For those who seek the lonely places of the earth

Into The Borderland

Today’s Patreon post is a throwback to a 2010 trip to Reynosa, Mexico. It’s one of my favorite stories to tell to this day.

Wednesday will be another throwback to one of my first adventures with Alison here on the free site.

Check them out, and I’ll see you out in the wild!

Wayne’s Lost Cave

This weekend, I made my way to Bloomington with the illustrious Carl and our good friend Sam in order to spend the day navigating Wayne’s Lost Cave, an Indiana classic known for its difficult crawl. Both of the guys have already been there several times this year, although this was my first time since October of last year. We were attempting to make it to survey camp 4, effectively at the back of the cave; this would be a first for both Sam and myself, and only Carl’s second time back there, the first being two years ago.

Outside Wayne’s, October 2017

As I begin writing this piece, I face an issue in deciding exactly who this is written for. By this I mean, do I assume that there is some understanding of caving jargon and layouts, or do I start from zero? As many of my readers are not necessarily cavers, I will do my best to be clear in my explanations. It’s a practice that I find especially meaningful regarding this particular cave, considering my own history with it, and the chaos that was my first trip there.

Wayne’s is one of Indiana’s more difficult caves, boasting an incredibly varied topography. The entrance is secured with a heavy slatted gate, designed to keep people out but to allow free passage for bats; once that is opened, the cavers climb down an about 11 foot chimney, avoid a hole that waits to catch a leg, and then make a second climb-down of about the same height. From there, there’s a crawl of a few feet to get into the area known as Historic Wayne’s, which is a large decorated borehole passage. We strolled through this and took a few pictures, then doubled back to enter the infamous crawlway, an uninviting hole in the wall off to the left when facing away from the cave entrance. We drop down to hands and knees and enter the crawl, thankful for our kneepads as we navigated over river rock, which eventually evens out to just muddy rock. Over its quarter mile, the crawl varies in height and difficulty: the entry, though irritating as one splashes through puddles of water, is the least of it, considering that the crawl constricts, resulting in such areas as the Why-The-Hell Squeeze and the Torpedo Tube. As one can imagine from the names, these areas are small, and the type of crawling required through the crawlway is varied: in some places, hands and knees are appropriate, but others require a belly crawl, and the Torpedo Tube particularly is a question of pulling with your arms while pushing with your toes, as there is no more room than that in order to get leverage to move forward. Thankfully, there are some places where the crawl opens up a bit: not enough to walk, but enough to at least sit up and take a break.

Break time! Photo by Sam Richey

At the end of the crawl, cavers must negotiate a slot canyon that opens up below. This canyon is narrow and tortuous, so the best bet is to continue above it; the canyon opens along with the crawlway then, and in order to not fall into it, one must keep left onto a shallow ledge which skirts the rim, sloping down into the canyon.

Welcome to Camp 1.

On my first trip to this cave, a friend (with the best intentions but not always the most sense) decided to bring some friends of his along. Introducing people to caving is great, and in itself not necessarily problematic, but they had never been underground before and quickly discovered claustrophobia. It was near the end of the crawlway that this came to light; behind me, I kept hearing snatches of conversation, mostly consisting of different iterations of “are you okay?” and “what’s wrong?” I turned around when I reached an area open enough to do so and headed back toward the conversation, which was falling further and further back behind. I found some of the new people then in the next open space back. One was crying, and another didn’t look to be faring much better. The others were willing to continue, but lingered as to not leave them behind. Sam was also along on this trip and had taken the “tail-gun” position, bringing up the rear of the group; he sat with them, trying to determine what to do. Meanwhile, the group was separating, as another one of the new people had also declared himself claustrophobic early on, but insisted that he would be fine as long as he kept moving; we had placed him in line directly behind the trip leader, and when I turned back to check on the rest of the group, they continued on. Sam and I discussed, and ended up deciding that he would take the people willing to continue on to catch up, and I would lead out the ones nearing panic. I saw no reason to encourage them to continue; at that point, they were becoming a liability, and although I wanted to continue on, I was not willing to endanger the rest of the trip in the hope that they might calm down.

So we backtracked. Although it was my first time in Wayne’s, the crawl is pretty straightforward, though painful, and in the few places that I was unsure of the way, I was able to pathfind based on the traffic marks. Slowly, we made our way out of the crawl, breaking often to rest, eventually making it out of the crawl, through the historic section, and back to the drop-down at the entry.

Crawling- photo by Sam Richey

Here we ran into another issue, as by this point, the two who I led out were exhausted and demoralized and unable to make the climb up and out. I tried to boost one up on my shoulders, but unsuccessfully; the other didn’t try. After a few minutes of this, I told them to stay put and went to make the climb out myself to get rope from the vehicles. The friend who had brought them had backed out himself at the beginning of the crawl, and would be somewhere outside hanging around. Between him and the rope, we would get them out.

I made the first climb up, then the other, unlocked the gate, and pushed. Nothing happened.

I pushed harder, balanced on the edge of the drop-down, trying to stand to leverage my leg strength against the gate. I put my head against the gate too, and pushed as hard as I could.

The gate opened an inch, and fell shut with a clang; the two who I had left below heard this, and started shouting panicky questions to me about what was going on. Finally I lay on my back over the ledge and kicked the gate open, yelled down that I would be back, and headed up the hill to the parking area. Thankfully, the friend who had backed out was napping in his car, so I woke him up and we retrieved the other two.

Thankfully, this more recent trip had none of that drama, although we may have whined some about the grit in our kneepads and a stinky stagnant puddle. We negotiated the crawlway and the ledge into the Camp 1 canyon, then headed down borehole passage toward Breakdown Mountain. This is a huge pile of rubble fallen from the ceiling in what would otherwise be an expansive chamber. We scrambled up it, calling out loose slabs and stones to each other, then we headed on through the main passage, littered with more breakdown, until we reached Deep Gorge, approaching Camp 2. Here we reach an area similarly sketchy to the ledge leading into Camp 1, but with heavier consequences for a misstep- a tumble into the Camp 1 canyon means a fall of maybe fifteen feet, while the Camp 2 canyon’s depth is more like forty to fifty feet. A natural bridge hangs over Camp 2. Following it would lead to an area of the cave called Helictite Holler, and other passages break off here as well, including the one that would lead us to Camp 4. Here our pathfinding failed us, though: although we started down a few different passages, none led us where we wanted. We ended up following the American Bottoms passage, which boasted some formations, then ended up back at Camp 2; we pulled out the map and compass at that point and tried to find our missing passage. A major difficulty with cave maps, especially in a multi-level cave like Wayne’s, is the fact that these two-dimensional representations tell us little about whether a desired passage is on the same level as us, or perhaps above or below. We bandied around the idea of heading instead to the RPI Passage, a passage that breaks off near Camp 1 known for its “pretties,” but eventually we made the decision to just head back, research, and make another attempt on another day, armed with better information.

Camp 2- photo by Sam Richey

Although brutal, Wayne’s is also beautiful, and though I may complain about the bruises I always wear afterwards, this cave is quickly becoming a favorite of mine. Each attempt I make, it gives up more of its secrets; perhaps next time, we will finally make it to Camp 4.

Beautiful Views and Bad Attitudes

Montana, July 30-31, 2018

We drove 1600 miles cross-country to Helena, Montana, ostensibly for a convention, but once we realized what wonders were in the area, we went rogue and skipped out entirely, setting out to explore the mountains instead.

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A bit of housekeeping before we get started on the post: due to some scheduling changes, new content will now be available on Wednesdays instead of Mondays. Also, if I have not clarified the posting schedule in regards to free content versus the subscription content on Patreon, these will alternate weekly. For example- this is the second of three posts regarding our Montana trip. The first, Martian Turbines and Monumental Middle Fingers, appeared on Patreon last week, and next week the third installment will be posted there. The following week, we return here with a different adventure. If you have not yet looked into the Patreon page, it’s only $2 a month to gain access to the exclusives; that said, though, the rest will remain right here. And now, to the road.

We’d spent the last few days sightseeing through the Great Plains on our way out, and once we reached western Montana we were enthused to see the multitude of peaks towering around us, though we were painfully sick of driving.

A friend of mine who lived in Montana for several years commented once about how going anywhere required at least an hour or two of driving. There were things to do in town, I suppose, at least where we were- his location was more rural, but our home base for the week was right in the state capitol of Helena. Hanging out in town isn’t our idea of fun, though; if that were all there was to do, we wouldn’t have skipped the convention. Regardless, his words ring true. After three days of driving, tantrums from both of the kids (and perhaps the adults), and vehement insistence that we want nowhere near the Jeep ever again, we found ourselves back on the road, two hours out from town, exploring the aptly nicknamed Big Sky Country.

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We had a lucky encounter from a perspective point of view at one of our hotels on the way out- namely, in Rapid City, we headed downstairs in the morning to take advantage of the included breakfast before hitting the road. We walked into a much more crowded dining room than I had expected, and the reason soon became clear. Carl privately nicknamed them the Silver Fox Tour Group- we were sharing breakfast with a busload of elderly people trying to check items off their bucket lists in the twilight of their lives. Away from the bustling hotel dining room, I tried to explain to the kids the reason I consider this to have been significant: maybe it could help them understand why we would make this frantic trip West, clocking a total of over five thousand miles in the course of a week, instead of letting time ambush us before we could get it accomplished.

Of course, after breakfast, we headed to the Jeep.

We had rested Sunday night and when we set out on Monday morning, we planned to spend the day at Mt. Helena City Park. It seemed to fulfill our requirements well enough: good hiking close to town was what we hoped for, but that plan quickly got scrapped due to a road closure and frustration with GPS issues and Helena’s awkwardly situated roads. After a few irritating laps around town, we headed out on Highway 15 North instead and soon came across a sign for The Gates of the Mountains- it was too intriguing to not turn off. When we arrived, it was a sparkling lake in a valley, stretching out into the mountains, complete with boat tours; the boat had just left when we pulled into the lot, though, so instead we hiked up a nearby ridge to look out over the area. The view was stunning, worth every uphill step, although for the kids it was also an uphill battle.

 

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After we finished up at the lake, we continued north to see what else we could find. We explored by road for a while, and eventually saw signs for Great Falls, where the the Falls of the Missouri are found. The river seemed to have followed us ever since we first crossed it in South Dakota- we decided to follow it right back.

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The Ryan Dam is a hydroelectric dam perched atop the falls- rather than detracting from the site, though, its consistent (and constant) flow tames the wild river, as it pours out its burden. Near the parking area is a suspension bridge that leads to a small island, where maybe Lewis and Clark themselves stopped for lunch alongside the gorgeous falls.

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On the following day, we headed north again, this time aiming nearly for the Canadian border. The mountains around Glacier National Park dwarfed us and made us feel perfectly insignificant. The park was already packed when we got there around noon, after making the four hour drive up. It surprised me that there were so many people there on a Tuesday, although summer was still in full swing. Whatever the case, we entered by the St. Mary gate, whose visitor center was full to overflowing; Logan Pass was the same way. Unable to find parking, we followed Going to the Sun Road for its 50 mile length through the park, and exited via West Glacier. We lunched at West Glacier Restaurant which we found right outside the park gates, then re-entered and headed toward Apgar, now our nearest possibility for parking, to see what kind of hiking we could find there. We found a trailhead down a gravel road, said to lead to an old ranger station about four miles out, and we hit the trail.

It was about ninety degrees at that point, and the skeletal pines offered little shade, still decimated from wildfires as long ago as 2006. The kids, initially excited about escaping the Jeep and going on a hike, started dragging their feet pretty quickly, complaining that they were bored and hot. By this point, Carl and I were feeling pretty jaded as well, and having to defend every location we chose to stop from relentless criticism didn’t help our own perceptions much. Nonetheless, we dragged the kids along for about two hours before saying “to hell with it” and turning back. By this point, they were nearing mutiny and it took promises of Slushies after the hike to keep them moving- of course, with that motivation, the return trip only took us about an hour. With a dead battery on my Garmin watch that day, I had only a faint idea of how far we had gone before turning around; the pessimist in me likes to think that we were just right around the corner from the old ranger station, but that will remain a mystery. With some of the tension relieved, the trail seemed prettier on the way back: Indian Paintbrush nodded all around us, punctuated by ancient exposed rock, the same kind that loomed all around us, obscuring the horizon. Afterwards, I found very little information online on this trail, and although it remains in decent shape, it seems to no longer be maintained.

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We delivered on the promised Slushies, established a tentative truce with the children, and headed back toward Helena for the night. We planned to go to Yellowstone the next day and had no desire to get caught in the same traffic, so we would be retiring early and waking up at 4am to be there at open. Attitudes ended up cutting that one short as well, as Alison discovered a sudden crippling phobia of horseflies- but the day after, we would end up back at Glacier, and finally get a chance to take that perfect hike.

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Martian Turbines and Monumental Middle Fingers

After more than 5,000 miles road-tripping across the United States in the last week, we’ve finally made it back home, exhausted but exuberant, with enough material to keep me busy writing for the next few weeks. Check out the Patreon page on Wednesday for Part One, Martian Turbines and Monumental Middle Fingers, come back here to the site next Monday for Part 2, regarding beautiful hikes and bad attitudes, and the third installment will follow the next week featuring glaciers and jackalopes.

See you in the wild.

The Land of the Spiders

Hoosier National Forest, Indiana, September 2017

After a traumatic situation this past September where I found myself at the wrong end of a gun, I took the rest of the week off work in order to gather my thoughts and to escape the city. I’d already hit some of my local favorite trails in the week, so I headed somewhere new. This turned out to be the Sycamore Loop, approximately 8 miles of trail in the Charles Deam Wilderness, an unattached subsection of the Hoosier National Forest- a relatively untrafficked loop, in an obscure part of the forest. It was a perfect place to get away so I threw on some shorts and a t-shirt, filled my water bottle, and headed south.

This portion of the forest, covering almost 13,000 acres, has settler history that dates back to the early 1800s, although Native American history on the land stretches back much further. The settlers cleared the land for farming. About a century later, the Forest Service purchased the land and began work to rehabilitate it, and after about another hundred years, the area is now back to wilderness. The Hoosier National Forest in its entirety covers roughly 290 square miles, but the Wilderness itself is a jurisdictional anomaly: it is in no place actually contiguous the forest, but instead has entire towns in between, including relatively large Bedford. I had trouble finding out where to go for my trailhead, and asked in a gas station there in Bedford off SR-37, and between the attendant and the local who got involved in the conversation, neither had heard of the Charles Deam Wilderness. It turned out to be only a few miles down the road, though, and eventually I arrived. I’d seen some comments online complaining about the amount of spiders along the loop, but paid it no mind; surely these were written by people who were simply not used to the outdoors.

Charles Deam Wilderness

Spoiler alert- there are tons of spiders.

Conveniently, spiders don’t bother me much (although if they bother you, you should probably skip past today’s post). Of all the spiders in Indiana, only two types are dangerous to humans, specifically the brown recluse and black widow, so we can just memorize those two; the rest are harmless enough. The arrowhead orb weaver spiders that call the hardwood forest home are carnivorous, sure, but as they sit boldly on the ephemeral webs they string between branches and trees and across the narrow trail, they are waiting for prey much smaller than a human. Those webs are fantastic constructions, all the more so for being so temporary; they are generally restrung daily. Nevertheless, I tried to avoid the webs, or duck around them, although they were often invisible until I blundered into them. But it was a beautiful day, fall just beginning to make hesitant advances, and I had the forest to explore. Wearing a spiderweb or two was a minor inconvenience.

Arrowhead Orb Weavers

I stopped to watch one spider eating a fly that had the ill-fortune of accepting the invitation to its parlor, and just beyond, I stooped to gawk at a bright purple shelf fungus on a log alongside the trail. A couple of toads hunkered down to camouflage themselves from me as if they were on an epic quest, like Hobbits, and I were the watcheye on the path that irresistibly led on. Deer snorted by. It was one of those eternal moments, perfectly transcendental; and in my bliss, I’d ignored the drone of the horsefly until it had nicked the back of my knee. I waved it away, undoubtedly cursed a bit, and hiked on until the next pretty sight caught my eye. When I paused, the horsefly bit again. I swatted and swore, and blundered into more spiderwebs, and Sam Toad asked Frodo Toad why I was dancing so. Finally, amidst my flailing, I managed to strike my target.

As I gloated over my victory, the next fly descended. And so we continued, like Io of Greek myth and the tormenting gadfly that followed her the world across after incurring Hera’s wrath, frustrated and bleeding and forced ever onward. The spiders were a problem now after all, as I no longer had the leisure to duck around them; confused orb weavers clung to me, their lairs decimated, as I hustled down the trail. Sticky silk coated my skin and a hitchhiker clung to my eyelashes.

Fungi

I then passed the first fellow hiker I’d seen all day, strolling down the path serenely in the opposite direction, doubtless slathered in DEET and casually swinging a stick ahead of her to catch the webs.

It’s hard to describe the feeling I had then, although I remember it well, nearly a year later: it’s a sort of existential absurdity, as world pinpoints in to the problem at hand, each grievance seeming just as dire as the last, until that moment of clarity when one realizes that so very little of it actually matters. But its not a feeling of despair- in fact, I may have even laughed to myself, probably to the concern of the other hiker to the state of my mental health.

I didn’t begrudge her the better planning ahead, but neither did I ask if she had any OFF to spare. I hiked on down the trail, accompanied by my tormentor the fly, no longer even breaking stride to pull the spiders off of me, tossing them to my right and left like a deranged Johnny Appleseed. As gloomy days bring out the most dramatic pictures, the frustration of the hike gave it its color. Annoyed though I may have been, while distracted with my horsefly I gave no mind to the sense of post-robbery violation that had made me flee to the wilderness to start with. Discontent drove me out there- but the forest didn’t fail me.

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