In February, the farming community of Bonne Terre, Missouri, appears just as you would expect it to. Skeletal trees poke up into an 18-degree sky as a damp wind whistles across rolling fields, funnels up Park Avenue, and before reaching Donna Ann's Beauty Shop, stings the 10 of us full in the face. Yet our mood is buoyant, nay, even giddy, for the ground directly beneath our feet swims with possibility. Which explains why, as Bonne Terre's residents waddle about town bundled up like the Michelin Man, we cross the frozen ground in scuba gear.
A short stairwell descent, a quick equipment check, and we are finning through a silent, liquid world of vast subterranean caverns; the flooded remains of what was once the world's largest lead mine, spreading roughly 80 square miles beneath farmland and weathered brick homes. We soar out over abysses that fall away into blue shadow, swim past massive stone pillars, and drift over a wavering timekeeper's shack now marking time for no one. It is surreal, it is glorious, and it is bluer than a sapphire summer sky.
"Weird, isn't it?" says our dive guide, Bob Diestelkamp, with a laugh, briskly toweling off post-dive. "A completely different world right here under Missouri farmland."
Weird indeed, and part of a larger secret, too. The Bonne Terre Mine is but one dreamlike prize waiting for divers willing to turn their sights not to the sea, but inland. Landlocked opportunity abounds in
BONNE TERRE MINE, BONNE TERRE, MISSOURI
West End Diving, (314) 731-5003, www.2dive.com