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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 great influence on history.” Where they live and the things they own “dominate what we know about the past simply because good things outlive the vernacular and the ephemeral,” he writes in his book “Milton’s Teeth and Ovid’s Umbrella.”
“Graffiti defeats that with a stroke of the pen”, he adds, “hitchhiking on the walls of the good to bring to light an alternative past”.
Nowhere in eastern Idaho is that democratic sentiment more evident than a cold, dusty, graffiti-ridden lava tube buried beneath a sunburnt field peppered with brown shards of broken beer bottles. In recent decades, graffiti artists have covered the basalt walls of 17-Mile Cave with names, dates, images, and love notes.
and monsters. My son’s favorite.
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 location marked with an “Elephant Hunters” Idaho Historical Marker. Park at the marker exit or along the dirt road that circles a dimple in the landscape to the south. In that dimple is the entrance to the cave.
The location, size, and composition of the cave make it a great place to pique the interest of aspiring cavers, no matter how young. Michelle and I took our three children: Liam, 7, Lexie, 5, and Isaac, 2 ½, to the cave for their first spelunking adventure.
Of course, given the nature of children (especially literal-minded five-year-olds who believe their mothers when they tell them to let Daddy go into the cave first, breathing cold air like a huge refrigerator, to see if there are bears). ) their first adventure was not without tears. A dozen meters from the entrance of the cave, our two young men 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, she added to our daughter’s literal mindset with this story: “I told Lexie to put her flashlight on the ground so she could see the rocks as we climbed out,” she said. Instead of aiming the light at the ground, she put the flashlight down and walked away. Mom quickly straightened it up.)
Liam, however, is willing to continue. He and I keep walking, him in the lead, his flashlight sending a random wandering circle of light across the walls, floor, and ceiling.
The cave is an easy hiking experience with the entrance being the most difficult aspect. Adults and tall children have to duck and climb a short series of natural lava rock steps, a distance of no more than 12 feet, before the cave opens wide enough for standing. From there, it’s just a half-mile walk to the end of the cave, with crouching required for only two additional short stretches. Since the cave does not branch, there is no chance of getting lost, although the interior is absolutely dark when not seen from the entrance.
A natural rock fall followed by the main twist of the cave quickly hides the entrance and the light that enters the cave. For the most part, the cave is a dozen meters wide and easily ten feet tall, though there is one chamber where the cave widens out to at least twenty meters wide and easily thirty feet tall—enough room for a match. impromptu football, if you feel like it. I have brought enough light.
A cave teaches a seven-year-old boy about tranquility. Halfway through, I silenced Liam’s chatter, told him to tell me what I could hear:
In the distance, a trickle. . .drip. . .drip. . .
“Someone left the faucet running, dad.”
A little closer: “Errrrr, rerrrr, rerrrr, rerrrrrr.”
“Is that a monster?”
“Don’t believe it, son. Someone else in the cave has a flashlight just like us.” I turn the handle on our rechargeable light and it makes the same noise. “Do you hear your echo?”
“HELLO!” he screams in the dark, shining his flashlight all around as if trying to follow the echo of his scream.
Then we see lights ahead.
“Hi! Who’s that? What’s your name? Did you see any monsters?” he yells, and the echoes crash into each other like bumper cars.
No monsters. Just a family leaving, followed by their curious and friendly black lab.
We keep walking, understanding that while a cave can teach about tranquility, that lesson isn’t necessarily heard through the typical barrage of questions from young people.
Is there still lava in the cave, dad? (On the way to the cave, I talked about how, thousands of years ago, the cave was formed when a river of lava flowed underground, then subsided, leaving the cave behind.)
No, there’s no lava, son.
How long is it?
Is the cave going to fall on us?
Better not. Your mom would be mad at me if she did.
What happens if we turn off our flashlights?
it does. For about two seconds, we’re cloaked in darkness, so no tent built out of blankets and scraps of wood by a seven-year-old hoping to sleep under the stars will match it.
Turn your light back on, it illuminates me. “I thought she had lost my dad,” she said. “But there you are.”
Are there monsters, dad? Besides the bears, I joke that the cave is home to the wookalar, my favorite movie monster.
“Let’s find out,” I tell 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 dips back to less than three feet from the ground. A long time ago, a vivid imagination saw the mouth and eyes of a monster, something resembling a brontosaurus, looming out of that formation. So they painted the rock to add a bit of definition to their imagination.
“Monster face!” my son screams-whispers, as I shine the light on the monster’s neon-painted features. (Some dedicated souls touch up the paint every year, making sure the monster’s vivid leer is there for future cave-goers.)
It holds its own light, blinding the monster should it decide to come to life. The mist from her breath is reflected in the beam. “Smoke Monster!” he whispers. (The monstrous smoke, at least this time, is quite thick, blowing into the clouds underground whether we’re breathing or not. It shows up in the images, giving the glowing rock, flash-lit faces, and luminous paint a still-like feel. spookier as we climb underground with the monsters watching us with their yellow eyes.)
The monster is the least of the cave graffiti, all surprisingly rated G, at least to the uninitiated. Scrawled on the walls are messages from previous cave dwellers, ranging from the mundane: “Stop Graffiti,” “EXIT” (with arrows pointing in opposite directions), and “Dyslexicz of Idaho Untie!” — to the amusing — “Give up hope, who enters here” — to the cleverly cryptic — “Being the Adventures of One Uther Smith,” accompanied by a drawing of a pale, gloomy, goatee-bearded young man. Uther is of course up to date. He comes up with his 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 Center for the Book.
“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 Nye Wright. “I wanted the people there to know that soon they will have a local hero to root for.” The comic, though set in Pocatello, is largely based on easily recognizable locations in Idaho Falls.
While researching locations for the comic, partially set at Mise’s uncle’s local potato farm, the trio found out about the cave “and returned the next day, armed with a backpack full of spray paint,” Mise said.
So everyone enjoy 17-Mile Cave. Except my youngest son and daughter, of course, but they are still young. This place catches the eye, even from some North Carolina-based authors indulging in a bit of literal underground advertising in a cold cave on the edge of the Lost River desert. What future historians can make of it is anyone’s guess.
A note to aspiring taggers:
I want you to write it down here. I don’t advocate graffiti, certainly not in this cave. Those who go to this cave need to know that it is on private property and that the property owner has been very kind over the years to allow people to climb into his natural basement, paint cans in hand or without her. But since the walls are covered in graffiti, I write about it. As penance, every time 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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