first think of writing about it?
DRP: My work has all centered on how people relate to the landscape around them, so one time, between projects, I found myself wondering, “what’s the most place-specific form of expression there is?” Show caves can happen only where they are: you can’t move them one inch. So I went to visit some caves and think about this some more. On that trip I realized two things. First, that there’s a whole network of show caves in the Appalachian Mountains, three dozen or more all related by history and culture as well as geology and geography. And second, nobody’s written a book about them.
GM: Why Appalachian show caves?
DRP: Well, I had to put some boundaries around the project, as there are show caves all around the world. But I have a particular interest in the landscape and the people of the Appalachian Mountains, which I have studied for many years, and where I was born and raised. When I played my little thought experiment at the beginning of the project, I was definitely trying to think of an Appalachian example. I like to think about the ways that these show caves, each one unique, sketch out a map of a region.
GM: When did you first go to a show cave?
DRP: The earliest trip I can remember is visiting Bristol Caverns, about twenty miles from my hometown, when I was in second grade or so. I think if you ask a lot of kids of my generation who went to elementary school in upper East Tennessee, they’d give the same answer. Bristol Caverns was the Cadillac of end-of-the-year school field trips as far as I was concerned. I have an indelible image in my head of a spot there on the hill that the cavern is in: there’s a grating on the ground and you can look through it down into the cavern’s largest room, which they said the Cherokees would use as an escape route. It’s a great cave, really gorgeous, and it’s still going; the last time I saw the folks who run it, they said that GPS had been a real godsend for them, making it a lot easier for folks to find them out in the country.
GM: So are you a spelunker now?
DRP: That’s a great word, isn’t it? Whenever I talk to people about this project, their eyes practically light up at the opportunity to use it. It’s just fun to say. But people who are serious about caving really don’t like that word. They use it in a pejorative way, to describe people who don’t know what they’re doing. I think the fact that the rest of the world likes that word so much is part of what cavers don’t like about it. I picked up a t-shirt at one place along the way that says, “What’s the difference between a caver and a spelunker?” and on the back it says, “Cavers rescue spelunkers.”
But in that respect, I guess I kind of am a spelunker.
GM: Do show caves damage caves?
DRP: Show caves certainly do change the ecosystem in the cave. Algae grows on cave walls around lights; spores and seeds ride in with visitors. Of course there’s litter even in the best-run caves and changes in the air pressure and circulation. [There’s] redirection of drainage and streams, introduction of stocked fish, disruption of potential bat habitats. Running a show cave, you can face some peculiar challenges. In drier caves like Mammoth, they have to deal with lint rubbing off of visitors’ clothes. And when you change a cave, it stays changed. They keep a record of everything that gets done to them. Whether or not you call that “damage” can be kind of a philosophical question. Why is some graffiti considered a valuable historical artifact and other [graffiti] considered vandalism?
But show caves are oddly resilient—a renewable natural and cultural resource. When a show cave goes out of business, as they often do, often the whole apparatus is still there. Sooner or later, somebody will take another shot. Show caves have stuck it out while entire ways of life have come and gone in the Appalachian Valley.
Douglas Reichert Powell is associate professor of English at Columbia College Chicago.