The AAA gives a gem to top attractions. I agree with their designations most of the time. But I finally found one that I thought was not worth a gem–Natural Bridge Caverns.
I had a good friend in high school named Leonard. He was from Austria. He received a scholarship to St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. It changed his life. In 1960, 4 determined students from this university discovered 2 miles of cave corridors beneath a limestone bridge northeast of San Antonio. This cave system developed into a National Natural Landmark and State Historical Site that the Automobile Club awarded a gem to. I disagree.
But I’m from Missouri, the Cave State, and grew up exploring its caverns despite the fact that I actually favored the caves in South Dakota’s Black Hills. In other words, I have some background for judging caverns; and I found Natural Bridge grand without being all that different from others of my experience. And then there was Nick.
Ruth heard that the basic Discovery Tour required lots of strenuous up and down climbing. We had spent the morning thoroughly exploring the wonderful town of Gruene, Texas, and Ruth was not interested in spending 75 minutes in a cave. I went by myself.
I waited for my tour under a shady pavilion with 8 picnic tables. Traditional country music was blaring as I watched other cavers arrive. One boy was wearing a shirt that proclaimed KANYE FOR PRESIDENT. They were mostly families with a scattering of older couples who looked fit. Only one looked as if they might have difficulty. The group grew to about 30. Nick, who looked like a younger, skinnier Josh Groban arrived to conduct the Discovery Tour.
He told us some rules. The main one was “do not touch anything!” He told us that it would be 70º in the cave and very humid. If we saw bats, we were not to take pictures of them. Sounding bored, Nick said we would descend the equivalent of a building with 18 floors. Often, tour guides have done their jobs so long that they sound programmed. I figured Nick was one of them.
On our first stop in the North Cavern, Nick said if anyone was having difficulties at any time to tell him and he or she would be escorted out. One teenaged girl immediately left the tour.
Nick told us that there hadn’t been bats in this cave for 5,000 years. One boy, who had already asked some astute questions, remembered the warning and asked our guide, who insisted on defining easy words in a patronizing way, if he had seen any bats in Natural Bridge Caverns. Nick was flustered. He told the boy that he had only been on the job for a week and suggested the boy come back in a year and ask him that question again.
In one passageway, we were told that each group would have its picture taken. Nick made it sound like a security precaution, but it was actually an attempt to sell memories of our thrilling visit. He also promoted other cave tours during which spelunkers got wet and dirty and had more fun.
The way back to the Visitors Center passed several theme-park-like attractions. Glad to be out, I passed them rapidly wishing I was back in Missouri.