Day By Day

Monday, June 05, 2006


The Appalachians are cave country. Extensive limestone deposits…, wet seasons…, water percolating down through the soil to the soft rock underneath…, millions of years…, you get the picture.

When I was much younger and much, much more compact I loved to poke around in small caves along the western slopes of the Alleghenies. Later as a young adult I actually did some serious spelunking in Georgia. I never worked up the nerve for underwater cave exploring, although I had opportunities to do so down in Florida and the Caribbean. I leave that sort of thing to my crazy brother – the one who likes skydiving and ultra-light flight and such stuff.

These days my underground experience is confined to show caves, which are always a bit of a kick because they invariably bring back memories of my first visit to Luray Caverns in Virginia at the age of twelve. That’s the perfect age for such things and they leave an imprint that will stay with you forever, no matter how old and decrepit you might get.

All this is by way of explaining that yesterday I spent some time underground. “She Who Must Not Be Named” and I traveled to Pennsylvania Dutch Country for some off-pavement action. She looooves her SUV and every once in a while likes to take it off road with other enthusiasts for some serious mudding and slope climbing in its natural habitat. This time the course was a semi-swampy area along the Swatara Creek, not far from Hershey.

Unfortunately we got off to a late start – a very late start -- and arrived just as the last group started through the course. And “She” had forgotten to bring the signed release forms, and I was still fretting about the repair costs our last off road expedition [to an abandoned coal field in Anthracite country] had inflicted on our budget. So, what with one thing or another we skipped the driving challenge and moved straight on to the picnic.

After driving through mudholes and streams and whatnot the SUVers assemble at a picnic area for convivial eating, my favorite part of the day. This time we met at Indian Echo Caves near Hummelstown and, of course, we had to take a tour of the caves. They’re small, but have a good assortment of features, and our guide, Kira, was excellent.

The original inhabitants of the region, the Susquehannock Indians, had used the caves, which are a constant 52 degrees temperature, for storage. In flood seasons the lower levels of the cave would fill with water, so the Indians only used the areas near the entrance. Today, however, a system of pumps keeps the whole complex dry enough to be accessible to tourists like us. Graffiti near the entrance shows that the caves were regularly visited through the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. At one point the upper levels had been home to “Wilson” a local hermit who left a diary, a copy of which of course was on sale at the gift shop. Until recently the owners had scheduled Halloween fright nights in the cave [for some reason Halloween is a really, really big thing among the Pennsylvania Dutch] but had to stop because they couldn’t get insurance [for some reason insurance companies shied away from the idea of covering teenagers running screaming through dark caves with low-hanging rocks overhead].

Eventually we emerged blinking into the afternoon sun and climbed the seventy-one steps back to the picnic area where, frankly, I pigged out. I usually try to “eat healthy,” but at picnics anything goes. Then “She” spent an inordinate amount of time wandering around the gift shop, picking items up, considering them carefully, then laying them back down again. She can do this for hours at a time. I once saw her spend twenty minutes standing in front of a rack of tooth brushes picking up, considering, replacing. Like most guys my attitude toward shopping is “get it and get out of there as quickly as possible.” She and her girlfriends, though, actually “like” shopping.

Like most husbands I was prepared. I found a comfortable bench, cranked up my i-pod, and relaxed with a good book until the shopping frenzy had passed. Then back in the car and out on the road. Unfortunately, our route took us past…, shopping malls, and we needed to get some gas…, and “since we’re already here….” Well, you guys understand how it goes. Soon she was happily shopping again while I pushed a cart.

Later as we headed home along the interstate she exclaimed. "That was really fun..., we should do this sort of thing more often." Somehow I knew she wasn't referring to the cave experience.

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