If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you’ve probably heard the old adage: write what you know. For a young Samuel Langhorn Clemens, later known as Mark Twain, that meant Hannibal, Missouri. The town, on the banks of the Mississippi River, served as the inspiration for the fictional town of St. Petersburg — home to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Its dense woods, intricate cave systems, and sandy islands offered a world of adventure for Twain’s heroes to explore.
The limestone caves, now called the Mark Twain Cave and the Cameron Cave, played a crucial role in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. They’ve been a draw for literary enthusiasts ever since. Less than two hours from St. Louis, Hannibal and its caves offer an easy break for weekend travelers. After all, what better way to escape the hustle of city life than deep underground in the dark, dank silence?
After an easy one hour and forty-five-minute drive from downtown St. Louis, my stepdad, Rick, and I (he’s the Huck to my Tom on this trip) pull up to the privately owned National Landmark. The Mark Train caves are unassuming at first, but there’s a certain tough-to-pin-down energy to the area. I think of the generations of local teens who likely snuck inside them for a thrill. Every small town on earth probably has this sort of place, where kids seek perilous adventure. In my Maine hometown, there was a rusted out cement truck in the woods that led to a train trestle enveloped by a bamboo forest. My brother and I spent plenty of long days in those woods.
Standing at the entrance of the Mark Twain Caves, I try to see them how Twain himself must have seen them growing up — dark and full of mystery. My stepdad and I sign up for a tour, and after one of those short reenactment-heavy videos explaining the history of the caves, we’re off.
As you enter the cave, the touch of cold meets your face — the temperature inside stays around fifty-two degrees year-round. It’s well lit, having been electrified since 1939, so you can intricately see the cave’s unusual architecture. I’ve been in my fair share of underground cave systems both above ground and underwater, but these caves are unique in their starkness. The stalactite, stalagmites, and watery flowstones you expect to see in a cave are missing.
Instead, the center was carved out by the inland sea that later became the Mississippi River. It looks almost like the ruins of constructed brick edifices, long forgotten by their destroyers, abandoned and apocalyptic looking.