Our first family trek through a dark fissure in the earth was executed to perfection.
Together, Mom, Dad and I explored the Shasta caves and lived to tell the tale.
The catamaran cruised smoothly across the deep blue lake, white waves cresting in its wake. I huddled next to my mom, pulling her purple sweatshirt around my arms. The soft fabric warmed my skin, and the goose bumps disappeared. We stood at the bow of the boat and watched the water get sucked underneath the vessel. As the wind gusted through my tangled brown hair, I grinned as the ship brought us closer to the ominous Mount Shasta caverns. The mountain rose into the light blue California sky, wispy clouds outlining its jutting texture. Below the rocky, barren summit, evergreen trees crowded the shoreline.
“We’re going to the top?” I asked, pointing timidly.
Mom hugged me, bending down to my ear level so her words wouldn’t be lost in the wind. “No, we’re going inside the mountain,” she said. Her blue eyes sparkled with expectancy, and her pointy nose crinkled as she smiled.
My youthful mind couldn’t understand how we could possibly go into the mountain, but I didn’t inquire further, as we were approaching the dock. A rickety bus, similar to the one I’d seen in the version of The Parent Trap with Hayley Mills, awaited the catamaran’s passengers.
“We’re getting on that?” I asked, a little terrified. Its paint was chipping, the sides were dented in, and the hubcaps were rusting.
“Yup, it’ll be fun,” Mom replied. Her slim fingers wrapped around my hands, and she squeezed gently.
“Where’s Daddy?” I squeaked, hesitant to follow her to what seemed like the bus of certain doom.
“Right here, Nooks,” Dad said, scooping me up from behind.
I wrapped my arms around his neck and rested my head on his shoulder, comforted. Where Daddy went, it was safe. He was, of course, part of a long line of mobsters, or so I liked to imagine. A tough, dark-haired, easily angered Italian. I never really saw it, especially because he’d rather be in the woods with binoculars than in the city with a gun.
We entered the bus, found a window seat, and bunched together. The bus lurched forward, wheels crunching the gravel, roof scraping overhanging tree branches. Sitting by the window, I wriggled in my seat to gaze outside. Tall, thick trees, large boulders, and wildlife—deer, chipmunks and squirrels—zoomed by. I reached for the camera Dad had tucked in his pocket, and he handed it to me, switching on the power button. The sun gleamed through the grimy window, causing many overexposed, sun-washed photos. Some were perfect sunsets behind Redwood trees, but most were duds: the automatic focus blurred everything but the sky, refusing to capture the munching deer or scurrying chipmunks.
The bus bumped along the curvy road, coming dangerously close to some pretty steep cliff sides. Upon seeing the tops of trees and lack of earth beside the bus, I scooted away from the window. We were traveling higher, rising above trees to barren rock. To the caves.
Soon, we were high above the lake. It sparkled in the setting sun. Silhouettes of mountains spanned the horizon, and birds fluttered in the open expanse above a peaceful and serene landscape (minus the gurgling bus and my gasps of fear). Little did I know, Mom was clutching Dad, and Dad was just as nervous. “Whew, that’s a long way down,” I heard him say, teeth chattering. When Dad’s anxious, he gulps loudly like a cartoon character who’s just discovered he’s running on nothing but air.
I don’t know how we all made it to the top without dying. And no one, to my knowledge, wet his or her pants. We exited the bus, me pulling my parents to the safety of firm soil. Then, following the other tourists, we clustered at a yawning mouth in the side of the mountain.
“This is going to be so cool,” Mom said, taking my hand as we followed the tour guide down wet steps into the belly of the earth.
Down, down, down we went until the blue sky vanished. Soon the only light within the cave was from electric lamps, strategically positioned to dramatize the already impressive cavern. Stalactites dripped from the high ceilings; stalagmites pushed away from the earth, pointed and wrinkly. Water trickled down the walls, and the deeper we descended, the colder it became. My hand gripped the cold metal railing as the stairs narrowed and we twisted down a man-made path. Further. Darker. We squeezed between constricted passageways and glanced down into some ominous holes that the tour guide told us were of “unknown depths.”
When we finally entered the main cavity, the Grand Hall, the cavern’s auditorium, our tour group bunched together and looked up. Bats hung upside-down on the walls far above us. Their little bodies wriggled sporadically. Beady red eyes opened and closed, and, although I was terrified we would be eaten, Daddy’s presence was reassuring. He calmly looked around, pointing out the spectacular construction of the cave: pointed ceilings, flowing water somewhere beneath us, limestone moldings made from years of acidic water droplets.
“Now, we’re going to turn off all the lights in the cave to show you how dark it really is down here.” The tour guide’s voice echoed in the cave. “They’ll only be off for a few seconds, so everyone stay right where you are.”
When the lights went out, two thoughts came to mind: This must be what death feels like. Or: Am I in a deep sleep? Instantly, we were swallowed in utter blackness. Never had I experienced such darkness, not even when I closed my eyes at night or locked myself in a closet while playing hide-and-seek. Not an ounce of light penetrated the space. I couldn't see my own hand millimeters in front of my nose. The only way to keep from feeling claustrophobic was to wave a hand around and realize that I wasn’t trapped. I could move. I wasn’t in empty space.
When they turned the lights back on, I released an intensely held breath. My little heart continued beating. My pupils adjusted, and I could see. I kissed my hand and smiled up at Mom who smiled back.
“That was so weird,” I giggled.
Mom’s eyes were wide, but she was smiling too. “I know. Made me feel a little queasy.”
Dad shivered. “Well, that’s something I never need to experience again.”
We made it out of the cave. The bats left us alone, although I was convinced they would attach to our backs and hitch a ride home. No goblins popped out of the uncharted black holes. No one slipped. No one got lost. No one was eaten by mysterious cavern monsters. We had conquered the first cavern excursion.
The second time we trekked through a dark fissure in the earth, however, we got a little sloppy.
Mom and I explored one without Dad's protection, and I encountered my greatest fear...
A year or so after Shasta, Mom wanted another cavern kick.
For as long as I can remember, she’s loved her caves. She doesn’t like going underwater, but she’ll go underground. (I don't get it either.) She's easily bothered by tight spaces—like being enclosed in the Mission: Space ride at Disney World—but she’ll happily skip into a cavern full of tight crannies. I’ve always thought it’s her blonde hair: It makes her a bit crazy. So, on another cave adventure, we waved at Mount Shasta as our white Corolla passed the green lake and rocky mountains. We were headed north to Oregon, land of rain and treacherous wilderness. Our destination: the Oregon Caves National Monument.
As the oldies blared in the car, I sat in the backseat, bundled in two layers of over-sized sweatshirts. The thick foliage of Oregon blurred out the window, and I rested my forehead against the cold window, feeling a bit woozy. We’d driven for what seemed like an eternity (a few hours), and I’d decided the road was perilous—dips and curves and sheer cliff drop-offs—and, thus, the destination could be no better. And Mom was behind the wheel. Dad wasn’t paying attention to Mom; he was too busy singing to the Beatles. We were all a little scattered that day. It should have been my first clue.
I was a year wiser, and I felt like a cave-exploring professional. I knew what to expect, and I wasn’t as nervous as I had been at Shasta. I was taller too, so maybe the tour guides wouldn’t badger me about whether or not I would be able to handle the staircases and long hike.
Mom pulled the car into a parking lot surrounded by dense forests. Unlike Shasta, here we couldn’t see the horizon. Giant Redwood trees boxed us in from all sides, reddish-brown trunks thick and fibrous. A wooden lodge greeted visitors, triangular arches pointing toward the hazy sky. We entered the historical chalet adorned in luxurious draperies and antique furniture. Black and white photographs hung on the walls, letting us glimpse at life in the past: Mules pulling carts up the same windy road. Miners with picks and shovels. People not smiling in photographs—always a clue to ancient history.
As Mom signed us up for a tour, Dad found a map of the hiking trails, and that’s when, looking back, everything fell apart.
“Diane,” Dad called, rushing to the counter where Mom was just about to hand over her credit card. “Wait, I don’t want to go into the caves.”
“What?” she asked, disappointment in her voice. “Hon, we drove all the way up here...”
“No, no. You and Deanna can go, but I want to hike the trails.”
“But Daddy,” I whined, tugging on his tattered flannel jacket. “I want you to go, too.”
“Richard Patrick,” Mom said sharply. She always added his middle name when she was mad or irritated. “You can hike the woods later. We’ll go with you, I promise.”
“No, I want to go alone so it’s quiet,” he said, patting my head.
“Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, frowning.
“You see one cave, you’ve seen ‘em all." He locked eyes with Mom and gave a goofy smile.
Mom hesitated, holding the Visa card. “Dee, you know how much your father loves to be in the woods. Let’s just let him do it. You and I will go in the caves, and we’ll meet him afterwards.”
“Can I have the keys to the vehicular?” Dad asked, winking at me. “I want to grab the video camera. See what I can catch.”
Mom obliged, pulling the keys from her over-stuffed fanny pack.
“You know, Sasquatch has been spotted in this area before,” Dad said. He’d been annoyed by the cloudy, cold weather all day, but now he was excited. His eyes were brighter, complexion softened.
“You’re dumping us for Bigfoot?” I whined. “Really?”
No, no, he said. He just wanted to be in the woods. But I knew the truth. Dad and his obsession with Bigfoot rivaled my obsession with The Lion King or Mom’s obsession with chocolate. He bought books on Bigfoot, watched week-long documentaries on Bigfoot, and researched sightings of Bigfoot via the Internet. My father, professionally a Healthcare Benefits Provider, knew how to find a big, furry—possibly imaginary—creature in the wild. He knew what to look for, what to listen for, and what to smell for: broken branches, whistles, and a terribly foul odor. It just so happened he was in Bigfoot’s habitat in the Oregonian wilds, and he just happened to have a video camera in the car, charged and ready to go.
Coincidence? Nope. Dad had been planning to ditch us for Bigfoot all along. Mom and I had to venture into the caves alone. Good thing I was an experienced cavern explorer.
Mom and I departed for the caves while Dad pranced back to the car. We’d meet him in one hour, Mom told him, on the main trail. Family divided, I took Mom’s hand and we eagerly journeyed to the mouth of the cave. An off-white plank walkway guided us into a mossy opening, a crevice that looked more like a bear cave than an expansive cavern. Our tour took us into the depths of the Siskiyou Mountains, and instantly I recalled the eerie feeling of sinking into the earth. Thankfully, I was ready for the chilly air beneath the surface, but the fuzz on my cheeks stuck out, and my nose tingled as we descended. It was damper than I’d remembered at Shasta, and I had a nagging feeling that this cave wasn’t as harmless as the other. The unknown depths of numerous dark holes haunted my thoughts. We stooped under low ceilings, and my feet throbbed as we climbed roughly 500 steps. And all along I kept worrying about whether or not Dad had encountered a Bigfoot; and if he’d encountered a Bigfoot, had he been eaten? As we crawled through tight crannies, I should have been worried about being buried alive a mile below the earth’s surface; instead, I worried that Dad had been kidnapped by Bigfoot. As we traversed through the marble halls of the cave, I couldn’t focus on the alien-like beauty around me, like the rippled rocks, bubbling ponds, and naked, see-through bugs. Dad wasn’t there to protect us if a goblin attacked from the sinister shadows. And what if they turned off all the lights again? Mom and I would be alone. Abandoned. For Bigfoot.
My mind played tricks on me. Did I just see eyes in that shadowy pit? What was that scratching noise? I clutched Mom’s arm, terrified to be separated from her. I’d lost one parent. I would not lose another! I was ready to fight anything that tried to pry Mom from my hands. Despite my worries, we made it out in one piece. With my panicked energy, I practically dragged Mom from the grave (I mean, cave), slipping and sliding on the soggy steps. When I beheld the misty daylight, I vowed never to return to the bitter darkness of the caves without my father.
“We have to find Dad!” I yelled, scurrying down the pine-needled path.
Chipmunks scampered out of my way as I dashed downhill, searching for Dad, remnants of Dad, or a video camera documenting his demise. What if I ran into a Bigfoot? What if I found Bigfoot eating Dad? What could I, petite me, really do? Mom slowly followed me, obviously not as worried as I about finding her husband. Her purple sweatshirt vanished from my sights as I bounded down the trail. Birds fluttered above my head, squirrels chased each other around trees, deer vaulted over logs. My nose flared as I ran. Where was he? I dreaded to discover what awaited me around each bend. All I could think about was the time Dad told me the story about how Bigfoot was strong enough to crack a tree trunk in half. If Bigfoot really existed, if this was really his domain and Dad was trespassing, what would stop Bigfoot from breaking my dad in half? Sudden images of dads dying or being captured flooded my vision: Mufasa falling from the cliff in The Lion King or Belle’s father imprisoned in Beauty and the Beast. I dug in my heels and ran until the cold air burned my lungs. I didn’t care how gigantic Bigfoot was, I would battle him to the death to save my Dad.
“Hey, Nooks. Slow down.”
I slid to a halt, falling on my bum. Dad sat on a large boulder off the trail, video camera glued to his face, pointed upwards, filming some sort of falconry. He muttered to himself, narrating his faux nature documentary. Not a scratch on him, just a smile and a concentrated stare.
“Daddy!” I yelled, scooting from the ground to his side. I hastily crawled upon the rock and flung my arms around his neck, smacking the camera from his face. He hit the pause button and hugged me back.
“Remember, when you’re in the woods, be quiet and move slowly.”
“Did you find Bigfoot?” I asked in a whisper, not really caring, but trying to hide my fret.
“No,” he said with a sigh. “I guess it’s not the right time of day to spot ‘em.”
Dad said he felt a little amateurish for not realizing that fact sooner, but I don’t think he realized how thankful I was. I was too fond of Dad to lose him to a monstrous beast. Real or not.
“Where’s your mother?” he asked, putting the lens cap back on the camera. “Did she make it out of the caves OK?”
Mom! I slid down the rock and ran a little ways up the trail. Mom’s purple sweater caught my eye, and I felt the blood returning to my face. I could now see each parent. No Bigfoots. No goblins. Just chipmunks and Redwoods.
Later, we found out that just two weeks after we left the Oregon caves, someone spotted a Bigfoot. Dad complained for a month about missing it, but I was just happy that nobody got eaten.
Originally written in 2009.