Although they can seem like an insignificant topic to write upon (if there is such a thing) and are no more than a tunnel in the ground, the limestone caverns of the Appalachian Region offer us a unique glimpse into the preternatural character of the Earth. I chose to use the word “preternatural” rather than “supernatural” to make it clear that we aren’t really talking about ghosts or spirits here; I think that the producers of the show “Mountain Monsters” have done a far better job of capturing that than I could ever hope to. However, caves differ from other natural attractions in how they are so isolating. I chose to focus on the cave systems in the Southeast simply because they are the ones that I’ve had the most experience with; I’m sure that other caverns around the world are just as deserving of recognition as the ones I’m discussing. I think it’s time that we call some attention to the qualities of these caverns that help to make the Appalachian region so unique to both visitors and natives alike.
For me, caves have always been a reoccurring element in many of the folk stories that I’ve heard from my elders as I’ve grown. The Bangor Cave near Blount Springs, AL, has become somewhat of a mythical location in the eyes of many, as the cavern has managed to serve as a concert hall, a Prohibition-era speakeasy, and a restaurant in its curious history, as well a popular hangout spot for many teenagers in Blount County after its closure. Today, most of Blount County isn’t exactly a tourist spot, but in the early 20th century, the area surrounding the famous sulfur springs in the previously mentioned town was a hotspot for the wealthy, who sought after the spring’s apparent healing qualities. Because of this, the nearby Bangor Cave was an excellent location for a bar, and its distinctive qualities helped bring the glamour of Hollywood to the traditionally poor region. Even though the site is now strictly off-limits to the public, there are still plenty of caverns across the region that are easily accessible.
Geography acts the invisible hand that shapes our experiences; according to many spiritual traditions, entering a cave could be a reunification with nature, the site of an initiation ceremony, or even the place where one’s self and ego unite. Some psychologists even claim that the cave symbolizes the “material unconscious” in dreams, that offers both a sense of security and oblivion. When you travel in a cave until the outside light is gone, you feel a sense of vulnerability from the cold, jagged cavern walls and the deafening silence. Perhaps, this effect is why people are drawn to such locations; they satisfy the human desire for both adventure and self-reflection.
The most memorable experience that I’ve had in one of these caves actually took place earlier this year, at the TVA Cave Mountain Trail in Guntersville, AL. This particular cave has become popular in North Alabama because of its accessibility to the public and it being a former saltpeter mine for resource-strained Confederate troops during the Civil War. Determined to reach the end of the cave, my friend and I (in our ill-suited attire) entered the cavern after there had been much rainfall, which had caused much of the trail inside the cave to become flooded. As we ventured through 50 foot long crawl-spaces and waded through murky water, we started to pay attention to the graffiti and trash that decorated the trail. It’s not hard to figure out why an inebriated teenager would feel the need to write his name in bright green spray paint upon the walls, but it still amazes me how some people could have managed to bring a case of Bud Light through spaces that required all of our strength and faith to pass through. As we reached our goal of making to the part of the cave that the previous parties had not adorned with their redneck artistry, we realized that this journey had tested our spirit as much as it did our patience. This baptism of frustration, mud, cursing, and darkness had managed to do something that was undoubtedly spiritual in nature: it made my friend and I closer than we had ever been. We may not have communed with Mayan spirits or risen from the dead in that North Alabama cave, but we were surely transfigured.
Sources used for this article:
Crider, Beverly. “Bangor Cave — Underground Nightclub and Speakeasy.” AL.com, 3 Jan. 2014, blog.al.com/strange-alabama/2014/01/bangor_cave_–_underground_nig.html.
“North Alabama Hiking: TVA Cave Mountain Trail.” North Alabama Hiking Trails.northalabamahiking.com/tvacavemtn.php.