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17 Mile Cave, Idaho – Here There Are Monsters
“The rich,” writes University of Maryland professor Michael Olmert, “have a great influence on history.” Where they live and the things they own “dominate what we know about the past simply because good things transcend the vernacular and the ephemeral,” he writes in his book Milton’s Teeth and Ovid’s Umbrella.
“Graffiti beats that in one fell swoop,” he adds, “by hitching a ride on the walls of a property to bring an alternative past to light.”
Nowhere in eastern Idaho is that democratic sentiment more evident than a cool, dusty, graffiti-filled lava tube buried beneath a sun-drenched field littered with the brown shards of broken beer bottles. Over the past few decades, graffiti artists have layered the basalt walls of the 17-mile cave with names, dates, pictures, love notes.
And monsters. My beloved son.
Colloquially, 17 Mile Cave is located just 400 feet south of US Highway 20, about 17 miles west of downtown Idaho Falls, ID, at a site designated by the Idaho “Elephant Hunters” Historic Landmark. Park either at the marker exit or along the dirt road that circles the dip in the landscape to the south. In that pit is the entrance to the cave.
The location, size and composition of the cave make it a great place to pique the interest of would-be cavers, no matter how young. Michelle and I took our three children – Liam, 7, Lexi, 5, and Isaac, 2 ½ – to the cave for their first spelunking adventure.
Of course, given the nature of children (especially five-year-olds who believe their mothers when they say they let dad into the cave first, breathing in cold air like a large refrigerator, to check for bears), their first adventure did not come without tears. Ten meters from the entrance to the cave, our younger two want to get out. (My wife, Michelle, took them out. They waited for us in the van for half an hour. And on the way home, they added to our daughter’s literal mindset with this story: “I told Lexi to put a flashlight on the ground so she could see the rocks while we out,” she said. Instead of shining the light on the ground, she lowered the flashlight and walked away from it. Mom quickly corrected.)
Liam, however, is game for a follow-up. He and I move on, him leading, his flashlight randomly sending errant circles of light across the walls, floor, and ceiling.
The cave is an easy hiking experience and the entrance is the most difficult aspect. Adults and tall children must bend down and climb down a short series of natural lava steps — no more than 12 feet apart — before the cave opens wide enough to stand on. From there, it’s only about a half-mile hike to the end of the cave, only needing to duck in two additional short sections. As the cave does not branch, there is no chance of getting lost, although it is absolutely dark inside when the entrance is not visible.
The natural fall of the rock followed by one big twist of the cave quickly obscures the entrance and the light entering the cave. Generally, the cave is about a dozen yards wide and easily ten feet high, though there is one chamber where the cave expands to at least twenty yards and easily thirty feet high—enough space for an impromptu soccer game, if I’ve brought enough light.
The cave teaches the seven-year-old silence. Halfway through I silenced Liam’s chatter, told him to tell me what he could hear:
Far away, Capt. . .drip. . .drip. . .
“Someone left it working, Dad.”
Of course, son.
A little closer: “Errrr, rerrrr, rerrrr, rerrrrrrrr.”
“Is that a monster?”
“Don’t be like that, son. Someone else in the cave has a flashlight like we do.” I turn the knob on our rechargeable light, and it makes the same noise. “Do you hear your echo?”
“HELLO!” he shouts into the darkness, shining his flashlight in all directions as if trying to follow his shout as it echoes.
Then we see lights ahead.
“Hello! Who’s that! What’s your name? Have you seen the monsters,” he shouts, the echoes hitting each other like bumper cars.
There are no monsters. Only the family leaves, followed by their curious, friendly black lab.
We move on, understanding that while the cave may teach silence, that lesson is not necessarily heard because of the typical adolescent barrage of questions.
Is there any more lava in the cave, dad? (On the way to the cave, I talked about how, thousands of years ago, the cave was formed by a river of lava flowing underground and then receding, leaving the cave behind.)
No, no lava, son.
How long is it?
Long enough, son.
Will the cave fall on us?
Better not. Your mom would be mad at me if she did.
What happens if we turn off our flashlights?
He works. We were about two seconds into the darkness, so no tent built out of blankets and scraps of wood by a seven-year-old hoping to sleep under the stars will ever equal it.
Turn on your light again, shine on me. “I thought I lost my dad,” he said. “But there you are.”
Are there any monsters, dad? In addition to bears, I joke that the cave is home to a vukalar, my favorite movie monster.
“Let’s find out,” I tell him.
Right next to 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 drops to less than three feet from the floor. Once upon a time, some vivid imagination saw a monstrous mouth and eyes – somewhat like a brontosaurus – gaping from that formation. So they painted the rock to add some definition to their imagination.
“The face of the monster!” my son shouts in a whisper as I shine a light on the monster’s neon-colored features. (Some dedicated souls retouch the paint each year, ensuring that the vivid sight of the monster is there for future visitors to the cave.)
He holds his light, blinding the monster in case it decides to revive. The mist from the breath is caught in the air. “Monstrous smoke!” he whispers. (The monster smoke, at least this time, is quite thick, blowing in subterranean clouds whether we’re breathing or not. It appears in the pictures, giving the glittering rock, glowing faces, and glowing paint an even creepier feel as we climb underground and the monsters watch us with their yellow eyes.)
The monster is the smallest of the graffiti in the cave, all surprisingly rated G, at least for the uninitiated. Written on the walls are messages from the cave’s previous inhabitants, ranging from the mundane – “Stop Graffiti,” “EXIT” (with arrows pointing in opposite directions) and “Dislekicz of Idaho Untie!” — to the amusing — “Abandon Hope, Who Enters Here” — to the skillfully enigmatic — “Being the Adventures of One Uther Smith,” accompanied by a drawing of a pale, dark, goat-like youth. Uther is up to date, of course. It comes with its own URL: biminicomics.com. He is a newly printed comic book hero, introduced to the world in the spring of 2007 at the San Francisco Book Center.
“The story is deeply rooted in that region of Idaho,” said Brandon Mise, a former Idaho Falls resident who wrote the comic with illustrator John Murphy and colorist Nia Wright. “I wanted people from there to know that they will soon have a local hero to root for.” The comic – although set in Pocatello – relies heavily on the easily recognizable locations of Idaho Falls.
While scouting locations for the comic — set in part on Mize’s uncle’s local potato farm, the trio learned about the cave “and returned the next day, armed with a backpack full of spray paint,” Mize said.
So everyone enjoys the 17 mile cave. Except for my youngest son and daughter, of course, but they are still young. This place is getting attention – even from some North Carolina authors who indulge in a bit of literal underground advertising in a freaking cool cave on the edge of the Lost River Desert. What future historians may think of that is anybody’s guess.
Note to future graffiti artists:
I want it noted here. I’m not advocating graffiti, certainly not in this cave. Those who go to this cave should know that it is on private property and that the owner of the property has been very kind over the years to allow people to climb into his natural basement, with or without paint cans in hand. But since the walls are covered in graffiti, I write about it. As a sign of penance, whenever I go there, I take a garbage bag and clean up some of the debris left behind by other cave dwellers.
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