Daily Archives: November 24, 2015

Luray Caverns, Luray Virginia


Throughout the tour of Luray Caverns, Dad and I could not stop making references to Moria. Although there was no mithril to be found, and it was considerably better lit, we did come across a hoard of goblins, aka a teenage school group. But in all seriousness, the caverns looked more like something out of a Doctor Seuss book than something written by Tolkien. Huge calcite spires between shades of red and white towered above us, and reached up from crevices below. The tallest was over forty feet, which is impressive considering that they only grow an inch every century.

There was a particular white spire named Pluto’s ghost. I wish we had gone earlier, so I could have gotten a picture of it before New Horizons. The tour guide explained that it got its name because the people who discovered the caverns kept seeing it, getting closer, and thought it was a ghost, but I think it should be a memorial to Pluto not being classified as a planet anymore.

Pluto's Ghost

Pluto’s Ghost

What was eerily like Moria was the pool. It was perfectly still, and so reflected a perfect mirror of the stalactites above. It looked like jaws, and I kept expecting to hear “gollum, gollum,” coming from its far side.

The Mirror


Near the end of the tour, we were taken to the world’s largest natural instrument, the Great Stalacpipe Organ. Someone had created a organ out of the stalactites, hooking them up to mallets that would hit the right one at the right time to play a song. The idea was cooler than the music it played, which was too high-pitched and complicated, and not actually that good. It would have been better if they had just made it play Blitzkrieg Bop, and they would only have had to find three stalactites.

The Great Stalactite Organ

The Great Stalactite Organ

All in all, a completely different experience than the lava tubes of Craters of the Moon. Perhaps cooler looking and bigger, but there was no clambering involved, and you weren’t allowed to touch anything. There is plenty to see, but not much to do beyond taking the tour and taking pictures.

The 'Dishtowel'

The ‘Dishtowel’ formation

Harpers Ferry

DSCF6561Harpers Ferry is a place I’d always heard about, but about which I had only a few random associations.  John Brown’s raid, battles, rivers, West Virginia (really, is that where West Virginia is?)  There wasn’t one clear narrative line about it, which now makes sense to me, as an incredible number of important things have happened in this one tiny place.  The history is extremely interesting, but the spatial / geographic / topographic / architectural character is astounding.  It’s my new favorite “place” in the country.

It all starts with the geography:

  • It’s where the Shenandoah joins the Potomac, one of the major passes through the Appalachians in that region.
  • Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia all meet at this one point.
  • It is a gorge, similar to the Hudson River Highlands.  A big cliff of Maryland on one side, a big cliff of Virginia on the other, and a small, low area  at the base of a cliff in West Virginia in the middle, which is the town.
  • Because of this geography, important transportation systems cross here:  two rivers, one canal, and two railroads.
  • Because of the strategic importance of this crossing, lots of important battles and skirmishes happened here, mainly in the Civil War.
  • Due to this transportation hub, materials such as coal and iron moved through here, and it became the site for the US Armory, which pioneered manufacturing arms from interchangeable parts.
  • Since the armory was here, John Brown decided to take it over and take the weapons for an insurrection.

There are probably lots of other places in the country where a similar series of historical causes and events have taken place, and we haven’t paid much attention to them, because neither Greta nor I likes to stand at a field where something happened a long time ago and try to imagine it.  We like to see tangible stuff that remains from these events.  The visual evidence at Harpers Ferry is compressed, right there in front of you.  For this and other reasons, it is one of the most vivid and beautiful places we’ve been.

The first inkling as you arrive in the town, with the Maryland highlands rising up beyond the main street:

On the left the town rises, with a Catholic church (built for the Irish railroad workers) above.DSCF6477

On the right, a railroad trestle parallels the Shenandoah.

At the center of town, an intersection with a tree.DSCF6482

with a much larger space opening towards the river convergence.  The building where John Brown and his associates holed up used to be here.  DSCF6607

There are hewn stone stairs leading up the hill to the church.  At this point I’m wondering, is this West Virginia, or have we passed through a space/time hole and popped out in Scotland?

There is a road that slants up the hill.DSCF6573

And others that work with the topography.DSCF6560DSCF6570

Everywhere, the vernacular buildings show the use of local materials – stone, wood and brick – with a clarity that is rare in this country.  DSCF6527DSCF6601DSCF6596

Across the Potomac in Virginia are the remains of the canal.DSCF6509

As you walk up the hill, there is the ruin of an Episcopal churchDSCF6530

and the cemetery on top of the hill,  DSCF6545

with a view down the Potomac.DSCF6547

The historic town center is run by the National Park Service, with beautifully restored buildings, showing the businesses and residences of the past.  None of it feels Disneyfied – it is all simple and direct and appropriate.  We were there on a cool autumn weekday – perhaps it is more of a circus in summer tourist season, but while we were there, it felt like we had stepped back in time to this perfectly-preserved ghost town.  DSCF6611

Harpers Ferry isn’t a reconstruction – there are lots of things from the past that have been destroyed and not replaced, such as the Armory.  There are aspects of it which do not contribute to the experience, such as some intrusive and probably unnecessary constructions by the railroad right in the center of town. It doesn’t try to be perfect, and so it feels authentic, which is probably why it felt like being in Europe rather than America.  We’ve been to many historic places on this trip where an either/or approach is evident – either the history is pretty much ignored, or else it been elaborated and “celebrated” in a way that destroys its integrity.  (Independence Mall come to mind.)  Harpers Ferry gets it just right.

I’ve only met a couple of other people who’ve ever been here, although it’s one hour from Washington.  It just seems like it’s farther because it’s in West Virginia.  We’re 2 1/2 months and 6000 miles into this trip, and this is my favorite place so far.