June 14 - Missouri Route 66 - Meramec Caverns to Bennett Spring, S.P.

This morning I woke up and left the campground to take the tour of the caverns. Did I mention this place was a serious tourist trap?

The Meramec Caverns are the big draw. A series of underground caves and caverns stretching more than 25 miles. Pretty impressive really. Jesse James and his gang used these caverns as a hideout while running from the law once. A portion of a Hollywood production of Tom Sawyer was filmed in the caverns, as well as an episode of Lassie. In the early part of the century locals would hold dances in the largest room of the cavern, know appropriately as the ballroom. So it does have a colorful history.

While at one time the cavern entrance was just a gaping hole in the side of a big hill, things are different today. A building has been built flush against the entire cave entrance. There is a hotel on the grounds, you can even "Pan for gold and gemstones" at the "mid-1800's mining village", in what is essentially a big pile of gravel with water running through it....they call it a "sluicing operation", they also offer riverboat rides...but please...don't miss the gift shop. To enter the cavern, to take the tour, you must pass through the building covering the entrance. Conveniently, right inside the door, is that gift shop, perhaps the biggest I've ever seen. You can buy more there than Meramec Caverns T-shirts, shot glasses, and collector's spoons... oh, so much more. All sorts of rocks and minerals, geodes, fossils, cukoo clocks, agate chess boards, 'coon skin caps, toy muskets, rubber tomahawks, hideous porcelain animals, they had a case full of knives, tapestries of your favorite classic Hollywood stars and famous musicians...Elvis included of course, a nice selection of bumper stickers, novelty license plates, even Confederate flags. I really did laugh out loud walking through there....and I felt especially sorry for the parents with young children..."Oh, PLEASE! PLEASE! Can I get this?"

I bought a ticket for the cavern tour which leaves every 20 minutes. I was reminded by the woman selling the tickets ($12.00 per person) that "The tour lasts about an hour and twenty minutes, we do suggest that you visit the restroom before taking the tour."
So I used the restroom. Before long, over the loud speaker in a robot like voice the woman came on....
"Ladies and gentlemen, the next tour will be leaving in 5 minutes. There is still time to purchase tickets for this tour. Thank you."
4 minutes later....
"Ladies and gentlemen, the next tour will be leaving in one minute. If you would like to purchase tour tickets you may do so for the tour that will be leaving in twenty minutes." they really kept you well informed as to when tours were going on.

There were about 50 or 60 people in my tour group....yes it was a lot. Our tour guide was a young kid...maybe just out of high school. The other tour guides I saw were about the same age. He had a very mono-tone voice, like a lot of tour guides have....he does this all day long, all Summer I would imagine.

We started the tour....into this room, into that room, the ceiling got lower and everyone had to crouch down, the path got narrow in spots, children ooohed and ahhhed, parents comforted them in the dark. We came to the site where the Lassie episode was filmed, there is a life sized cardboard cut out of the lovable Collie lit up like high mass there. The whole tour route is paved, like a sidewalk, with hand rails and colored lights, green and red and blue. Some of the formations were impressive I must say, but it was awfully developed and commercial. Figures of Frank and Jesse James were placed in the room where the James Gang took refuge from a pursuing law man. At the end of the tour we were taken into the "theater" which is a room of the cave with rows of seats. Apparently one of the U.S. presidents.....in the thirties I think, had a party of some sort at the caverns and had this theater built for that occasion. The impressive "curtain" of stalactites hanging from the ceiling was used as a projection screen for an American flag as Ms. Kate Smith sung America The Beautiful...and sure enough, at the end of the tour the flag was projected on the screen and a recording of Kate Smith singing America The Beautiful came on over the loud speaker. As she sang the tour guide would flip different light switches which would illuminate different parts of the geological formations....a yellow light when the words "amber waves of grain" came on, blue light when "sea to shining sea" was pronounced. There is a picture of "the curtain" with regular white light illuminating it below. The whole thing was a rather interesting experience. Americana so obvious, well I guess you could see it in the dark.

I left the Caverns....and walked back out through that gift shop...I didn't buy a thing!

Just about a half a mile from the caverns was another roadside attraction.....situated strategically to "snake" some of the cavern's visitors on their way to or fro.....The Riverside Reptile Zoo...real live alligators too.

I drove southwest on Route 66, which is in pretty good shape through a lot of Missouri, it still exists in many places anyway. I stopped in Cuba, MO, in front of another long standing Route 66 landmark...the Wagonwheel Motel.

Further on down the road was a little town named Devil's Elbow. Route 66 didn't parallel 44 at this place, it was a few miles away from the highway I paralleled for so long...there is a good photo below of 66 running into 44 and ending. On my way towards Devil's Elbow the road rose up and cut through the rocks and continued down and to the left. I took a picture at that point in the road...I had seen a very similar image once before....in a dream actually.

I had a dream when I was studying in Spain during college of a path that rose up and over a hill and then down a blind left handed bend. In the dream it was thick vegetation the path cut through, like an overgrown garden path. Why do I remember that dream so vividly....and why did I take a picture of a similar image near Devil's Elbow? I think it's a great image....a path, that bends up and around.......where you can't always see what's around the bend. It was pertinent to my life then, and still is now. Just one of those moments I guess. The fact that it is part of a seldom used portion of Route 66, overgrown with weeds through the cracks in the concrete made it that much more memorable.

I crossed an old bridge on my way through Devil's Elbow, it seemed to have a lot of character.....and the the Elbow Inn BBQ was worth a picture too....notice the sleepy German Shepard by the door.

I passed through Rolla, MO and on to a state park near Lebabnon, MO - Bennet Spring State Park, it was a good day, rainy, but good.

Geologic formations in the caverns.

"The James Gang"

The Reptile Ranch.

The Intersection of Route 66 and highway 44.

The Wagon Wheel Motel.

That dreamy blind curve... what lies beyond for me?

Devil's Elbow BBQ

The vehicle