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Into The Tubes

by Arthur Vibert 3 months ago in Short Story · updated 3 months ago

An unexpected meeting

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

The Shoshone Ice Cave in Southern Idaho is one of those goofy tourist attractions that used to line America’s highways in the days before traveling on interstate freeways became the norm. It has a giant dinosaur statue for no apparent reason and a museum that features various rocks and artifacts, but the main attraction is a lava tube that was configured in just such a way that, even in the midst of a barren desert, a large deposit of ice has formed from condensation in the tube.

I was fascinated by this when I happened on the roadside attraction about 20 years ago driving from Twin Falls to Ketchum. I decided I wanted to come back at some point and explore this area of the country more thoroughly. But I wasn’t until many years later that I had the opportunity to fulfill my dream.

I started with Craters of the Moon National Monument which is absolutely fascinating. But all the paths are well delineated. I wanted to find something of my own, something that no one else had ever seen before. Though I knew that was unlikely I decided to go off trail and do some exploring of my own. If nothing else I would at least get a good workout!

I loaded up my backpack with the necessities and also brought along a rock pick. Not exactly an industrial strength tool but useful if I found anything interesting. I set out early in the morning into Hell’s Half Acre with the intention of going off trail at the earliest opportunity. I was the only one there and I hadn’t seen any rangers so I wandered off into the bush to see what I could see.

I was surprised at the abundance of vegetation in the area. I expected it to be pretty barren but in fact there was grass as well as wildflowers everywhere, with enormous chunks of lava exposed here and there like dark reminders of what the earth is capable of when it’s in a bad mood.

It didn’t take long to get hot and I was drinking more water than I probably should have been. I saw a red-tailed hawk circling above me for awhile but it flew off when it realized I wasn’t going to be a meal any time soon. After several hours of walking I came upon a rift in the lava which I followed along for awhile. It got gradually wider as I walked until it was several yards across. I could look down into it but the day was bright and the shadows were dark and I couldn't see more than 10 feet down. It looked like it was probably much deeper.

I was getting tired and not really looking where I was going when I tripped on a rock and tumbled over the side of the rift and down into the crevasse. I felt as though I was falling for ages but it was probably only a few seconds before I came to rest. I was a little shaken up but after a few tentative motions with my arms and legs it was apparent that I hadn’t broken anything. I slowly got to my feet and looked around. As my eyes acclimated to the gloom I saw many large boulders and lots of smaller debris, including a few animal skeletons which suggested that some of them had fallen down here just as I had and couldn’t find a way out. Not a good sign for me. When I looked up I could see the rift above me. It looked like it was probably about 40 or 50 feet away and the walls of the crevasse where I was standing were not conducive to an easy climb out. It was a miracle of some kind that I’d fallen in relatively unscathed.

I started to walk in the same direction I’d been walking before I fell, hoping that I’d see a path or at least an easier climb to get out. It was slow going because I had to climb over a lot of boulders and fallen logs to make any progress. Eventually I got tired and sat down on a rock to consider my options. I had no cell service down here, so calling out was not an option. I hadn’t told anyone where I was so a search party was unlikely. And I was already low on water. I’d just have to continue on and hope for the best.

I notice that there was an opening to my right that was almost big enough for me to stand upright in. I turned on my phone light and tried to see where it led but it fell off into darkness fairly quickly. Since my options pursuing my previous route seemed limited I decided to throw caution to the winds and see where this tunnel led. I walked slowly for about 15 minutes and the farther along I went the cooler it got. Eventually the echoes of my footsteps changed and I stopped and looked around. My light revealed something that glistened in front of me. I knelt down to touch it.

Ice.

I’d found another ice cave! I held my light high to get a better look. From what I could see it was essentially an enormous frozen pond. The only thing missing were ducks. So my water issue was resolved, at least. It didn’t get me out of my situation but it gave me more time. I hacked at the ice with my rock pick and put some of the chips into my water bottle. I took a swig of water. It had a mineral flavor but I liked it. My thirst slaked, I ventured out onto the ice, walking slowly so I didn’t slip and fall. I’d had enough tumbling for one day.

As I walked I could see that there were rocks and twigs suspended in the ice. It was evidently a very thick sheet, probably accumulating down here for hundreds or even thousands of years. After a few more minutes of walking I saw something red, maybe four or five feet deep in the ice. It was difficult to see but it looked like a small human, with one arm raised, as if in greeting. It seemed like it might be a child, perhaps someone who had fallen as I had, found their way into this cave and ultimately died from starvation or exposure. I hated to leave it here so I got out my rock pick and started banging away at the ice. Trying to dig down to the small figure.

I wondered what had happened. Were the parents distraught, with no idea of what could have become of their child? Had there been newspaper articles? Search parties? And when had it happened?

Digging around in my backpack I pulled out a small lantern so I could conserve the power in my phone. If I ever got out of here I would probably need to call for help when I got back up on top. I had to make my hole wider than the body because I didn’t want to inadvertently take a chunk out of the poor child and I wanted to be able to lift it out, so I would need to dig around it. My hands and knees were getting a little numb with the cold but the cooling effect of sitting on what amounted to a subterranean glacier kept me from overheating with the effort of digging into the ice.

The work was moderately hard but not impossible. My estimate of the body’s depth was inaccurate, probably because the ice distorted my perspective and I was close by the time I had dug no more than three feet down. It was still difficult to see what I’d found because the act of hacking at the ice reduced its transparency substantially. Eventually I managed to lift it out and set it down. I carefully chipped away around where I guessed the head should be until eventually a big chunk broke away from the face, which I instantly recognized.

It was a garden gnome.

I laughed, the echoes bouncing back and forth from the walls around me. How had a garden gnome ended up down here? One thing was certain, I wasn’t the only person who had been down here, though why anyone would lug something like this through the forbidding landscape up above just to set it down in this ice cave and then abandon it perplexed me no end. Of all the things to bring!

It occurred to me that there was probably another entrance close by, since I doubted that anyone would have brought a garden gnome down here by the route I’d taken.

Years later I still have that garden gnome. It sits in my garden, surrounded by flowers and a little fountain and birdbath. People ask me where I got it and I tell them the story.

But no one believes me.

Short Story

Arthur Vibert

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Arthur Vibert
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