The tour guides always point it out: look up there, they say, shining a flashlight into the pitch darkness between stalactites above our heads, that’s the original entrance. The spot where someone looked down the hole uncovered by a fallen tree and first set eyes upon this strange subterranean world glimmering beneath the middle Florida cotton kingdom. Never mind that the Indians in this part of Florida had known about the caves and used them for longer than anyone could remember. That curious explorer must have been as thrilled and unsettled by this place as the room full of tourists gaping into the inscrutable darkness. Because this place, the Florida caverns, should not be here in North Florida.
This is an endlessly beautiful region, but if you spend enough time in this part of Florida you know what to expect: rolling hills, pine flatwoods, palmettos, red clay, cypress swamps, meandering tannic rivers. It’s a shock, then, the first time you set foot in this fantasy world. The air is cool and damp, odorless. The eyes refuse to settle in one place, for there is no horizon and no distance. There is only this room, only the next room, like a Zelda dungeon. The rocks you know in the human world above are gray and bland, chips off the endless block of limestone that used to be sea floor and sea creatures underlying the entire Florida peninsula. Here the rocks are obscenely variegated, evocative, ubiquitous.
For all that, caves are not entirely peaceful. Peer through the crevices along the well-trod and dimly-lit tour path and it’s easy to imagine losing yourself in a tightening pitch black labyrinth. It’s all too easy to imagine eyeless creatures going about their sightless business, creepy spiders, bats—though you’re likely to see at least one of these without exercising your imagination–insects, even corpses presiding over the inky darkness. This is truly an escape from the Florida you think you know, and a treasure.