Devil’s Icebox

Before access into Devil’s Icebox was restricted in 2006 due to the bats contracting white-nose syndrome, it was not uncommon for college students from around Columbia, Missouri to hang out in or around the perennially 56-degree cave, especially during the hot, humid Midwestern summers.

Much like Austinites in Texas frequent the continual 68-70-degree Barton Springs Pool, we landlocked Missourians make the best of the late-August heat. In my youth, after hiking near Devil’s Icebox, we would spread out a blanket, share scavenged provisions from our university’s dining hall, and discuss what we thought our “real lives” might look like when we were “done” studying and learning.

Smack in the middle of Rock Bridge State Park, some 2,273 acres of a geological preserve and public recreation area, Devil’s Icebox was so named for its year-round, climate-controlled atmosphere. The park Devil’s Icebox is situated in was created by Lew Stoerker as a living memorial to his 9-year-old daughter, Carol Louise, who died in 1961 as a result of a hit-and-run car accident. The name, Devil’s Icebox, however, was probably given to the seventh longest cave in Missouri in the early 1800s, when, according to The Missourian, it was not uncommon to name natural features after Satan.

As one traverses the wooden stairs around the chilly karst cave system, the natural rock bridge, sinkholes, and various springs come into view, some of which powered a grist mill, paper mill, and two whiskey distilleries in the 1800s. The history of the park and how it came to exist as an expression of love and grief were lost on me then. At 19 or 20, my curiosity stretched only arm’s length. With a couple more decades on me, I see the park with a bird’s eye view. Perspective, it seems, is also wasted on the young.

What was not wasted then, though, was the blessed chill and shared stories about our experiences in this college town situated amid cornfields, soybeans, wheat, cattle, and billboards which proclaimed “Jesus Saves!” “Abortion is Murder,” and where truckers and travelers could find sex toys or lap dances. Those billboard extremes have often best represented my home state–piety and prurience mixed in with the plainspoken helpfulness of where one may find cheap gas, clean restrooms, fast food, or genuine walnut bowls.

Sometimes, as we drove west or to the airport which would deliver us home, we would stop at the Stuckey’s Dairy Queen in Nelson, off J Highway. We would stretch our legs, use the restroom, and order over-breaded chicken tenders, deep-fryer hot french fries, and a small vanilla soft-serve cone.

Stuckey’s, for the uninitiated, is an old-timey convenience store born in Eastman, Georgia, named after the Stuckey family, and beloved by those who love pecan candy. The chain, once resplendent in its pitched-roof heyday from the 1930s to the early 1970s, is now mostly found along interstate exits that crisscross the lower American Midwest and South.

Two years after most of us graduated, a corn maze opened by a big red barn off Interstate 70 eastbound. Every time I pass the Shryock family farm, I appreciate their ingenuity for capitalizing on the autumnal nostalgia of pumpkins and hayrides while also embracing the fly-over stereotype of a creepy Children of the Corn-like labyrinth.

Attractions like the corn maze are what out-of-state visitors and families with young children flock to, perhaps even expect out of the lower Midwest. But Devil’s Icebox is more representative of what we have to offer—to observe how rainwater carved limestone, to feel the decided shift in temperature as you approach the cave, and to remember the ongoing lesson that what we once hoped for and where we actually end up are often two separate places.