Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Day Four

I didn't sleep at all last night, but I was too excited about our afternoon plans to care. It's catching up to me now, but hey, today was absolutely, brilliantly worth it. I got up early, around eight, and went for a quick drive and hike. I pulled off the main road, walked into the forest, and wandered around until I found a sink hole with a bit of stream running through it. Then I spent a little while looking for geodes, and I actually found a couple. When I cracked them open they weren't anything spectacular -- some small crystals and lots of fossils -- so I left them in the ravine instead of hauling them (along with my camera) back up the steep hill.

I got back around 9:20, we ate breakfast, and went through the normal morning routine. Then it was time to go caving! We went on a 3 hour hike through a one-mile passage that led us to a rather large cavern the park officers had converted into a dining room. We saw a lot of beautiful rocks and minerals, ate lunch some 200 feet below the earth, and then hiked back out. It was wonderful. One of the men on our tour sang an Austrian (I think...) chant in a heavy baritone on our way down one of the steep inclines. That voice and those acoustics... I thought we were in a scene from The Lord of the Rings. It even came equipped with its own soundtrack! Lisbit spent the morning marching around pretending she was an elf, and kept saying that her only goal for the day was a full-on sword fight in the cave. For his part, Dylan repeated the Gollum cough and quoted lines about Moria. A very Tolkien excursion.

After we got back to the tour center, we went out again almost immediately on another tour. This one was 3 miles through the oldest parts of the caves and the parts inhabited by prehistoric Natives. And -- this is the best part -- it was lit only by our small gas lanterns and the paths were just some trampled down dirt. We got a more "genuine" experience; I think this was everyone's favorite.

And I will never read about shadows on the cavern walls the same way again... it's really like looking at a flame composed entirely of shadow, or ripples built out of smoky air. There's no focus point, and everything around you feels animated. One chamber in particular, the Star Cavern, really stole the show. When the lanterns were lowered, you could look up and see stars on the pitch-black sky. If I hadn't seen it with the guide's flashlight on it, I definitely would have believed we really had exited into a canyon in the evening.

We saw the places where settlers and slaves made gun powder, some cave art dating back nearly 3,000 years, and met some of the archaeologists excavating the caves. We even saw the place where they dug up the mummy of one of the cave-dwellers who an overseer found preserved under a rock in the 1930's. The called him Lost John, and apparently his remains are still perfectly preserved somewhere in the room. Cool, huh?

I really can't find the words for this experience right now; I'm exhausted, full of really good So-Co cooking (we ate at that diner again tonight), and ready to bunk down for the evening with a LoTR movie. This has been one of the single most memorable, unique experiences of the last few years.

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