Best Kitsch

Meramec Caverns

What's the cheesiest thing in your house? A snow globe of the Manhattan skyline, a spring-loaded hula-girl statuette, maybe a velvet Elvis? What draws you to these cheap, tawdry trinkets, anyway?

A lush, nostalgic, rather sad yearning for something outside your daily experience, that's what. The snow globe encapsulates your triumph over the Empire State Building (admit it; you thought about dropping a penny over the rail). Encoded in the polyester fibers and acrylic brushstrokes of the velvet Elvis is your complicity in the tragicomic iconization of the King. Your cheesy souvenirs are collective memories in effigy, stamps on the passport to 20th-century human consciousness. This is the essence of kitsch: memories for sale. Today I'm buying a memory at that most consummate of local roadside attractions, Meramec Caverns.

The interstate is an embarrassingly fecund breeding ground for kitsch. This is because motorists in search of adventure will stop at everything to get it. Enter the roadside attraction, a living version of the Lucite scorpion paperweight, a commodified experience of which every molecule is mass-produced, shellacked and sold for more than it's worth. Barely an hour west on I-44 lies my date with the rarefied culture of the road, the "largest commercial cave in Missouri." The brochure promises not only fantastic spectacle (which I may consume, rain or shine, in constant 60-degree comfort) but a gift shop where I can lavish some cash on a sentimental bibelot that will permanently affix this sliver of collective memory to my mantel.

Well, the gift shop is a bust. Its worthless baubles are all steeped -- without irony -- in a generic, Walgreenish, 21st-century idiom; I yearn for the sort of junk they must have hawked in decades past, stuff that looks more like their goofy billboards -- i.e., bad taste, not no taste. But, fortunately, the cave tour turns out to be alternately cool and hilarious.

Lots of the actual cave stuff -- vaulted ceilings swathed in shadow and dripping with mineral icicles, pools of water that look 1,000 feet deep, a zillion lugubrious limestone pilasters, each more sublime than the most poignant Greek caryatid -- is genuinely awe-inspiring. The cave is hilarious only when slapped by the predatory hand that dips those scorpions in Lucite. Apparently the majesty of ancient, insanely weird cave formations fails to sufficiently engage the modern tourist's imagination. It has to be augmented with concrete sidewalks, campy red and purple fluorescent lights, a disco ball, a motel, a restaurant featuring "home style cooking," a trough of water where $4 buys you a bag of dirt with which you "pan for gold," a giant inflated dinosaur-shaped trampoline. Our "well-trained ranger," a perky teenager named Ricky who is part tour guide/part comedian, ups the ante with glossy dollops of cultified lore, decoupaged over the cave's Paleozoic hauteur with premeditated corniness.

Spotlighted in Ricky's quasi-history lecture is famed 19th-century desperado Jesse James. James is the golden boy of Meramec Caverns. Unless you've been living in your own cave, you know that a significant percentage of MC's quaint billboards, of which billboards no small quantity infests the surrounding hundred square miles, touts the cave as James' hideout. I encounter not one but two clumsy life-size statues of the Confederate guerrilla-turned-diabolical villain. One of these works festoons the front entrance in a manner usually reserved for enshrined saints. Nobody seems to find it the least bit disturbing that such high tribute is paid to a sociopath whose personal zeitgeist makes Charlie Manson look like John Lennon. The Meramec Caverns attitude toward him -- proprietary, reverent and indulgent -- might be expressed as: "Jesse James, that wacky purveyor of murder and mayhem, he may have been a tool, but he's our tool."

Everyone seems to have brought with them at least one mewling kid; anticipating this prerequisite, I have similarly equipped myself. Of course, my kid, young Ashley Loth, age 10 and on loan from her mother for the afternoon, stands alone at the zenith of model behavior. While the other tykes more or less constantly fidget and squall and commit acts of sociopathic hijinks, Ashley coolly maintains the poise of a 12-year-old at least.

She actually turns out to be instrumental in the success of the mission. Intrigued by her indifference to even the most bizarre cave formations ("They look like plastic"), I begin to amass fascinating evidence suggesting that the average age at which stalactites (the ones that drip down) actually become interesting is 55; for everyone else they are merely a mineral backdrop for a subterranean childrearing ordeal.

Be that as it may, in some circles a childhood trip to Meramec Caverns appears to be more or less compulsory. As we queue up for the tour, I overhear one mother bloodlessly explain the situation to her whining son: "I came here when I was a kid, and you're not getting out of it, either, buddy." Moved by this tender display, I suggest brightly to Ashley that this is a cherished rite of passage she'll be able to share with her own kids someday. Ashley, who has been dubiously eyeballing the creepy subumbral recesses beyond the gate, and from whom I have rather cruelly concealed the horrible truth that our tour will last nearly an hour-and-a-half, sizes me up as a "nut job" and replies without hesitation, "I'm not bringing my kids here!" Later, I abandon all hope of putting an educational spin on the outing when her only response on viewing the World's Largest Chunk of Onyx is "Eew, that guy farted!" Clearly, in the realm of the 10-year-old, flatulence is, hands down, more riveting than any dumb old rock.

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