Sunday, October 10, 2010

180 feet below the surface of Central Penna.

Last Saturday I traveled with my wife, her father, her brother and their girlfriends, to an old cave. Of course all caves are old, but this one is old in a different way. Alexander Cavern was discovered in 1926 by two guys who followed a spring underground. Half of the cave is still submerged and accessible by boat. But there is a large open and (relatively) dry portion through which water drips constantly. In the winter, much of the dry section is still host to standing water. In 1929 they fitted the cave for visitors. Blowing a hole in the back of the dry section, they built a long set of stairs up the surface. The stone doorway now juts up out of a field in the back of an Amish farm. It was one of these Amish who guided us on the best tour of a cave I've ever experienced (and I've done quite a few in my day). It was so great because our small group of six and guide just wandered through at our own pace. I got to leave the walkway area and peer down shafts that were too deep for the bottom to be visible. I touched crazy rock formations. All over there were new stalactites and stalagmites forming. This is a good thing, too because there once were much larger ones.

My father in-law's girlfriend, Shirley is in her mid to late 60s, I would estimate. She went to this cave when it was still operational, back in the late 40s or early 50s. When the lease on the land was up in 1954, the Amish refused to renew it because (according to my father in-law), they found the caretaker to be an unreliable drunk. And so the door was closed and the cave sat empty and quiet for years. Some time later, it was discovered that the door had been removed and kids had been frequenting the cave. I'll paraphrase Shirley:

"Well, they went down there and found just terrible things. Those kids and bad people had broken things. They had smashed the most beautiful rocks formations you could ever see. I don't know if they wrote on the walls with paint, you know like they do, but they made a terrible mess in there. It's so sad. People are so bad these days. I mean, you used to hear about bad people like this happening in the city but now it's in the country too."

To give some context to this, the vandalism was discovered in 1966. That makes this the most retroactive "Kids these days" story I have ever heard. My mother was about 5, I think, at the time. So remember, people born after 1950 or so- things were great until you came along. And so the cave was locked up again, stronger this time. In the 80s the Amish allowed a new organization to take over management of the cavern. It isn't open to the public, but you may arrange a visit by contacting Bald Eagle Grotto. From what I understand it's not all that easy to gain entrance to Alexander Cavern. That is, unless your father in-law is a well driller by trade who just happened to be drilling a well for the Amish who live on the land and was offered a personal tour.
The white lumps are new stalagmites forming.
Our Amish guide (not pictured for obvious reasons) was as jaded as you might expect a man who has a massive cave in his backyard to be. He didn't really go out of his way to do anything other than be friendly, unlock the cave, provide us with basic answers to questions and keep us from wandering off to our dooms. He was very knowledgeable about some things such as how to navigate the spring in the back of the cave to the surface. Incidentally, it's the third largest spring in Pennsylvania. But you were just as likely to get no information at all. "Hey, how deep is that shaft over there?" we would ask. He would simply look surprised and answer "How should I know?" in a jovial but dismissive tone. And of course why would we expect him to know? He knows all he needs to know to avoid falling into it and dying and that's where his interest ends. I might be reading too much into this, but I couldn't help but see this as a logical extension of picking a year in the past and sticking with it. What the world learns in the intervening years just flows right past you. On the bright side, though, you know enough not to wander into deep, black pits.
There are no lights down there, so the only illumination is what you bring with you.
We were very excited to use real gas lanterns.
Wife and father in-law. Note his headlamp with wires running to the giant battery in his hand.
And of course, here we are 180 feet down.
The management has placed little metal rings around places where new stalagmites are forming on the crumbling walkway so that the infrequent visitors don't crush them. They looked remarkably like frying eggs. As I was uploading these picture something caught my eye that I hadn't noticed when I was inches away.
Interspersed among the pebbles and mineral deposits were tiny bones. We're speculating that they came from rats or one of the bat populations in the area.
And then we climbed the endless stairs back to the surface. We had been down there for over an hour and a half, just poking around. Upon stepping out of the doorway and onto an immense field in a valley in the nearly-empty region, I was struck with two completely contradictory impressions. One was that I was in a small room upon whose walls was projected the images of the blue sky, the green fields and the turquoise mountains miles away. The other was that I was clinging to the surface of a green ball, this close to falling off and into the blue nothingness above me. It is bizarre to become accustomed to a small, dark vision and then to suddenly be able to see brightly for miles. You are squinting either way, but for very different reasons.

We thanked the Amish man profusely, piled into our cars and drove out of his field.

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