“The rich,” writes Michael Olmert, a professor at the University of Maryland, “have a tremendous influence on history.” Where they live and the things they own “dominate what we know about the past simply because good things outlast the vernacular and the ephemeral,” he writes in his book “Milton’s Teeth and Ovid’s Umbrella.”
“Graffiti defeats that with a stroke of the pen,” he adds, “hitchhiking on the walls of good to expose an alternative past.”
Nowhere in eastern Idaho is that democratic sentiment more evident than a cold, dusty, graffiti-filled lava tube buried under a sunburned field dotted with brown shards of broken beer bottles. In recent decades, graffiti artists have covered the basalt walls of 17-Mile Cave with names, dates, pictures, and love notes.
And monsters. My son’s favorite.
Colloquially, 17-Mile Cave is located just 400 feet south of US Highway 20, about 17 miles west of downtown Idaho Falls, ID, in a location marked by an Idaho “Elephant Hunters” historical marker. Park either at the marker exit or along the dirt road that circles a dimple in the landscape to the south. In that dimple is the entrance to the cave.
The location, size, and composition of the cave make it an excellent place to pique the interest of would-be cavers, no matter how young they are. Michelle and I took our three children, Liam, 7, Lexie, 5, and Isaac, 2 ½, to the cave for their first spelunking adventure.
Of course, given the nature of children (especially the literal-minded five-year-olds who believe their mothers when they tell them to let Daddy go into the cave first, breathing cold air like a huge refrigerator, to look for bears) , his first adventure. did not come without tears. A dozen meters from the entrance of the cave, our two youngest want to get out. (My wife, Michelle, took them out. They waited for us half an hour in the truck. And on the way home, she added to our daughter’s literal mentality with this story: “I told Lexie to put her flashlight on the ground she could see the rocks. while we were going out, “he said. Instead of pointing the light at the ground, he lowered the flashlight and walked away. Mom quickly straightened it up).
Liam, however, is ready to move on. He and I kept walking, him leading the way, his flashlight sending a random wandering circle of light down the walls, floor, and ceiling.
The cave is an easy walking experience, the entrance being the most difficult aspect. Tall adults and children have to crouch and climb a short series of natural lava rock steps, a distance of no more than 12 feet, before the cave opens wide enough to stand up. From there, it’s only a half-mile hike to the end of the cave, requiring only bending over for two additional short stretches. As the cave does not branch, there is no chance of getting lost, although it is absolutely dark inside when you are not in sight of the entrance.
A natural rock fall followed by the cave’s only major turn quickly hides the entrance and the light entering the cave. For the most part, the cave is about a dozen yards wide and easily ten feet high, although there is a chamber where the cave widens to at least twenty yards wide and easily thirty feet high, enough room for a impromptu soccer game, if you like. I have brought enough light.
A cave teaches a seven-year-old about tranquility. Halfway through, I shut up Liam’s talk, told him to tell me what he could hear:
In the distance, a trickle. . .drip. . .drip. . .
“Someone left the tap running, dad.”
Sure, of him.
A little closer: “Errrrr, rerrrr, rerrrr, rerrrrrrrr.”
“Is that a monster?”
“Don’t believe it, son.” Someone else in the cave has a flashlight like us. I lift the handle of our rechargeable light and it makes the same noise. “Do you hear your echo?”
“HELLO!” he yells in the dark, shining his flashlight as if trying to follow his scream as it resounds.
Then we see lights ahead.
“Hello! Who is it? What’s your name? Did you see a monster,” he yells, the echoes colliding with each other like bumper cars.
No monsters. Just a family dating, followed by their curious and friendly black lab.
We continue walking, with the understanding that while a cave can teach about silence, that lesson does not necessarily come to be heard above the typical barrage of questions from young people.
Is there still lava in the cave, dad? (On the way to the cave, I talked about how, thousands of years ago, the cave was formed when a river of lava flowed underground, then subsided, leaving the cave behind.)
No, there is no lava, son.
How long is it
Long enough, it is.
Is the cave going to fall?
Better no. Your mom would be mad at me if I did.
What if we turn off our flashlights?
It does. For about two seconds, we’re shrouded in darkness, so no tent built from blankets and driftwood by a seven-year-old hoping to sleep under the stars will match it.
He turns the light back on and it illuminates me. “I thought I had lost my dad,” he said. “But there you are.”
Are there monsters, dad? Besides the bears, I joke that the cave is home to the wookalar, my favorite movie monster.
“Let’s find out,” I tell him.
Right after the Echo Chamber, my name for the largest room in the cave; I’m not sure, in 25 years of visiting this cave, if any of the features have an official name: the ceiling on the left falls back less than three feet from the floor. Long ago, a vivid imagination saw the mouth and eyes of a monster, something resembling a brontosaurus, emerging from that formation. So they painted the rock to give their imagination a bit of definition.
“Monster face!” my son screams-whispers, as I illuminate the monster’s neon-painted features. (Some dedicated souls return to touch the painting every year, ensuring that the monster’s vivid gaze is there for future cave-goers.)
It holds its own light, blinding the monster should it decide to come to life. The mist of his breath catches the lightning. “Smoke monster!” he whispers. (The smoke from the monster, at least this time, is pretty dense, churning in underground clouds whether we’re breathing or not. It appears in pictures, giving the glowing rock, sparkle-lit faces, and luminous paint an even creepier feel. while we climb underground with the monsters staring at us with their yellow eyes).
The monster is the least of the cave’s graffiti, all surprisingly rated G, at least to the uninitiated. Scrawled on the walls are messages from former cave dwellers, ranging from the mundane: “Stop the graffiti,” “EXIT” (with arrows pointing in opposite directions) and “Dyslexicz of Idaho Untie!” – to the funny – “Give up hope, those who enter here” – to the ingeniously cryptic – “Being the adventures of One Uther Smith”, accompanied by a drawing of a pale, gloomy young man with a goatee. Uther is, of course, up to date. It comes with its own URL: biminicomics.com. He is a freshly printed comic book hero, introduced to the world in the spring of 2007 at the San Francisco Center for the Book.
“The story is deeply rooted in that region of Idaho,” said Brandon Mise, a former Idaho Falls resident who wrote the comic with illustrator John Murphy and colorist Nye Wright. “I wanted the people there to know that they will soon have a local hero to support.” The comic, while set in Pocatello, is largely based on easily recognizable locations in Idaho Falls.
While researching locations for the comic, partially set at Mise’s uncle’s local potato farm, the trio found out about the cave “and came back the next day, armed with a backpack full of spray paint,” Mise said.
So everyone enjoys 17-Mile Cave. Except my youngest son and daughter, of course, but they are still young. This place catches the eye, even of some North Carolina-based authors indulging in some literal underground publicity in a cold cave on the edge of the Lost River desert. What future historians can do with that is anyone’s guess.
A note for aspiring graffiti artists:
I want it to be stated here that I do not advocate graffiti, certainly not in this cave. Those who go to this cave should know that it is on private property and that the property owner has been very kind over the years allowing people to climb into his natural basement, with cans of paint in hand. or not. But since the walls are covered in graffiti, I write about it. In penance, every time I go there, I grab a garbage bag and clean up some of the debris that other cave dwellers leave behind.