This blog is closed. For more recent content, visit Chris Clarke's new site Coyote Crossing.

Creek Running North

<< 27 new species in California | Main | Formatting and apropos past rants >>

January 18, 2006

Sentinel Cave

Editing Terrain was, quite likely, the worst job I ever had. Oh, not on a pain-per-hour basis, mind you. That honor would likely have to go to the place where I temped in Buffalo, a biological lab supply house, where my job consisted of dumping old agar cultures down the drain and washing the Petri dishes. I could only take a week before I quit. Two other jobs with abusive bosses tie for second place, and I stayed in each maybe two months.

But for sheer soul-destroying hopelessness, editing the Berkeley Ecology Center's monthly publication topped them all. See, I got something out of the job, on-the-job training in journalism and page layout, and I felt like I was able to express myself and do a little good work besides. But a good day meant I had had no obstacles in my spreading of utterly depressing news to an unsuspecting populace. And good days were few and far between, and their occasional presence only served as disincentive to quitting.

The place was hilariously dysfunctional. Put it this way: we were hiring a fundraiser and we'd narrowed it down to two candidates, one of whom came to the job interview with specific ideas and goals and the resume chops to back them up. The other spoke in vague buzzwords. After the interviews were done, the staff collective discussed the two candidates. (We did interviews by committee, each applicant facing down eight or nine people.) One or two of us spoke in favor of hiring the first person. We wound up hiring the buzzword woman, who in her two-plus year tenure at the Ecology Center raised not a single cent. The reason? The other woman seemed "too competent" and therefore "not a good fit."

Fair enough.

I came in for a bit of criticism along those lines as well, being told at a few different points that I was "spending too much time working on quality," a backhanded compliment. There were worse aspects. We had no Internet access in those days except through one of the public phone lines. After setting up a two-meg download of important government documents or somesuch through a Gopher client, I'd have to yell "Don't use line two!" at which point one individual in particular would reach for the phone, pick it up, hit line two, hang up without bringing the headset to her ear, and say "sorry." At one point that same person decided she wanted a different job than the one she had. We did collective employee reviews, and she embarked on a campaign to ride the other worker in these meetings until he quit in tears. The board of directors figured this out, called her on the carpet, and then she got the job anyway.

It was the kind of non-profit where my organizing a group of friends to form an insurgent clique on the Board of Directors actually seemed at one point like a sensible thing to do. It was a cauldron of contagious siege mentality, and I am well shut of the place.

But before I quit, I was up against monthly deadlines. I had forty pages, one point two five full time staff, a computer I was expected to share with anyone else in the group who decided they needed it at any given moment, and responsibility for every aspect of the rag's production, including paying the bills and sticking on address labels and driving bundles around to cafes and newsstands. I edited every word and researched and wrote about a third of the text and hassled the other writers about deadlines and went to interminable useless meetings and in other words, I was burned out to the point of crisis two weeks out of each month.

My solution to the above involved large amounts of gasoline. No, not arson, though that might have been a more sensible long-term solution. I'd give Becky a couple days warning, throw a few odds and ends into the truck, and put as much distance between myself and the Ecology Center as I could. These emergency trips took me to the Owens Valley, the Mojave, New Mexico, Arizona, as far as I could stand to get. Once or twice Becky came along - the Tucson trip was one example - but for the most part I went solo, feeling the anger and stress melt away as one county line after another faded in the rearview.

Which is how I found myself at the mouth of Sentinel Cave one late afternoon.

Sentinel Cave is a tourist cave at Lava Beds National Monument, in the northeastern corner of California. Lava Beds, as the name indicates, is an old field of volcanic rock that has flowed from the Medicine Lake Volcano, an unprepossessing promontory that is nonetheless the largest mountain in the Cascade Range. The eruptions here were - are - of smooth lava with little ejecta, and so the Medicine Lake volcano does not share the steep-sided profile of stratovolcanoes like Shasta or Fuji.

The caves at Lava Beds owe their existence to these relatively gentle eruptions. Lava poured from the earth, flowing out toward Oregon. As each stream of lava flowed in channels from the volcano, it cooled where it came into contact with the air. The cooler lava became a congealing skin insulating the core of the flow. Eventually a solid, nearly cool crust sheltered the red molten rock as it flowed. In places, that crust remained after the bulk of the flow had rolled downhill. Sentinel Cave is one of these lava tubes.

The mouths of the lava tubes at Lava Beds are moister than the surrounding desert. Coffee ferns clutch the rocks. Cool breezes from the caves, a constant 67 degrees or so, condense the scant moisture from the surrounding air. I had been driving all day up Interstate Five, cruising through the forests north of Shasta, tracing the edge of the Oregon border as the road cut across Lower Klamath Lake. I picked out a campsite in the sagebrush and Jeffrey pines, and then headed for the caves.

Sentinel Cave is open at two ends, and an easy tourist trail runs from one end to the other. The trail distance between the mouths is 3,280 feet. I started in at perhaps an hour before dark, plenty of time to make the other side and get back to my campsite to start dinner. I took a few steps in and the road noise drained at long last from my ears.

The trail wound over and around obstructions, up and down small ridges of lava, ropy basaltic tongues. The cave was unlit. Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, my little pocket flashlight was all the light I needed. Six hours from home and the anger at my job had ebbed only slightly. I walked the first thousand feet of trail not really noticing much. Lava still boiled beneath my cooling skin.

And then I slowed and realized at long last where I was, four hundred miles from the stack of articles on my desk, out in the wild Great Basin on the fringe of the Cascade Range, in a valley full of lava and sagebrush, forty feet underground.

A narrow shelf was there, along one side of the trail. I sat down, breathed for a few moments. I turned off my flashlight and put it in my pocket.

Have you ever been in an unlit cave? It's almost impossible to achieve total darkness anywhere else. The light leaks beneath the doors of closets children hide in. Heavy drapes and shutters admit enough light for a cat to find her way around without stumbling. Even in a forest on a cloudy, moonless night enough light scatters from the planet's day side that you can generally see your hand in front of your face.

Not so in caves. At least not with 1,000 feet of twisting lava tube between you and the entrance. The black rushes in to the spot your light had cleared. You half expect the dark to ebb, as it would in a very dark room when your pupils open wide. In a cave, it never gets any lighter. It is a spooky, odd comfort.

I sat for four, perhaps five minutes in the dark, then, mindful of the camp chores I had waiting, I stood and fished my light from my pocket to resume my hike. I flicked the switch. The light from the little bulb was almost painfully brilliant. And then, in a second or two, it was less so. A second later it was upsettingly dim. And then it went out.

I flicked the switch a few more times. Nothing happened. I opened the battery compartment - very carefully, as dropping a battery would be disaster - and blew into the hole, then rubbed both ends of the batteries on my shirt in case a stray piece of cave lint had broken the circuit. No such luck.

Let me take a moment here to point out, for those of you who might not have figured it out, that I am an idiot. One cannot stress enough the cardinal rules for exploring caves. Don't go alone. Tell someone on the outside where you're going. Always carry a spare flashlight. Wear a hard hat. I had broken all four cardinal rules at once, as well as the fifth: Don't be an idiot.

I took stock of my situation. I was underground in pitch black with no light and no one knew where I was. There was no one in the park, and the cave loop road was closing soon for the night. The one ranger on duty surely wouldn't notice an empty campsite with a seemingly abandoned pickup for a couple days, seeing as I had dutifully paid the fee and put the tag on my dash. It was what, five in the afternoon? Maybe some tourists would come through here the next morning. Say they came by at eleven. That's only eighteen hours in total darkness. I had a Clif Bar in my pants pocket, and a quart of water. It wasn't going to drop below 65 degrees tonight, so the lack of a sleeping bag wasn't too onerous. I could make it until the next afternoon, albeit at the price of a bit of post-traumatic stress.

Or maybe no one would show up for a week. I didn't have a watch: it might seem like a week even if someone walked through here at six tomorrow morning.

The hell with that. The trail was well-worn, with occasional guardrails and metal bridges. Even the smooth lava sections had been roughened enough by footfalls, I decided, that I could probably distinguish trail from not-trail.

But which way to go? It seemed as though I'd almost certainly walked more than half of 3280 feet. Forward seemed the best choice. I felt for the shelf I'd been sitting on, remembered that it had been on the right as I approached it, and started to feel my way down the trail on my hands and knees.

It was very slow going, perhaps a foot every ten seconds at first. The path led straight for some time, which made it easier. Lava tubes lack the broad gallery drop-offs and insanely deep sinkholes that attract rappelling spelunkers to limestone caves, but there are caves at Lava Beds that are tubes upon tubes upon tubes. I would probably not fall a hundred fifty feet, but falling twenty feet in these conditions would kill me just as dead, if a bit more languorously. I tried not to think of that. Or of the natural chutes I remembered having seen a ways back that closely resembled the trail I was finding. I just found trail, slowly and carefully, inching along, a blind worm in the belly of the earth.

A sudden, soft knock on the head by something hard, which gave a muffled ring: I had butted a metal pipe bolted to the floor. I followed it upward, hand over hand past a smooth weld to a horizontal bar. A guardrail! I grabbed the thing with my right hand, held my left outstretched in front of my head to give a second's warning of low ceilings, and shuffled along a bit more comfortably for a while. Who knows, I thought. Maybe this reaches all the way to the other end.

It didn't, and I was back on hands and knees after fifty yards or so. Or less. Or more. Who knew? Without a frame of reference, all I had to go by was the arc of my feet as they shuffled and stumbled over the lava. The trail past the end of the guardrail was reasonably well defined. My spirits were a bit higher for having made that progress. I felt my way along for another measureless stretch of time.

After an age, my knees beginning to get really sore, I succumbed to temptation. Hiking in the mountains, I am always torturing myself by expecting the pass just around the next switchback. It almost never is. I had been looking at the trail, as if facing it with my useless eyes would help me distinguish wild lava from trammeled, but also out of fear that every phosphor, every bit of cranial exuberance, every fragment of detaching retina would manifest as glimmers of pale light in the distance, and I would follow them and be crushed when they evaporated back into my subconscious.

I looked up anyway, and saw nothing. Or was it? A faint dark gray stripe, really just the appearance of a slightly lighter shade of black, wavered off there somewhere. It seemed to fade as I looked, and yet I saw an afterimage when I looked away. Or was it the afterimage I'd seen to begin with? I kept crawling.

But there it was again a turn or two later. It was there for sure, light reflected four or five times off lava walls.

It got brighter as I approached. My knees were really suffering at this point. I began to make out the barest details of my surroundings. Another turn of the passageway, and there was just barely light enough to walk without groping. A few dozen feet after that and I could have just made out the text in a large-print edition of Reader's Digest. I walked more easily in the low light, my pupils probably an inch across. There it was, sunlight falling into the cave from the entrance just around this bend.

It wasn't the entrance. Twenty feet above me, atop smooth lava walls, was a hole in the ceiling of the cave. The crust had fallen through in that section. The trail wound around the rubble, and beyond, back into darkness.

I wondered if I should stay. I could at least mark the passage of days here for sanity's sake, making a three day wait an excruciatingly boring but not sanity-destroying prospect. I pulled out my snack and ate it. I inspected my flashlight but could see nothing obviously wrong with it. The light from above was slanting as though the sun were near the horizon. This notion distressed me until I remembered that daylight was not exactly helping me out at the moment.

I walked down the trail toward the black. I went slowly, to allow my eyes to adjust as much as possible, to squeeze every last bit of utility from the fading light. Three turns past the skylight I was back on my knees.

And then, not long after, the trail forked.

Or it seemed to, anyway. The three-inch-deep rut I'd been following diverged, a neat little wedge of rock dividing the two new paths. I sat for a long moment. This was it, then. One of these paths led to the opening. The other one might lead there as well: I knew there were pillars in some of the lava tubes, with trails that forked around them to rejoin their other halves in twenty feet or a hundred. Or the other path could lead to a side tube, or to a cul-de-sac in which I might get lost without knowing it. It seemed the thing to do just to choose one and see where it went, but how many people have died thinking just that sort of thing? Perhaps I should go back to the skylight, I thought. At least I won't fall into any holes that way.

I took the right fork. It felt wrong within a few feet, and then dead-ended at a pile of rubble. I cursed, the first words I'd spoken aloud since Sacramento.

The words echoed off a rock wall not a foot in front of me.

And so came the turn back down the right fork, and the moment of panic when I was sure I should have reached the junction and decided I was almost certainly heading back down toward the skylight, and the wondering whether to turn back again or make straight on for the skylight and then come back again and I wasn't sure if my knees could take any more and my hands felt as though they were probably bleeding and then I found the junction.

The panic welled despite finding the fork. I dissolved in an orgy of second- and third-guessing. What if there had been another junction up the right fork that I had missed, the true path to the surface? What if I'd missed a junction a long time ago, long before the skylight, and had spent the last I don't know how long crawling down a dark dead end? I tried squelching the fear, but it just kept rising. Annoyed and frightened, I let out a rather surprisingly fierce-sounding roar of frustration.

Which made me feel better, oddly, and not just through catharsis. I heard echoes from the walls near me, and none in the direction of travel. This didn't provide me with any real information, but I felt re-oriented nonetheless. I crawled up the left fork, letting loose a few more roars and listening to the reassuring echoes, a half-mad subterranean orca.

The fourth roar was a laugh. I had come around a corner and saw light. A few more slight twists of tube and I was at the other end of the cave. Were there iron stairs, or a trail switchbacking out of the hole? I don't even remember. I was bathed in light and walking again. Before I could even think I was out of the cave, striding down a slope covered in bunchgrasses and sagebrush and best of all sunlight. I was victorious and giddy with confidence. It took a hundred yards of marching down the hill before I realized I had no idea where I was going.

But please. Being lost on the surface of the earth? This is not a problem.

Posted by Chris Clarke at January 18, 2006 11:30 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

0 blog(s) linking to this post:

decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs


I saw this news item/documentary thing on a blind guy who had taught himself to echo-locate. He lets out little squeeks or whatever, and with some practice got to the point where he can identify lamp posts, mailboxes, cars, houses, buildings. He teaches it to other visually impaired people, and they say its not as hard as it sounds.

Posted by: craig at January 19, 2006 01:22 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

1) You are a terrific writer--I could almost feel your panic.

2) So many people think non-profits are these wonderful places where everyone gets along and the work is satisfying/fulfilling. They are so...not. Even the best boards are dysfunctional-each in their own way.

Posted by: Phyllis at January 19, 2006 04:58 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Whew! Thought for a minute there that you weren't going to get out. :)

Posted by: Rurality at January 19, 2006 06:45 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

HA!!!! Great story, Chris!

Posted by: Anne at January 19, 2006 09:15 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

one of my brothers and his wife had a similar experience in a lava tube cave on kauai (well, one of the hawaiian islands). they each had a flashlight. BOTH lights went bad. their main concern (panic?) was that in places the tube was wife enough and rough enough that they weren't always sure they hadn't turned around. i think they broke only two rules. yes, they got out. alive. same day.

great story about hiring. "too competent" LOL. don't hire her, she'll make us look bad. with that damned competence.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at January 19, 2006 09:31 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Nice story Chris! The only time I experienced that level of darkness was when they turned off the lights at Mammoth Cave NP in KY. It was amazing. And to think we wouldn't have gotten to read this story if your knees hadn't taken that beating. Thanks!

Posted by: Sean at January 19, 2006 09:35 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

The Buffalo job reminds me of my first "science" job. I was a student at Berkeley High and was priviliged enough to get to work in the entomology lab at Cal, sexing bark beetles. Whee. The professors idea of fun was placing pheromones in a box and watching the beetles run around crazy. I decided bugs weren't for me (became a geologist).
Too competent and so not a good fit. Hah.
I'm so glad I found your website.

Posted by: Joy at January 19, 2006 10:10 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Awesome story. It reminds me of the only time I've been in a similar cave system--the Ape Cave near Mt. St. Helens. There were three of us on the 1.5 mile lower cave, and we each had flashlights and a set of backup batteries. I remember the complete darkness when we all turned off our lights. Half our batteries were used up before we came out a couple hours later, and we'd gone down to two lights to conserve batteries.

Even being relatively more prepared (though we didn't have hard hats), there was a thrill of danger. What if our remaining lights went out? The cave branched and branched into smaller lava tubes at the edges of the shelves, eventually dwindling to points with piles of rubble that we investigated with our lights. I wouldn't want to negotiate the same space without any light at all.

Your story had me right there with you every step of the way. I'm glad you came out OK.

Posted by: Cascadian at January 19, 2006 11:15 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

such a pleasure, when somebody's good at what they do. i had to remind myself that i knew how the story comes out. thanks for keeping this blog going.

Posted by: jean at January 19, 2006 01:52 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Thank you for reminding people of that great off the beaten trail part of CA. Normally that might be a sarcastic response, but if those regions are going to succeed in staying free from developers and resource extractors, they need some tourism dollars to keep the rather limited infrastructure open and vital. Few people realize that there is an amazing geographic region between highways US-395 and I-5 in that part of CA; hell in that whole part of Northwest, stretching up to the Columbian basin.

Two other tiny points. Decades ago, while touring Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico we asked the rangers what they did to maintain control of the public: to keep people like myself from jumping over the little barriers and getting into some of the most psychedelic and mindblowing features. The rangers laughed. The next morning, while down with one of them, she said she would properly answer my question from the evening before. She told the small group to hold hands, and then suggested that when there is someone causing trouble 1200' below the surface all she needs to do is flip this little switch she had on her belt. Out went the lights, all of them; only she had the flashlight. You could feel the heat of the immediate stress such imposing blackness in the middle of the earth could elicit among us all. Total visual loss in a space one has zero familiarity offers an amazing desire to conform.

And the Berkeley Ecology Center has, whether dysfunctional or not, been a super supportive sponsor of one event that i help produce each year--the Watershed Poetry Fest. As least you have an Eco-center in your area.

Posted by: spyder at January 19, 2006 02:54 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Bear in mind this was in 1996 or so. I've heard the staff at the Ecology Center is now far more professional.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at January 19, 2006 04:28 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

=v= Utterly alone, unable to inform the outside world what the heck I'm doing, completely in the dark, and with an unprotected scalp? Sounds an awful lot like being on the Board of Directors at the Ecology Center.

Posted by: Jym Dyer at January 19, 2006 06:23 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

I've been in that cave too Chris, with three flashlights and two other people. I couldn't do it alone. When I was 5 I followed a woodchuck into it's burrow on the edge of our hill. I was stuck in there for a least two hours before my father found me and pulled my out by the feet with a rake. I was definitely freaked out (I wet myself) by the whole affair and going into Sentinal Cave 30 years later helped me finally get over that experience.

Posted by: OGeorge at January 19, 2006 10:08 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Great story; by the end I needed the stress-relieving comment from Rurality.

Posted by: Charles at January 20, 2006 05:20 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

I was having a cranky day, and you fixed it with your words.

Thank you.

Posted by: miscellanneous at January 20, 2006 09:46 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

u guys are losers

Posted by: dude at February 13, 2006 10:19 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

i hate ur story, im just going to go and jump off a bridge now

Posted by: dude at February 13, 2006 10:21 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

[Checks IP number]
[looks up IP number]

Wow, the trolls from Truganina, Australia are so nice! they offer to kill themselves and everything!

I'm just gonna have to write a song in your honor as a way of expressing gratitude.

The Troll from Truganina

Tall and pale and wan and lonely
The troll from Truganina goes blogging
And when he comments from mama's basement, we "awwww"

When he posts, it's like a sonnet
Each vowel has no consonants on it
And when he comments from mama's basement, we "awwww"

Oh but I read him so sadly
How can I tell him to spellcheck
Yes I would edit him gladly
But each day, on his blog trolling spree
He leaves off the apostrophe!

Tall, and pale, and wan, and lonely
The troll from Truganina goes blogging
If he needs to jump, I'll help him find a gum tree

Posted by: Chris Clarke at February 13, 2006 11:15 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

i think you need help chris, serious help...

you must have a hell of a bad life if you actually have the time to write me a poem

you dont deserve to have a computer

or a life....

i dont like your style

not even a little bit

Posted by: im back at February 21, 2006 01:50 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

all i wanted was to find some info for a small project at skool and you ruin my life im now in a mental retard idiot home

thanks mate

Posted by: dude at February 21, 2006 01:52 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

you must have a hell of a bad life if you actually have the time to write me a poem

Yeah, and that's 90 seconds I'll never get back.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at February 21, 2006 07:43 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs