Monday, February 20, 2017

Caverngasm 2016

The 2016 Hyland-Luecke road trip them was "Caverngasm 2016. It takes its name from a chapter on the "Civil Wargasm" road trip  in Tony Horwitz book Confederates in the Attic (link) My original idea was that we would visit every commercial cavern in Virginia. Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess. I'm glad we didn't. By the end, we were caverned out, and even though there was time for one more, neither of us wanted to. 

After a few caverns, I was convinced that every owner must subscribe to a trade magazine probably titled "Cavern Owner's Monthly." The tours were all very similar. Most interesting were the origin stories, most of which involved some boys and an animal:

Endless Caverns: "According to the tour operators, the cave was discovered by two boys in October 1879, while hunting rabbits " (Wikipedia)
Grand Caverns: "The cavern system was discovered in 1804 by 18-year-old Bernard Weyer, a young trapper, looking for his missing trap."
Dixie Caverns: "The caverns were found by a couple farm boys back in 1920 after their dog fell through a hole that led to the caves." 
So, if you want to find a cave, employ some boys and a dog.

Also, every cavern has to be somehow unique. Endless Caverns: "The longest commercial cave tour in the state of VA!" Grand Caverns: "America's oldest show cavern." Shenandoah Caverns: Virginia's only cavern with elevator service!" and "best cave bacon!" 

Since I was still in the agonies of my National Championship crash-induced sciatica, I was able to check out the area around every hotel every night as well. 


  • Best formations: tie: Grand Caverns or Shenandoah caverns
  • Best Tourguide: Natural Bridge Caverns
  • Best tour experience: Endless Caverns, because we were the only two on the tour. 
  • Don't bother: Natural Bridge Caverns--this is like going in a mine rather than in a cave.

Day 1 Two caverns

After a mostly on-time departure, we hit Endless Caverns, just outside New Market, VA for the 10AM tour. Score--we were the only people, so we got a personalized tour from Maria, our very charming tour guide. Endless Caverns is more of an RV park with an attached cavern. The formations are nice but not spectacular, but they haven't been endlessly beaten up like the ones in Grand Caverns. The private tour made up for the formations. 

Sandra and I in the "Cathedral Room" just before the cavern exit. 

After a quick lunch at a Mexican restaurant in New Market, we headed for Grand Caverns in Grottoes.
Grand Caverns bills itself as "America's Oldest Show Cave," since it opened for business in 1806. Unlike Endless Caverns, Grand Caverns was mobbed with people shuffling along in both directions (the caverns are mostly linear in and back out. The formations were certainly more spectacular than Endless Caverns, but also showed a lot more abuse. Almost all of the individual stalactites near the paths were broken off, presumably from the 19th century. 

We detoured onto the Blue Ridge Parkway on our way to overnight in Lexington, and stopped at the Humpback Rocks visitor center to check out the chickens. The visitor center tries to recreate a late 19th century homestead as it would have been in the hills. 

Sandra lectures the heirloom chickens (They are Dominiques--America's First Chicken Breed!--this was clearly a trip of superlatives.

Night walk observations: 

  • Dude with a headlamp weeding a traffic island at 4:30AM. 
  • Face to face with a skunk rooting through trash bags (the skunk, not me) Interestingly, I had smelled him (her?) 20 minutes before, while I was several blocks away.
Face to face with a friendly skunk out looking for a late-night snack. (He's right by the doorway in the center of the frame. I didn't want to get too much closer!) 

  • Special-needs guy doing a booming business selling newspapers at the corner at 5AM (I bought one too). Everyone who drove by seemed to stop and chat and buy a paper. 


Day 2 More caverns and some trains

Natural Bridge may be the oldest tourist trap in the country. The owners have been charging visitors for more than 200 years. As usual, I would have liked more history of the place, which also has a reenacted native american village and A CAVERN! We took in the cavern, whose tour guide was the most engaging of the four we visited. The cavern, which opened in the 70s, unfortunately was the least engaging of the ones we visited. It's more like going down in a hand-dug mine than a cavern.

Fun facts about Natural Bridge:
  • Thomas Jefferson bought it from the King of England in the 18th century. 
  • TJ mined a cave on the property for guano to make gunpowder in the war of 1812.
Sandra pointing at Natural Bridge. The highway actually goes over the arch. 

Sandra Hyland pointing to the entrance to Thomas Jefferson's bat-poop cave. 
How did I miss the Roanoke Museum of Transportation? Oh,right, I planned this entire trip in just a few days. We only found it because I googled what was in the area during our lunch stop there. We didn't leave anywhere near enough time. An actual working steam train had pulled in the day before and was still leaking water when we checked it out. 

Blacksburg night walk observations: 

  • Not too much to see in an industrial park at 4AM. Two cute cats sleeping in the middle of the road. 


Day 3 Asheville

Wow, the streets were mobbed for a Thursday lunchtime: aging hippies, street kids, millenials with man-buns and batik-print skirts. All these people can't have come just for the Biltmore. I could see myself living here, especially for the riding. Literally two blocks from our downtown hotel we were on the base of a 350 m climb up to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
We walked to the downtown theater after dinner to see Hunt for the Wilderpeople: charming without being saccharine.
Two thumbs up for the historic Princess Anne Hotel. Expensive, but not as expensive as the new hotels on the downtown side of the interstate. We slept through (oops) the complimentary wine and cheese-plate happy hour. 


Night wandering

I slept until 5AM, which was great, so I was able to walk for coffee when I woke up. 

Day 4 Blue Ridge Parkway and Valle Crucis

It was going to be long drive back to Blacksburg, and we made it longer by taking the Blue Ridge Parkway right out of Asheville. Great driving Sandra's Mini instead of my tank-like Subaru. Mid-drive we stopped at the Mast General Store in Valle Crucis, where Sandra's mom had gone to high school for several years. Unfortunately, the building next to the store had caught fire and burned, and the road was closed. 
We tried to make it to Dixie Caverns (discovered by a boy and his dog, of course) but the day was late, my leg hurt, and we were both tired. 


  • Dinner: The Cellar, Blacksburg
  • Overnight: Microtel Blacksburg

Night wandering

Young woman, all dressed up, sitting on the curb of the Microtel at 2AM crying into her phone. Later she was wandering around the industrial park like me, but was gone by the time I completed my second lap.

Day 5 One more cavern before going home

Shenendoah Caverns caverned us out.

Shenandoah Caverns also has a giant exhibit of Rose-Parade floats,, department store animated window displays from the 1950s and 1960s, and the stage of some political party national convention. Roadside museums are the best.

Finally, the caverngasm was over--we didn't have the energy to stop at either Luray or Skyline caverns.


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