As I opened my car door — after a long drive up narrow gravel roads, nary another car in sight — the sound of a woman’s scream cut through the air.
Or a peacock. Okay, definitely a peacock. Still, it was a good way to kick off this adventure.
I was at Mammoth Cave, near Shoshone Idaho. Unlike the nearby Ice Cave, Mammoth is a bit more undeveloped, but with a wealth of extra perks. A museum (I’ll get to that), plus grounds full of carved stone faces, rare birds, and metal sculptures.
As I walked in the door, I was greeted by a young man. I paid my ten bucks, and he handed me two lanterns.
“Two?” I asked.
“Yep. The more light, the better. You’ll see. Follow the path down, you’ll come back out the same way. It’s 1.4 of a mile.” He ushered me out the back door, and closed it firmly behind me. More peacock screams, and I wound my way down the short hill to find the entrance.
Okay, let’s pause here to talk a little bit about fear. (It’s fitting, since I paused at that entrance for a good bit.)
Twelve years ago, I stood in that same place, just as alone, ready to face that primal human fear, the oldest fear of all, fear of the dark. Lovecraft said it well: “Children will always be afraid of the dark, and men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse.”
The cave was only one of many fear-facing moments on that trip. My first night alone, I slept outside of Yosemite, and heard bears circling my truck all night, growling. When I woke, I realized that bears don’t tend to growl constantly while wandering around… then I heard the same sound, and looked up to realize I was on a flight path.
By the end I felt… well, not fearless, but much better at sorting my fears.
A dark cave? Pretty unreasonable fear, especially if it’s a tourist destination. You can’t just disappear tourists all the time.
A solo road trip? Pretty unreasonable fear, especially if you travel smart.
An abandoned summer camp turned hostel? Pretty unreasonable fear… oddly enough.
Believe me, there were reasonable fears as well; some obvious, some less so. There were spots where I just kept driving, motels that my gut told me not to trust. And while I can’t point to an instance where a building burned down or gang warfare burst out that night, I am still here, I made it through alive, so I’m going to own that as a skill earned.
Older and wiser now, I logically thought that those fears were gone. I mean, I did this. I conquered those fears. This’ll be cake.
OH MY GOD WRONG. That first day, my first hour on the road, I was so scared I thought I might vomit. And standing there in front of the cave again, that primal fear felt as strong as ever.
I recorded the entire trip in, to the end of the path. It took six minutes, four seconds. It felt a lot longer.
The movie excerpt does not do it justice. Go solo spelunking yourself and tell me you don’t constantly hear something behind you, or catch glimpses of strangeness out of the corner of your eye. (No, don’t go solo spelunking for real, that’s not safe.)
I didn’t realize it (not until talking with the fabulous Caroline in SLC), but I’ve lost faith in my instincts. I can’t sort my fears anymore, and I end up hiding from them all. I didn’t think I was hiding, I thought I was just being lazy and taking the easy route, a comfy route with a lot of reality TV and naps, but it was hiding.
I don’t love this realization. I’m a brave lady, y’all, that’s who I am, it’s central to my self-image. I’m hoping this trip will help me find that faith and trust those instincts again.
Maybe this crew can help me face my fears. The museum attached to Mammoth Cave is packed full to the brim with taxidermy and cultural artifacts, all mixed in ways that defy chronology, geography, or themes. (Including one display case that had two American ducks and a faux shrunken head, and multiple cases with multiple-headed beasties.)
An often-off-limits work room elsewhere on the grounds has even more animals:
Strange, pretty problematic, and very oddly curated, but truly delightful as well. The generations of men who collected these items and laid them out in careful scenes clearly had a passion for what they were doing. I had a chance to interview the owner/operator, the current collector, and that passion was obvious.
All this was two days ago. I’ve been at a work conference since then (favorite quote of the weekend: “We should make theater that will comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”), but I’ll be heading out in the morning.
Until then, I think I’ll fall asleep watching an episode of Ghost Adventures. (Quitting reality TV cold-turkey is never recommended.)