Tag Archives: domestic travel

Spelunking Through My Life

I hear that nowadays Girl Scouts go in for computer programming and rooftop gardening. I’m not knocking that, but back in the day it was hiking, camping – and caving.

(Exploring caves is also known as “spelunking,” which is a wonderful word. It sounds like a quarter dropped into a toilet.)

You might think that spelunking is a young person’s game, but that’s simply not true. I didn’t stop caving when I got too old for Girl Scouts. There are plenty of caves that adults – even seniors – can enjoy.

Here’s a look at a few of my caving exploits through the ages.

Young and stupid. One of the caving trips my troop took was to Carter Caves, in Olive Hill, KY. The site featured a number of caves, including “wild” caves (those not improved for tours). X-Cave and Saltpetre Cave were fun, especially after we took the tours a few times and could chime in at appropriate points in the guide’s spiel.

But Bat Cave was my favorite. Just like it sounds, Bat Cave was a nesting site for the little mammals, though the tours were carefully scheduled to give the bats priority use of the location during their favorite times. It was one of those wild caves, so the tour included rough terrain, tight squeezes (invariably named “Fat Man’s Misery” in this and every other cave), and crawling on our bellies through guano.

Which is why I say we were young and stupid. Guano is bat shit, and inhaling the dust from it can lead to respiratory problems including histoplasmosis. And there was a lot of bat shit. (Today’s rooftop gardeners may be interested to know that guano is an excellent organic fertilizer. Just don’t inhale it.)

Grown-up and adventurous. During our many back-and-forth trips to Philadelphia, my husband and I kept seeing a sign for Laurel Caverns, which is south of Pittsburgh, and just off the Turnpike. After years of saying, “We’ve got to stop there sometime,” we finally did.

Laurel Caverns featured a developed sandstone cave and miles of wild limestone caves. At the time it was possible to go into the undeveloped caves without a guide, if you had the proper gear. (I understand this is no longer so.) So Dan and I donned hard hats with lamps, clasping our rudimentary maps, and squeezed through the small hole that led to subterranean wonders.

Limestone caves feature stalactites (hanging down), stalagmites (reaching up), and flowstone formations. This one also featured boulders. Huge boulders. Boulders the size of houses, in some cases. As we clambered over those, my foot slipped between two rocks and I heard a crack. “Uh-oh,” I said (or words to that effect) as I waited for the pain to hit. It never did. Rather than breaking my leg, I had merely dislodged a couple of stones that clanked together while rolling downslope.

And that was a Very Good Thing, since such injuries required hauling a person out in a basket through that little squeeze hole I mentioned. Also, you could stay down there a long time, since it wasn’t till the end of the day that the owners matched up the list of spelunkers with the cars in the parking lot and went looking for anyone missing.

Older and slower. One of my favorite caves ever was Kartchner Caverns, in Benson, AZ, not far from Tucson. Discovered in 1974, the cave was developed with an eye to preserving it, while still allowing access to young, old, and handicapped alike. After entering through an adit (being a cruciverbalist as well as a spelunker, I was thrilled), you follow level paths, ramps, and switchbacks into the depths, culminating in a gigantic feature that looked like (and was named after) a pipe organ.

There the guides, after giving proper warning, turned off all the lights so the cavers could experience total darkness. (Actually, most caves do this, but they warn you first. Although if darkness and claustrophobia bother you, spelunking is probably not for you.)

All in all, it was the best preserved and most accessible cave I’ve ever seen. While wild caves are amazing and awesome and self-guided tours are adventurous and exciting, there’s something to be said for caves that invite anyone to enjoy.

And when we came to the surface and reentered the visitor center, there waiting to take their turns in the netherworld were one group of bikers and one of – you guessed it – Girl Scouts.

An Arizona Ghost Town

My husband and I were vacationing in Arizona when we encountered a ghost town.

It wasn’t the ordinary sort of ghost town, neither the kind with re-created western storefronts and actors playing at gunfights and saloons that serve sarsaparilla nor the kind that are abandoned towns of the 1930s or 50s that sport  completely empty streets, dilapidated houses, decrepit main streets, and sand-filled parks and parking lots.desert road

This was something else again.

We were in Arizona for the silliest of reasons. We had decided to visit the small town of Benson, based entirely on the name of the theme song of the little-known sci-fi movie Dark Star. It’s a charming little country-and-western number on the topic of special relativity. Here’s the best recording of it I could find: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2F0dHVZAm8

It turned out to be a swell vacation. Very relaxing. The nearest city of any size was Tucson, Benson was surrounded by scenic mountains, there were an excellent restaurant and a great diner (also a noted barbecue joint, but it was closed because the chef had cut himself), and not a great deal else.

But Benson was a good jumping-off point for assorted day trips. One of the best was to Kartchner Cavern (http://azstateparks.com/Parks/KACA/), which was the most accessible and best-preserved cave I’ve ever seen, but also a delight because the tour guide actually used the word “adit,” which is usually encountered only in crossword puzzles.

On this particular day we were visiting the copper-mining town of Bisbee. Noted for its historical significance and its artist-colony vibe, Bisbee was a delightful town to explore. There was a bicycle race going through town that day, which provided some very intriguing sights of the buff-guys-in-skintight-shorts variety. I also indulged my fondness for semiprecious stones. They are available all over the southeastern Arizona area, but Bisbee’s shops provided some of the most attractive examples. I bought an iolite bracelet at one. (A little bluer than amethyst, iolite is lovely set in silver http://www.minerals.net/gemstone/iolite_gemstone.aspx.)

At some point during our ramble around Bisbee, I had picked up a real estate paper, and read in it about a restaurant/bar/orchard for sale, complete with liquor, as the owners had abandoned it. It sounded unusual and interesting, and on the way out of town we passed what had to be the same property.

It inspired us. We started daydreaming about how we could buy the property with our friends Sandy and Hugh. Sandy and I could run the bar while Dan and Hugh tended the pecan orchard and baked pies. Or Dan and I could run the restaurant while Hugh and Sandy set up stables for boarding horses. Or we could all drink up the liquor and abandon the place as the previous owners had.

Our next destination that day was Chiricahua National Monument, a place of spectacular formations that looked like God had played Jenga with rocks. We were chatting and driving merrily along when I noticed the gas gauge. It was at zero. Not near zero. Not approaching zero. The needle was actually on the red line.

We looked at our map. Nothing. No thing. Not a thing between us and Chiricahua. Not even a symbol that indicated food, gas, and lodging.

Actually, there was something between us and Chiricahua. Miles and miles of nothing.

It’s pretty well known that when the needle hits the red line, there is still actually some small amount of gas left in the car. The thing is, you never know how much or how far it will take you. In our case, it looked like the rental car might take us just a little closer to Absolutely Nothing.

As couples will, Dan and I began to bicker. Who should have reminded whom to get gas on the way out of Bisbee? Would driving faster or slower conserve more fuel? Could we arrange to run out of gas on a downhill slope so the car would be easier to push? What were the odds of getting a cell phone signal? Why were we so stupid, and unlucky, and screwed?

Then, ahead in the not-too-distant distance, a smudge appeared on the horizon. As we crept nearer, the smudge resolved into a few lonely buildings. We both started humming the Twilight Zone theme.

It was a town. Not much of a town and not on the map, which still indicated that we were nowhere. But it was there, and it was a town with two buildings.

And one of them was a gas station. (The other was a post office, which I can’t imagine was very busy.) So we got gas and a couple of cold drinks and didn’t have to die of heatstroke walking forward to Chiricahua or back to Bisbee. We thanked the attendant (who was not Rod Serling) kindly and went on our way, letting the smudge of a town disappear in our rearview mirror.

I suppose I should have asked the clerk’s name, or the town’s name, but it never occurred to me to do so. We were simply awed and grateful and more than a little amazed.

And we decided that the moral of the story was this: It’s better to be smart, but if you can’t do that, it’s even better to be lucky.




Travels With Mom

“Oh, I could never travel with my mother!” I’ve heard this from many people when I tell them about the trips my Mom and I took together.

We traveled to Myrtle Beach.

We traveled to Wisconsin.

We traveled to Indianapolis.

We traveled to Ireland.

We traveled to Rio de Janeiro.

jan1 001
I think this is Rio because I have cankles. Long flights give me cankles. Could be Ireland, though. I had cankles there too.

The trip to Rio was actually our first. I came over to my mom’s house one day and she said, “Guess where I’m going? Rio!”

“Rio, Brazil?” I asked.

“I guess so,” she said.

She wanted to take one of us girls with her and thought that, since my sister was older, she should get the first chance. My sister, Lucy, was unwilling to go through what she saw as the incredible hassle of acquiring a passport. I already had a passport, which was not that much trouble to get, so my sister ceded me the first opportunity. She took the next one.

After that we took turns traveling with our mother. Lucy accompanied her on domestic trips (including a cruise to Hawaii), and I went on the international ones, along with a few here in the States. Occasionally, mom would take both of us on a short trip to a nearby state, but these were not nearly as much fun.

I understand why some people would not enjoy traveling with their mothers, but I have no such problem. I once had an awful trip to and from San Francisco with my mother-in-law, but that was because of cancelled flights, rerouting, and lightning visible outside the plane window. It was the trip from hell. To hell. Changing in hell. With a layover in hell. None of that was due to my mother-in-law, however.

There were certain aspects of traveling with my mother that I found especially engaging. One was her willingness to try new things. New foods, new beverages, new means of travel, new destinations – new experiences in general. She didn’t always like them, but by God she tried them. She took a sip of her caipirinha, made a face, and handed it to me. (So did several other ladies on the trip. I got soused, but not so much that I couldn’t translate their money for them.)

Another was her sheer delight in whatever was happening. One time in Rio we had to get up early for a tour and didn’t have time to go to the buffet, so we ordered in breakfast. When it came my mother started exclaiming over the tiny pots of jam and the carafe of hot chocolate – how cute and convenient they were.

“Mom, haven’t you ever had room service before?” I asked. She had not. I had traveled on business and was quite used to the service, but it was all new to her.

She also didn’t mind that I arranged things, and took over planning for some of our free time. Of course I factored in her likes and dislikes and made sure to work in the scenic tours or landmarks she particularly wanted to see. But if I wanted to start a shopping expedition in the local gem shops, or thought spending a few hours on the beach would be nice, that was fine with her.

We also had similar tastes in scheduling. Neither of us was able to fit in with the Brazilian custom of having dinner after 9 o’clock p.m. By that time we were both ready to settle in for the evening and get ready for bed after a long day of running around and sightseeing. And if my activities proved too strenuous or lengthy for her, I would find a cafe where we could stop and have a cold drink, rest our feet, and relax until we were both ready to carry on.

I liked the guided tours she booked through AAA. While they did allow some free time for individually chosen activities, for the most part they provided a bus, a driver, a tour guide, scenic and historic destinations, and times and places to eat. I know this is considered a drawback by many people. But it was much easier on both of us to have these details already arranged. I was not ready to handle the details of renting a car, driving a car in an unfamiliar country, planning an itinerary, dealing with the luggage, making hotel or bed and breakfast reservations, and all the other details that the tour company took such good care of. Mom was adventuresome, but not a seasoned traveler, and I was more than willing to let someone else do the heavy lifting – literally and figuratively. It left more time and attention for enjoying ourselves.

Sometimes Mom’s innocence was touching. In Ireland we stayed a couple of nights in a bed and breakfast. Mom never quite got the idea that, although we were staying in someone’s home, it was a business arrangement. When we left, she gave the proprietors the world’s ugliest hand-crocheted pillow, waved at them, and promised, “I’ll write!” But then, she was used to having international crocheting penpals, and once one of them came to stay with us for a visit. She probably thought that was how it always worked.

Even the domestic trips were fun. In Wisconsin we bought assorted local cheeses and the bus driver had a cooler to pack them so the whole bus didn’t smell like garlic cheddar. In Myrtle Beach, Mom wanted to fish off the pier. She caught one fish, at most five inches long, but her smile was wide and her eyes were bright. She let another fisher on the pier have her prize catch – after I took a picture of her with it.

Eventually, Mom’s health declined and she wasn’t able to travel anymore. She told me once that when she was a little girl, she used to watch the planes fly over and think that she would never get to go on one to some exotic place.

I’m so glad I was with her when she finally did.