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17 Mile Cave, Idaho – Here There Are Monsters
“The rich,” writes University of Maryland professor Michael Olmert, “have immense leverage over history.” Where they live and what they own “take precedence over what we know about the past, as good things take precedence over the vernacular and ethereal,” he writes in his book Milton’s Teeth and Umbrella. Ovid”.
“Graffiti beats it in one fell swoop,” he adds, “hitchhiking on good walls to bring to light an alternative past.”
Nowhere in eastern Idaho is this democratic sentiment more evident than in a cold, dusty, graffiti-filled lava tube buried beneath a sunburned field of brown shards of broken beer bottles. Over the past few decades, graffiti artists have covered the 17-mile basalt walls with names, dates, pictures and love notes.
And monsters. My son’s favorite.
Appropriately enough, 17-Mile Cave is located just 400 feet south of US Highway 20 about 17 miles west of downtown Idaho Falls, ID, in a location marked by the Idaho “Elephant Hunters” Historic Landmark. Park either by a signpost or along a dirt road that meanders through the landscape to the south. In that well is the entrance to the cave.
The location, size and decoration of the cave make it a good place to attract the attention of potential speleologists, no matter how young. Michelle and I took our three children, Liam, 7, Lexi, 5, and Isaac, 2½, for our first cave trip.
Of course, given the nature of children (especially five-year-olds who believe their mother when she tells them to go to the cave first, to breathe in cold air like a giant refrigerator, to check for bears), their first adventure was not without tears. At a distance of tens of meters from the entrance of the cave, two of our young men want to go out. (My wife, Michelle, took them out. They kept us waiting in the van for half an hour. And on the way home she added to our daughter’s original thinking with this story: “I told Lexi to put her flashlight down. we were going out, he could see the rocks,” she said. Instead of pointing the light at the ground, he put the light down and walked away. The mother quickly straightened him up.)
However, Liam continues to play. He and I walk, he leads the way, and his flashlight randomly sends a circle of erratic light onto walls, floors, and ceilings.
The cave is an easy hiking experience with the entrance being the most challenging aspect. Tall adults and children must duck down a series of short natural lava rock steps—no more than 12 feet—before the cave opens wide enough to stand. From there, it’s about half a mile to the end of the cave, and the duck only needs to duck in two additional short stretches. As the cave is unbranched, there is no chance of getting lost, although it is completely dark inside when away from the entrance.
A natural rock fall followed by a major cave twist quickly obscures the entrance and the light entering the cave. For the most part, the cave is about a dozen yards wide and easily ten feet high, although there is one chamber where the cave is at least twenty yards wide and easily thirty feet high—enough room for an impromptu soccer game, if you brought enough light.
A cave teaches a seven-year-old boy to be calm. Halfway through I cut Liam off and told him to tell me what he heard:
Far, one drop. . .a drop. . .a drop. . .
– Someone has left the faucet working, father.
Of course, my son.
A little closer: “Errrr, rrrrr, rrrrr, rrrrrrr.
“Is it a monster?”
– Don’t think like that, my son, someone else in the cave has a lamp like us. I press the handle on our light switch and it makes the same sound. “Can you hear yourself?”
“HELLO!” he screamed into the darkness, shining his flashlight around him as if following his screams.
Then we see the lights ahead.
“Hello! Who’s this! What’s your name? Did you see any monsters,” he yells, echoes sounding like bumper cars hitting each other.
No monster. Only a family with their curious and friendly black lab ventures out.
We go with the fact that while the cave may teach peace, this lesson is not necessarily heard from the common questions of youth.
Is there still lava in the cave, dad? (On the way to the cave, I talked about how thousands of years ago, the cave had flowed underground as a river of lava, then subsided, leaving the cave behind.)
No, it’s not lava, son.
How long is it?
Long enough, son.
Will the cave fall on us?
Better not. Your mother will be angry with me if this happens.
What happens if we turn off our lights?
She does. We are enveloped in darkness for about two seconds, so no tent made of blankets and scraps of wood that a seven-year-old hoping to sleep under the stars will ever fit into.
He turns on his light again and shines on me. “I thought I lost my father,” she said. “But there you are.”
Are there monsters, dad? In addition to the bears, I joke that the cave is home to the vukalar, my favorite movie monster.
– Let’s find out, – I tell him.
Just past 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 an official name – the ceiling on the left again descends three feet from the floor. Not long after, some had a clear vision of a monster’s mouth and eyes, somewhat similar to a brontosaurus, coming out of that formation. So they painted the stone to add some definition to their imagination.
“Monster face!” my son whispers as I shine a light on the monster’s neon painted features. (Some dedicated souls re-touch the paint every year, ensuring that the monster’s slime is there for future cavers.)
It holds its light and blinds the monster if it decides to come to life. The mist that falls on him from his breath. “Monster smoke!” he whispers. (The smoke of the monster, at least this time, is very thick and in the clouds below, regardless of whether we breathe it or not. It shows up in the pictures and gives an even more terrifying feeling to the shiny stone, glowing faces and bright colors. we go underground and the monsters watch us with their yellow eyes.)
The monster is the least graffiti of the cave, all surprisingly G-rated, at least for the uninitiated. Written on the walls are messages from former cave dwellers, including the usual – “Stop the graffiti,” “SHUT UP” (with arrows pointing in opposite directions) and “Dyslexic from Idaho Untie!” — to the humorous — “Enter Here, Abandon Hope” — gloriously cryptic — “The Adventures of One Uther Smith” accompanied by a picture of a pale, dark, goateed young man. Uther, of course, is the latest. It comes with its own URL: biminicomics.com. He is a newly published comic book character that was introduced to the world in the spring of 2007 at the San Francisco Book Center.
“The story has deep roots in that area of Idaho,” said Brandon Mees, a former Idaho Falls resident who wrote the comic with artist John Murphy and colorist Nye Wright. “I want the people there to know that they will soon have a local hero they can root for.” The comic, though set in Pocatello, relies heavily on the easily recognizable locales of Idaho Falls.
While researching locations for the comic — set in part on Mize’s uncle’s potato farm — the trio learned about the cave “and came back the next day armed with a backpack full of spray paint,” Mize said.
So everyone enjoys 17 Mile Cave. Except for my little son and daughter, of course, but they are still young. This place is attracting attention – even from some North Carolina authors who are engaged in original underground advertising in a cold cave on the edge of the Lost River Wilderness. What future historians will say about this is anyone’s guess.
Note to would-be graffiti artists:
I would like to point out here that I do not support graffiti, certainly not in this cave. Those visiting this cave should be aware that it is on private property and that the owner of the property has been kind enough over the years to allow people to enter his natural cave, cans of paint in hand or not. But since the walls are covered with graffiti, I will write about it. Repentantly, when I go there, I grab a garbage bag and clean up some of the other cave dwellers’ trash.
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