Ruby Falls

Apparently there is only one possible photo you can take at Ruby Falls at Chattanooga, Tennessee. This is it. You will notice that it was taken in 2003 and that it doesn’t bear my name. But it’s the exact same photo I took at Ruby Falls, except mine had a couple of water spray dots on the lens.

When we started on the trip we’d no plans of going to Ruby Falls, but when we hit Chattanooga it suddenly seemed the thing to do. Well, driving up the mountain seemed first the thing to do, which was cool (comparatively) and piney. Roll down the windows and breathe in deep. Ah it suddenly felt like a vacation and when we saw the sign for Ruby Falls we dutifully followed. We weren’t fully committed to the notion of spelunking as we were waved by a friendly man into a parking lot that was two-third’s empty. But he was friendly and friendliness can convince of a number of things when you’re giddy with two weeks of travel time ahead of you, and his broad circular waving motion I knew was branding us with dedication when we accepted direction and pulled into the lot.

Still, there was the question of time. It was Thursday afternoon and by Friday evening we had to be in Hiawatha, Kansas.

I entered the large stone wannabe-castle building that serves as a gateway to Ruby Falls, went to the desk, asked the price, gulped and got over it, found the tour lasted an hour and a half and though we needed to make it to St. Louis that night I said “OK.” Shortly, we were among a group of people softly exchanging whatevers in accents more southern than to what I’m accustomed and were on a glass elevator whisking us 260 feet deep into the earth.

Which is when I forgot about how H.o.p. had been saying for a year he wanted to visit a cave, forgot how this was going to be a great educational opportunity for H.o.p., realized that with last years kitchen science experiments I’d cut cave up in my mind to be a matter of calcium formations, stalagmites and stalactites, and remembered Marvel Caverns.

The last time I was in a cave was at Marvel Caverns in Silver Dollar City. That was over twenty years ago. I’d previously visited Marvel Caverns when I was ten years of age, and I realized as an adult that caves are a good bit more friendly when you’re child-sized. I hadn’t thought about this and the mild claustrophobia I’d experienced at Marvel Caverns in my twenties. For some reason I had this idea of Ruby Falls being a peculiar place to which you were introduced through a little wooden fairy door in the side of a mountain, the Falls poured in through a hole at the top and you’d politely stand in that hollowed out cone of a mountain and smile upon the falls and then out you’d go. I realize this sounds damn simple-minded of me, but that, in truth, is the half-baked image that three decades worth of tin roofs yelling “See Ruby Falls” had conjured in my brain. Somewhere along the way, over the years, I’d seen pics of plaster elves and colored lights. “Cave” had ceased to mean cave and become “assorted rocks with garden gnomes” and Ruby Falls a waist-level water spigot dribbling rainbow-dyed H2O. A restaurant fountain.

I watched the rock whizzing by through the wall of that elevator with its glass door. At the bottom, the doors opened and I stepped into the bowels of Overlook Mountain, a small carved out holding area for tourists with dollars for underworlds. The ceiling was low. The sky was far away. Would I make its acquaintance again? I used to have terrifying nightmares about being in an earthquake in an underground parking deck, running to try to escape, being felled by concrete, then coming to and and lying and listening to the moans of the dying in the hot, dusty dark as I waited for my lungs to waste the last few breaths of precious air pocket oxygen allotted me. I would say I don’t like parking decks because of those dreams but I can remember being a young child and staring at above ground parking deck rails and wondering if I’d have time to reach the rail in event of an earthquake. I stay away from parking decks as best I can. For a number of years I wouldn’t go near one.

And here I was in a cave. And there was no reassuring daylight within sprinting distance.

“Educational opportunity for H.o.p.,” I reminded myself and plastered a smile on my face because I didn’t want him to sense my fear and adopt my own phobia as his own. Thousands of people have gone through this cave, I reminded myself. I reminded myself how much I’d paid to put myself in this position and tried to reassure myself that those dollars were a safety net of regular safety inspections.

Our guide began her tour drill. She had the deepest Southern accent I’ve ever heard and had phenomenal broadcasting ability, and I determinedly focused on this in the hope of it distracting somewhat, while I kept smiling at H.o.p. and occasionally enthused, “We’re in a cave, wow! You’ve always wanted to go in a cave. Isn’t this great?!” I considered that the tour guide had been doing this perhaps for years and she was still alive. I reasoned she wouldn’t be down here if she thought she’d die any moment, and my brain of course countered that she just might considering years of a dismal job market and what kind of job opportunities were available in Chattanooga anyway.

Educational opportunities for a seven-year-old prove to be a great incentive. Also, once we were out of the holding room and in the cavern proper, natural rock formations surrounding, I felt less like I was somewhere I shouldn’t be, felt less a forced intrusion upon nature against which she was fighting, and my fears pretty much dissipated. Again, wondering over the tour guide’s twang helped.

As we began our walk, the tour guide inconspicuously, as if on the sly, bent and picked up a couple of round pebbles from the cave’s floor. I wondered where they came from, why she was picking them up, and instead of worrying about the ceiling falling in I thought about how often she makes the mile trek, how familiar the formations must be to her so that even a couple of stray pebbles would be quickly eyed.

The tour guide led us into what’s called the Map Room. As an adolescent I would have slouched to the rear of any group, but as an adult I tend to be front and center, though I’m a shy sort. Go figure. “Hey, I’m here! I’m involved!” So front and center is where we ended up and because of that positioning we were directly behind the guide through most of the tour.

In the Map Room we were treated to a short film on the cave and its history, for the duration of which our tour guide disappeared somewhere, elsewhere. Which made me feel as though a trusted, new friend had led me by the hand into a bad game of double dare and then split. Being an adult, I tried not to take the abandonment personally.

I noticed a blond woman with a couple young girls, perhaps about 8 and 10 years of age, who I assumed to be her daughters. I took note of the girls because neither one of them ever smiled. They watched the tour guide, expressionless, looking through her. Animated, she several times sought to engage them in an unobtrusive manner, but they didn’t respond.

We were warned of narrow spaces and to watch our heads but no avenues were as narrow as the one at Marvel Cave which had led me to promise myself I’d never enter another cave.

H.o.p. had on his new purple and black banded, felt “wizard” hat. He likes playful hats. He wanted to know where the bats were. I asked him if he remembered the names of the formations that rose from the floor and those that descended from the ceiling. He told me and I realized I didn’t remember which were attached to the floor or ceiling, stalactites or stalagmites, so I couldn’t say, “Hey, you’re right”, but the tour guide had good ears and called out that H.o.p. was correct I pointed out where years of visitors rubbing their hands along the rock had polished sections of it.

The tour was brisk, no dallying, one had to hustle to keep up, no time to loiter for pictures. Human nature’s predilection to look for resemblances, for patterns taken to entertaining extremes, illuminated signs identified formations with absurd names as if the formations themselves wouldn’t be enough to validate the money tourists spent, green cash needing the tale of, “The rocks looked just like bacon”. At every turn we were encouraged to use our imagination and see this and that novel apparition.

But no Madonnas dripping tears.

The most prominent stalagmite caused me to think of the caves of Elephanta, the temple of Shiva and its monolithic Linga. I wondered if beyond the carving, prehistory, was the stalagmite as inspiration.

Seems that mentioning earthquakes is a must on cavern tours. When I was ten years old, at Marvel Cave they had given how many million years it had been since an earthquake struck the area. Our Ruby Falls tour guide said we were in one of the safest places possible, that if there was an earthquake one would never know it, that deep in the earth. That she had been in another cavern the previous weekend and there had been thirteen tremors while she was down in it and they had no idea until surfacing. She said we were safe there from tornadoes, from flood, from hurricanes…

“Don’t bring up hurricanes!” called a man from the rear, half-laughing.

The tour guide was personable and by the time we reached where the Ruby Falls could be not only heard roaring in the dark, but the spray of it felt, I would have trusted her to perform as a doula at H.o.p.’s birth.

Show time! The lights went on. Music played, symphonic, dramatic. Ruby Falls. If you’re the least bit unguarded you’re going to gasp and give a cry. Now I know what Ruby Falls looks like, it’s no longer a potential. But when I saw it I realized I’d had no conception at all, and the waterfall was stunning. Really, it was beautiful. Advertising is so full of false promises and no pay off that I emotionally expected no Ruby Falls at all, a flim-flam puddle, and it was going to be all right with me, as I was there because of the tin roofs and had wanted H.o.p. to see some stalagtites and stalactites, had wanted H.o.p. to see a cave because he’d been talking about it for a year.

Ruby Falls was spectacular.

We walked around the back of it. Were given time to take photos.

H.o.p. liked the music as much as the Falls. His was the choreographed experience. The one for the tourists. Tonight when I brought up a picture of the Falls he came over and said, “Ruby Falls! Can I hear the music too? Where’s the music?”

The walk back was anticlimactic. The cave was no longer the featured entertainer. Instead a man had taken that position, the one who had remarked on the mention of the hurricane. Whereas he’d been to the rear before, now he was in front. He insinuated several times, loudly, he might be an evacuee from New Orleans. Then said he was. Said he didn’t like buses and he’d had to ride a bus all the way to Houston. He seemed to be with a woman who made no remark on any of this. Though they appeared intimate, she was apparently not from New Orleans, and seemed to distance herself when he remarked on the hurricane, making no comment on what he was saying, not even a, “That’s terrible.” She made no comment except for when he took out a cigarette and made as if he was going to light it and asked her if she wanted one, then she excused herself, saying something about not everyone liking smoke, and he said he would do what he wanted to do. He said he figured the hurricane had made him impatient. He was loud, brash, jocular, increasingly aggressive. I wondered how the tour guide was going to handle the situation if he lit up as smoking is forbidden in the cavern. He was looking for an incident. He put the cigarette in his mouth. The tour guide kept smiling and said nothing. The man decided against lighting up.

He had already taken out a cigarette before the other and slipping it above his ear he had dropped it, glanced back but then decided to leave it on the cavern floor, seeming to not want to give up his position at the lead of the group, or not wanting anyone to notice he’d dropped it. Then he’d taken out a second.

No one asked the man any questions. Neither did the tour guide though he kept demanding her attention.

Or at least I didn’t hear anyone converse with the man on it.

The man’s harping on how he didn’t like buses and had to ride one to Houston, that bit of information was about as specific as he became and it just seemed peculiar that his complaint would be about having to tolerate a bus ride. You listen to what someone says, you hear it, but it doesn’t connect.

The tour guide gave H.o.p. a pebble, called it a cave seed, and said it was for good luck. I realized it was one of the pebbles she’d picked up off the cavern floor at the beginning of the tour.

Outside, the man went on a little more about being an evacuee, nothing specific, just as he’d been inspecific in the cave. He sat and lit his cigarette. There was no beer but my mind’s eye was persistent in seeing a beer can on the table he had sat at and in my mind that nonexistent beer can belonged to him, he had left it at the table before going on the tour, and it was waiting there for him to pick up and continue drinking. Yet there was no beer, it was something which wasn’t that my mind said was there and which I had to tell my mind was not. I thought of asking him what part of New Orleans he was from, then decided against it. The mother of the blond girls, the ones I’d wondered about as their expressions were so dulled, unresponsive, stood by for a moment staring at him and then said to him she was from New Orleans, that they’d evacuated before the hurricane. The man looked out at the scenery, smoking, and didn’t reply much, mumbled something. But that explained the expressions on the girls. Why they had persisted in being so disconnected. Of course. Shell shock. And the woman seemed a bit as well. I don’t know how long she stood gazing at the man, it could have been a few seconds, but it felt longer. I wondered if I should and then went ahead and mentioned to the woman how my husband had relatives in Washington Parish. The woman said they had evacuated to Washington Parish initially. I was still wondering about the man, who was now silent, and couldn’t think of much to say to the woman except to tell her our relations ended up faring all right and wishing her well, which I found embarrassing. I couldn’t tell by the man’s actions if he was a survivor or not, something didn’t seem right, but I thought that not seeming right could be part of post traumatic stress syndrome.

The woman and I said good-bye. She left with her girls. H.o.p. ran up to play on the children’s playground. The man smoked and stared out over the scenic view Lookout Mountain offered of Chattanooga. When I finished watching H.o.p. play he had gone.

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Juli Kearns

Juli Kearns is the author of Thunderbird and the Ball of Twine and Unending Wonders of a Subatomic World (or) In Search of the Great Penguin. She is also an artist/photographer, and the person behind the web alter of "Idyllopus Press".

2 thoughts on “Ruby Falls”

  1. For whatever reason I have always known a lot of cavers, who are nice people by and large but who can’t help extolling the happiness that could be mine if I’d join them in crawling head first with a miner’s lamp on my head into a muddy dark crack in the rock that you could get stuck in, or rapelling into a black black hole returning bottomless pit echoes when you shout and which smells of bat guano.
    I have always declined.
    Maybe it’s distrust of their enthusiasm that has kept me out of commercial caves, for some reason, though i don’t think i would be claustrophobic in a place I could stand upright in.

    But thanks for the tour–I enjoyed it.

  2. Ruby Falls is a tremendous waste of time and money. We were hurried through the caverns so fast and the tour guied did not stop to answer our many questions, even making fun of our questions. After the tour was over I asked for a refund at the desk and was very sternly turned down by someone who clearly did not have the interpersonnal skills required for customer support, or care to listen to our plea for assistance. I regret subuecting my family to this toursist trap and intend to tell as many people as possible to avoid this attraction.

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