Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hill Country ramble, Part 2: Natural Bridge Caverns

As I noted in Part 1 of this travelogue mini-series, I sometimes evaluate well-known recreational venues, but my approach is meta-analytical rather than descriptive.  If instead you want a more mechanical assessment of Natural Bridge Caverns, that's available through their own website or write-ups such as this one

Let me frame my recent experience in Natural Bridge Caverns using an analogy. 

Do you ever wonder why birders do what they do?  Sure, most people would agree that birds are cool and interesting to see (especially from the convenience of one's own home office)... 
A mourning dove squab, newly liberated from the nest and still perplexed about his surroundings, recently overnighted on the rim of our bird bath.  Not the most conservative survival strategy, but he was a newbie who didn't know any better. 
So yes, birds are cool, but birders elevate the observational process to a whole 'nuther level.
For some, birding becomes a primary lifestyle driver, a fact that is not lost on the retailers and municipalities that pursue a share of their collective disposable income. 

Advertisement screengrabbed from Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine.  What this has to do with Natural Bridge Caverns will become apparent in a minute. 
If you read up on the psychology of birders, you'll find the usual attributions:  They develop it as an elaborate recreational hobby.  They do it for sport.  They choose birding as a means of identifying and socializing with like-minded people. 

But there's another less-oft cited reason:  They do it as a mild form of healthy dissociation.  
  Healthy dissociation is so poorly understood by laypeople that I couldn't even find a satisfying URL to describe it, so I had to screengrab from this Google book source

Some folks might instead declare this component to be selective attention, which is a more benign-sounding idea.  But I can't tell you how many times I've marveled at a birder who was able to deftly dissociate from his or her physical surroundings, which objectively should have been quite distressing at the time, so that they could instead focus solely on the species in front of them.   They didn't register the ankle-deep car-thrown trash including animal carcasses, urine bags, and discarded hypodermic needles on the shoulder of the road as they were stalking their feathery quarry.  They saw only the beauty before them.  The birds were their psychic relief valve, of sorts. 

The "bridge" at Natural Bridge Caverns may be natural, but being almost two hundred feet underground in a confined space with a hundred other people is not a natural experience and, if not approached from an optimal headspace, can be extremely stressful.
The mantra is always "get there early", but due to family schedules, we were forced to get there mid-afternoon on the Saturday of the last full summer weekend before school started.  We could scarcely have picked a worse time.  To say the place was mobbed would be the understatement of the century.  It looked like a Katrina evacuation center - people were exhausted and stressed to the max. 
From a state-of-mind perspective, I leverage photography the way birders leverage birds.
The more intimate tours were already sold out and so we had to see it via the "Discovery Tour", which is basically a controlled open-access cattle-call.  Notice how the webpage describes it as "Departs every 40 minutes, or sooner throughout the day".  When we got there, they were mobilizing huge crowds of people in a continuous flow.  I guess there's no need for fire regulations and associated capacity limitations underground, given that the relative humidity is 100% and there are few combustibles present. 
But you'd never realize that there was a simultaneous, distressing crush of people from looking at these photos. 
Ceiling shot.  No people up there, thankfully. 
Cave features are often given names so that visitors can mentally integrate them into existing conceptual frameworks.  My teenager said, "That doesn't look like a tower - it looks like a swarm of jellyfish."
Healthy dissociation is an adaptive life skill which usually develops with the wisdom of age.  Younger people often have greater difficulty detaching from the impositional aspects of a situation such that they can maximize their productive outcomes.  "Run between the raindrops," I sometimes tell my teenager when she becomes frustrated with school or stymied by the teenaged social climate.  In an active cave, the strategy of running between the raindrops becomes literally the case. 
Raindrops were falling on my head as I zoomed in for this eerie close-up of a particularly wet and active formation. 
Moral of the story:  In any stressful situation, find your own mechanism of healthy dissociation.  It may be birds, photography, interaction with your loved ones, approaching the challenges from a spiritual perspective, or some other focus. 

And oh - Natural Bridge Caverns really are worth seeing under any conditions of stress.  I wasn't sure they would be, because I'm a cave snob.  I've hiked miles and miles of Mammoth.  I spent a few years in the Show-Me State during graduate school, and it's hard for me to imagine anything topping a few of its offerings, especially Onondaga.  But I thoroughly enjoyed Natural Bridge, despite having seen it on what must have been the craziest day of the year. 
Focus on nothing but the up-side. 


  1. Have you gone to "innerspace" in Georgetown? That is a very nice cave area. Discovered when they were making I-35 it is very nice. Try Hamilton's pool in Travis County.(not a cave but a cool place) Longhorn Caverns is another nice place to go "underground"

  2. I have been to Georgetown but not in many years now. Hamilton Pool was a favorite but during my tenure in Austin was sometimes closed due to elevated bacteria counts (from bat poop, I think).


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