Shenandoah and Giant Organs: Virginia

There’s a town in Virginia called Farmville. I wonder has it turned into another Forks? I didn’t wonder enough to actually head there, because instead I was being called to just outside Luray, to find some caverns, with one of the coolest musical instruments I’ve seen since—is that Kofi Annan holding an AK-47-turned-guitar?

Luray Caverns are a little different to the other ones I’ve visited in Kentucky. Unlike those under the banner of the National Parks Service, this cave is a commercial entity. They’ve added various sub-attractions to the caverns, like a maze outside, and they’ve been a little more liberal in adding paths and areas for visitors to go. There’s also a constant stream of tours and tourists making it the most packed subterranean environment I’ve encountered since the Jubilee line at rush hour.

Luray Caverns

It is a lovely cave though, with some immensely impressive formations. There’s an area in particular which, when going through my photographs, still throws me:

Luray Caverns Dream Lake

It looks like a cool chamber, but maybe a closer look will show its secret:

Luray Caverns Dream Lake

It is, in fact, a pool with a spectacularly still and reflective surface. It’s easier to see on the close up as the bright light makes the reflected stalactites on the right hand side look ethereal.

Elsewhere you’ve got formations of various names. Every cave takes a lump of limestone and declares that it definitively looks like X or Y, but you find yourself having to squint and tilt your head to sort of understand what they mean. Don’t worry, I won’t be that insistent:

Nazgul But… y’know, Nazgul, right?

From that solid seeming mass we go deeper into the cave and encounter much more fragile draperies, so thin in places that a well-placed light easily shines through:

Draperies

It’s all terribly impressive, but there’s something special about this cave that has hauled my arse all the way down into the depths. Squirreled down in the heart of the cave system is … an organ:

Luray Organ

We’re skipping over the why as, as we have addressed in other such instances, there tends to be no why. Instead, onto the how: small rubber mallets have been attached to stalactites, rigged to strike them when the keys on the organ are pressed. The process of finding specific stalactites to produce specific notes was laborious, but in the end left the cave with a fully operational stalactite organ.

Luray Organ Mallet

They don’t have an organist on retainer, instead it’s been rigged up to play a tune for each successive tour group. Now, this is quite a strange thing to encounter, and the sounds it produces are eerie and beautiful. Plus, we’re in a cave, so maybe visitors believe that a reduction in their ability to see can be counterbalanced by an increase in the noise they make. You may wonder what my point is, it’s this: it appears to be impossible to encounter the organ in Luray Caverns without making noise all the damn time. Every clip on YouTube seems to be saturated by banal commentary or children. The clip I took myself is finally overwhelmed in the last twenty seconds when a baby starts crying.

(Sidebar: I’m all for kids experiencing all these cool things, but seriously, a baby? That baby had no idea where it was.)

Luray Organ

Anyway, here is a clip from YouTube that seems to have the least amount of interruption:

 

The other universal truth is, of course, that if people see a small pool, they will throw money with gay abandon at it. Luray Caverns manages to rein in this a little, by focusing it all onto a specific pool, which is then drained, with the money going to charity.

Luray Wishing Well

We clamber out of the ground now and spend some time a little ways south, in Shenandoah National Park.

Shenandoah National Park Shenandoah National Park Shenandoah National Park

Gazing over the undulating hills, the gently curving rivers and pleasant farms, I can’t help but think what a green, pleasant and peaceful land. Anyway, next time I’m going to where the green land was soaked with blood in one of the most violent battles in American history: Antietam.

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