All he wanted was time away.
For peace. For a moment. A chance to muffle the yapping dog, to turn his back on the demanding brats, and the hovering girlfriend, the consumption of adult responsibilities.
As he dumped himself into the mini-van, he let out a great breath of air that he must have been holding onto. Just waiting to escape. He glanced around her car. He hated driving her car. She never cleaned it. It owned an ever-present layer of cookie wrappers, cracker crumbs, crushed juice pouches, chewed straws, and “what is that smell”. His dank, dark cavern escape couldn’t come quickly enough.
He tried not to take the corner too fast on his way to the freeway.
Pulling into the parking lot, he felt a quick jolt of adrenaline at the first glance. His plan might not work well for him today. Kids piled out of multiple cars, followed by parents and grandparents. These people weren’t seeking solitude, or connection, or peace. They were seeking entertainment, perhaps a way to pass time, to play, to redirect the focus from themselves on this final day of a long holiday. In a way, it was not dissimilar to his goal.
Tour guide ultimately attempted to corral the group as the parents in the group attempted to corral their children.
“There are only two rules”, she said. “Stay with the group and don’t touch the rocks. But, the most important rule is don’t touch the rocks.”
A brief explanation of why ensued and then our descent began.
At the first few stops along the descent, a man of grandfather-age wobbled for a second. To steady himself, he leaned against the rocks. Hand first. Had he not heard the tour guide and understood the golden rule? The children seemed to follow the rule. Did he think the rule did not apply to him? Maybe he didn’t understand English. No one corrected him. The tour guide did not correct him, nor even appear to notice. What’s the point of the rules if they are not enforced? Halfway down, another discussion by the tour guide with the children about why we don’t touch the rocks, and the grandfather quit leaning on the rocks. At each stop after, he wobbled and would seek out handrails to lean on. About time. Next time grandpa, bring a cane, or a walker.
The air was heavier the further they descended. Damper, laden with a mineral halo. It smelled of earth, and water. Breathing it in deeply, he knew instinctively that is was a healthy damp.
The temperature increased degree by degree as they descended. He took his sweatshirt off. During the summer, the effect would reverse.
The formations of the stalagmites and stalagtites succeeded in making him smile, as they always did. He repeated in his head – “stalagMites because they Might reach the ceiling” – to remember the difference between what is a stalagmite and what is a stalactite.
In the end, they all just look like large penises.
At the deepest part of the tour, they stopped.
The tour guide wondered aloud how many had ever been in complete darkness. A few said yes; and they had seen ghosts there too.
“I bet you have never been in a dark cave. There is no sunlight down here. It’s too far down so the sun can’t reach.” Then she said, “If I turn out the lights now, do you think you would be able to see anything?”
“OK, I’m going to turn out the lights now. Stay close to the group.”
True ink black cavern darkness. What would it be like if no one else was there? Would it be frightening? Even in the very dark, you could “see” your hand if you placed it in front of your face, almost like you just know it is there. More likely because there is enough ambient light for you to actually see it. Even that was impossible to see here. Closing his eyes, not even the usual pinpoints of light and grey patch appeared. True dark.
With that few moments of complete visual emptiness, the tour guide flipped the switch and the cave was lit again.
Ascending up the winding stone path, he was not at the peace he wanted but grateful for the peace he got.
Making his way back home, back to his personal chaos, he plotted his next escape.
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