Best Kitsch

Meramec Caverns

What's the cheesiest thing in your house? A snow globe of the Manhattan skyline, a spring-loaded hula-girl statuette, maybe a velvet Elvis? What draws you to these cheap, tawdry trinkets, anyway?

A lush, nostalgic, rather sad yearning for something outside your daily experience, that's what. The snow globe encapsulates your triumph over the Empire State Building (admit it; you thought about dropping a penny over the rail). Encoded in the polyester fibers and acrylic brushstrokes of the velvet Elvis is your complicity in the tragicomic iconization of the King. Your cheesy souvenirs are collective memories in effigy, stamps on the passport to 20th-century human consciousness. This is the essence of kitsch: memories for sale. Today I'm buying a memory at that most consummate of local roadside attractions, Meramec Caverns.

The interstate is an embarrassingly fecund breeding ground for kitsch. This is because motorists in search of adventure will stop at everything to get it. Enter the roadside attraction, a living version of the Lucite scorpion paperweight, a commodified experience of which every molecule is mass-produced, shellacked and sold for more than it's worth. Barely an hour west on I-44 lies my date with the rarefied culture of the road, the "largest commercial cave in Missouri." The brochure promises not only fantastic spectacle (which I may consume, rain or shine, in constant 60-degree comfort) but a gift shop where I can lavish some cash on a sentimental bibelot that will permanently affix this sliver of collective memory to my mantel.

Well, the gift shop is a bust. Its worthless baubles are all steeped -- without irony -- in a generic, Walgreenish, 21st-century idiom; I yearn for the sort of junk they must have hawked in decades past, stuff that looks more like their goofy billboards -- i.e., bad taste, not no taste. But, fortunately, the cave tour turns out to be alternately cool and hilarious.

Lots of the actual cave stuff -- vaulted ceilings swathed in shadow and dripping with mineral icicles, pools of water that look 1,000 feet deep, a zillion lugubrious limestone pilasters, each more sublime than the most poignant Greek caryatid -- is genuinely awe-inspiring. The cave is hilarious only when slapped by the predatory hand that dips those scorpions in Lucite. Apparently the majesty of ancient, insanely weird cave formations fails to sufficiently engage the modern tourist's imagination. It has to be augmented with concrete sidewalks, campy red and purple fluorescent lights, a disco ball, a motel, a restaurant featuring "home style cooking," a trough of water where $4 buys you a bag of dirt with which you "pan for gold," a giant inflated dinosaur-shaped trampoline. Our "well-trained ranger," a perky teenager named Ricky who is part tour guide/part comedian, ups the ante with glossy dollops of cultified lore, decoupaged over the cave's Paleozoic hauteur with premeditated corniness.

Spotlighted in Ricky's quasi-history lecture is famed 19th-century desperado Jesse James. James is the golden boy of Meramec Caverns. Unless you've been living in your own cave, you know that a significant percentage of MC's quaint billboards, of which billboards no small quantity infests the surrounding hundred square miles, touts the cave as James' hideout. I encounter not one but two clumsy life-size statues of the Confederate guerrilla-turned-diabolical villain. One of these works festoons the front entrance in a manner usually reserved for enshrined saints. Nobody seems to find it the least bit disturbing that such high tribute is paid to a sociopath whose personal zeitgeist makes Charlie Manson look like John Lennon. The Meramec Caverns attitude toward him -- proprietary, reverent and indulgent -- might be expressed as: "Jesse James, that wacky purveyor of murder and mayhem, he may have been a tool, but he's our tool."

Everyone seems to have brought with them at least one mewling kid; anticipating this prerequisite, I have similarly equipped myself. Of course, my kid, young Ashley Loth, age 10 and on loan from her mother for the afternoon, stands alone at the zenith of model behavior. While the other tykes more or less constantly fidget and squall and commit acts of sociopathic hijinks, Ashley coolly maintains the poise of a 12-year-old at least.

She actually turns out to be instrumental in the success of the mission. Intrigued by her indifference to even the most bizarre cave formations ("They look like plastic"), I begin to amass fascinating evidence suggesting that the average age at which stalactites (the ones that drip down) actually become interesting is 55; for everyone else they are merely a mineral backdrop for a subterranean childrearing ordeal.

Be that as it may, in some circles a childhood trip to Meramec Caverns appears to be more or less compulsory. As we queue up for the tour, I overhear one mother bloodlessly explain the situation to her whining son: "I came here when I was a kid, and you're not getting out of it, either, buddy." Moved by this tender display, I suggest brightly to Ashley that this is a cherished rite of passage she'll be able to share with her own kids someday. Ashley, who has been dubiously eyeballing the creepy subumbral recesses beyond the gate, and from whom I have rather cruelly concealed the horrible truth that our tour will last nearly an hour-and-a-half, sizes me up as a "nut job" and replies without hesitation, "I'm not bringing my kids here!" Later, I abandon all hope of putting an educational spin on the outing when her only response on viewing the World's Largest Chunk of Onyx is "Eew, that guy farted!" Clearly, in the realm of the 10-year-old, flatulence is, hands down, more riveting than any dumb old rock.

By the way, when I say "World's Largest Chunk of Onyx," you should pretend you are last in line in a game of "telephone." It may or may not have been the world's largest, and it may or may not have been onyx. Throughout the tour I am never quite sure what we are looking at, because although Ricky's oratorical enthusiasm is unwaning, at each stop Ash and I always get jostled to the rear of our group, out of earshot. Ricky's lilting monologue -- unremittingly amusing, judging from the titters of the lucky spelunkers up front -- echoes incomprehensibly off the walls of what ought to be called the World's Largest Distortion Box. It's like watching Japanese TV with the sound turned up to 11. The only thing I hear clearly is that if I get separated from the herd, I am to stay put and "scream my head off."

So I never manage to get the scoop on certain of the more anomalous attractions on the tour route. Ricky stops to swing a 20-foot pendulum, but other than a crackled allusion to perpetual motion, I have no idea what this bizarre object is doing here. There's stuff about saltpeter mining during the Civil War (a real snoozer), more garbled Jesse James esoterica and something about, possibly, Art Linkletter. My favorite unexplained phenomenon, sacramentally illuminated and set deep within a recess so as to be barely visible from our safe and convenient concrete walkway, is a framed 4-foot color portrait of Lassie.

Ricky's great genius is his dramatic flair with the lights. Because, he says, they would overheat the cave if left burning all the time, he flips off the lights when herding us (we number at least 75) on to the next stop. As a result, we languish for extended periods in total darkness, waiting for stragglers to catch up and shove us to the rear again. Then, when he has kept us fidgeting in the dark just a little too long, the clever Ricky suddenly hits the switch, and behold! A room encrusted in petrified spaghetti! Every time he does this, the crowd makes an involuntary "oooo" sound. Ash and I do not make the "oooo" sound, because we can never see anything until the tourists in front get bored and wander away.

So we are determined, when we get to the Theater Room, to barge to the fore. The last stop, it is three stories high and completely upholstered in stone drapery so fantastic it should be on the cover of a '70s metal album. Completing the theater theme are rows of benches. I've heard that the grand finale is a real spine-tingler, so we snag seats in the front row and wait. And wait. Ah, Ricky, thou master of suspense, Hitchcock's got nothing on you.

When the "show" finally starts, an eternity later, I realize we're screwed again; Ricky's delivering his speech from the back of the group this time. I catch an alarming reference to Kate Smith, but escape is impossible. A slide-projected American flag appears on the limestone curtain, Kate Smith belts out "God Bless America," and Ricky artistically flashes colored lights on and off. Our fellow cavers are beside themselves; they don't know whether to applaud or swoon or feverishly snap flash photos of the light show (so they do all three). Significantly, it is at this juncture that Ashley finally loses her composure and doubles over in squealing hysterics. She has caved in to the kitsch. And I feel like a scorpion trapped in a Lucite paperweight.

-- Jill Posey-Smith

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Previously in Best of St. Louis