In the heart of the Tennessee Smokies, 100 feet beneath the dripping humidity and nagging mosquitoes, Phillip Vananda takes a deep breath of cold cavern air.
Cell phones don’t work down here. Email can’t buzz in as tourists descend the cement staircase above an 80-foot drop. Some may find the solitude restricting, especially in today’s fast-paced world. The Vanandas find it liberating.
Phillip Vananda, co-owner of Tuckaleechee Caverns, and a small team of employees run the 64-year-old small business above the cavern’s main entryway. The business is one of a handful of tourist attractions that fuel the economy of Townsend, Tennessee, and Tuckaleechee Caverns has been a mainstay employer for three generations.
But Townsend isn’t a big tourist destination. His family has always been able to squeeze by on the tiny profit margin the business brings in “by the time you pay the insurance and employees,” Phillip Vananda said.
The Great Recession hit Townsend harder than most areas. Gas prices spiked, and so did unemployment. Entertainment was less important than survival, and the caverns took a backseat to grocery bills and car payments. For a while, the Vanandas said, they weren’t sure how many more slow years the tour company could weather.
“You’re depending on tourism. It is an absolute coin toss as to what you’re going to have one day to the next,” said Phillip Vananda’s 35-year-old son Brett Vananda, who worked in the caverns as a young man. “When you can’t afford to pay your mortgage, the last thing you’re thinking about is thinking about taking your kids to the caves.”
But 2016 and 2017 were a breath of fresh air, Brett Vananda said. After years of hoping and praying, revenue jumped by more than a quarter over two years, as the bitterness of the recession began to mellow.
Worldly requirements like light bills and insurance payments don’t seem to fit in the fantastical world of Tennessee’s caverns. Above is the land of digitalization, where computers rule everything from the GPS systems his guests use to find the cavern entrance to the gift shop registers his employees use to ring up wooden yo-yos and porcelain bears. Above, cars race from town to town. Demands to buy this and see that and do all these other things scream through social network streams.
Below, the world is still. There’s the slight gurgle of a stream. The drip, drip, drip of stalactites; each centimeter taking hundreds of years to form. It took 20 million years to sculpt these caverns and more than 100 for the Vanandas to call it a second home. The world below doesn’t rush.
The Instagrammers and baby boomers Phillip Vananda leads on tours of the 20-million-year-old caves have to wait to resurface from the depths of the corridors to post stunning visages of towering walls and stalactites.
It’s OK with Phillip Vananda that his cell phone doesn’t blink with business calls. He doesn’t need it. Two sturdy legs will get him through a hard day’s work.
Urban legend encouraged by cavern tour guides says the Cherokee tribes that lived in this section of the rolling Tennessee mountains would sit by the cave to enjoy the cooling breeze that came from the cave’s frigid underground headwaters—the closest thing to air conditioning then.
Employees from a lumber company in the 1850s jotted down how the valley in which they worked never flooded, even when rain beat down during summer storms. It would all drain into a large “sinkhole,” which was actually the mouth of the Tuckaleechee Cavern. The valley later earned the name Dry Valley for its mysterious ability to make water disappear.
The decades rolled on. Local women in the early 1900s drug their kids and their needlework out of the house on hot days to sit by the cool breeze coming from the strange hole. Kids inevitably wandered off, looking for adventure.
Phillip Vananda’s father Bill was one of those kids. He and a friend, Henry Myers, were waist-high children when they creeped into the cave entrance, not daring to tell their mothers where they’d been.
As they grew, they got more daring, going deeper into the opening with homemade lanterns of soda bottles filled with kerosene with a rag wick. They moved slowly through the narrow passages, sometimes crawling on their stomachs, always eager to see what was just beyond their lamplight.
As young men, they dragged trees into the cavern by the first major drop off and created a makeshift ladder to scale the 80 feet to the bottom. That’s when they first saw the cavern’s waterfall, its small trickling stream and room after room inside the seemingly endless cavern.
Something about the caverns stuck with them, even as they left home to attend the nearby Maryville College.Phillip Vananda and Myers tried to set aside money to buy the property at the mouth of the caverns, but it was just after the Great Depression, there was never quite enough. Lenders wouldn’t touch their project, so they decided to leave for the western U.S. where there was more work, even though they both had a wife and young children at home.
The young men set off for Alaska, where they toiled as construction workers for about two years. They learned to pour cement, lay foundation and build staircases—skills they’d use when they built the concrete pathways and stairs that still stand today in Tuckaleechee Caverns.
On a blistering summer day nearly a century later,Phillip Vananda descended the concrete block staircase that his father built in the 1940s to show a reporter his heritage.
As a 13-year-old,Phillip Vananda hauled bags of cement mix down those steps. At 16, he spent summers spreading concrete across slick patches of stone. At 64, he’s down in the caverns every day, checking on lighting, fixing pathways and showing a new generation of visitors the wonders he grew up with.
The caverns that sat untouched for eons have been worn by palms of hands and soles of shoes.Phillip Vananda pointed to a rocky handhold that gleamed in the dim light, polished from the oily skin of thousands of unsteady visitors.
The stairs lead to a vast corridor with a steady, half-foot deep stream, cold as ice and tasteless. There’s no hint of chlorine or metals, like in the constantly treated tap water above. The water, purified by seeping through rocks for centuries before it dripped into the cavern, tastes like the headwater peddled by bottled water companies, pure and crisp with mountainous visages on the label.
This first part of the cavern, with its flat rocky bed and smooth ceiling, looks like it was carved over thousands of years by the slow-moving stream that meanders through the corridor. The Vanandas have hosted local fundraising galas and a relative’s wedding here. They even stored pallets of military rations during the Cold War as an emergency shelter—enough food to feed the surrounding area for about two weeks in the event of a nuclear attack.
This is where the Vanandas bring their babies when they’re about three weeks old and ready for their first outings into the world. The longer walks deeper into the cavern come later. “It’s a huge playground. My oldest, he loves it. To him, it’s funny because he loves the cave but he also loves the little gift shop upstairs,” Brett Vananda said.
Deeper and deeper into the caverns Vananda climbs, telling elderly visitors and fathers holding toddlers where to be extra careful on the stairs. The narrow walking paths open into a vast cave, “the big room,” a 150-foot-tall room with 24-foot-tall stalagmites and hundreds of stalactites dripping from the ceiling.
Visitors gawk at the sheer size and beauty of the alien-like rock formations. A huge dark opening looms in the far side of the cave. The beauty captures the imaginations of the town’s youth, and several proposals have taken place in this section of the cavern, including Brett Vananda. When his girlfriend arrived in the “big room,” she saw a table Brett Vananda had filled with candles. She said yes.
“To me, the cave was that special,” he said. “In many ways, the cave defines who I am.”
The elder Vananda said cave divers sometimes get permission to explore deeper into to the caverns through that opening—but occasionally someone sneaks in and Vananda has to call the police.
Phillip Vananda leads a group past the cave’s waterfall and back up a winding staircase. They exit the cool air, greeted with a blast of steamy, humid Kentucky air. But soon they’re back in the gift shop, thankful for the air conditioning.
Phillip Vananda looks around at his family—his mother at the cash register; his nephew getting the next tour ready.
Brett Vananda said everyone in town knows the Vanandas as the cave’s caretakers. But they don’t always realize what it took to run the business—and how much sacrifice it required from his father. Phillip Vananda’s wife, Karen, has multiple sclerosis, so the hours he once poured into fishing are now spent as a loving caretaker.
He also left his job at a nearby aluminum mill to run the tour business when his father died. He and his brother, Steven, own and operate the caverns together. “He left his job that he loved to come work with his family,” Brett Vananda said.
But they both know the sacrifice is worth it, and future generations of Vanandas will do what they have to do to keep their legacy alive. So they lead local schoolchildren and middle-aged tourists down the mile-long path into the heart of the cavern day after day. They pour cement when the paths wear and they try to avoid the slow burnout and emotional erosion that every small business encounters sooner or later.
“It is a legacy that has been started with my granddad and Harry Myers, and had gone to my dad, and I certainly hope to see it remain in the family. It defines who our family is,” Brett Vananda said. “The name Vananda in Townsend is associated with Tuckaleechee Caverns, it just is.”
Meredith Rutland Bauer is a freelance science and technology reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, Audubon, Fox News Tech, The Atlantic verticals and Mother Jones, among other publications. She loves scenic hikes and the smell of campfires on her clothes; the Appalachian Trail is on her bucket list. Follow her on Twitter at @merebauer.