caverns, caves, dj minteer, eighty year old hiker, lewis and clark, montana, three forks, travel, whithall
Recently my wife and I drove to Butte, Montana, to see my eighty year old mother. It was July 2, and we planned to stay for the 4th of July weekend to see, among other notorious attractions, Butte’s infamous fireworks (http://youtu.be/-biRZv9AmhI, https://youtu.be/xXLUuBZchAs). On July 3, we drove over to an area along the Jefferson River between Whitehall and Three Forks to take a tour through the Lewis and Clark Caverns. It had been twelve years since my wife and I had gone through the caverns and we looked forward to taking our eight year old daughter along with us this time.
We asked my mom to come along too. She said it had possibly been decades since she’d done the caverns. Even though mom is eighty years old she is in good shape. She plays tennis every week and is active doing all sorts of other things, taking care of her house, going to community events, traveling. Mom has always been one to try new adventures, no matter what age.
What I’d forgotten about, though, was that the caverns tour is a two mile, two hour walk. “Level and shady,” I used to joke when trying to convince people to take hikes in the mountains with me. But level and shady is rarely the case, especially at these caverns! And it had been record breaking hot in Montana that week.
We left the parking lot and entered the trail head with about twenty other people and our tour guide. The walk to the entrance of the caverns, about one half to three quarters of a mile, is a steady incline of several hundred feet as well. The caverns are about a mile above sea level, too, so most “low landers” would find they have to huff and puff a bit more at this elevation. And even though we started out on the trail about 10 a.m., it was already getting hot and the sun was beating down intensely. Of course, no one else on the tour was anywhere near eighty years old.
Mom kept a steady pace but was soon at the rear of the pack. She was a trooper and kept plugging along though. She was breathing fairly hard, yet only stopped briefly a few times. I’d ask how she was doing and she’d say fine. But I began to think that maybe I shouldn’t have brought her to the caverns, fearing it was too strenuous for her. She kept going and made it to the entrance without much trouble. As we entered the cave it felt good to be out of the sun. But the challenges were not over yet.
I’d also forgotten how the tour inside the caves takes about an hour and a half, and the route takes you down, down, deep inside the mountain through a series of very steep concrete and carved stone steps and paths through dimly lit natural corridors and rooms. As we made our way down the first very steep, long, dark stairway, again I thought that maybe it was a mistake to bring an eighty year old to all this. But to turn back at any point would mean trudging all the way up the steep incline to the entrance. The easier route, it seemed, was to continue on down through the caves and out the bottom exit.
Even though there were railings in the most dangerous places, there were plenty of spots where you could trip, slip, and fall far enough to get seriously hurt. Many passages were narrow and required you to duck, crawl, or slide. But mom was careful and steady footed throughout the entire cave. I was impressed. I tried to stay in front of her in case she should trip or stumble. But she never did. For over an hour we slowly trekked along, stopping occasionally while our tour guide explained the sights and history of the caves. It was so worth enduring all the hazards for this very reason: The place is full of fascinating natural monuments and sculptures. It is a rare glimpse into a hidden world.
When we finally reached the bottom of the caverns to one of the biggest and most spectacularly decorated rooms, we were impressed with the scale of the formations. Off to the side there was a long, man-made, mine shaft looking passage way, with heavy closed doors at both ends, leading straight out to the side of the mountain. From the outside, the path was a flat, though sunny and hot, half mile walk back to the parking lot. The views were spectacular, overlooking the grand mountains across the valley to the south, and the Jefferson River between them and us. What a beautiful place. Did I mention fossils in the rocks? At a mile high elevation? Cool stuff, man. I took lots of pictures inside those halls and rooms of the incredible formations and natural art, and made this video of our trek (https://youtu.be/2w86_TdNdEM).
So in all, two and a half hours on our feet, sun, hot, cool, damp, sun, hot, spectacular, no sitting the whole time, finally made it back to the car. Mom did great, but said that this was probably the last time, ever, that she would see the caverns. Great journey, Mom. I’m proud of you for doing that! I hope I’m in good enough shape to do this when I’m eighty years old.