“The rich,” writes University of Maryland professor Michael Olmert, “have terrific leverage over history.” Where they live and the things they own “dominate what we know about the past simply because the good things outlast the vernacular and the ephermal,” he writes in his book “Milton’s Teeth and Ovid’s Umbrella.”
“Graffiti defeat that at a stroke,” he adds, “hitchhiking on the walls of the good to bring an alternative past to light.”
Nowhere in eastern Idaho is that democratic sentiment more evident than a chilly, dusty, graffiti-filled lava tube buried under a sunburnt field peppered with brown shards of broken beer bottles. Over the past few decades, graffiti artists have layered 17-Mile Cave’s basalt walls with names, dates, pictures, love notes.
And monsters. My son’s favorite.
Colloquially enough, 17-Mile Cave is located just 400 feet to the south of U.S. Highway 20 about 17 miles west of downtown Idaho Falls, ID, at a spot marked by an Idaho historical marker “Elephant Hunters.” Park either at the marker pullout or along the dirt road that circles a dimple in the landscape to the south. In that dimple is the cave’s entrance.
The cave’s location, size and makeup make it an excellent place to pique the interest of would-be speleologists, no matter how young. Michelle and I took our three children – Liam, age 7, Lexie, 5, and Isaac, 2 ½, to the cave for their first spelunking adventure.
Of course, given the nature of children (especially literal-minded five-year-olds who believe their mothers when they say to let Dad go first into the cave, breathing cold air like a massive refrigerator, to check for bears) their first adventure did not arrive without tears. Within a dozen yards of the cave’s entrance, our younger two want out. (My wife Michelle, took them out. They waited for us a half hour in the van. And on the way home, added to our daughter’s literal mind-set with this story: “I told Lexie to put her flashlight on the ground so she could see the rocks as we were walking out,” she said. Instead of pointing the light to the ground, she put the flashlight down and walked away from it. Mom quickly set her straight.)
Liam, however, is game to continue. He and I walk on, he leading the way, his flashlight sending an errant circle of light randomly about the walls, floor and ceiling.
The cave is an easy hiking experience, with the entrance being the most difficult aspect. Adults and tall children have to duck and clamber down a short series of natural lava rock steps – a distance of not more than 12 feet – before the cave opens up enough for standing. From there, it’s a walk of only about a half mile to the cave’s end, with ducking required only in two additional short stretches. As the cave does not branch, there’s no chance of getting lost, though it is absolutely dark inside when out of sight of the entrance.
A natural rock fall followed by the cave’s single major twist quickly conceals the entrance and the light that enters the cave. For the most part, the cave is about a dozen yards wide and easily ten feet tall, though there is one chamber where the cave widens to at least twenty yards wide and easily thirty feet tall – enough room for an impromptu football game, if you’ve brought enough light.
A cave teaches a seven-year-old about quiet. Halfway in, I shushed Liam’s chatter, told him to tell me what he could hear:
Far away, a drip. . .drip. . .drip. . .
“Someone left the faucet running, Dad.”
A little closer: “Errrrr, rerrrr, rerrrr, rerrrrrrrr.”
“Is that a monster?”
“Don’t think so, son. Somebody else in the cave has a flashlight like us.” I crank the handle on our rechargeable light, and it makes the same noise. “Do you hear your echo?”
“HELLO!” he yells into the darkness, shining his flashlight all about as if trying to follow his shout as it echoes.
Then we see lights ahead.
“Hello! Who’s that! What’s your name? Did you see any monsters,” he yells, echoes smashing into each other like bumper cars.
No monsters. Just a family heading out, tailed by their curious, friendly black lab.
We walk on, with the understanding that while a cave can teach about quiet, that lesson doesn’t necessarily get to be heard over they typical youngster’s barrage of questions.
Is there still lava in the cave, Dad? (On the way to the cave, I talked about how, thousands of years ago, the cave was formed as a river of lava flowed underground, then ebbed, leaving the cave behind.)
No, no lava, son.
How long is it?
Long enough, son.
Is the cave going to fall in on us?
It better not. Your Mom would get mad at me if it did.
What happens if we turn off our flashlights?
He does. For about two seconds, we’re enveloped in darkness so utter no tent built of blankets and bits of wood by a seven-year-old hoping to sleep under the stars will ever match it.
He turns his light on again, shines it on me. “I thought I lost my Dad,” he said. “But there you are.”
Are there monsters, Dad? In addition to the bears, I joke the cave is home to the wookalar, my favorite movie monster.
“Let’s find out,” I tell him.
Just past the Echo Chamber – my name for the cave’s largest room; I’m not sure, in twenty-five years of visiting this cave, if any of the features have official names – the ceiling on the left dips again to within three feet of the floor. Long ago, some vivid imagination saw a monster mouth and eyes – somewhat resembling a brontosaurus – gaping out of that formation. So they painted the rock to add a little definition to their imagination.
“Monster face!” my son shout-whispers, as I shine the light on the monster’s neon-painted features. (Some dedicated souls re-touch the paint every year, ensuring the monster’s vivid leer is there for future cave-goers.)
He holds his own light up, blinding the monster in case it decided to come to life. The fog from his breath catches in the beam. “Monster smoke!” he whispers. (The monster smoke, at least this time around, is pretty thick, puffing around in underground clouds whether we’re breathing or not. It shows up in pictures, giving the sparkling rock, flashlit-faces and luminous paint an even more eerie feel as we clamber around underground with the monsters watching us with their yellow eyes.)
The monster is the least of the cave’s graffiti, all surprisingly G-rated, to the uninitiated at least. Scrawled on the walls are messages from previous cave-dwellers, ranging from the mundane – “Stop Graffiti,” “EXIT” (with arrows pointing in opposite directions) and “Dyslexicz of Idaho Untie!” — to the amusing — “Abandon Hope Ye Who Enter Here” — to the artfully cryptic – “Being the Adventures of One Uther Smith,” accompanied by a drawing of a pale, somber, goateed youth. Uther is, of course, up-to-date. He comes with his own URL: biminicomics.com. He’s a freshly-printed comic book hero, introduced to the world in the spring of 2007 at the San Francisco Center for the Book.
“The story is deeply rooted in that region of Idaho,” said Brandon Mise, a former Idaho Falls resident who penned the comic with illustrator John Murphy and colorist Nye Wright. “I wanted folks from there to know that they are soon to have a local hero they can root for.” The comic -though set in Pocatello – relies heavily on easily-recognizable Idaho Falls locales.
While researching locations for the comic – set partially on Mise’s uncle’s local potato farm, the trio found out about the cave “and went back the next day, armed with a backpack full of spray paint,” Mise said.
So everyone enjoys 17-Mile Cave. Except my youngest son and daughter, of course, but they’re young yet. This place gets attention — even from some North Carolina-based authors indulging in a bit of literal underground advertising in a freaking cold cave on the edge of the Lost River desert. What future historians may make of that is anyone’s guess.
A note for would-be graffiti artists:
I want it noted here I do not advocate graffiti, certainly not in this cave. Those who go to this cave need to know it’s on private property and that the property owner has been very kind over the years to allow people to clamber into his natural basement, paint cans in hand or no. But since the walls are covered in graffiti, I write about it. In penance, whenever I go there, I take a garbage bag and clean up some of the debris other cave-dwellers leave behind.