I've been a life-long victim of claustrophobia. So, when I visited Lava River Cave, I viewed my excursion not as a day-trip but as a conquest of sorts. Twelve miles south of Bend Oregon, I arrived at the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. Disembarked on a dirt clearing in the forest, surrounded by dry sagebrush and juniper trees.The August day was hot and thick with dust.
At the lantern station, I was greeted by a familiar face: Bali Ram. He's an internationally-acclaimed Indian dancer. I met him months earlier, through a mutual friend. Before living in Bend Oregon, he had anything but an ordinary life. From studying with the Russian Bolshoi Ballet to dancing for the United Nations, not to mention working for Mother Teresa and meeting Gandhi, his resume is a tad impressive. Bali Ram took the lantern lighting job for summer work. Thus, I had a humanitarian and world-class dancer lighting my lantern - an elegant way to start the adventure.
Several people entered the cave with me. I was feeling light-hearted and adventurous as I descended 126 steps down into the gaping mouth of Lava River Cave. I remember gripping my lamp intensely, afraid of dropping it and starting a fire, even though there was nothing but large rocks, cold puddles and dry sand beyond. Not to mention that the temperature in the cave was a mere 42 degrees, a drastic but refreshing change from above, where it soared into the 90s that day.
The cave remained spacious for most of the journey. I was feeling pretty good about myself. Maybe the claustrophobia had been conquered. It was hard to see a lot, as my traditional Coleman lantern failed to illuminate much more than the sand in front of me. The dark was comforting, until I reached the last part of the cave. Things went from a vast cavern carpeted by sand to a small crawl space of dirt getting smaller and smaller as you went back. I decided to mentally pull up my boot straps and continue on. There were a few people in front of me, so I was surely safe. Even if I got stuck in a nook or cranny, someone would pull me out, right?
My breathing became labored. I felt like a brick was sitting on my chest. People started crawling on their hands and knees in front of me. I had visions of some previously-watched documentary program about people getting stuck and crushed in caves. I let panic make the decision and turned around. My walk turned into a brisk trot by the time I reached the wide-girthed section of the cavern. The soft floor felt like a mud pond, which took forever to plow through.
Up ahead, I heard the voices and saw the feet of a group of people. Quickened my pace to catch up with them. I trailed behind at a polite distance, until literally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Climbed the 126 steps rapidly in my eagerness to get a breath of fresh air. Some people gave me strange looks, but I was just happy to see daylight. Still, in the back of my mind, I missed the coolness and the dark respite of the cave. Would I do it again? Hell yeah!
Later that evening, I met my friend Julie at the local McMenamin's Brewery. These pubs are a religion for the beer-loving population of Oregon. During the day, you can find Oregonians trail biking, snow boarding, rock climbing, canyon scrambling, or cave spelunking. However, you can find us at night enjoying an ice-cold brew and noshing on some serious pub chow. My favorite McMenamin's product is Black Rabbit Porter. It's dark, rich and chocolaty.
The McMenamin's in Bend is located at the Old Saint Francis School. It includes a cigar room, private party rooms, hotel rooms and a movie theatre. Julie and I found ourselves in the cinema, drinking our beers and enjoying a foreign movie that I cannot remember. I do remember reflecting, “I live in the coolest place on earth. Everything smells like the wilderness. Everything is wilderness. Plus, right in the middle of the wilderness sits Bend - a magical town full of wood-burning-stoves, antiques and microbrews.” I live in Los Angeles now. What I wouldn't do to lose my breath again in Lava River Cave, then get my beer on afterwards in town - two ways to ditch your inhibitions.
Aimee Conner crawled out of a cave in a remote part of central Oregon. She can play the old-time fiddle and work the ancient magic of baking. She has now joined "civilized" society in Los Angeles, where you can't shoot the animals, but the animals sometimes shoot at you. She's the author of the psychological thriller Scrapbook.