Cave Tour and Home Again
You’re a sixteen year old boy who has just moved to South Dakota in 1890. There’s a cave in your backyard…and your mother is still in Iowa. What would you do? Grab a candle and some string and start spelunking! Alvin McDonald spend three years exploring the cave and keeping a daily journal of his discoveries. While presenting his findings at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he contracted typhoid fever and died at the end of the year. He was just 20 years old.
This cave’s natural entrance is only about ten inches in diameter. Depending on the pressure difference between the outside air and the cave air, it is either “breathing” in or out from this orifice. This Spirit Wind figures prominently in the creation story of the Lakota people. How were you breathed into being?
This cave differs from the others I’ve visited (Mammoth Cave, KY; Carlsbad Caverns, NM; Cave of the Mounds, WI) in that its formations are mostly boxwork, rather than stalactites and stalagmites. Boxwork is kind of like what you’d see if you built a castle of sugar cubes and mortared it with cement. The sugar cubes dissolve, and what is left is a kind of honeycomb of borders, criss-crossing each other. The calcite “mortar” that filled cracks in the limestone and dolomite is what remains. These structures were formed at the genesis of the cave, and not later by the action of dripping moisture, so they are speleogens rather than speleothems. (My new word for this section of the trip!) The ranger asked us what we thought it looked like. My first response was “a Jackson Pollack painting”.
They also rather resemble cobwebs, giving the dimly illuminated cave interior an aspect of Gothic horror. Creepy and fascinating!
Cave tours are absolutely spellbinding, but they don’t make good photography hikes. Watching my head and my footing, looking around at the surroundings, asking questions and trying not to hold up the single-file line of tourists took too much concentration for me to get many pictures.
I was reminded of the phenomenal bat program at dusk at Carlsbad Caverns, but learned that Wind Cave doesn’t have one. The number of bats is far less and the egress far smaller than the natural arena at Carlsbad. (If you’d like to read about that experience and see a photo of the natural entrance at Carlsbad Caverns, click HERE.)
So, early the next morning, we headed home across the tall grass prairie of South Dakota, past Badlands (which we will return to see), through Minnesota, across the Mississippi River, and back to our Wisconsin home on the conservation prairie. The lawn hadn’t been cut yet this year and was absolutely lush and about waist high. It made us almost giddy! A good old Midwestern thunderstorm washed my car of all the insects and dirt we’d accumulated on our trip.
Five thousand miles, eight National Parks and Monuments, five hundred photographs, and four new brake pads later…I’m back at the computer, dreading the news about what is happening to our public land. I am so glad to have had an opportunity to walk in those places, to breath, to see, to sleep under the stars. I hold a hope in my heart that my children and my future grandchildren will have the opportunity to get to know the America that I visited on this journey, and that it will endure in its character. I may never know what they will inherit, but I will try to do my part to protect it.
We left our mountain camp very early and made breakfast at a picnic table beside the Visitor Center. The early morning light was gorgeous, and it was still quite cool. I was eager to get started!
We drove to the trailhead on a dirt road of switchbacks and wondered how more than one car could be accommodated on such a narrow thoroughfare. The parking lot was occupied by several vehicles, and hikers were checking their gear and getting started. After clamoring up the initial ascent on the trail, though, we slowed to allow others to pass and to feel the expanse of the place and let its still beauty sink in. I took a big breath and felt the tears sting in my eyes. The clouds were opening up, the sun was rising through them, the quiet sentinels invited us to enter holy ground. I felt welcomed and embraced and deeply happy.
I thought of my first trip out West when I was ten years old. My father was fond of exclaiming throughout our journey, “Look! Geology sticking out all over!” I had seen the exhibit at the Visitor Center explaining how all this was formed, but it did not compare to the feeling of being in this living landscape. I began to feel the sentience of the rocks, the sage, and the open spaces. How can I share that? I fear that photos don’t even give you a hint. But perhaps they do. (click on the first to view a slide show of larger images)
As we topped the pass into the Chesler Park area, a small family of hikers passed us. The father was carrying his daughter in a backpack…and she looked to be about 6 years old. I was impressed! I was gratified to see more families hiking together as we made our way back to the car, couples with babies in packs and even a pregnant Mom trailing a very quizzical boy and his Dad at enough distance to give her a break (as she explained)! A hiker with service dog carrying fitted water packs also passed us. Closer to the parking lot, a troupe of costumed folk began the steep ascent. I was amazed to see a hiker in top hat and butterfly wings coming up the trail toward me. (So amazed that I didn’t get a good photo.)
When we reached the car lot, it was full. Overfull. Cars lined the narrow roadway back to the last switchback. It was just past noon on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. Which made us think about park usage. Who visits the National Parks? What motivates them to come out? How do they relate to this place? Now that I’m back in Wisconsin, I’m eager to hear Terry Tempest Williams lecture at the Madison Public Library on July 7 on her book The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. I trust that she will share some answers.
“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” ― Wallace Stegner
The American landscape is spectacular. While other aspects of my country have deeply disappointed me lately, the land itself stands with timeless dignity. Preserving and respecting it is perhaps the best insurance we have against even more desperately dismal times. Experiencing our natural history firsthand teaches a kind of wisdom that is inimitable. In the face of sweeping geology, teeming biology, mysterious archaeology and the interconnection of every aspect of life, how can we not be humbled and fascinated?
National Parks and Monuments provide opportunities to camp out at a living history museum. Steve and I prefer to spend several days in one spot and explore in depth…but this time, we didn’t do that. By the end of our two weeks, we had gone through eight national sites. The Memorial Day weekend crowds were one factor. The start of the summer season also influenced the Park Service staff resources. Park Service rangers are the best. I love having these enthusiastic and well-informed guides on hand — they are so much better than Google! Walking through the park and asking them questions gets my inner four-year-old awake and engaged. It’s more difficult to get this kind of ranger time when they are new to their post and in training or helping out a crowd of Junior Ranger visitors. Still, each one we met was friendly, intelligent and helpful. I wish there were more of them.
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument was the first park we visited, so I bought my inter-agency Annual Pass there. The site exhibits petrified sequoia trees and fossils from the Ecocene. My new word for that day was permineralization. Walking the trails, groggy and cramped from 30 hours in the car, was a sweet liberation.