The Simple Dark
We leave summer heat and evergreen air behind, and descend into dark on carved granite steps. It’s July, and Minnetonka Cave awaits. It straddles the back of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in Idaho, just five miles of steep, winding track up the Rockies from Bear Lake, the big tourist spot of the area.
“It’s cold,” my wife says as she pulls on my jacket over hers. She and I hold hands as we descend with the tour group, and she’s right. Forty degrees even in the summer. I grip the pitted iron rail as our boots crunch a plodding rhythm on the steps and feel grubby ice beneath my fingers. Barely thirty feet in and we can already see our breath.
As we move deeper, the plain brown walls get creative. Mud-crusted surfaces are replaced with smooth, dramatically lit structures. Tan stalactites are rimmed in the filter of an orange spotlight, their shadows giving them more presence. It makes me think of the Greek Underworld: Tartarus, the dungeon home of the damned. Here in the cold, the father-gods, the Titans, would crouch in a feral manner and await vindication or death. Heracles would pass by unimpressed.
Beyond, then, must lay the River Styx, and our passage to the Fields. I say something akin to this aloud, but no one hears me. They’re busy listening to the tour guide talk about the names that other tourists have given the stalactites. The ones that stuck.
“Here we have Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. See the big one, there? And the seven little ones in front?” He’s young, with an angular jaw and an easy stance. In his forest-green trousers and official park guide polo shirt, he runs slowly through an old set of one-liners and watches the kids in the group for reactions. He walks over to the nearest stalactite, shining his light up under it. “This little sad one we call Sleepy.”
It does look pretty sleepy. We walk through rooms of these personified rocks, each one well-lit and bearing no small resemblance to its namesake. We pass through a room the length of a football field, with a great crack along the ceiling. The guide recounts how the crack is an actual piece of the fault line that runs along the Rocky Mountain Range, passing into Utah and continuing on for hundreds of miles. I nod and make little hmphing noises along with the rest of the crowd.
We pass a red lit window into a vertical drop. It’s a good thirty feet down, and there’s a full room with a rock formation that looks like a bench at the bottom. Someone must have climbed all the way down that chimney to run the lighting cables there.
“That’s the devil’s room. It’s where we leave all the bad kids.” The guide keeps walking, ahead of the chuckling.
I’m thinking of a good, proper, Christian version of Hell now as we continue our descent. Stuck in a dark, cold room with other people’s kids and rocks with the names of Disney characters. Satan, sitting in his frozen lake at the bottom of this thing, chewing on Judas like the kid next to me smacks his gum. I don’t mean it, of course, I’m having a great time. But I keep thinking it anyway.
We’re now in the final chamber, about seven hundred feet below the surface. The cave continues on past the end of the path, jagged and real. Its space hollows out past the lights into blackness. We’ve been here the better part of an hour, and our crew-cut of a guide is finishing up his speech.
“This is my favorite part of the tour, because of the special quiet. I want you all to be as quiet as possible, and I’m gonna turn off the lights. You don’t get to hear this kind of quiet or see this kind of dark very often. After a minute or so, we’ll turn the lights back on and head out.”
He shuts the lights off, and I do not hear the Underworld. Or Hell. Here, with my wife’s hand in mine, I hear the deep silence of space as it echoes down across the earth’s gravitational well. I hear the low temperatures. Not things with words like “cold” or “freezing”, not so much connotation. Not anything akin to suffering. I simply hear the dark hunk of boiled minerals across which our thin membrane of life and death and atmosphere stretches.
The exit from the cave is much more ordered, and respectful. It’s a slow march through the tunnels and up the stairs, nodding at others who are beginning their descent. The stiff July heat comes at me in a sudden wave, and I walk back into daylight..