Cave by candlelight

My husband and I just got back from an enjoyable weekend visiting Hannibal, Missouri, the hometown of Samuel Clemens – otherwise known as Mark Twain. One of the highlights of our visit was a tour of the Mark Twain Cave.

We had chosen Hannibal as the destination for our short trip to celebrate our twenty-third wedding anniversary, in part because an online acquaintance from WorldMag Community works as a tour guide in the cave. I had no particular interest in Mark Twain himself, but the idea of seeing the cave that features so prominently in Tom Sawyer was another matter.

I was even more pleased to find out there was a tour available by candlelight. If I wanted to see what it would have been like for the characters of Twain’s famous novel, how better to see it than – like them – without the aid of electric lights?

Peter L was an excellent tour guide. I learned all sorts of things about the cave itself and its history, about Mark Twain and the town he grew up in, and of course about how parts of the cave figured in his books. I suppose it helps that the subject matter was by its nature more interesting than some historical tours I have been on, but the tour was fascinating from beginning to end.

I also learned that it is difficult to take pictures in a cave. I’m sure I remember reading somewhere in my new camera’s manual about low-light settings, but I couldn’t find them while walking along in semi-darkness with my camera in one hand and my candle in the other.

I had been in a cave at least once before. My husband and I went camping in Virginia for our honeymoon, and we took a tour of the Luray Caverns. That tour was by electric light, plus those caves are full of large open spaces. Walking in single file through the narrow passages of the Mark Twain Cave is quite different.

To begin with, I hadn’t imagined quite how dark it would be with only candles for illumination. My mental images of caves had been formed largely, I suspect, by movies. No matter how dark the scene, movies always manage to have enough light to see the action by, while also providing hints about how hard it is to see. I can tell myself that of course it would really be much darker than it appears on the screen, but my mind had not sufficiently compensated for the effect of movie lighting.

As I struggled to keep up with the dim figures ahead of me in the cave, I found it amazing that people had explored the caves as much as they had, back before the days of flashlights, knowing how easier a draft, a bat, or a dropped candle could extinguish the only source of light. Whatever sudden dropoffs there are, they were fenced off from us on the tour, but early explorers would never have known when the ground would suddenly drop away into some deadly-deep chasm.

Of course, as our guide explained, those explorers often used torches, not mere candles. He pointed out the blackened areas of the “ceiling” where the smoke of torches had left its mark. And as we continued deeper into the cave, I realized that it no longer seemed nearly as dark – though a bit of thought made me realize that the change was not in the ambient light but in my eyes adjusting to the relative darkness.

Now I could see the rock formations better – not, as Peter L pointed out, the vertical formations of stalagmites and stalactites that I had always imagined and that early illustrators of Tom Sawyer had obviously imagined.

Rather, the walls are made up of horizontal layers of rock, like those I am accustomed to seeing in canyons that are not underground. After all, they were produced by the same forces of nature – it just happens that the river in this case ran underground.

So of course I wanted to take some pictures. But I couldn’t figure out how to get an image similar to what I was seeing. Without the flash, all that showed was the candles and the small area they illuminated directly. It conveyed the impression of darkness, but none of the rock formations.

With the flash, I got good pictures of the rock formations, but no hint of how dark it was. (I think my camera’s flash has to count as electric light, since it is battery-powered.)

So you’ll have to take my word for it – by candlelight you can see well enough to find your way along, once your eyes adjust to the light. But candlelight doesn’t reach very far, and around you are countless dark recesses and inky black passages. I would certainly not want to be in such a place with a character like Injun Joe around.

Speaking of Injun Joe, it was his demise that made the whole cave part of the story so unpleasant to me as a child. Sure he was a very bad person, but the thought of him trapped in the cave, after it was barred up, vainly trying to chip away at the barrier while he grew weak from lack of food and water, was very disturbing to me.

Come to think of it, there were quite a few parts of the book that disturbed me, though that one was the worst. I’m afraid I would not have like Tom Sawyer if I had known him, and I don’t suppose he would have liked me. I’ve never liked pranks, and always felt uncomfortable reading about the many pranks Tom played.

I had wondered where Mark Twain came up with the ideas for Tom’s adventures, and was fascinated to learn (at the Mark Twain Museum, the day after the cave tour) how much of it came from his own life. Several characters in Tom Sawyer were based on real people he knew, as well as on his own experiences.

It’s one thing to read in a textbook – or even in a museum display – that an author has based fictional accounts on real-life experiences. Even going through historical buildings (I saw the house where Mark Twain grew up, and the office where his father had been justice of the peace, among others) gives me little sense of connection with those people.

But a candlelit walk through a chilly cave brings a much greater sense of immediacy to Twain’s life and writings. Especially as we walked, the following afternoon, though the heat and humidity of downtown Hannibal – I understood exactly why the townspeople of both Twain’s hometown and his novels would flock to the cool caves for refreshment, even at the risk of getting lost in the dark.

3 Responses to Cave by candlelight

  1. I went to these places as a child. To it was not Disney World, so I did not get the most out of it. What a waste… I hope to have the opportunity to go back.

  2. modestypress says:

    As a non believer, and as a person who seldom was taken to church, many of my ideas about values and ethics came from literature. For example, in Huckleberry Finn when Huck refuses to turn in Jim, the escaped slave, even though Huck figures he (Huck) will go to Hell. Then there’s George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and a book you may never have read (I was assigned it to read in high school), The Ox-Bow Incident.

  3. Peter L says:

    Good write up, Pauline. I will recommend it to my employer at the cave.

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