“When I grow up, I want to be a geologist,” I begin. Speaking in front of my classmates makes me nervous. So I slip my hand into my pocket. My fingers touch my moonstones and a jagged piece of obsidian.
In third grade I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. But then we took a family vacation over summer break. Our visit to Talking Rocks Cavern near Table Rock Lake changed everything.
“With their kerosene lamps, Waldo Powell’s daughters led the first tours of Talking Rocks Cavern,” says our tour guide. He describes how the cavern was originally discovered by hunters who followed a rabbit down a hole that turned out to be a whole lot more. Apparently, Waldo’s father, Truman Powell, who was an educated man with an interest in cave science, was the first person to explore the cavern. Since it’s a vertical cavern, he had to be lowered down with a pulley system. Even though we’re just starting the descent down the stairs I can already see why Truman Powell called it the Fairy Cave. With all of its nooks and crannies, it looks like the perfect place for pixies to hide and practice their magic. Still, when the current owners of the cave purchased it in 1969, they made the official name Talking Rocks Cavern.
Waldo said the water-carved rocks and mineral deposits silently spoke to him, says our guide. He explains how much we can learn about the history of the earth from observing and studying the rocks. Then he asks if anyone knows the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite. I let go of the concrete railing and raise my hand—nearly hitting a dripping stalactite in the process! But, I’ve never seen helicities, draperies, flowstones and cave popcorn until our guide points them out with his flashlight. The cavern’s limestone walls are also covered with marine fossils. My favorite feature, though, is Powell’s Monument. The largest column in the cave, it looks like a giant, towering angel.
A family explores Table Rock Lake’s Talking Rocks Cavern
A family walks down the steps in Talking Rocks Cavern
Close up of the rocks inside Talking Rocks Cavern
As we climb the stairs back up to the mouth of the cavern, I imagine what it would be like to be a geologist. Discovering caves, naming them, studying rock formations and even having angels named after me?
“I think she just discovered her dream job,” I hear Dad whisper to Mom.
For a few seconds, I’m questioning if I can go further. Will I get trapped? It’s dark, and I’m not sure that I can fit through the opening ahead of me. No, I’m not still in the cavern. I’m in the SpeleoBox in the gift shop. From the outside, it just looks like a tall, wooden chicken house with two dog-door-sized openings. One is the entry, and the other is the exit. From the inside, I’m learning that it’s actually a really challenging multi-story hamster maze for humans.
“Try backing up and going through feet first,” Mom suggests, cheering me on from outside the box. Dad is timing me. He says if I make it through the crawlspace in under five minutes, I might set a record. More importantly, it means I have the potential to be a good speleologist. For speleologists to do their job, it is sometimes required for them to crawl through low, tight, muddy passage ways in caves.
Maybe I won’t have to use one of the emergency escape hatches after all.
If I’m going to be a geologist who works in caves, it will be a huge help to know how to maneuver in cramped spaces and twisting tunnels.
I try Mom’s idea of backing up and repositioning myself, feet first. I bend my knees around the tight corner and slowly shimmy through on my side. It’s working! Maybe I won’t have to use one of the emergency escape hatches after all. Creativity—thinking outside of the box—will get me out of the box!
“Five minutes and fifteen seconds, so close!” Dad says when my head pokes out of the final passageway. I am a little tired and sweaty, having tried to break the five minute mark, but it doesn’t stop me from running to get in line for the indoor SpeleoBox.
My allowance is only $5/week, so, it’s hard for me to spend it all on a bag of dirty rocks. But when I learn I might find valuable gemstones when sifting through the mix, it makes spending the money a lot easier. I’m hoping to find an opal since my birthday is in October.
It looks like a few small moonstones and a chunk of obsidian.
Mom helps me find an open spot at the sluice box outside. I dump the first half of my bag into the wooden box with a screen bottom. Then, I submerge the bottom of the box into the stream and start to shake it back and forth, side to side. I know the flowing water will wash away the sediment. What I don’t know is what will be left in my box.
“What do we have here?” Dad asks, leaning over my shoulder. I tell him I’m not sure. It looks like a few small moonstones and a chunk of obsidian. When the mining helper comes over with his rock chart, he congratulates me on my identification skills. I found many beautiful gemstones like amethyst and citrine as I sifted through that bag of sand, but I’m disappointed I didn’t find an opal.
“Being a geologist is like speaking to rocks silently,” I say, thinking about Waldo Powell. “If you are patient and listen close, they’ll tell you what they are and how they got there.” I proudly show them a picture of a stalactite and stalagmite and start to explain how calcium (the same element found in milk!) creates amazing sculptures.