By Bronte Pearson
The sun illuminated the fledgling leaves that peeked from barren branches. The Ozark forest was beautiful, even if spring hadn’t quite made its entrance. I waltzed through the hardwoods, peering into holes in the ground for exciting forest creatures. All I found, however, was a broken snail’s shell. I photographed the shell and continued walking along. I became intrigued by the number of trees that had been burned.
“They do that when the trees rot,” a man’s voice explained from behind me. I jumped and turned to find a man in his midtwenties. His nose peered out from beneath his Star Wars baseball cap, and his shoulder-length, damp black hair indicated he had been out here for some time. He introduced himself to me as Justin. He had a weak voice that wiggled softly through the air and eyes like the holes I had been peering into moments earlier.
I explained that I had read an article in Sea Life, a magazine devoted to the exploration and successes of southeast Arkansas, about Blanchard Springs Caverns, which sits just fourteen miles north of Mountain View, Arkansas, in the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest, about four hours from my home in Monticello, Arkansas. I wanted to witness its majesty for myself. He informed me that he had never been to the caverns before, either, and wanted to explore. It turned out that we would be accompanying each other on the 3:40 Dripstone Trail tour.
When it came time for the tour, Justin and I walked to the main facility and crowded into the hallway by the elevators. Roughly thirty other people joined us.
“Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!” a voice piped up from the crowd. “I appreciate you guys coming up here. My name is Aaron. I’ll be your guide for the next hour.” The tour guide, a tall, blonde, muscular man who looked eerily like actor Chris Pratt from Guardians of the Galaxy, wore a khaki uniform, signifying his being a US Forest Service guide. Blanchard Springs Caverns is the only cave system developed and operated by the US Forest Service.
Aaron has been giving tours of Blanchard Springs Caverns for ten years, and he has done research with a local grotto, or caving club, called COBRA (Cavers of the Batesville Region of Arkansas) out of Lyon College of Batesville, Arkansas, for about fifteen years. His perky voice rattled off the rules for our tour, such as no touching, no smoking, etc. After his spiel, everyone crowded into two large elevators and descended twenty-one stories below the ground—and it got chilly. The caverns were a constant 58 degrees Fahrenheit with 100 percent humidity. My clothes clung to my skin even snugger than they had when I was sweating in the forest.
The first room we entered was the Cathedral Room. Although I had read how large its measurements were, I didn’t realize it would be the size of four football fields. Giant orange bands of iron oxide, or rust, stretched across the walls and swirled into the whites of the calcite and the dull brown of the limestone, and large flowstones drizzled down invitingly. I was perplexed by how recently humans discovered such a beautiful thing. Residents were aware of Blanchard Springs back in the 1930s but delayed exploration due to a lack of technology and equipment. Over the years, various spelunkers made their way into the cave, but the cave wasn’t professionally explored until 1960 by two men named Hugh Shell and Hail Bryant. The first documented witnesses of the Cathedral Room, however, were two teenage boys in 1963 who partnered with COBRA on their twenty-seventh expedition into the caverns.
Although no one is sure of how old Blanchard Springs Caverns is, the cave-making process began roughly sixty-six million years ago in the Ozarks. Acidic groundwater weaseled through fractures in the limestone and dolomite, following vertical crevices called joints and horizontal bedding planes where different layers of rock meet. The rock in these channels disintegrated, enlarging to make water-filled caves, and then, as surface erosion crafted deeper valleys, the water descended to the lower levels of the cave, creating air-filled caverns. This type of landscape is known as karst topography, characterized by the dissolution of soluble rocks, displaying distinctive surface features and underground drainages with sinkholes and caves.
Water is both an aesthetic and chemical virtuoso, molding various cave formations, or speleothems. Its humble drips form the stalagmites that thrust from the floor and the stalactite fingers that point from the ceilings. Its steady flowing forms flowstone; its drapery deposits hang like pleated curtains; and its cascades boast waterfalls frozen in time. Its dribbling rivulets pass through calcite tubes until the tube is clogged with the mineral, forming a fragile “soda straw” structure, a glistening toothpick formation that dangles from the ceiling. Speleothems are nonrenewable despite their being ever changed by water and would easily disintegrate if disturbed or exposed to the outdoors.
Aaron described the various formations in the Cathedral Room, pointing to the contrasting colors and shapes. He emphasized that the room is ever changing because a dominant joint, or a large crack, runs across the ceiling, allowing water to drip into the room and carve away at the rock and its bonded minerals. What I found most intriguing in the Cathedral Room, however, was the shiny gray substance that glistened from the tops of a group of rocks along the cave floor.
“[Microbiologists] say that gray stuff is the ancient by-product of a microorganism who used to live in the cave… NASA thinks when they find life on Mars, it’s going to be the same microscopic organism in many places here on Earth. And so, the first man mission to Mars, they’re sending astronauts into caves in search for life,” Aaron said, shining his flashlight atop the metallic alien substance before strutting farther along the path. He described the room as being one of the most beautiful ever discovered. I had to agree. It was far more incredible in person than it was on that magazine cover, and I had been quite impressed then.
Before leading us into the next room of the tour, Aaron turned and shouted, “Okay! Let it rip!” and a clique of bagpipe players, who had been in the corner of the room preparing for a concert that evening, tuned their instruments, displaying the fantastic acoustics of the cave.
The next room was the Coral Room, which sports a collection of bumps along the walls resembling taco meat. This substance is called cave coral, or cave popcorn. Cave coral is not formed by vertical drips of water like the other formations. Instead, it is the result of mist from ancient waterfalls. Water had poured in huge amounts into the chamber for a long period of time, and the mist carried microscopic amounts of the minerals bonded to the walls. Aaron also explained that a microscopic organism could be responsible for this phenomenon as well, acting as a scaffolding for the minerals to bond onto. Just like the coral in the ocean, cave coral is incredibly sharp to the touch, able to cut through leather gloves.
At other ends of the room is stark evidence of erosion by the water that flows through an inlet in the room during a hard rain. The water has dissolved all the minerals over time and is now mineral deprived, sloughing away the limestone. This process is called re-solutioning. While water is the primary creator of cave formations, it is also one of caves’ ultimate destroyers.
As we tangled along the Y-shaped path, we passed a large black pile, not unlike a plateau of coffee grounds. This pile is the accumulation of bat guano, or feces. About two hundred years ago, bats congregated by the millions in this upper level of the cave. Over time, however, bats found this part of the cave inefficient and moved downward. The guano they left behind feeds cave organisms like insects, snails, and its native Ozark blind salamander, the first cave-dwelling amphibian found in America.
“This is so cool,” I whispered.
Justin, who had been quietly traipsing along beside me, picked on me for being so interested in something like bat poo.
“Now, guys,” Aaron’s booming voice interrupted, “we are about to be walking through a very interesting area we call Temptation Pass. Now, it gets its name because you’re going to be very tempted to reach out and touch the formations next to the trails.” The bottom line: do not touch the formations. Aaron jokingly threatened to tase us if we did. A husky boy in front of me bellowed, “Well, I’ve been through worse.” We laughed and entered a small chamber that emphasized the importance of Aaron’s words. The chamber was covered in sparkling soda-straw formations that reached for the floor with a hauntingly gorgeous grace in a congregation of rocky icicle-like daggers. Everyone scrambled to take selfies in front of them.
After taking in these fragile formations, Aaron wrapped up the tour, spouting off the other tours Blanchard Springs Caverns offers, and then we all loaded onto a forest-green bus, hobbling up the Ozark hills until we reached the main facility.
I had been impressed by the tour, but I was ready to go exploring. Justin recommended we look for the spring that served as the natural entrance of the cave, and so we set out toward the nature trails.
Shallow inland seas once covered the Ozarks’ mountains and forest. As marine species and their calcium-rich shells mingled with mud and organic matter along the sea bottom, the materials compressed into layers of limestone. Over millennia, thick layers of the limestone and the mineral dolomite mixed with thinner layers of shale and sandstone. This mixture was laid down as the sea advanced and retreated, and then later, movements within the Earth heaved the entire area upward, looming above the reach of the seas. This uplift, known as the Ozark Uplift or the Ozark Dome, increased the slopes of the land, allowing streams steeper inclines and greater speeds, which deeply sculpted the Ozark Plateau.
It was a nice day. The air was comfortable, and the sky was void of clouds. The earth was still and patient as I overturned rocks, peered into holes, and crunched through piles of brush. We didn’t find much until we came upon Mirror Lake, a trout pond that surges over a man-made dam, creating a feisty waterfall. I had never seen water so interesting. It shone like the Caribbean Sea, a perfect shade of teal, and yet, so transparently clear.
Justin and I hiked along the lake’s edge until we found a shallow end. We saw an array of wildlife, from fish to crustaceans to arachnids to baby-blue butterflies. While I enjoyed searching for neat critters, Justin was ready to find the natural entrance, its spring surging from the mountainside. The spring was named for John H. Blanchard, who left his family’s plantation in Kentucky to fight for the Confederacy in 1861. After the wars ended, Blanchard sought peace in the Ozarks and built a gristmill powered by the falling spring.
We continued to hike until we found a winding stream. The sun had started to burst into colored slices as the day wound down, tinging the water with shades of tangerine and red. Justin and I jumped from rock to rock as we followed the stream, attempting to maintain a strong grip with our feet despite the carpets of moss that splayed across most of the rocks.
While bouncing across the rocks, I noticed above us loomed a cave opening. I coaxed Justin to come with me, and we climbed the mountainside. The cave was small and dark, its boulders peeking through the little rays of light it could.
I used my phone’s flashlight as we moved farther into the cave. The ceilings got lower, and the air grew colder.
“Do you think we should go back?” I asked Justin. “Just watch, we are about to get mauled by a bear or something.”
Justin guffawed and asked if I’d take a picture of him. As the camera’s flash burst, a single tiny brown bat was illuminated in the background. I didn’t know too much about bats, but I knew enough to know that I shouldn’t disturb it. The Ozarks are home to three species of bats: the gray bat, the Indiana bat, and the Ozark big-eared bat, all of which are endangered. Given its plump brown body and its average-sized ears, I assumed this bat was an Indiana bat. I worried that the light from my phone might upset it, but the bat dangled perfectly still, a furry icicle in the middle of March.
After a few more minutes of exploration, Justin and I decided it might not be the best idea to continue farther into the cave, since we were not equipped for spelunking, nor had we ever had the experience.
We exited the cave and chose to continue hopping up the stream. Tourists walked along a wooden bridge to our left, so I knew we had to be coming up on our spring.
“There! It’s right there!” Justin urged, pointing farther down the way. We hurriedly propelled ourselves from rock to rock until we heard it—water echoing like a brush on brass cymbals. We rounded the corner, and there it was, a small spring gushing from the mouth of the cave.
Justin’s eyes grew wide and excited, and he scaled the rocks surrounding the entrance.
In 1971, scuba divers entered through this spring entrance and followed its course, discovering four thousand feet of passages with five air-filled caverns, and they determined that it took water approximately twenty-four hours to flow through the cave.
Once Justin reached the same height as the top of the waterfall, he lifted his arms in the air and shouted, “Eureka!”
“Eureka!” I called back, grinning, taken by the suitability of the word.
We had reached our destination, but I felt I had reached a spiritual destination as well. These types of natural wonders were all around us, capable of fulfilling our instinct to investigate the mysterious and the beautiful, evoking a sense of freedom and euphoria only genuine nature supplies. The best part of knowing this was the realization that I’d only uncovered the wonders of one single place and had so many more to go. I’d wandered beneath the earth and witnessed a living masterpiece sculpted by nature’s steady hand; I encountered an array of flora and fauna residing in the Ozarks; and I made a friend along the way. I knew in that moment under the waterfall with Justin’s radiant smile settling upon me that I would never stop looking. I needed to set out for another excursion elsewhere. And then another. And another.
Bronte Pearson is a science journalist, creative writer from Arkansas, and a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Master of Arts program in science writing. Pearson’s work can be found in NonBinary Review, The Smart Set, Motherly, The Mighty, 805 Lit + Art, and others.