At some point, I am certain that this trip to Howe Caverns seemed like a fine idea. A romantic night in a hotel, complimentary champagne and chocolates, a romantic lantern tour 156 feet below ground. It should be the stuff of memories.
The trouble is that Cobleskill, New York - the city congealed atop the caverns - is among the dullest places I have ever happened upon. If you happen to live in Cobleskill, my sincere apologies. Living there, I am sure you are beyond used to people saying "I'm sorry" to you, but count me among the sympathetic. I have sat in dental office waiting rooms more captivating.
I try to find excuse for the social doldrums of Cobleskill, but there is no off-season when your tourist trap is a hole in the ground that never varies from 52 degrees Fahrenheit. I do not doubt that the only draw to this town is the aforementioned holes, as their owners direct travelers from fifty miles away with colorful billboards. The motel can suggest nothing stimulating than rocks in their adjoining cave. Given that I annually used to go to Lake George, whose main draw was a wetter and thus prettier geological feature, I do not absolve Cobleskill from the responsibility of having t-shirt stands and costumed cave creatures cavorting. After seeing the cavern, there ought to be some reason to stick around and free ourselves from the burden of our money.
Our motel has doubtless seen better decades. Still, we are not precisely there for the accommodations - though, of course, we would not be averse to a degree of comfort beyond what is provided. The room contains nothing that would account for the money spent on the package, with a television from the 1980s and, bizarrely given the smallness of the room, two sinks next to each other outside the bathroom proper. (Is this so guests can be assured of the other's post-lavatory hygiene?) We are a bit disappointed to discover that the advertised chocolates are two hunks of nearly stale fudge from the gift shop and the champagne - as we realize once we later have exhausted all the entertainment potential of this town - contains only four conservative glasses of bubbly. For my own mental health, I will pretend I believe that the linens had been changed - or at least aired - since Obama took office.
We showed up without time enough to have lunch, so Amber gnaws on some beef jerky as we walk up the hill to the entrance to the cavern. I promised her to buy her some bauble from the gift shop both to make up for the humbleness of our accommodations and to balance the karmic scales for how amazing she made Valentine's Day (I came home to a table set with cups and plates with our names painted on them, a pot of chocolate fondue with fruit and pretzels for dipping, followed by cuddling and breakfast-for-dinner). However, even the gift shop seems to have no urge to put in effort. None of their wares are either nice enough or kitschy enough to be worth more than a cursory glance. Where are the Herkimer diamond rings or the t-shirts emblazoned with the message "I wish my wife were as deep as Howe Caverns (or as wet)"? I attempt to coax Amber toward the section of the building where little kids sift through bags of dirt to get to tumbled smooth gems, but she nixes this with reluctance.
I had come to Howe Caverns at least once as a child and have vivid - if not wholly authentic - memories of a very tight section called Fat Man's Folly, enormous ceilings, a rushing underground river. This is not what we find.
We are led into an antechamber where an animatronic zombie of Lester Howe tells us of his borderline sexual appreciation of the cows who discovered the caverns. We mock it and no one in the group seems to mind. The robot has a painfully broken hand holding too heavy a cane, which was intended as a pointer, as he explains that nothing in Howe Caverns has really changed in the last ten thousand years.
Fat Man's Folly has been renamed something politically correct and innocuous. The ceilings are maybe twenty feet up. Large, but not unbelievable. The river is a still stream. The only time it raged was during Hurricane Irene, at which point the entire cavern was filled with water almost to the top.
Unless we are cows...
Guy the Guide tries to engage us. He is affable and obviously knows the basic spiel, but he contends against childhood confabulations. He cannot possibly come out the victor. He explains, per my questioning, that no animals choose to make Howe Caverns their home. They have something in common with the people who live above, forced to stay in Cobleskill by the vagaries of a cruel Fate.
He leads us to a glowing limestone heart embedded in the brick path. When I was a child, I believed the heart was naturally luminescent like a sort of benign uranium, instead of the truth: translucent and lighted from beneath by a simple bulb to amuse the rubes. Still, Guy the Guy tells us the legend that any unmarried persons stepping on it would have a wedding within a year. With an impish glint in her eyes, Amber realizes her part in this play. She stomps on the heart and gives me a "What canary?" grin. I doubt she is the first - or the ten thousandth - to do this.
This would be a fine time to propose. I don't. I wish her the best on her February wedding and say I hope to be invited. Otherwise, I avoid the stone as though it might suck me in, refusing to lay a single toe upon it even when she tempts me with a kiss and tries to pull me on.
Yes, we are that obnoxious couple. I doubt the other members of our tour enjoy our shenanigans as much as we do.
Guy the Guide seems, at times, personally and retroactively invested in the state of the cavern. We come to a formation now known as the Pipe Organ, two walls form by millennia of limestone dripping. On one side, says Guy the Guide irritably, Lester Howe's visitors would chip off bits of the rock to take with them as souvenirs. "They didn't seem to understand that they were irreparably damaging the cave. But, on the plus column, they opened up this space right here." He ducks under the chipped away overhang. His voice is then sonorous and coming from everywhere as he continues to explain the acoustical accident their plundering created.
Shortly after, we take a boat ride on the placid river. At the end, we are offered lighted candles in coffee cans and warned, with all sincerity, that the lanterns can get rather hot. "I am turning off the lights now," Guy the Guide says. "You have half an hour to get to the exit before we will presume you are lost and will send someone to find you. Do not leave the path or go exploring. We will know."
With that, he flicks a switch and plunges us into a darkness broken only by our lanterns. If we are not permitted to discover nooks off the path for frenzied - if claustrophobic - snogging, I refuse to think this tour is especially romantic. We wander back the fairly straight path, our eyes adjusted enough to the consuming blackness that our shoddy lanterns throw more than enough light. All the same, we were barely accustomed to the subterranean geography when all the lights were on. We hold no chance of finding many formations, though we do wander up to the altar, where I obligingly touch the now dark stone heart so Amber does not have to get married alone.
"Doesn't count unless you step on it," she says authoritatively.
"Who made you the arbitrator of what happens in the cave?" I demand with a grin.
In retort, she pulls me on the heart and kisses me hard.
When we exit a short time later, feeling a dankness that lingers even in fresh air, there are cookies and hot cocoa waiting. I do not care that the cookies were very likely not made by anyone's grandmother. I do not mind that the cocoa is conspicuously from a mix, with powdery remnants floating. I do not even mind that both are handed to me by a bored employee who is watching the clock with a passion I imagine he reserves for nothing else in life. It is a nice touch that makes me feel as though this were a slightly more memorable occasion. I feel this until I accidently quaff a bit of the scalding cocoa and burn off most of my taste buds in a fit of abject foolishness.
This sudden disability, treated with nothing more than the folk remedy of sprinkling sugar on the afflicted organ, is not that much of an issue given the paucity of dining options available to us in Cobleskill. We enlist Amber's smartphone to try to rally further choices in the area, but it seems we are limited to a Chinese buffet, a bar, a remarkably pricy European restaurant that seems not to be aware it is not in Paris, and a barbecue joint named (and I swear I am not making this up) Rubbin' Butts. What possessed them to name it this is a bit beyond us, but I work up a quick fantasy about Daryl Rubbin going into business with Clive Butts and the rest being a matter for culinary historians. Still, when given the choice between unappealing options, it's best to try the unfamiliar one.
After a traffic light that stretched to five minute of waiting, until I cry to Amber that this is clearly the method by which Cobleskill gets its new residents ("Well, it's clear that the light never changes. The only thing for us is to settle here and raise a family that will abandon us the moment they catch on there is life outside of Cobleskill."), we arrive at the restaurant. I feel a bit reticent in using that term, since a "restaurant" to my way of thinking involves things like waitstaff and cleanliness. This seems more like an overgrown ice cream stand, but we were too invested and hungry to turn back.
Amber noted that, for its faults, this place was surprisingly forthright in their advertising. (No, no butts were rubbed.) There are silhouettes of pigs - tail to curly tail - adorning most flat surfaces. "Most places try to be covert about the fact that a specific animal is on your plate. You know you are eating chicken or beef, but they don't ask you to focus on it. Not Rubbin' Butts. They don't let you hold illusions," Amber says, petting the two-dimensional pigs.
...What do you mean "that is the actual name"? ...Seriously?
"My illusions could do with some gussying up," I say as I examine my barbecue chicken sandwich, nothing more than a whole breast, slathered liberally in sauce, thrown on a cold roll.
"What else are they supposed to do?" she asks, hazarding a glance back. "Hey, do you think that's the only dank cave he'll be visiting tonight?"
I narrow my eyes at her and gesture with my spork. "I am eating!" I look over Amber's shoulder. "But, yes. He's too..." I search for an appropriate description before deciding on a neologism, "Cobleskilled for her to want another date."
Having finished my dusty bottle of ice tea, I ask the girl at the front counter if we could have two glasses of water.
"Uh... You can drink out of the bathroom faucet," the Cobleskilled boy sweeping suggests. "That's pretty clean."
Yes, I am certain this whole trip once seemed like a fine idea...
Soon in Xenology: Male friendships. Salem (if Amber gets around to planning it...).