Cobleskill, New York
Secret Caverns is a tourist attraction that operates on a different level -- sometimes in a different universe. We've followed its progress over the years as archrival to subterranean neighbor Howe Caverns. A one-sided battle, many would argue, with Howe's hilltop lodge/restaurant/motel drawing at least ten times more visitors than Secret Caverns each year.
In 1995, as Howe prepared for celebration of its upteen millionth visitor, the Secret Caverns lodge lay in ruins, destroyed by mysterious arson. But Secret has clawed its way up out of the rubble. In the fight for the hearts and minds of offbeat tourism, Secret Caverns is the clear victor. Its flagship billboard proclaims it " Undefeated Champion of the Earth."
Secret Caverns has a familiar origin story. In 1928, a pair of cows fell into a previously unnoticed 85-foot deep hole. At the end of the passageway, explorers "discovered" a 100-foot waterfall. The cave has been open to commercial tours ever since.
Howe Caverns was first on the block, though. Well before those cows tumbled, Howe had brick walkways, elevators and electrical lighting. Proximity to Albany and weekend NYC traffic made it the Northeast's most popular commercial cave. Over the years, they've added an underground boat ride, wedding chamber, and aboveground diversions (dollar-suckers such as "Pan for Gemstones"). Howe is classic Olde Tourism, clean, traditional -- and oh-so-necessary to provide a comedy baseline for your Secret Caverns visit.
Explore the billboard [105k jpeg]
An exploration of one of Secret's more inspired outdoor advertisements. By clicking on different sections, you can see our attempt at unraveling the pantheon of characters in Secret's mythology.
The Secret Caverns Experience actually starts many miles from both caves, when travelers encounter the first hand-painted signs. Garish creatures and psychedelic cavemen leer from outdoor ads. Each billboard is different -- nightmarish scenes, bad puns, dinosaur game shows, cool Uncle Sams. Anything that might steer your car past Howe Caverns and onto Secret. The billboards are designed by a Secret Caverns guide team led by master painters Kurt Piller and Todd DelMarter, in a style reminiscent of Grateful Dead art. Todd says that " some people come here and say: 'Jerry, right?'"
Secret has nurtured a creative collective since the mid-1980s, when Kurt started working there. Todd joined the Secret team after being fired as a guide at Howe Caverns. An eastbound Hwy. 20 billboard was an early breakthrough -- a number involving dwarves and an evil clown, of things "you won't see at Secret Caverns." Since then, the SC Guide art has taken on a life of its own.
"Each summer there is one sign that is the masterpiece," Kurt said. "It has way too much detail and we'll regret ever having started the chore, and three weeks later we're still painting ..." The billboards are definitely getting more and more detailed -- violating every rule they teach you in billboard school. We veer off the road several times, jaws hanging, scrambling for cameras. Kurt likes the effect. "You pull off the road and look at it, or if you're a kid in the back seat you have full time to check it out..."
The billboards increase in frequency, until you hit the piece of road that Secret and Howe share. Then it gets ridiculous -- billboards, arrows, placards every 50 feet. The Howe Caverns entrance blurs by as you race on ... suddenly, nothing... until you reach Secret Caverns.
The Rebuilt Lodge
A menacing 80-foot wide bat is painted across the entrance of the rebuilt lodge, intertwined with Civil Defense and radiation symbols, and a new slogan: " Your Fun King of Spelunking." The new lodge is not nearly as rustic as the original 1952 log cabin model, but the guides are at work making it into their new home.
Near the cash register are the mummified remains of the first tour guide.
"Throw him some coin and he'll bless your colon," Todd promises. Kurt adds: "He's a moneymaking machine. He may not look it, but he's generated hundreds of dollars." Just like the wishing well, which supports the Secret Caverns Beer Fund.
Secret Caverns Floaty Pen
During a sojourn to Secret Caverns, tour guide Todd DelMarter waved a fistful of Floaty Pens in our faces as if they were sticks of lit dynamite. When he stopped sweating and quivering, little figures in the pens seemed to "float" and descend before our very eyes.
The custom-designed souvenir features "The Caveman" (not Jerry Garcia) and a skeleton cow ("Floyd Cowlins") merrily fluming Secret Caverns' totally natural 100-foot waterfall.
On a helpful wall-sized geological chart, someone has redefined the lower DEVOnian age. "All sign painters like DEVO," Todd said. "We're the last surviving DEVO bastion." The lodge has a small display about the fire, lots of souvenir T-shirts and junk, and a restored Stoners' Den for guide breaks.
The tour is entertaining, funny, a little scary -- all the things you come to expect from these guys. We descend the 103 formations "known as steps," and are treated to lore and legend spontaneously made up by the guide. We pass the spot where the two cows landed, before heading into a narrow squeeze, where we hum in harmonic unison to demonstrate... how you can get people to do just about anything. The " Moment of Total Darkness" goes on a little too long. The waterfall, a lens-misting terminus to the cave, sends us back the way we came. Of course, the formations on the way back have different names and stories... [more on the tour]
The tour over, we return to the surface, and again marvel at the way the new lodge is shaping up. There's talk of adding a Viking Fort ("A good place to drink beer.") and a Mystery Spot (where the portable toilets used to be). The horror of the fire a fading memory. Kurt says "it's probably the best thing that ever happened to us."
"A clean slate," adds Kurt. Or a blank canvas...