The Hierophant

My side project this summer has been ghostwriting a local man’s memoir. His life is interesting, and it feels worthwhile to help him tell his story. It also makes me wish that more strangers invited me into their homes and told me personal details about their lives.

In one of our interviews, the man mentioned his circuitous connection to Crystal Cave. For the uninitiated, Crystal Cave is the second oldest commercial cave in the state, after the Mark Twain Cave in Hannibal, Missouri. It is located just north of Springfield.

Crystal Cave isn’t open to the public these days. One of my preferred methods of escapism is fantasizing about buying it and getting it going again. Tell me the listing isn’t incredibly tempting.

I’ve always liked commercial caves. There was a time, in my early twenties, when I visited them at any opportunity. Our karst topography means that there are many caves in this region. Because of that peculiar Ozarkian mixture of showmanship and scrappiness, quite a few of them have been commercialized.

There are spelunkers who research caves that are difficult to access, or pursue caving like an extreme sport. Then there are tired families on summer vacations paying $10 to walk (or be driven, as in the case of Fantastic Caverns) through a cave with a tour guide. These are two different species, and I am interested only in the latter.

Commercial caves take very disparate things— the mind-blowing process of going inside the earth and the payment for goods and services—and combine them in a way that diminishes neither. I increasingly believe that capitalism corrupts almost everything it touches, but caves remain a notable exception. We should pay to enter caves, or look out across tree-filled vistas, or sit by large bodies of water. Maybe then we would more fully internalize the value of such things.

At their core, I believe that commercial caves are deeply pagan. Outfitting a cave with handrails and dramatic lighting is a symbolic act that elevates that which is natural and wild.

Caves are filled with strange and beautiful formations that exist nowhere else. People say that church is God’s house, but it seems obvious to me that caves are. This might seem like it contradicts what I said about paganism, but when it comes to commercial caves there are no contradictions, only expansions of thought that allow for everything and nothing to be true all at the same time.

For these reasons, I still regret that I did not get married inside Bridal Cave, which is just outside of Camdenton, Missouri. If I were less afraid of explaining myself to people, I would have gotten the Sweetheart Special.

A decade ago or more, I went to Crystal Cave with my sister and her then-boyfriend, back when it was still open. We were the only people on the tour with an elderly man, Lloyd Richardson, who at the time owned the cave with his wife, Edith. He was very nice and knowledgeable. He had a hyperactive puppy with him, who came along with us on the tour.

Lloyd told us that he’d just dug out an opening into a new room within the cave. Maybe because we asked good questions or seemed interested, he told us we could see it. To get inside we had to duck through a narrow and muddy opening. The room was big, but nearly all of it was taken up by a huge, sparkly white column. Columns are made when stalactities and stalagmites grow together over many millennium, and this was the most pure-white column I’ve ever seen.

Columns are rarely straight up and down. In limestone caves, the mineral deposits that create them build up and recede due to environmental factors, so they are often ribbed. The column in Crystal Cave had a small lip around the bottom half, which was the exact right width for a puppy to jump onto with muddy paws and run around on. This is what happened when we were in that room.

There should be a rule that you have to marry the person you are with when you see a perfect and ancient rock formation destroyed before your very eyes. Metaphors for love and aging and the passage of time don’t get much better. My sister did marry her boyfriend soon after that, though I did not marry Lloyd or the puppy.

Lloyd was unperturbed by the paw prints on the column. He shooed the dog away and the tour proceeded. The cave was not holy to Lloyd. I cannot convey how much I admired his attitude.

Lloyd died in 2014, three years after Edith. His children now own the cave, but they’re not interested in running it.

Thinking about buying Crystal Cave and starting a new life, or maybe just starting the same life that Lloyd and Edith once shared, is helpful at times when I feel overburdened by the life I currently have. Escapism gets a bad rap, but it’s just another kind of self-care, which is how we’re supposed to be dealing with the emotional trauma we’re experiencing as our country’s core values are eroded by Trump and his sycophants, or by the ongoing and undeniable effects of climate change.

Another escape I’ve found helpful lately is this directory of communes across the world. I’m not ready to drop out of society and join a commune, though writing that suggests there might be a time at which I become ready, which is true.

Through this directory, I discovered a woman, Alline, who blogs for the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Rutledge, Missouri. She has a very clear and inviting writing style, and every time I read one of her posts, I think more seriously about giving it all up for good.

Just this week, though, my two-year-old daughter has started telling me she wants to take me places. For some reason she whispers these invitations, as if they are secrets. So far she wants to take me to Bass Pro and the airport, so that we can watch the airplanes together. We couldn’t go to either one if we dropped out of society, and going to these places with my daughter is what I most want to do in the world. Alline is a compelling writer, but nothing could ever be as compelling as my daughter loudly whispering into my ear. Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage will have to wait.

My final method of escapism is the simplest: free internet Tarot card readings. The first reading I did seemed so accurate and wise. It told me that what was standing in my way was The Hierophant, which symbolizes conventional beliefs and systems.

“Perhaps you are having a crisis of faith,” my internet Tarot reading said. “Ask yourself who you really are. What is important to you? What makes you happy?”

Yes, this is it exactly, I thought. The reason I feel overburdened is society itself, is the crushing weight of expectation and custom, which stifles the wildness of my own humanity. On the Fourth of July this year I thought about what true freedom might look like, and the answer that came to me was anything but this.

“I’m trying,” I said, to my computer screen. I needed more information, some guidance as to how free myself from the soul-crushing constraints of modern life. How do I see around The Hierophant? How do I go inside the earth?

I clicked for my next reading, and a new set of cards appeared. This time they said nothing that was relevant to me. An ad for an affordable phone psychic popped up. I felt disillusioned and clicked away.

Escapes are like that, I’ve found. They can shift on you. You must watch them closely, ensure they are advancing your well-being and not further contributing to your own entrapment. This is what I might tell someone someday, when they’re helping me write my own memoir. “Write down entrapment,” I’ll tell them, “right after the part where I see the puppy destroy the rock formation at Crystal Cave.”

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