FRONT ROYAL, Va. — It must have been a harried parent trying to cope while youngsters protested a long drive who invented that car game where you try to spot license plates from all the 50 states. In this the season of school tour groups and cherry blossoms, it’s almost too easy.
“There’s a Utah,” Emma says, and sure enough, Utah’s history.
“All we need now is Alaska,” Jordan says, looking bored with the board.
We are on our way to Skyline Caverns, which seems a well-kept spring break secret. Most of the hordes, it would seem, are going in the other direction, on their way to the Washington Mall, or Mt. Vernon. I’m grateful to be headed away from the crowds and to an attraction nature carved.
Something about the place reminds me of the 1950s, with its stone facade and silly souvenirs. A young guide and her flashlight lead us into a spectacular cave left alone for 60 million years.
In 1937, a man named Walter S. Amos noticed something on the surface topography that led him to explore. It was worth his considerable effort. And the cave is worth the cost of the ticket.
We put too little faith in today’s computer-nursed children. They are able, away from virtual this-and-that, to enjoy natural phenomenon.
Already, at ages 7 and 11, my two young friends know all about stalagmites and stalactites — “The stalagmite might reach the ceiling one day,” the guide suggests — but seeing them is something else. They are transfixed by The Shrine, a stalagmite that began forming 45 million years ago, and Fairyland Lake.
Turns out, for some of us, nothing is more magical and fanciful than real stuff. Eat your heart out, Disney.
At one point the guide turns out the cavern lights and her flashlight. I’m paraphrasing here; you can’t take notes in the dark. “After one week in this total darkness, your eyes in constant motion trying to see, you go blind. After two weeks, you go crazy. After three weeks, you become a tour guide.” Cavern humor. The kids repeated the spiel all the way home.
Skyline Caverns has its claims to cave fame. It is home to the Pseudanophthalmus Petrunkevitchi, or Valentine Beetle, born without eyes or an optic nerve. Only seven have been found and are on display at the Smithsonian. “But it’s highly unlikely,” says the sassy guide, “that scientists found and killed the only seven in existence on a single day.”
There’s the science lesson. For beauty, you can’t beat the anthodites, crystals that defy gravity and grow in spectacular firework-like bursts, about an inch every 7,000 years.
In the gift shop, we bought made-in-China deer and mood rings from the 1970s. No outing is perfect. But on the ride home we didn’t need to look for Alaska car tags or amusement parks or ice-cream parlors or anything else. We could daydream of a cool darkness so complete your hand before your face is as remote as Mars.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.