What exacerbated the experience was the fact that Butte was having a festival and a rental car couldn't be had for love or money, and the guys at Car Tunes, where the Eurovan is now being repaired, did just about everything they could. We ended up staying the night in a Comfort Inn, taking advantage of the "stranded motorist rate", which I didn't know even existed until now, and being wished well by nearly everyone we met. That was pretty cool.
So now we're another 700 miles to the West and a bit north, in a rental car from Enterprise. We went to Bellingham for a wonderful visit to the sea, some amazing seafood and views, and are now in Redmond, where we got to visit friends and will have other people to see all around Seattle for the next few days. I've only written through most of the caverns, and past the Unfortunate Events, into Bellingham, and I'll try and get the rest tomorrow.
John remembered the Lewis and Clark Caverns from when he was a child, and his mom and dad brought him on one of their cross-country trips from Seattle to New Haven in the summer. He says it hasn't changed much since back then.
It was an interesting contrast, for me at least, with the Guilin tour of the Bell Flute Caverns and last years adventure that we had in the Carlsbad Caverns. There was a huge sign warning that the two hour tour was strenuous, and would require climbing, sliding, and going down steep stairs that may be slippery and wet. There were no bathrooms and nothing was allowed down there but clear, unflavored water. No one could bring purses or bags that would hamper a hand, as two hands were needed for most of the trail. It was pretty clear that the temperatures in the caverns were around 48 degrees, and that one could bring a coat. There were passages where it said that we'd have to crawl, stoop, and or scramble to get through. There was a sign, a handout that we were given when we bought the tickets, and the ranger, Chris, reiterated most of them. There was also the whole white-nose virus from the bats to the East of us, and when we told them that we'd been to Carlsbad and the Bell Flute Caverns, they thanked us for telling them, but that we were good as we were.
They really weren't kidding, either. The tour started with a 340 foot gradual climb up a dirt path. Some of the people in our group wanted to take it much more quickly than others. One elderly couple realized they weren't even going to make it to the entrance and turned back. One mother ended up carrying one of her boys on her back, but the lookout point from the top was pretty spectacular. We could see the parking lot we'd started at, and the whole of our camp ground spread below us.
The entrance was cool, and there were benches set up there for everyone to wait for the last of the group. The formations in the entrance were flaking away, and when the ranger, Chris came, he told us that that is what happens to formations that are touched. The oils from the human hand make it so that the calcium rich waters can't deposit the lime. It just runs off. So the formations can't build anymore on a surface that has been touched by human hands. I suspect that the surface formations were exposed, there, when they blasted the entrance with dynamite, and the reason that the formations in the entrance were crumbling and flaking away was because they'd dried out.
But the entrance was close to Discovery Hole. The caverns weren't discovered by Lewis and Clark, they were discovered by two guys who were out in the winter and saw a plume of steam rising from the interior of the cavern. One of the two men came back six years later with some ropes and went down into Discovery Hole, which is this last, natural hole that showed light into the caves.
There was a limestone miner who thought it would be profitable to setup tours of the caverns, so he blasted the new entrance, and started give tours. Back then the tours were 12 hours long, and involved climbing up to the entrance in the first place and a lot of entrance and exits to actually get to all the chambers. There was also a central wooden spiral staircase that rotted in the damp, and got so bad that it would bounce a whole foot from the top and sway to the sides by feet when people were on it.
He had to end his tours in 1932, when he died, and the brand new Montana State Parks system got its first park in the form of the Lewis and Clark caverns. They got help from the CCC to build the main visitor's center, the main trail through the caverns, and a lot of the lighting that is there today. It's mostly a more natural light, and the last third has a new LED based system that is a little pinker than neutral, but better than what they had before. The CCC did a lot of the blasting, stair setting, and rail anchoring to get the trail that now goes through it today.
They don't let anyone in without a guide, there is no loitering or wandering to just see what you can see. It's smaller than the Carlsbad Caverns. The trail is very much shaped by the natural formations and what the cave makes available. It is not shaped for the comfort and ease of the humans that go through it. I really liked that. There were lots of passages that required that all the people work their way through, threading through very narrow passages and crouching under very short ceilings.
There was some interesting horror stories about the old tours, too. Like the "Sampling Cave" where people were invited to break off formations to take home with them. Since they'd seen the rings on the formations, they thought that the stones grew an entire ring back every year, like trees, when it really takes them decades if not centuries, depending on the water flow, to build an entire layer.
We got to see all kinds of formations through the whole cave. Chris was good about explaining how they got made. The flow formations, the stalactites, stalagmites, columns, jellyfish, and the usual popcorn (which came from small holes in the wall that exuded the minerals). There was also a new type that was exuded from holes that were so tiny that they were only a molecule wide, and with surface tension, they allowed building calcium in any direction, regardless of gravity.
There were some cool ribbons of stone that had multiple ribbons of colors through them, which the guide and a lot of the kids that came with us called "bacon". If you click on any of the pictures you can see a lot of these. The lighting was pretty straightforward through the whole cave, nothing colored or blinking, and they were trying to show as much of the stone as possible in a 'natural' sort of lighting, instead of the light and laser show we saw in Guilin.
Looking at the pictures, I was reminded of Ansel Adams finding all the cave formations extremely difficult to photograph because there was no such thing as "natural light" for the things.
We did all the climbing at the beginning of the tour, and for most of the trip we went down and down and down. Since the stairs were built by a lot of young, inexperienced men, they were entirely uneven. They just got them in any way they could. There were concrete covered walkways that had dates, initials, and organization names written into them while they were wet. Those were fun to see, too.
The biggest cavern was named "Paradise" and it was discovered when the CCC workers were in the cave doing their thing. One of the smaller workers slipped through a really small hole no one else could get into and ended up in the biggest cave. They found a bigger opening a little ways down, and they blasted the doorway to get into it.
Turns out that the molecules picked up the energy, got excited, and when the light went away, they let off the extra energy as light.
At the end of the tour was a long tunnel to the outside, and it had two doors, one on either end of the tunnel because when they first punched it through, the chimney effect pulled air from the top and into the bottom at the rate of 40 mph on a bad day. It was drying out the caves, not to mention making it impossible to walk through the bottom tunnel. So they put in the double door system. Chris opened the first door, let everyone into the tunnel, and they closed it behind us with an enormous boom, before he made his way past everyone to open the door to the outside.
If you look at the pictures on Flickr, there was also a tipi set up on one of the campsites. It was fascinatingly snug and solid! I snuck inside as the people who had it reserved weren't coming until the next day. So it was really fun to get into and look around.
The next morning, we had our series of unfortunate events, and ended up spending the rest of the day in Butte, Montana with the Eurovan ending up at a Volkswagon specialist who would do their best to get it fixed. With the lack of rental cars, we ended up checking in to the Comfort Inn, with a "stranded motorist" rate, and had a very comfortable night and a good breakfast in the morning. At noon, Enterprise Rental got us a car, and we loaded it up from the van and headed west with all the good wishes of the hotel staff, the van driver, and our mechanic. He'd been stranded the summer before, so knew exactly what kind of state we were in and promised to do his best.
From there we drove West on I-90, taking the straightest route, and then went north on I-405 to Algier, where we headed off the freeway to John's brother David's, where he lives with Mary. They and Isabel, John's Mom greeted us with hugs and ice cream with raspberries, and set us up to sleep at their house.
We were just so grateful at being back on some kind of normal track, it was a blessing.