Spelunking In Missouri
As a fifth generation Kansan, accustomed to the waving wheat and bright sunshine of big sky country, my whole prairie-aligned countenance is thrown for a twirl when I walk the Iron-filled soils of Southern Missouri . The crooked Missouri highways lead me further and further away from the Osage hedges of my home to the forested hills of the Confederacy, from the land of cosmic benevolence to the rocky, clay-filled, un-arable, un-grazable soils of the Missouri Ozarks, where it was easier for the hillbillies of old to shoot their dinner for the night than it was working the land by plow and sickle.
My warm, earth-born, Capricorn nature is less turbulent on the straight planes of Kansas than it is in the magnetic life pulse rising, surging, cresting through those gorgeous oak covered mountains found everywhere in the Ozarks. In the mornings the hills there are usually obscured by deliciously sweet rains and low lying mists that come and go with almost whimsical fancy; and once upon a time hid many of the old stills built during the days of Prohibition. These days the Ozark mists obscure the more lucrative marijuana crops that thrive in the hot-moist air, yet are cultivated by the same over-worked, bleary-eyed, under-paid population, demoralized by the unpitying hardships of mountain life.
Kansas soil is rich and black, and the trains that rattle over her planes are usually stock full of the very finest of wheat, barley, and corn; whereas pigs are what grow best on Ozark land. I was in Van Buren , Missouri last week and the cost of living there is so low that you can buy homes for shockingly low prices considering the beauty of the surrounding landscape; one restaurant caters to poor locals and sells fried chicken dinners to them for only $5.50, complete with mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and a roll. The other dishes on the menu were descent by Ozark standards, if you don't mind copious quantities of salt and pepper on nearly everything, and if you're not concerned about staying trim and fit. Even though the vast majority of Ozark inhabitants have moved off the land, they still retain a fatty diet that reflects a more savage time when large amounts of calories were burned during the course of the work week.
I was in Van Buren , Missouri because I needed to talk with Tim Breen, a quiet, soft spoken gentleman responsible for protecting and regulating the hundreds of caves that are scattered throughout the Ozark National Scenic Riverway where he works as a park ranger. Due to the "Swiss cheese" composition of the dolomite shelf underlying Southern Missouri , few areas in the world outside the Ozarks are as blessed with caves. To my delight, Tim Breen granted me caving permits that enabled my party and I to spend the next several days exploring Bluff Cave , Branson Cave , and Lost Man Cave , all three of which are located in the national park surrounding the Current and Jack Forks River .
At any other time of the year caving permits are not granted as the highly protected bat population return in mass numbers to their underground cathedrals; the slightest noise may set off clouds and clouds of flying, screeching bats upset by the faintest disruption in the cave silence. Never before have I experienced this silence that bats languish in during their nocturnal sleeps lasting through the winter. Silence such as the type I experienced in Bluff Cave or Branson Cave is a force, as tenable as the air, as magnetic as the earth, absolutely permeating empty space. It is an ethereal silence through which those gorgeous, silver-sparkling stalactites drip in endless darkness, beneath all those Ozark whiskey stills and pig farms in the world above. Cave silence is the very pulse of the Absolute, turned to stone.
Of particular interest, a cave guide showed me rather large bear scratches on the wall of Round Spring Cave , just north of Eminence, Mo. The scratches were over seven feet high on the wall and were apparently created by a giant species of bear that inhabited the Ozark Mountains over 30,000 years ago. Cave Bear are extinct and the scratches so old that they were fossilized by millenniums of clear mineral growth. As far as the bear of today, the small black bear that now inhabit the Ozarks stay out of caves during non-hibernation months; other species like cougar and snakes keep out of caves, as well. Consequently very little cave-life exists besides bats, insects, salamanders, and certain aquatic albino species that live in the underground streams. Cave ecosystems are fragile and many caves are severely damaged both by vandals and by over-caving---a behavior encouraged by a distinctly Ozark mentality of reckless disregard and wild heathenism.
After all, the genius of the Ozark Man lies not in his appreciation of the sublime but in his almost electrical will to survive. Out of the clay his meager gardens grow. With an ax he has hacked his life out of the forest. His little moss-covered shanties sit in the woods among the hickory, oak and pine that he loves for what they could be, not for what they are; a wooden tool handle to replace the old; a table on which to break his bread; a wooden fiddle through which to channel the magnetism that literally pours from his soul like it pours through the cave walls underneath his booted feet. When the necessities of life become too much to bear he takes to the jug and wills away whole days in a drunken frenzy, completely satisfied with the clanging, banging, strumming sound of his cave man music. For the Ozark Man is divinely practical, but he is also apart of the same wild, un-tamed life force that emanates upward like vapor from the dolomite stone.