Sunday, June 21, 2009

Summer Solstice

Those who know me are very aware that I do not like hot weather. However, there are still things I enjoy about summer, and surprisingly, some of them are specific to this sweat-soaked state in which I live. So here are some thoughts on summer’s first day:

I love opening the season with our annual Beach Weekend.

I love Independence Day.

I love that there is one time of year when I am able to prefer chilled white wine over room temperature red wine.

I love when evening breezes carry the sweet scent of orange blossoms across Florida.

I love watching swallow-tailed kites, one of my favorite birds of prey, as they soar in the air and seem to stay up there forever without flapping their wings.

Anywhere that fireflies live, I love watching them illuminate the woods at dusk.

I love the dramatic pulse of Florida’s afternoon storms, when black clouds darken the sky and spew lighting and thunder and unleash torrents of blinding rain – only to blow away and be replaced by sunny skies in less than an hour.

And finally, though this would be true any time of year, I love San Diego.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Tucked Below

“Mommy, Mommy, it’s a baby bat!” Sarah squealed, skipping excitedly from the spot where the critter was roosting to the spot where Erika was standing. Of course, it wasn’t a baby – it’s just that four-year-olds don’t realize how small most bats are, and in Sarah’s mind that tiny furball couldn’t possibly be a grown-up.

Somewhere above us, Smoky Mountain forests were getting sprinkled with rain. Beside us, an underground river was making the same rushing sound as the streams on the surface. We were somewhere few tourists bother to go: Inside the earth rather than on it.

Back in the early 1800’s, settlers in Tennessee noticed that a particular cove was quick to dry out after it rained, so they named it Dry Valley. Because the area around a nearby sinkhole was blessed with eternally cool air, women went there during the summer months to sew.

During one heavy rain in the middle of that century, sawmill workers watched large volumes of water flow into the sinkhole. Because it did not fill up the way they expected, one of the workers decided to scour the hole closely. And what he found there, beneath years of accumulated debris, was a small opening to a large cave.

It turned out that Dry Valley’s dryness was the result of water draining into the cave, and it turned out that the cool air women had enjoyed for so long was the result of silent, continuous drafts escaping from it.

The cave came to be known as Tuckaleechee Caverns, and it was opened to the public in 1953 by two locals who had explored it as kids, Bill Vananda and Harry Myers. They built a gift shop over the sinkhole and piped in that cold air – always 58 degrees – to provide natural AC.

Today, visitors enter Tuckaleechee through the same opening discovered by the sawmill worker, only now they get to do so on a narrow flight of steps. At the bottom, they step into a surreal world of drooping stalactites, pyramiding stalagmites, and wavy flowstones. A path leads in either direction for more than a mile, and along its route the cave is illuminated by electric lighting that is effective but unobtrusive.

What I found most fascinating about Tuckaleechee was the river. It intrigues me that full-blown waterways exist beneath the ground, in netherlands where the sun never shines and foliage never grows. In some spots Tuckaleechee’s river has rapids, in others it flows at a moderate pace, and in one particularly calm spot it has a beach where you are permitted to walk to its edge and dip your hands in, as you can see Sarah doing here:

The river is not the only H2O in the cave, however, for there are several waterfalls here as well. The most noteworthy is Silver Falls, which plummets 200 feet in a pair of cascades. Though only the lower cascade is visible from the path, you are able to see above it into part of the chamber where the upper cascade is located.

Still, for most visitors the highlight of their visit to Tuckaleechee is the cavern known as The Big Room – which is understandable. Located all the way at one end of the path, The Big Room is more than 400 feet long and 300 feet across, with ceilings exceeding 150 feet in height. It is so big, and so devoid of anything you’re used to seeing (such as cars and houses) that you lose your sense of perspective when you’re in it. From the spot where the path ends, we looked across The Big Room to a pair of side-by-side stalagmites that looked much more skinny than tall – only to learn they are each taller than a two-story house, at 22 and 24 feet respectively! Then we looked over the edge to a bulkier stalagmite that looked about the height of an average-sized man – only to have our 6’2” tour guide walk down and stand beside it to show that it’s twice as tall as him.

The entire walk through Tuckaleechee Caverns takes between an hour and an hour-and-a-half. You have to go on a guided tour, and I’m pretty sure insurance issues have something to do with that, but it’s no problem because tours start every half-hour or so and the information shared by the guides enhances your appreciation of the place.

It cost Erika and I $14 apiece, and Sarah was free because she’s under the age of five. I did not notice whether there are discounted rates for schoolchildren or seniors, but even if there aren’t, Tuckaleechee is a good deal for your money and it allows you the satisfaction of knowing you saw something most people never will. More than a million people pass through these parts every year, but an overwhelming majority never stop at the cave because they are headed either to Cades Cove (10 miles away) or the tourist traps of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge (less than 20 miles away).

Do yourself a favor and venture a couple miles off the beaten path to see this place. I guarantee that your trip will be better for having done so. For more information, you may call 865-448-2274 or email