Sunday, August 20, 2006

Florida Caverns

Your choice for me on this first day: Florida Caverns State Park, near the town of Marianna in the Panhandle.

The drive: 7.5 hours on soulless Turnpike and Interstate. But even on such uninspiring roadways, you learn about our state. The palms give way to scrub and then to pines curtaining grazing cows. When you live in a South Florida city, it’s easy to forget that this is one of the leading cattle-producing states in the country.

The Florida Caverns State Park turns out to be a beautiful patch of woods along the Chipola River. Boating, fishing, canoeing, swimming and camping are available. But it’s the caverns that most people come to see.

The limestone catacombs sit 55 feet below the earth, and on this sultry summer day (94 degrees and airless), their constant 65-degree temps are a godsend. And they’re beautiful: Twists of calcite crafted drip by agonizing drip at the glacial pace of one cubic inch every 100 years. The stalactites hang from the cave ceiling like so many icicles and carrots and sweet potatoes; the stalagmites heap on the floor in columns and Christmas trees and gnome-like figures. The Wedding Room is named for features that resemble a bride and groom on one side and the guests on another. Kids quickly pick out other look-alikes: Donald Duck, a cowboy boot, the Grinch.

The caves owe their existence to the compression of earth on former seabed, permeated by carbolic acid that, over the millennia, has bored through the limestone.

Florida’s caverns aren’t as spectacular as more famous ones in Kentucky, Virginia and Sequoia National Park. What’s most interesting, perhaps, is how they became a tourist attraction.

The land was acquired as Florida’s seventh state park in 1935. But it wasn't until the hard times of The Great Depression and the Public Works jobs created under the Civilian Conservation Corps that the cave was fitted with paths and walkways tall enough for a child or crouching adult. About CCC 8,500 workers lived in makeshift camps, earning 10 cents an hour to open the cave for passage, mostly using picks and 10-gallon buckets, our guide Billy told us. It would be the equivalent of making $1.75 per hour today, with simple lodging and food (mostly PBJ sandwiches) included.

A tough way to make a living. But in those years, many of those men and their families would have starved otherwise.


Curryshores1 said...

Too bad I didn't know this was coming up. I live in Key West and picked uip the Herald when I was at the Marlins' game Sunday. I just returned from a six week road trip covering 11,848 miles, 25 states and 4 provinces. My route took me across I-10 to western Texas, north through Albuquerque, Denver and Cheyenne, west to Yellowstone and the Tetons, east through the Badlands towards Milwaukee then on to Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec before going south through Maine and out to Nantucket. From there I picked up 5 pound lobsters for both of my parents (and one for myself) to dine on in Delaware. I then went to southern Maryland, down through Virginia on the Blue Ridge Parkway and on down through the Great Smokys before Atlanta to St. Augustine and back down the east coast.

I spent 15 nights in a tent, 12 nights in hotels and the other 17 with family and friends.

Rules were no more than one tank of gas a day. That stopped me from pushing too much and missing too much. All other bets were off.

I read "Solo Traveler" by Lea Lane befofre I left home to learn how to meet people and dine alone. Although the book is aimed mostly at women, men can learn too. Pay attention to when you leave a rest area that if there is a van next to your vehicle, ask for someone to walk you to your car.

My vote for places to go? Denver. Badlands National Park, Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse Monuments in the black hills (SD), The SPAM Museum in Austin, MN., Mitchell (SD) Corn Palace and Rocky Mountain National Park.

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