Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Cave and the Quarry

I enter Montana and the mountains are hidden and the big sky has been drawn up into a small circle of blue directly overhead. I’m trying to steer out of the rut that I’ve fallen into but the smoke from fires in Missoula is still shrouding the landscape around me.

Along the way I see a sign for Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. Now, as I’ve revealed I’m unable to resist a cave, so I pull off and head towards the park abandoning my plans to make it to Missoula before dark. The road leads through the valley of the Jefferson River, between limestone peaks with their stratifications revealed in angled cross section at the water’s edge. 
On the side of the road I see a big hole in the rock that looks like it digs deep into the hill. Thinking this must be part of the system of caves I pull over to explore. There are worn trails in every direction and I choose the one heading straight for the hole. It leads to a tricky climb 20 feet up the wall and then a scramble over loose stone to the ledge. When I get over the ledge I see that there are three holes in the hill. I climb up to the largest one and find small pieces of shattered stone surrounding large boulders, almost too large to have broken loose from this high archway and remained intact. The tunnel turns out to just be an alcove with no passages further into the hill so I turn back to explore the other holes. As I climb down to one of the smaller holes I notice bore marks on the wall of the entrance. I pick up a large stone and throw it into the hole and a dead thud returns, no echo. It’s a failed limestone quarry. I climb back down to my car disappointed but encouraged by the exertion of the climb; more than I’ve had in a couple of days.
Lewis and Clark Cavern is beautiful. Like most caves it was wired and lit up and filled with stairs and manmade tunnels by the original landowners to create a tourist attraction. The state park service has done a good job of modernizing the lighting and accessibility features to be less disruptive. The discovered entrance to the cave was a hole on top of the hill that opened up to a series of large chambers and a 90 foot drop to the floor. Tourists would later descend a 90 foot spiral staircase through this same passage. By the time the staircase was removed it had apparently begun to sway violently as it was descended by tour groups.
Little bits of eccentricity remain such as a slide chiseled into the stone that is used to slip from one of the chambers to the next. The exit is a 100 foot tunnel that was blasted out between the hillside and the lowest chamber of the cave and sealed with dramatic 200lb oak and iron dungeon doors. Once I exit I find that my eyes don’t have too much trouble adjusting to the sunset sky as it isn’t that much brighter than the interior of the cave. As I leave the sun is setting, red behind the smoke so thick that I can stare at the disc. The hills on either side of the Jefferson block the light while the water shatters and reflects it.

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