They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. For us, it was lined with flowers.
The sky was ominous, clouds thick and menacing as they churned across the sky. The woman working the desk at the market in Crater Lake National Park had told us of the spiritual energy suffusing the place. With the chilly wind and roiling sky, the energy was anything but comforting. Then, we saw it. The yawning mouth of Pluto’s Cave.
The entrance was a hollow depression in the rolling scrub landscape. Pluto’s Cave is actually a 190,000 year old lava tube–sections of which have collapsed. We entered through one of these points. The first sections of the cave were short tunnels, the reassuring light of the outside world visible at the end of each.
Myths surrounding the area date back centuries. The First People tell tales of underground passages linking a large portion of the West Coast. They also talk of a mysterious red-haired woman whose people came from the sky and dwell in hollows beneath the mountain. Then there’s Telos–the city of the Lemurians. Founded by the denizens of a long-lost continent, it was built in a massive cavern beneath Mount Shasta after they fled into the depths beneath the crust of the world to escape the ruin of their civilization. The Lemurians are said to be there still, a race outside of space and time.
It was in that place of legends we found ourselves. There beneath a mass of stone, we squinted up into the daylight. A jumble of rocks were piled towards the hole in the ceiling, but there wasn’t a way out.
After several short stretches of Pluto’s Cave, the path led to the mouth of yet another opening in the ground. But this one was different. Gnarled bushes lined the path, crowding in from either side as the trail dropped towards the entrance. Starkly green clumps of vegetation accentuated an otherwise bleak terrain, but stopped abruptly beneath the curled lip of the entrance. It was dark, dead, and gaping like the entrance to Hades. The reason for this place’s moniker became clear. This pit, we knew, had no exit on the other side.
We took out our lights and stepped inside. After a scramble down the pile of rocks in the entrance, we found ourselves in a huge cavern. At the back, we could see the void of light which indicated the continuation of the tube. Heading towards the darkness, we went further in. It seemed like we walked, crawled and climbed forever. We went deeper and deeper into the underworld, our way lit by sweeping beams of light. The cave floor was a field of rubble accumulated over millennia, and the path we walked disappeared completely at times.
Occasionally, the tube opened into massive caverns. Moisture plunked from the ceiling to be devoured by the thirsty dust of the cavern floor. Everything felt cool and moist, and the faint stink of guano was usually accompanied by a squish. Once, a bat flew past my face, squeaking as if in mockery as it flitted off into the darkness. I may have yelled in terror.
Deep down, maybe 1/6th of a mile inside, the trail appeared to end. I followed one small opening down beneath boulders as big trailers, but the way was blocked. I almost turned around, but climbed over one and found an opening I could fit through. My elation at finding the end evaporated as my flashlight illuminated another massive cavern. I was tired, and Brandon was still making his way towards me. I clicked off my light, and I sat in the darkness.
It was absolute. I’ve never felt so disoriented. If I hadn’t been able to feel, I would not have been able to tell if my eyes were open. Images of monsters conjured from horror movies and video games sprang to mind, but I pushed them aside and breathed in–slow. The air was cool and heavy with moisture. With each breath, goosebumps prickled my arm. I focused on the sound of my breathing as it slowed and diminished to nothing more than a whisper of air. My heartbeat receded, and I felt suddenly, euphorically relaxed. It felt like I was floating in a senseless sea. For a few minutes, I walked the knife’s edge between terror and serenity and found a balance.
Brandon and I met up there, and I continued on for a while before turning back. As much as I wanted to reach the ‘end’, I also didn’t want to run out of batteries for my flashlight. Sometimes, the voice of Reason is worth listening to.
The walk back seemed to take ages. We were exhausted and starting to yearn for the warmth of the sun. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity in the depths of Pluto’s Cave, we saw daylight. We’d made it.
The walk back to the car was slow; the physical effort of climbing around inside the cave–combined with the resulting crash after an adrenaline rush–had left us drained. As we walked through the scrub, two figures stepped into view. Big pit bulls, staring right at us.
I stopped at first, used to encountering herding dogs in Central Asia. My fingers tightened around my knife, but relaxed when I saw the reassuring wag of tails. The dogs trotted our way, greeting us with licks and paw pats before escorting us back to our cars. Hounds of Hell… right.
What had been a spur-of-the-moment decision left us giddy from a heady cocktail of adrenaline and exhaustion. We got in our car and drove on, leaving the mysteries of Pluto’s Cave for the next traveler. Who knows what secrets they might find…
Have you ever been inside a lava tube? What was your experience like? Was it scary, awesome, or a little bit of both? Share in the comments below!