Ghost of the St. Louis Blues
August 3, 1990: Leon Redbone's voice drifts in and out like fog as shafts of moonlight pierce the trees. We are camped in Measles Gulf, Tennessee, wonderfully insulated from the rest of the world in this paradise of a grassy cove, along with crickets and moonlight and a big bottle of wine. Dennis and Jeanne, David and Ellen, Bethany, Annie, and me: we sit around the glowing coals of the hibachi and argue about gun control, the disintegrating fabric of society, the subterranean drainage and cave passages that surely lie under our feet.
There's a creepy melody
Like a fiend it keeps haunting me.
All night long it rambles on through my brain
Till I'm near insane.
Dennis has spent the last three weekends camped here, poking into various holes in the hillside that suck or blow air. Less than a mile away is Keystone River Cave, with its miles of passage, its 240 foot pit into the largest known void in Tennessee: proof of the potential here. There is 600 feet of limestone underneath us, Dennis says. I am convinced; I can feel it. There is something big nearby.
It's the ghost
Of the St. Louis Blues.
Oh it follows me
Around like a thief in the dark.
Hark! Hear it now!
In the morning Dennis leads a tour to two of the digs. Then we troop across the pasture to the large entrance of Measles Gulf Saltpeter Cave. Operating under the theory that nonchalant, ill-prepared cavers are more likely to make big discoveries, I am wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Three hundred feet into the cave, at the end of a huge tunnel that comes suddenly to a stop at a breakdown choke, I climb down to the right while Bethany pokes around to the left. A tight hole confronts me. Inside, I have just enough room to lay on my stomach and peer down another small hole. I try to move a rock, block the passage, then finally get the rock back where it originally was. Feet-first into the hole, twisting my body around, down I go.
Another chamber, a bit larger, and presto! A solution passage five feet across, heading off at a right angle. "Going cave!" I yell, and sit down to wait for the others. The urge to scamper down the passage nags at me, but I content myself with peering forward to a corner thirty feet away. Virgin cave, I have learned, is something that should be savored and shared.
Dennis and I chimney along the top of the passage as the floor drops out beneath us. Will there be a pit? Will we hit a major trunk below? I'm singing "The Ghost of the St. Louis Blues" under my breath. Dennis and I have spent a lot of time poking in little holes over the years. We're happy if we find a virgin sixty foot pit, delighted to be the first to see a tiny, delicate helectite--but like all gamblers we secretly dream of the magic day when we'll beat the odds and break the bank. The big score.
A hundred feet from its start, the passage ends in flowstone. Two solution pits in the floor are checked on the return and found to be duds. Fame and fortune have eluded us. But before we squeeze back up into the main passage, we probe the breakdown. With the help of a crowbar, I move some rocks and open up a squeeze into the top of another canyon. Once again, I can feel it: the promise of 600 feet of limestone, something just around a corner, the ghost of the St. Louis Blues.
While Dennis pounds and pries to widen the squeeze, I chimney down to wait, then decide to explore a bit. No sense in everybody coming down if the passage doesn't go, I tell myself. Eventually Dennis and David arrive, and together we continue my explorations. The passage trends steadily uphill for about 100 feet, turns into a hands and knees crawl over a huge packrat nest, and dies slowly and inevitably another hundred feet later. Dennis declares that he is pleased with the formations in the passage, which are plentiful and include some dirty helectites. We are making the best of it.
One more chance. The passage continues as a narrow canyon in the opposite direction past our point of entrance. I expect it to fizz out almost immediately, but the passage goes on and on, meandering, forcing our bodies sideways as we negotiate corner after corner. After 400 feet, the ceiling comes down suddenly. I can see through a belly crawl where water disappears into a hopeless mud plug, but I know the rule: you can't trust your eyes from twenty feet away. Sure enough, when I slither to the end, there is a large void to the left. We have done it, I think, we have cracked the cave. But the ghost eludes us again. We stand in the middle of a room thirty feet in diameter, mentally noting four leads in our minds, then check them out one by one. Nothing. Measles Gulf is not going to give up its secrets so easily.
We slip back into the hot, beautiful sunshine, muddy, scratched, tired. What is it about this cove? Can any place exist so perfect and silent and alone? There are no people, no cattle, just fences and ruins and spiders spinning webs…just streams that sink into the earth and refuse to be followed. I know there is more to this place than my eyes can tell me no matter how closely I look. On the wind, I hear a haunting melody.
It's the tune
That I never can lose.
For it's everywhere:
The ghost of the St. Louis Blues.
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