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17 Mile Cave, Idaho – Here There Are Monsters
“The rich,” writes Michael Olmert, a professor at the University of Maryland, “have a tremendous influence on history.” Where they live and the things they own “dominate what we know of the past simply because the good things survive the vernacular and the ephemeral”, he writes in his book “Milton’s Teeth and Ovid’s Umbrella”. .
“Graffiti overcomes that in one fell swoop,” he adds, “by hitchhiking on the walls of good to bring out an alternate past.”
Nowhere in eastern Idaho is this democratic sentiment more evident than a cold, dusty, graffiti-filled lava tube buried beneath a sun-scorched field strewn with brown shards of broken beer bottles. Over the past few decades, graffiti artists have layered the basalt walls of 17-Mile Cave with names, dates, pictures, words of love.
And monsters. My son’s favourite.
Quite familiarly, 17-Mile Cave is located just 400 feet south of U.S. Highway 20 about 17 miles west of downtown Idaho Falls, ID, at a location marked by a historic marker from the ‘Idaho “Elephant Hunters”. Park either at the marker or along the dirt road that circles a dimple in the landscape to the south. In this dimple is the entrance to the cave.
The location, size and composition of the cave make it an excellent place to pique the interest of would-be cavers, regardless of age. Michelle and I took our three children – Liam, 7, Lexie, 5, and Isaac, 2.5, to the cave for their first caving adventure.
Of course, given the nature of kids (especially the literal-minded five-year-olds who believe their mothers when they say let dad into the cave first, breathing cold air like a huge fridge, to check for bears) their first adventure did not come without tears. Less than a dozen meters from the entrance to the cave, our two youngest want to get out. (My wife Michelle got them out. They waited for us half an hour in the van. And on the way back, added to our daughter’s literal state of mind with this story: “I told Lexie to put her flashlight on the ground so she could see the rocks as we walked out,” she said. Instead of pointing the light at the ground, she put the flashlight down and walked is away. Mom quickly straightened her.)
Liam, however, is ready to move on. He and I walk, him in the lead, his flashlight sending a circle of light wandering randomly over the walls, floor and ceiling.
The cave is an easy hiking experience, with the entrance being the most difficult aspect. Adults and tall children must bend down and climb a short set of natural lava rock steps – a distance no more than 12 feet – before the cave opens wide enough to stand on. From there it’s only a walk of about half a mile to the end of the cave, with dodging only required for two more short stretches. As the cave does not branch out, there is no chance of getting lost, although it is absolutely dark inside when out of sight of the entrance.
A natural rockslide followed by a single major twist of the cave quickly conceals the entrance and the light entering the cave. For the most part the cave is about a dozen meters wide and easily ten feet high, although there is a chamber where the cave widens to at least twenty meters wide and easily thirty feet high – quite room for an impromptu football game, if you’ve brought enough light.
A cave teaches a seven-year-old child to be quiet. Halfway through, I silenced Liam’s chatter, told him to tell me what he could hear:
In the distance, a drop by drop. . .drop. . .drop. . .
“Someone left the tap running, dad.”
Of course, son.
A little closer: “Errrrr, rerrrr, rerrrr, rerrrrrrrr.”
“Is it a monster? »
“I don’t think so, son. Someone else in the cave has a flashlight like us.” I turn the handle of our rechargeable lamp and it makes the same noise. “Do you hear your echo? »
“HI!” he cries into the darkness, flashing his flashlight as if trying to follow his cry as it echoes.
Then we see lights in front of us.
” Hello ! Who is it ! What is your name ? Have you seen any monsters? he shouts, the echoes colliding like bumper cars.
No monsters. Just a family hanging out, followed by their curious, friendly black lab.
We carry on, knowing that while a cave can teach calm, that lesson isn’t necessarily heard over the barrage of questions typical of young people.
Is there still lava in the cave, Dad? (On the way to the cave, I explained how, thousands of years ago, the cave formed when a river of lava flowed underground and then flowed back, leaving the cave behind.)
No, no lava, son.
How long does it last?
Long enough, son.
Will the cave fall on us?
Better not. Your mom would be mad at me if that was the case.
What happens if we turn off our flashlights?
He does. For about two seconds we are plunged into darkness. No tent built with blankets and sticks by a seven-year-old hoping to sleep under the stars can ever match it.
He rekindles his light, shines it on me. “I thought I had lost my father,” he said. “But there you are.”
Are there any monsters, dad? Besides the bears, just kidding, the cave is home to the wookalar, my favorite movie monster.
“Let’s find out,” I told him.
Right after the Echo Chamber – my name for the largest room in the cave; I’m not sure, in twenty-five years of visiting this cave, if any of the features have official names – the ceiling on the left again dips less than a meter from the floor. A vivid imagination long ago saw a monster’s mouth and eyes – somewhat resembling a Brontosaurus – gaping out of this formation. So they painted the rock to add some definition to their imagination.
“Monster face!” shouts my son as I shine the light on the neon painted features of the monster. (Some dedicated souls touch up the paint every year, making sure the monster’s vivid glow is there for would-be cave enthusiasts.)
It holds its own light on, blinding the monster in case it decides to come to life. The mist of his breath clings to the beam. “Monstrous smoke!” he whispers. (The monster smoke, at least this time around, is quite thick, blowing through the subterranean clouds whether we breathe or not. the glowing paint an even stranger feeling as we climb underground with the monsters staring at us with their yellow eyes.)
The monster is the least of the graffiti in the cave, all surprisingly G-rated, at least for the uninitiated. On the walls are scrawled messages from ancient cave dwellers, ranging from the mundane – “Stop Graffiti”, “EXIT” (with arrows pointing in opposite directions) and “Dyslexicz of Idaho Untie!” – to the amusing – “Abandon hope, ye who enter here” – to the shrewd enigmatic – “Being the Adventures of One Uther Smith”, accompanied by a drawing of a pale, dark, goatee youth. Uther is, of course, up to date. It comes with its own URL: biminicomics.com. He’s a freshly printed comic book hero, introduced to the world in the spring of 2007 at the San Francisco Center for the Book.
“The story is deeply rooted in this area of Idaho,” said Brandon Mise, a former Idaho Falls resident who wrote the comic with illustrator John Murphy and colorist Nye Wright. “I wanted people there to know that they will soon have a local hero they can support.” The comic – although set in Pocatello – leans heavily on easily recognizable locations in Idaho Falls.
While scouting locations for the comic – set in part on Mise’s uncle’s local potato farm, the trio discovered the cave “and returned there the next day, armed with a bag back full of spray paint,” Mise said.
So everyone benefits from 17-Mile Cave. Except my youngest son and daughter, of course, but they’re still young. This place is getting attention – even from some North Carolina-based writers who indulge in a bit of literal underground publicity in a chilling cold cave on the edge of the Lost River desert. What future historians might make of it is anyone’s guess.
A note for future graffiti artists:
I want it noted here that I am not advocating graffiti, certainly not in this cave. Those who go to this cave should be aware that it is on private property and the owner has been very kind over the years to allow people to climb into his natural basement, paint cans in hand or not. But since the walls are covered in graffiti, I write about it. In penance, every time I go there, I take a garbage bag and clean up some of the debris left by other cave dwellers.
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