The Beauty, Mystery, and Allure of the Underground World

Caves attract us. I don’t know if it can be attributed to the fact that we may be descendants of cave dwellers or if it’s the damp darkness that sparks mystery in us as we ascend into the earth. We know we are not the only ones who like caves. If a writer or movie maker wants to add mystery to a story, a cave is involved. The mysteries we read as kids were always more fun when someone fell into or discovered a cave. The first Indiana Jones film starts with a great cave scene, and both National Treasure movies had the actors discovering treasure in caverns. Caves evoke images of dangerous, narrow wet tunnels and floors that disappear, treasure long left by ancients, and rooms full of spider webs, skeletons and bats.

In the Mayan culture, the entrance to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld ruled by the death Gods, was said to be located in the caves in Central America. They buried dead in the caves and made ColoradoStairssacrifices to the Gods. When my archaeologist daughter was recently in Belize, they  were allowed to explore the caves with their group, and were able to see first hand the human sacrifice remains and pottery left behind thousands of years ago by the Mayans. She came back with great stories and fabulous pictures.

Caves are pure fun and excitement no matter which one you see. When we traveled to Playa in Mexico with the kids we went snorkeling in the caves. It was dark and beautiful, scary and exciting all at the same time. The water was ice cold even though the air above was 95 degrees or more, and the caves had areas that were open to the sun, just enough to make the snorkeling visibility good. As we went along there were roped off cave areas that were off limits to prevent tourists from getting lost. Those really looked like fun, but we followed the rules and did not go past the ropes.

CaveMexAn occasional bat would fly over and we were actually surprised by the number of fish in the cave rivers. They flowed to the ocean so it was salt water and the fish were of every color and size. It was a little scary because the water was quite deep in places and as we led our young children through the caves, I started to wonder what lurked in some of those deep cave waters.

Obviously I have seen too many scary movies. I did not share my concerns out loud, because they were all having such a good time and I did not want to alarm them. It would have ruined the experience. I also went by the rule that it seemed like hundreds of visitors have been snorkeling in these caves for years and I have not heard of any problems, so if they could do it we can do it. I figured the odds were in our favor and nothing will come out of those deep dark waters to attack or steal our children.

Some of the most beautiful caves in the world are by the Apostle islands in Lake Superior. We saw them in person when we stayed on Madeline Island with friends a few years ago. You can take a boat or Kayak out to the colorful  caves on the shores of the islands, formed by the wind 140220 3698and waves of Lake Superior. We took a boat, and while we took some lovely pictures, the true beauty of these caves have only been captured in pictures by professional photographer, Craig Blacklock.

He makes these caves come alive as he was able to capture the multicolored cave walls eroded by thousands of years of water and wind that sculpted out walls, pillars and caverns in the sides of the mostly uninhabited islands. The caves are colorful and whimsical in the winter and even more beautiful when surrounded by the fall colors or the bright sun of summer. They look almost enchanted as if created for their beauty and our enjoyment. The boats come as close as possible and it is a place I need to go back to for the kayak experience. With the Kayaks you can go right into the 140220 3708caves and get a close up view. Blacklock, who I found out teaches photography lessons on the island, actually has worn a wet suit while taking pictures of the caves from the water.

We have a long history of visiting and loving caves in our family. Minnesota has Niagara cave in Forestville by Harmony, Minnesota which got its name from the large waterfall inside the cave. There are also the St. Paul caves that have a long history as a speak easy for gangsters in the 1930’s and then in later years it became a nice restaurant, and now they hold weddings and parties in the caves. We went on a tour of these caves a number of years ago and they can show you bullet holes in the walls where the gangsters would occasionally shoot up the place.

We saw Craters of the Moon in Idaho which has caves with spray painted big foot tracks. That was fun for us all! We have seen Cave of the Winds in Colorado which was close to the Manitou BigFootMexcliff dwellings site. We toured that with our family and it was fascinating to imagine the people who called the cave dwellings their home. It had to be a struggle for existence from finding enough water year round, to being able to grow food in the harsh area, but when you stood in the cliff dwellings you could see unspoiled beauty for miles and I imagine they looked for a place where they could not only survive, but one that made their heart happy.

We also saw wind cave in South Dakota which had a desert wind-swept look to the walls, like no other cave we have ever seen. In New Zealand at the top of the list of interesting caves is the Glow Worm cave. The silk type worms live on the ceiling of the cave, dropping down their silk to catch bugs and flies to eat, but their most interesting feature is that they have bioluminescence. IMG_6084They light up. They are similar to a fire fly and they glow and twinkle in the darkness. Because there are so many on the cave ceiling, it looks as if someone strung millions of tiny white Christmas lights on the ceilings. The tour is a silent boat ride where no photography is allowed. They quietly load the tourists and everyone is warned numerous times of the rules of no talking, no noises and no photos. It was the most romantic cave tour I have ever experienced.

We have been to many caves all over and each cave is unique in its beauty and mystery. Some are scary, some full of adventure and some provide a twinkling romantic experience for a middle aged couple like us, celebrating thirty years of marriage. Our kids sat in awe and wonder as they followed the big foot tracks into the cave in Idaho on a family adventure that they remember IMG_6080well, even though they are now all grown up. As an adult, one of them was lucky enough, while working in Central America to see the legendary entrance to the underworld of Xibalba of the Mayan gods and see the human sacrifices of thousands of years ago.

Caves are the essence of mystery, beauty and wonder in our world. It is no surprise that we seek the allure of traveling underground to see these dark, mysterious, scary, romantic, awe inspiring and naturally beautiful part of the underground world. Seeing and appreciating these natural places that can evoke so many emotions and so much excitement in us is what life is all about! Stir your soul and peak your excitement and interest for life by appreciating these naturally mysterious places.

Chicago Exploration

As much as I love the great outdoors and our National Parks, it is also fun to explore our urban areas. My daughter Jenny had a great idea the summer before she started high school, that she and I should go to Chicago. She mainly wanted to visit the Chicago Institute of Art, but she also had a plan for us to try getting around on the “L,” and to sample the food and do a little shopping. She has always had an interest in art.IMG00052-20090805-1837

I had been to Chicago a number of times and enjoyed it for a few days here and there. I am glad I do not live there and have to deal with the traffic, noise and crowds on a daily basis, but the food and the fun things to see are worth the trip. I made reservations for us at a hotel just off of Michigan Ave (the main drag in downtown Chicago where all the action is) to help save a little money, and we went during the week, so it was not as crowded. We drove down and then parked our car at the hotel and either walked to our destinations or took the “L” train around the city. This is about a six hour drive and the drive is part of the fun. You can learn a lot about your kids in six hours. You have a lot of time to talk about just about everything.   She was the copilot and had to have the money ready when we went through toll booths. She learned a lot about travel and getting around a big city on those trips.

photo (12)Once we got to Chicago I had her help me watch the signs on where to turn and she was good at finding the hotel and our parking garage. That first time driving in downtown Chicago was a little nerve wracking, but we enjoyed Chicago so much that we went back almost every summer for a while and sometimes Sara, my oldest daughter, came along as well. We got to be very comfortable at getting around in Chicago after a few years.

We saw the Institute of Art. I had been there before, but it was even more fun seeing it through my daughter’s eyes. The beauty and talent is almost overwhelming. I always say I cannot stay more than a couple of hours at any one visit.   My mind is so overwhelmed, that I no longer appreciate the uniqueness of each piece after a while and feel like I am just glossing over a particular piece of art. So we have gone a number IMG00019-20090804-1611of times and saw different collections on each visit. We essentially learned how to look at art and really appreciate it.

We also visited the outdoor art in Chicago including the Bean, and we rode the “L” to Chinatown. It was our goal to try something unique each time we were there. We had a lot of fun trying things at the restaurants in Chinatown, and always had good stories to tell after that. We shopped in Chinatown and went into the bakeries. Over the years it got to be one of our favorite places and we visited it each time we were in Chicago.

We did the other touristy stuff on Michigan IMG00047-20090805-1500Avenue like shopping and going to the top of the Sears tower, but we also loved trying new restaurants. The first year we had to have Chicago-style Pizza and even though it is still a favorite, we also tried new restaurants with Asian flavor infused lamb chops and delicious things where we did not even know what we were really ordering, but we were there to try new things and get out of our comfort zone and so we did.

We learned to read train schedules and get around on the “L,” we rode to Chinatown and we IMG00022-20090804-1753walked all over and we learned to be comfortable and confident, or at least look that way, even when we were sometimes a little unsure of ourselves. We visited the Chicago Museum of Natural History and one year we took an architectural boat tour on the Chicago River. We always had a plan for all of the things we wanted to see each year, but we also deviated from the plan to explore the city and see new things. We always had very full days to make the most of our visit and we always found a new restaurant for each evening, and to make it more special, we would dress up for the occasion.

We had so much fun together and we never ran into any trouble. Even though we were tired 20121004_170109at the end of the trip, I was glad we did it. We were exploring together. We had to read train and road maps together and read the city street maps as we walked to find new restaurants or stores. Jenny was really good at that at a young age and saved us a few times from going the wrong direction. We were not so much mother and daughter on those trips, but more like travelers exploring together, making decisions on where to go and what to see. We had shared experiences of everything from, “that was great” to “remind me never to order the curry baby octopus again.” Yes, that is a true story. It was baby octopus and it was very yellow from the curry on it. It was also one of the worst things I have ever eaten and I have eaten squirrel and wood chuck and every organ from the cows and pigs on our farm, so I think I am a good one to judge.

OlderJenny012When you are raising kids, it is easy to find very legitimate reasons not to do these extra adventures. It always costs money that you don’t always have to spare and you have to take time off from work, even when work is really busy, but in looking back I am glad I did not make the excuses, and even though it would have been easier to have the whole family go or have Joe drive us like he did on our family vacations, the dynamics would have been completely different. This way the focus was on just us and we had to fend for ourselves and we got to do what we wanted without any guys. It made us more confident and self sufficient and it brought us closer together. No one and no amount of time can take away our shared Chicago adventures. They are a part of us, our stories and our memories forever.

Touching Volcanos

I have always been fascinated by the earth’s natural beauty and mysteries. If I had been born independently wealthy I would have put that money to good use. I would fly over volcanoes, and I would have been to every continent by now, and done every eco tour in cool places like the Galapagos and Madagascar. But even though I was not born independently wealthy, I have done my best to see some cool places. We took a lot of family vacations when the kids were young. I do think it is important to travel with kids, but that is not why I traveled with them. I traveled with them because it was really fun and we saw a lot of cool stuff. It was not a burden; I really looked forward to it. I loved the planning part and I loved being on vacation. I still do love vacations even though it is just Joe and I, but it is different without the kids. Not worse, not better, just different. Still amazing and still seeing cool stuff.

94BadlandsI have a fairly high stress job, and if you asked my employees what I am like they would probably
say type A, and that I can be really driven and intense, but none of those things were true when I was on vacation. Once I crawled into our Yukon packed for adventure with the kids, the stress all melted away. I felt patient and more go with the flow than any other time, and that was true no matter what the age of the kids. I still relax the minute I start my vacation. When they were young and in car seats we stopped if they got restless, we fed them when hungry and they took naps when they got tired. We went with the flow, had a good plan and if something unexpected happened, we just dealt with it and some of those unexpected events led to some of our best stories.

94YellowstoneaI always wanted to see Yellowstone National Park, as I was fascinated by the photos of volcanic waters and bubbling mud pots coming to the earth’s surface, and the best part is that it is not that far from Minnesota. It is one of our oldest and most impressive National Parks and a must see for every family. In July of 1994, we packed up our two little kids, five year old Sara and two year old Ben in our big four wheel drive Ford Arostar van. At the time, I was huge and pregnant with our third child, Jenny, due in December. We packed our cooler with cheese and sandwiches, water and Gatorade, and a back seat with a treasure of crackers, colors, toys, smarties candies and dollar store finds to stay busy on long drives. Each child got to help pack their own bags and a backpack with their special things to stay busy. We bought Sara a Polaroid camera and film for her birthday, which was in July, to take pictures at each sightseeing stop. IMG_1491We bought her a small photo album as well so she could put the “instant pictures,” as we called those Polaroid’s back then, into the album, and she wrote the location on each one with some help with the spelling. She was ready to start kindergarten that fall.

Sara was always a good traveler and the best at going with the flow. She was the oldest, so a good helper with the younger kids and very patient if she had the wait for anything. She was our sweet Sara and still is our sweet Sara. Ben was an active kid even at two and so every once in a while when we had been driving too long, he would say, “Daddy I have to run” and so Joe would find a spot at a gas station or fast food parking lot and we would let him out of his car seat and let him run his energy off. He almost always had a smile on his face and was so excited any time we saw any animals at the park like the buffalo and the moose and bear. It was fun to see the world through his eyes. He loved books and would look at those as we drove or I had a bag of cheap simple toys from the dollar store and when he got bored, I would let him pick one. It took a long time for him to get it out of the packaging, so that kept him busy while we made IMG_1488more miles.

On our 1994 trip, we stopped at the Bad Lands and we eventually made it to Yellowstone. When we got there we tried to check into the park accommodations, but it appeared some mistake occurred and while we thought we had reserved a room with two queen beds, they had us down for a small room with just two single beds. Now this is just another reason that Joe will always be my best adventure buddy. He did not get upset or excited. He remained polite to the young woman behind the desk, but he was insistent that there had to be something else available for us. She was as insistent that it was July and everything was booked. He finally looked at her and pointed to me standing a ways away, clearly very pregnant, hot in the July weather, holding a two year old and with Sara beside me. He told her as he pointed at us this is what we are working with. Two small beds will not work; you need to give us something else. You must have some place set aside for these kinds of things or if someone important comes or a celebrity. It was so cute and he was half smiling as he said it. It was charming. She smiled because it was so cute and funny at the same time. She talked to some supervisors and they brainstormed as I went to the gift shop and looked to keep the kids busy and entertained. Well it took some work on their part, but I have to give them credit. They were awesome and got it figured out.

IMG_1492We ended up with a cabin in the park with two bedrooms.  It was even better than what we had reserved. People are generally good. They tried their best to fix this problem and they solved it. They could have just said tough luck, we cannot do anything, but they worked and I don’t know how, but they solved our problem and made it a very special and memorable vacation for us. When we woke up the next morning the buffalo were sleeping around in back of our cabin. The kids watched them from the windows as we packed the car for the day’s adventures in the park. We stayed in the cabin for three days while we went sightseeing throughout the park. We saw the geysers bubbling boiling hot water from deep within the earth, and we hiked around the mud pots and Yellowstone Falls. I was as mesmerized and amazed by these surface volcanic waters as the kids. We saw moose with their babies and we saw bear and buffalo.IMG_1493

We loved it so much, we visited again in 2003 when the kids were a little older and Jenny could see and enjoy it too. She was and still is always up for an adventure.   The kids were big enough on that trip that we had them participate in a park program for kids to become junior rangers and they soaked in the cool waters of the Yellowstone River and hiked to all the great spots. We would tailor our activities to their age on each vacation and as they got older we could do more things.

Yellowstone is one of those amazing jewels where around each corner is a natural mystery that grounds you to the bigger universe. It confirms you are a small thing in a big and fascinating IMG_1490world. To share that inner beauty and understanding with your kids at all ages is a gift to them, and a renewal for you to remember what is important. It’s not the paperwork that never seems to be done at work, but to really enjoy our time on this earth.

I have found out there are two parts to every vacation. The first is the amazing part of spending time with the kids and your husband when no one is stressed and everyone is having a good time. Also getting to know that the guy you married cares deeply about his family and can solve an unexpected problem that occurs without getting upset or treating the people who are doing their best to work with all of the tourists with respect. After all, he clearly learned a long time ago that he can catch more flies with honey than IMG_1489with vinegar. He made it all better.

The second part of vacation is to see the natural beauty of our earth and to be amazed and surprised. Kids need to be amazed and surprised and we all need amazement and wonder in our lives, no matter what age. When we lose the wonder of life, we spend too much time sweating the small stuff and losing the focus of our short time on this earth. When we touch volcanoes we see the power and wonder of the earth. It renews our spirit and resets our priorities. Amazement and wonder is absolutely necessary for a happy life.

Put Your Adventure Pants On

A perfectly clean house has never been a priority for me, so I was not surprised when I went to move my bedroom dresser to retrieve a dropped necklace and found it face up, in a snow pile of dust bunnies. Some bunnies were so large that one could imagine spending time in a craft project, gluing eyes on them to look like real bunnies. Creepy for sure, but they were that large.

This would be embarrassing for many who pride themselves on their house cleaning skills and while I would never want a dirty house, a little dust here and there has not bothered me, especially when our kids were home. I would rather go walk in the woods with them and pick up fall leaves for an art project or play with the hose or in the sand box than clean house. That was true when they were older too. I would spend time with them outdoors or we would take them biking or playing sports. Even now that we are empty nesters, I would rather go on the boat or hiking or biking than clean house. I have no remorse about those choices.

While cleaning the mound of dust bunnies uncovered by my jewelry mishap, I found all kinds of other interesting things lost in the abyss of the dresser caverns. Other jewelry pieces that were never missed enough to do a full scale search and a stray button, but to my surprise, among the lost items was a photo of me standing on a Glacier in Canada.

It was taken in 1995 when I was in my mid-thirties and I am holding my baby, Jenny who was less than a year old in the picture, but is now a college student and beside me stands my Ben, who was two years old and now is also a college student and my oldest, Sara who is five in the picture and is now out of college and in the working world, making a life of her own. It was striking and it transported me back in time. I have a smile from ear to ear and we all look happy, having just exited the large glacier snow bus onto the Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Ice fields, during a two week driving vacation we had taken to Canada in our Ford Aerostar van.

Glacier1995I know the word fearless is getting a little too much use these days, but it is a good word and it described what I saw in the picture. The photo was a proud reminder of our fearlessness to adventure out even with three little kids. And I have to say, I have nothing but good memories of those trips. We must have had fussy kids sometimes, but that is not what I remember and when our grown kids talk about their vacations they do not remember anything negative about them either.

I remember the trip went well. We planned ahead on these adventures, but our plan was never so rigid that we could not fly by the seat of our pants sometimes, and we could adapt to unforeseen changes in weather or unplanned events. On this particular adventure we did a large loop through Canada and saw everything from the dolphin show at the Edmonton Mall to the glaciers and mountains in the Canadian Rockies. We had three little kids, but no worries. We made our way, day after day experiencing new sights and foods and we laughed and we had fun. We would go with the flow and eat when we were hungry and sleep when tired. We played in Hotel pools and ordered Pizza.

The saying in our family since the kids were very young is “Put your adventure pants on and let’s go!” We have been on many adventures with our family and now as empty nesters, my husband and I have sought many new adventures. Our kids are not afraid to go on their own adventures through college or with friends and I like that fearlessness in them when it comes to travel.

I look into the face of that young woman, 35ish version of me and those little kids, smiling and knowing Dad is behind the camera smiling too and I see happiness and see a family who was never afraid to put their adventure pants on. I look back and I wonder how we had the guts and the brains to make those choices. I cannot explain it because I think we are very average in many ways, but I am sure glad we did it. Life is short and I know it is said too often, but those child-rearing years flew by and those kids are now gone. I am glad I spent little time worrying about dust bunnies and cleaning, and took the time to enjoy those kids and show them the world with our adventure pants on.