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Cave Dweller

In the heat of summer, 35 degrees sounds downright blissful, which is why on this already hot May day, I am heading to the Lava River Cave, about 15 miles north of Flagstaff. That and I've always wanted to go spelunking, or maybe just use the word spelunking — the hobby or practice of exploring caves.

But don't get me wrong: I am a complete novice. (A fun piece of trivia: One of the myriad things in the fine print of a major-league baseball player's contract is no spelunking in the off-season.)

I tried not to think about that, on the drive to Lava River Cave.

This particular cave is actually a mile-long lava-rock tube, an environmental wonder created by furious heat some 700,000 years ago during a volcanic eruption. Formed in the span of a few hours by molten lava, the cave was created in the blink of an eye, geologically speaking. The cave exists today very much as it did then, which is pretty cool if you think about it.

Even more enticing: By some special geologic magic, the cave stays between 35 and 45 degrees all year long, like a natural icebox.

When I arrive, there is a low wall of rocks to mark the cave's entrance, literally a hole in the ground. I find myself thinking, "Oh, crap. How in the hell am I going to do this?" My 6-foot-tall spouse and I put a few extra layers on, as well as headlamps, and I've got a flashlight and backup batteries in the pocket of my cargo pants. Here goes nothing.

The most difficult part is the first 100 feet or so, which is a rocky, 45-degree incline of tumbled boulders and sheets of ice. Near the entrance, a frozen cascade of ice appears like a mini glass waterfall. The temperature drops from 80 degrees outside to 35 degrees in a matter of footsteps.

As we slip and stumble down into the icy darkness I wonder, what have I gotten myself into?

Then it's pitch black.

Ripples and undulations on the cave floor give clues to the lava flow that created it. After the initial tough patch, this cave levels off and becomes a smoother walk. Tight, crouch-y ceilings give way to spacious vaulted caverns. At times along the walk, it seemed like this barrel-vaulted lava tube was made to accommodate a subway system.

The utter darkness leaves the mind to invent things. At first, my mind goes to the obvious — Hollywood. First, I pretend I am Ripley, Sigourney Weaver's character in the Alien movies, waving my flashlight from left to right. I keep blinding my spouse with my headlamp, and he keeps bumping his head. Then, I move on to imagining I'm a member of the Goonies, running from the Fratelli clan. I'm waiting for the booby traps and skeletons.

But then I get into the rhythm of the thing and my mind quiets down to notice things.

A smell inside, slightly metallic, like vitamins or iodine. Or even weirder to describe — it smells neutral. As though there were far less organic material to smell than there is outside the cave. For the most part, the cave is devoid of funk.

The flashlight beam illuminates small patches of rock overhead or in front of us. Sometimes the rocks seem to have a silvery glow.

Just shy of the midway point, two half-round tunnels emerge in the darkness. The lava tube splits. We choose the tunnel on the left, because a passing hiker tells us it is wider and easier to navigate.

If you go, you must promise you'll turn all your light sources out and sit in the darkness for a few minutes. It is darker than any darkness you have ever experienced. Trust me.

The most striking thing is the heightened sensory perception when we crawl out. Sound rushes in first with a soft shhh, shhh as the wind blows through the pines. Scent is close behind as we are hit with the smell of pine needles. Our eyes adjust to the sunlight and as we look around, everything appears extra-articulated and crystallized, as sunlight streams through the treetops.

Heightened awareness, cooler temperatures. And admission is free. I'm in.


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