November 11th, 2005 11:52 EST
Luray Caverns: A magnificent artwork of Nature
How you ever lacked the words to express some beauty, ever felt your camera is unjust in beholding the beauty around you, or you were unsatisfied after clicking the camera for an hour and felt, it was not enough? If so, you must be in the paradise of this earth; you must be holding the railings inside the Luray Caverns in Virginia.
About a hundred and fifty miles west of Washington DC is the Luray caverns in Luray. On way you will be greeted by the tall maple trees, hickories and birches on the slopes of Shenandoah Mountains. The lush green valley will catch your sight and your lungs will be packed with cool and fresh air as you drive on the two lane road towards caverns.
Luray caverns is truly a paradise on the earth, thick rope like formations of limestone and water fall from the ceiling sometimes in singles like artistically carved pillars. Other times dozens are stuck together like curtains of Shakespeare’s princely play. Leaping on you in yellow, orange, red, and brown with an oily glow sometimes leaving you amazed, however, other times they will send ripples of fear in your breast as well. Their length at times ten feet or more seems to be falling with a pointed nose, and yet at other times, it may just be small hedges in yellow or orange hue hanging from the ceiling. Pressing the nape of your neck as your eyes are fixed on the ceiling you will figure out innumerable shapes forming in the stalactites. At times they appear as a beautiful stage with pillars and curtains set in a subterranean theatre. And other times they make you feel as though you are deep under the water and discovering the landscape that is orange and amber rather being green and grey. You sail through the bed of sea and touch the wet formations that have the glow of a fresh manicure.
There are different kinds and colors of formations with stalactites and stalagmites. Stalactites are formations of sodium falling from the roof and stalagmites are the formation rising from the floor. These are the scientific terms to explain the formations inside the cave. To a novice’s eyes they are like thick ropes of solid elements that have taken shape after ages of sedimentation and metamorphosis.
Luray Caverns was discovered in 1878 by Benton Stebbins, Billy Campbell and Andrew Campbell. When the cavern was discovered it was considered as the discovery of the century and since then visitors have been pouring in to the Shenandoah Valley to see the caverns. Today over half a million people visit every year to Luray caverns and startle at the leaping and hugging formations of stalactites and stalagmites. At the entrance of the caverns the visitors first see George Washington’s formation, this is the first formation that Stebbins, and Campbells found. Walking further along the railing and the stalagmites by your side, you can touch the somewhat wet formation of limestone, which is a mild acidic mixture of water and carbon dioxide. They are cold, smooth and somewhat oily to the touch.
The beauty of the cavern is all natural, there is coloration caused by mineral contents of the seeping water. Calcium carbonate is white in its original form, but when soil, rock, copper, iron and other elements come in contact with calcium they create different hues in their impure forms.
There is a very interesting story behind the formations of stalactites and stalagmites that talks about the past of the Luray Caverns. According to a thin book titled “The Story of Luray Caverns”, ‘the separation of the Americas from the continents of Europe and Africa or other continental drift occurred about 600 million years ago. A broad shallow depression from Alabama to newfound land was formed. For 400 million years, an ancient sea flooded the area that is now Appalachian Mountains. Layers of water borne sediments accumulated on the ocean floor, followed by limestone sediments composed of fossilized marine animals and shells. The weight of the sediments eventually compressed the two layers into metamorphic rock.’
In the later years due to shifting of earth’s crustal plates North America and Africa collided and old underlying layers of metamorphic rock tilted upwards and slide over the younger layers. Gradually the water receded and there was just seepage happening, the solution of calcium carbonate gave up some of its carbon dioxide and allowed the precipitation of lime to form. As the process continued stalactites formed from the ceiling, drops that fell on the ground and deposited formed stalagmites. The deposits accumulated at the rate of one cubic inch in 120 years. After centuries of stalactite and stalagmites growing they meet to form columns and pillars.
Luray Caverns is filled with the hundreds of such magnificent pillars that exhibits nature’s eye for art. Alexander J. Brand, Jr., a correspondent for the New York Times was the first travel writer to visit the Luray caverns.
“It’s a magnificent cave…the most beautiful I have ever seen. Trying to compare your cave with others would be like comparing New York to the Town of Luray”, he said to the townspeople.
The beauty of the caverns is not just in rocky formations, there is serene, elegant and a clean lake inside the cavern, The Dream Lake. It is just 18-20 inches deep but owes the potential to transfer you into the thoughts of paradise and the fantasy of dreams. It gives a perfect reflection of the scape hanging from the ceiling and the ones formed on the ground. The cavern management has also done a commendable job by lighting dozens of candles in and around the lake. Flames rising out candles not only dance on the head of the candle its mirror image accompany it down in the water as well.
Soon after the dream lake is the Wishing Well. Coins and currency glitter in the transparent blue water of the lake. Visitors have facilitated more than $400,000 to different charities through the wishing well. USA Today recognized it as “probably the worlds most productive” well.
Another marvel of the cavern lies in its Cathedral section, there is the Great Stalactite Organ. Leland Sprinkle, an electronics engineer adjusted 37 stalactites to perfect rhythm and floated music in the calm hollow of the Luray Caverns.
Smoking is prohibited inside the cavern; the air in the caverns takes two days to circulate through. The caverns have special arrangements for the people with disability as well. So everyone can come and relish the splendid beauty of nature and will agree to the feelings of the noted author and former president of the Explorers Club, Russell Gurnee “Luray Caverns remains a tribute to the courage and vision of the explorers who will preserve to seek out secrets of our world. In an imperfect human world it is reassuring that the discovery of these men of vision has been preserved for the enjoyment of this and succeeding generations.”
After an hour of wonder and amusement, the passage comes to the opening of the outer world, the day light peeps into the darkness of the cavern and visitors step outside into the imperfect world from the perfect one.