- Associated Press - Sunday, May 17, 2015

HORSE CAVE, Ky. (AP) - Maria Lancaster didn’t expect to see the man she would soon marry when she decided to rappel for the first time at Hidden River Cave.

Of course, she knew Clayton Lancaster was working at Hidden River Cave, manning the zip line, the rappel station and leading visitors on cave tours. The couple - who were once engaged about 40 years ago - had reconnected via Facebook and he had invited her to give rappelling a try. Still, they had not seen each other in a long time.

“He didn’t know when I was coming and I didn’t know when I was coming,” she said. “So last year, on May 10, I just showed up one afternoon.”

That day, staff members at Hidden River Cave radioed Clay and said a first-time rappeller was descending.

“I’m coming down the rappel and he’s at the bottom, hanging on to the rope,” she said. “When he got me down so far, he just stopped me. We saw each other and our eyes met. He said, ‘Maria?’ and I said, ‘Clay?’ and it was just like that connection was right there.”

Feelings from the past came flooding back, and “we became inseparable,” she said.

Clay and Maria dated for a couple of years in the mid-1970s, eventually becoming engaged. But Clay joined the Army and they drifted apart, ultimately marrying other people.

Later, “both of our spouses … passed away,” Maria said.

Clayton and Maria fell out of contact for 38 years until that day in May when Maria decided on a whim to go rappelling. They were married 17 days later at the Hart County judge-executive’s office by Judge-Executive Terry Martin.

The Lancasters now both work at Hidden River Cave, and the often share their story of rekindled love with visitors to the cave and the American Cave Museum.

“They all love it,” Maria said. “Everyone says we should write a book.”

“Even the guy who married us,” Clay added.

Martin worked with Maria’s mother when Martin worked for the Caverna Board of Education, and he had Clay as a student in school.

“I tell you, that’s just something you couldn’t script in a book or movie,” Martin said.

He knew a little about Maria and Clay’s story, but not much.

“When they showed up my door that day, I couldn’t believe it. They’ve got a story to tell,” Martin said. “It’s unbelievable. The day I married them they couldn’t get their eyes off each other and they were smiling, happy. This was just something that was meant to be.”

Clay has worked at Hidden River Cave for about three years. Maria began volunteering at Hidden River Cave before being hired almost a year ago. Maria says Clay has taught her everything she knows about zip lining and rappelling.

They are one of two married couples who work at Hidden River Cave and the American Cave Museum. The other is Gary and Charolay Russell.

Maria and Clay’s boss tries to schedule them to work the same days with the same hours.

If Clay’s is helping someone go down the rappel, Maria is at the bottom, ready to catch them as they descend.

They also work as a team when a tourist stops to go zip lining, and they take turns giving tours of the cave.

“They are wonderful,” said Dave Foster, director of the American Cave Conservation Association, which oversees management of the Hidden River Cave and the American Cave Museum. “They are just really terrific employees.”

Both couples are great to work with, Foster said.

“We are very lucky to have them,” he said.

___

Information from: Glasgow Daily Times, https://www.glasgowdailytimes.com

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