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17 Mile Cave, Idaho – Here There Are Monsters
“The rich,” writes University of Maryland professor Michael Olmert, “have an enormous influence on history.” Where they live and the things they own “dominate what we know about the past simply because the good things survive the folk and the ephemeral,” he writes in his book Milton’s Teeth and Ovid’s Umbrella.
“Graffiti beats it in one fell swoop,” he adds, “tracing the walls of goodness to bring an alternative past to light.”
Nowhere in eastern Idaho is this Democratic sentiment more apparent than a cold, dusty, graffiti-filled lava tube buried beneath a sun-scorched field littered with the brown shards of broken beer bottles. Over the past few decades, graffiti artists have layered the basalt walls of 17-Mile Cave with names, dates, pictures and love notes.
And monsters. My son’s favorite.
Colloquially enough, 17-Mile Cave is located just 400 feet south of US Highway 20 about 17 miles west of downtown Idaho Falls, ID, at a site designated by the Idaho “Elephant Hunters” Historic Marker. Park either at the pull-out sign or along the dirt road that circles the depression in the landscape to the south. In that hole is the entrance to the cave.
The cave’s location, size and appearance make it a great place to pique the interest of would-be cavers, no matter how young. Michelle and I took our three kids – Liam, 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 let’s go to daddy’s cave first and breathe in cold air like a massive refrigerator to check for bears), their first adventure didn’t come without tears. Within a dozen yards of the cave entrance, our younger two want out. (My wife, Michelle, pulled them out. They waited for us in the van for half an hour. And on the way home, they added this story to our daughter’s literal thinking: “I told Lexie to put the flashlight on the ground so she could see the rocks when we came out,” she said. Instead of pointing the light at the ground, she put the flashlight down and walked away from her. Mom straightened her up quickly.)
However, Liam is game for a sequel. He and I walk on, he in the lead, his flashlight sending a random errant circle of light across the walls, floor, and ceiling.
The cave is an easy tourist experience, with the entrance being the most challenging. Adults and tall children must duck and climb down a short series of natural lava stone steps – a distance of no more than 12 feet – before the cave opens up enough for them to stand. From there it’s only about a half mile walk to the end of the cave, with only two more short stretches to cover. Since the cave doesn’t branch, there’s no chance of getting lost, even if it’s pitch black inside when out of sight of the entrance.
A natural rock fall followed by a single large curve of the cave quickly hides 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 high, though there is one chamber where the cave expands to at least twenty yards wide and easily thirty feet high—enough room for an impromptu football match if he brought enough light .
A cave teaches a seven-year-old child about silence. Halfway through I silenced Liam’s chatter and told him to tell me what he was hearing:
Far away, drop. . .drip. . .drip. . .
“Someone left the faucet on, Dad.
A little closer: “Errrrrr, rerrrr, rerrrr, rerrrrrrrr.”
“Is it a monster?”
“Don’t think, son. Someone else in the cave has a flashlight like we do.” I turn the handle on our rechargeable light and it makes the same sound. “Do you hear your echo?”
“HI!” he screams into the darkness, shining his flashlight as if trying to follow his screams echoing.
Then we see lights ahead.
“Hey! Who’s that! What’s your name? Have you seen any monsters,” he yells, echoing into each other like bumpers.
No monsters. Just the family heading out, followed by their curious, friendly black lab.
We go on to say that while the cave may teach about silence, that lesson doesn’t necessarily ring through the barrage of questions of the typical youngster.
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 when a river of lava flowed underground, then fell away, leaving the cave behind.)
No, no lava, son.
how long is it
Long enough, son.
Will the cave fall on us?
Rather not. Your mom would be mad at me if I did.
What happens when we turn off the flashlights?
He does. We are enveloped in darkness for about two seconds, so no tent built out of blankets and scraps of wood by a seven-year-old hoping to sleep under a canopy is ever going to compare.
He turns the light back on and shines it on me. “I thought I lost my dad,” he said. “But here you are.
Are there monsters, dad? Aside from the bears, I joke that the cave is home to the wookalar, my favorite movie monster.
“Let’s find out,” I tell him.
Just beyond the Chamber of Echoes – my name for the largest room in the cave; I’m not sure in twenty-five years of visiting this cave that any of the features have an official name – the ceiling on the left again dips to within three feet of the floor. Long ago, some vivid imagination saw the mouth and eyes of a monster – somewhat resembling a brontosaurus – gaping from this formation. So they painted the rock to add some definition to their imagination.
“The face of a monster!” my son scream-whisper as I shine a light on the monster’s neon-painted features. (Some dedicated souls retouch the paint each year to ensure that future visitors to the cave will have a vivid view of the monster.)
It holds its own light and blinds the monster in case it decides to come alive. The mist from his breath is caught in the beam. “Monster Smoke!” he whispers. (The monstrous smoke, at least this time, is pretty thick, billowing in subterranean clouds whether we’re breathing or not. It shows in the pictures, giving the glittering stone, lightning-lit faces, and vibrant colors an even more eerie feel as we climb underground with monsters watching us with their yellow eyes.)
Monster is the smallest of the graffiti caves, all surprisingly G-rated, at least for the uninitiated. Scribbled on the walls are messages from previous cave dwellers, starting with 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 subtly enigmatic — “Being the Adventures of One Uther Smith,” accompanied by a drawing of a pale, gloomy youth with a goat. Uther is of course current. It comes with its own URL: biminicomics.com. He is a freshly printed comic book hero who was introduced to the world in the spring of 2007 at the San Francisco Center for the Book.
“The story is deeply rooted in this area of Idaho,” said Brandon Mise, a former Idaho Falls resident who wrote the comic with illustrator John Murphy and colorist Nye Wright. “I wanted people from there to know that soon they will have a local hero to root for.” The comic — even though it’s set in Pocatello — relies heavily on easily recognizable Idaho Falls locations.
While scouting locations for the comic, which is partially set on Mise’s uncle’s local potato farm, the trio learned of the cave “and came back the next day, armed with a backpack full of sprays,” Mise said.
So everyone will enjoy 17-Mile Cave. Except for my youngest son and daughter, of course, but they are still young. The place is attracting attention – even from some North Carolina writers who are indulging in a bit of literal underground advertising in an eerily cold cave on the edge of the Lost River Desert. What future historians may think of this is anyone’s guess.
Note to would-be graffiti artists:
I want to state here that I am not advocating graffiti, certainly not in this cave. Those who go to this cave must know that it is on private property and that the property owner has been very kind over the years to allow people to climb into its natural basement with or without paint cans. But since the walls are covered with graffiti, I write about it. In penance, whenever I go there, I take a garbage bag and clean up some of the debris left behind by other cave dwellers.
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