Sunday, January 27, 2008

Holy Stalactites, Batman!

As many of you know, I like to go places. I'm not even fussy. If I've never been there, I'm pretty up for going.

When Kelsey came home from her first Girl Scout meeting in the fall, she was nearly jumping up and down with anticipation of having a sleepover in a cave in January. Yea!

I thought maybe she'd gotten some facts wrong. A sleepover? Is it really a cave? In JANUARY?! Don't they know it's cold in January?

Oh, yes, it's a sleepover. They go all the time. It's a huge cave, and you can go anywhere you can fit, and it's the same temperature all year long, 55 degrees (that's about 13 Celsius). And you can go sledding outside. It's going to be so awesome! Says Kelsey.

I'm not afraid of small spaces or the dark. But I like to be warm. I say it every day. I like to be warm. In January, 55 sounds balmy, but the thought of 55 and no warmer sounds chilly. Also, school starts back up in January.

I just finished my first week of school and the first day of my internship. Leading up to this weekend, I fretted. I'm taking a class that's got loads of reading. I'm taking a writing-intensive reporting class. I still work at my little paper. I will be too busy to spend a weekend camping (freezing) in a cave.

Eric said he would go if I were too busy. He's a kind man. But there's just no way. He is somewhat claustrophobic and has an inflammatory bowel disease. No one wants to trot up the hill in the cold, dark night to use the can.

As it happened, I got my books ahead of time, guessed right which one my professor would use first, and am weeks ahead in the reading. The writing-intensive part of my writing-intensive class hasn't started yet. I only have one story to write for the paper (not the internship). I was in great shape scholastically. Eric wouldn't have to rip his way to the pot all night after all.

So yesterday we packed our stuff (We forgot Kelsey's snow pants, and I didn't bother with toiletries – we could stink until we got home. We do.), gassed up the car, and set off for Eagle Cave. The directions said it was a two-hour drive. I knew it was shorter than that. My brother and his family have a little cottage along the Wisconsin River not far from there.

The land in that area is gorgeous. White farm fields, white trees, white hills and valleys. We saw a huge flock of turkeys, big black blobs against the white of the snow. The river was frozen over in most places, but where it was water, steam rose up and coated the surrounding trees in ice crystals.

Kelsey was getting nervous. She had been out-of-her-mind excited about this trip, but she is a stresser, a worrier, a what-iffer. Her stomach was hurting. Her head was hurting. She was hungry. We stopped for some french fries and frozen custard along the way, as if that would help an upset stomach, used a warm bathroom, and she felt better.

Ah, but in Wisconsin, they say there are two seasons: winter and road construction. Winter has been more serious about asserting itself this year, and the crew must not have finished before it got unworkable. One of the roads was closed.

That was it. The dam broke, and Kelsey started crying. She didn't think we'd be able to get there. I just followed the detour and called Eric at home to double-check on the Internet that the road to the cave was open. As he found it, we did, too, and we turned onto the narrow, snow-packed road, happy to be arriving.

We pulled up a steep hill, and I wondered if we'd make it back down without sliding into the ditch. Around a corner, and there was the parking lot. I got the last space. The snow was deep, and my car is little.

We got out and headed toward the trading post. Teenage boys were wandering the grounds. I hoped they worked there and weren't indicative of what we would look like after we'd gone inside. They were dripping, steaming, and coated with mother earth. There was scarcely a square inch on their clothes that wasn't the color of yellow-brown construction sand. Gross.

The woman who organizes all this stuff every year, Pat, whom I hold a grudge against for a long-past wrong, stood by the trading post with her clipboard in hand, waiting for people to show up. It was cold. There were a few more from our group who were just arriving, so we were going to wait for everyone. It really was cold. I figured I'd just freeze all weekend. Kelsey whined. And it was dirty. And sort of smelly. I said we'd wait inside the trading post for the others.

Eew. Imagine the seediest country bar you've ever made the mistake of entering. Grime, noise, pool tables, arcade games, sweat, plaid, old dog. Just no bar, no alcohol, no swearing drunks. We weren't in there long when Pat came to get us.

And down the hill we went to see the cave and plot our sleeping arrangements. We walked through a large door and entered a huge open area in the cave. The floor in that spot was concrete, and it was half an inch deep in mud and water. A huge group was camped there. What a horrid spot to have to camp, right by the door. And, of course, they were filthy.

My glasses fogged up immediately, and Pat waited while eyes and glasses adjusted to the warm damp, then we were off.

Pat said our sleeping area was in the warmest, driest part of the cave. It's also the farthest from the door. She said it's worth the walk. The walk took us past about 140 mud-caked people and their mud-caked equipment. Kids were shouting and running and scrambling to fit on rocks and under rocks and through holes. They wore headlamps and carried flashlights and looked absolutely delighted to be exploring a dripping, sulfur-smelling mud pit.

For whatever reason, I kept trying to avoid brushing against the walls of the cave. I wanted to stay clean. That's not very fun.

We got to our sleeping area. There are so many turns and paths and levels, I wondered if I'd ever remember how to get there. Some older girls had staked out a spot in a lower level. They had their things set up in a long line and were congregating in little groups. Some were drawing on a whiteboard they'd brought. Others were scuttling from one crevice to the next, reveling in exploring their home for a day.

Kelsey and I picked a spot next to a giant stalagmite. It was pretty flat and looked as dry as we could hope for. We took a quick peek around our area then headed to the car to bring in enough stuff to stake our claim. Kelsey wanted to lay everything out right then, but I wouldn't let her. It would be completely wet by the time we went to bed, and then there would be no way I'd get to be warm. We laid out our tarp and folded part of it over our backpacks. That would be sufficient. Then we started exploring.

I got hot pretty fast. I was still wearing my winter stuff. Kelsey began shedding, too. I had a hard time seeing where I was going. My hair kept falling into my face. I put my hat on to hold it down, then left it on until this morning when I got home.

Soon, we were covered, too. I tried to stay sort of clean. Kelsey didn't care. We brought lots of clothes to change into for when we got too wet and dirty. Good thing.

Kelsey loved the textures on the ceiling. Poky, swirly. She wanted to slide down every hole to see where it would take her. She squeezed through tunnels and climbed on top of rocks and slide under rocks and trekked up and down and all around that cave. Some of the kids her age weren't as adventurous as she was, so she hung out with the 6th graders who were camped below our stalagmite.

There were bats in a high-ceilinged part of the cave. They slept as we pointed and took pictures. Kelsey was thrilled. She'd been hoping to see bats.

Her only meltdown came as we waited our turn to eat. Dinner was fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn and bread. She was worried they would make her take the chicken. She also is no fan of mashed potatoes or corn. She doesn't really like potatoes at all other than baked or french fries. She's much more of a spinach and broccoli girl.

When it was our turn and neither of us wanted chicken or gravy, the woman with the ladle asked if we were vegetarian. She offered us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cheese to go with our bread. Kelsey was happy again. I bought her a hot chocolate, too, which is like heroin as far as that kid is concerned.

We had a little more exploring, spent some time by the bonfire, then brought the rest of our stuff down to make our bed. Kelsey was pretty wiped. As soon as I pulled the cord on her mummy bag, she was out.

I was not.

I began to wonder if I would be able to say I'd slept in a cave. Maybe the best I could hope for would be to say, "I stayed overnight in a cave."

The big burly man with the boy scouts next to us snored. All night. None of these dainty, city-boy snores, either. Dude was a lumberjack snorer. Soon there was a chorus of snores. Little girl snores and congested mom snores oozed their way around the turns of the ancient riverbed that was the cave.

There was the boy scout who hadn't covered his stuff, and it was soaked. He had only brought a slumber bag, not a real sleeping bag. He was wet and freezing. He couldn't sleep. But he could squirm under a tarp. And he did for a few hours. And he could cry.

There were those who coughed. And coughed. And coughed.

There were the kids talking in their sleep.

The only people who were quiet, I think, were the ones like me, who lay awake, listening to the dripping ceiling, the snores, the coughs, the dreams of those asleep.

My head kept getting dripped on, so I kept sliding down a little. It didn't matter. The drips followed me. Kelsey got a drip right on her nose, and it startled her. She started coughing and spitting and wiping her face. She called out for me, but she was asleep.

I think I finally fell asleep around 3:30. I woke up a couple of times, then just before 6 I was up for good. Kelsey woke up shortly after I did. She said she slept great.

People were waking up and starting to pack their gear. About 6:30, I started packing us up, too. I let Kelsey stay in her sleeping bag, and I took a load to the car. Then we packed us up the rest of the way, carried it all out, and waited our turn for pancakes. We got there early, so they fed us early. They don't usually, but it wasn't crowded. Kelsey enjoyed her last moments at the cave with her friends. She can't wait to go back.

I think I can. I think a lot of other parents can, too.

Going there would be fun for a couple of hours. I don't need to sleep there for the full experience. But I suppose the cave owners wouldn't make any money that way.

Anyway, the drive home was easy and pleasant. Just past the little berg of Gotham – ain't it a stitch? Gotham? We'd just been in a bat cave? Ha! – Kelsey started to squirm. She said, "My butt! I really have to poop." I laughed and found her a gas station down the road a piece.

I'm glad to be back home. I had a nap and some lunch, and now, having written the world's longest blog post, I have to start on my work. Kelsey has a friend over. She told her the cave was "SO AWESOME!" I'm glad she had fun.


MJ Krech said...

Oh, My! You are SUCH a good Mom to do this for Kelsey! I'm not sure I could have done this. What a fun adventure, for Kelsey, I mean! I can see her intense interest in the photos. Thanks for those. I've downloaded them to my Family Photos folder. I would have loved to have seen the one with both of you dirtied up by the cave! Bravo, Mom!

Sweet Irene said...

Well, Mom, that certainly was over and beyond the call of duty. Is this going to be one of those stories that will be told year after year as, "Remember when?" I think I would not have been able to sleep in that cave and I don't see any of the merits of it at all, except to say, "We did it." I can think of many more things I would rather do instead, and by the way, did Kelsey get a badge for this? Maybe this will make an interesting article for your paper, a first hand account of a night spent in a cold muddy cave with many snoring male companions.

The Rotten Correspondent said...

You are a far better mother than I am. There is not enough money in the world to make me (willingly) go into a cave, much less sleep there. I don't care how big it is.

The combination of severe claustrophobia and growing up in a seismic zone has put caves at the top of my Do Not Go There List.

It sounds like you two had fun though. Kind of.

aims said...

OMG! What an amazing (dirty) experience! Good for you for enduring that for your daughter. I find caves very interesting - but I've never thought of sleeping in one.