CAMDENTON, Mo. -- On our wedding day back in the heady, halcyon days of 1973, a judge sentenced us to “a long and happy life together.”
He wore blue jeans and cowboy boots under his flowing black robe. I wore a black and white mini-dress and funky black platform shoes. The groom, who got his long hair cut for the occasion, was decked out in his best polyester suit. His seven younger siblings watched from the jury box as we exchanged our handwritten vows.
Flash-forward more than four decades from that quirky nuptial scene in a Detroit courtroom to our 41st wedding anniversary, April 29 --- the day we took our marriage to a deep new level.
Amid giddy laughter and a smattering of tears, we ventured 50 feet underground to renew our vows in Bridal Cave, one of the top attractions in Lake of the Ozarks, Mo. Located on the lakeshore in Camdenton, midway between Kansas City and St. Louis, it was among the “unique wedding venues” featured last year in Glamour magazine’s “10 Crazy, Awesome and Unexpected Places to Say ‘I Do.’ ”
Inspired by a centuries-old legend about two Native American Indian brothers, one whose love was unrequited while the other lived happily ever after, Bridal Cave has been the setting for more than 2,700 weddings and vow renewals since 1949.
“We get couples straight off the boat ... in T-shirts and bikinis, and others in formalwear with multiple attendants and full processionals,” says Lindsey Webster, the cave’s longtime photographer.
Couples have come from every state, the Caribbean and several foreign countries to tie the knot or tighten it, she says. Children often participate in the ceremony, sometimes by giving away the bride.
We gathered for our big event in Bridal Cave’s dimly lit, cathedral-like Bridal Chapel against a backdrop of stalactites and other natural rock formations. Steve looked dapper in his second-hand Ralph Lauren tux, and I wore a tasteful black outfit in a length that would have made my late mother proud.
Holding hands and reading from vows we wrote, this time around, on computers, we reaffirmed our commitment to love each other “in sickness and in health ... as we grow old together.” Tiny bats, crickets, cave frogs and salamanders were among the guests --- uninvited but, thankfully, unobtrusive --- along with a handful of our friends.
In true wedding spirit, I brought something old – my 64-year-old husband – and something new: sparkling Swarovski crystal earrings that I figured were not only perfect for the subterranean ceremony but also spared my shopping-phobic partner the hassle of finding an anniversary gift. And, thanks to a local woman who came through in a pinch, I was able to borrow a blue garter to complete the nuptial tradition.
As an added touch, a friend we’d asked to informally officiate wrote an original poem, replete with hippie lingo -- “mellow,” “groovy,” “outta sight” --- straight from the ‘70s.
During an entertaining, hourlong cave tour before we ducked out to change clothes, we were splashed with so-called “cave kisses,” occasional drips of water that our enthusiastic guide, Shannon Stewart, said would bring good luck.
As we walked, sometimes stooped, along narrow concrete pathways through several cave rooms, she shined her flashlight on pretty onyx and calcite formations, including giant columns, pencil-thin soda straws, stalagmites, draperies, calcium deposits called moon milk and striated “cave bacon.”
Deep inside the cavern, we stared into the crystal-blue depths of Mystery Lake and marveled at the darkness when she turned off the remote-controlled lights.
One of about 20 show caves in Missouri, Bridal Cave maintains a constant 60-degree temperature year-round, making it a popular attraction in all seasons but especially on rainy days and in summer when central Missouri temperatures soar. Wedding and renewal ceremonies are performed after 4 p.m. daily except for the three holidays when the cave is closed, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Despite June’s popularity as a wedding month, Bridal Cave typically hosts the most nuptial activity in July, according to Ms. Webster, the photographer. But, she said, nothing beats last February when Bridal Cave’s special, pre-Valentine’s Day vow-renewal promotion drew 146 couples in a single day. A similar free promotion is planned next year on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14. Participating couples receive a pair of champagne flutes, a downloadable photo and a lifetime pass to the cave.
Dating back 65 years, each Bridal Cave wedding and vow renewal is recorded in scrapbooks in the gift shop --- ours was No. 2,758. It’s fun to flip through the photos and peruse the changing fashions.
Some couples stage small receptions afterward in Bridal Cave’s covered pavilion overlooking the lake.
We moved on to The Vine Wine Bar and Art Gallery in nearby Osage Beach for a champagne toast, dinner and cake-cutting ceremony that was fancier than our long-ago wedding reception.
Then we adjourned to a bed & breakfast just down the road, the Inn at Harbour Ridge, where we enjoyed a Roll in the Hay. Yes, that was the name of our suite in the inn’s renovated red barn, complete with a hot tub and romantic touches such as heart décor and massage gizmos thoughtfully arranged by innkeepers Sue and Ron Westenhaver, who host occasional weddings in their gazebo.
Unlike our 1973 wedding when we were busy with college exams and new jobs, we were able to enjoy the days leading up to our vow renewal ceremony. To get a lay of the land, we toured historic Willmore Lodge, which also houses the region’s visitor’s center and Bagnell Dam History Museum. We learned how Lake of the Ozarks started in 1929 with a dam on the Osage River and grew into a huge, dragon-shaped lake with more than 1,100 miles of shoreline.
Taking advantage of the region’s array of recreational opportunities, we went on a half-day fishing excursion with Jack Uxa, a professional guide, and reeled in a mess of crappies and bass. We also played golf in Camdenton at Old Kinderhook, a Tom Weiskopf design, and stayed for a romantic dinner afterward at the resort’s Trophy Room, where the triple buttermilk-battered, oversize onion rings were the best we ever had.
We relaxed over wine tastings at Seven Springs Winery in Linn Creek and Gold Rock Winery in Camdenton. And, on the morning of our vow renewal ceremony, we hiked along a lakeside trail to a natural spring in scenic Ha Ha Tonka State Park, then to the stone ruins of a moody “castle” estate high on a cliff. It was a peaceful place to ponder the lifetime commitment we were – once again --- about to make.
Susan R. Pollack is an award-winning travel writer who lives in suburban Detroit.