NSSCON 2003 in Porterville, CA

(and the adventurous journey driving there and back!)

Location: At, to, and from Porterville, CA
Date: July 29, 2003
By: Carl Pierce

Carl Pierce, Uneva Pierce, Julie Morgan, and Scott Fee (left to right) at the spider web entrance gate to Crystal Sequoia Cave in Sequoia National Park, California
(photo by Mike Dillon)

On Tuesday, July 29, my wife Uneva and I set out on our journey to drive from Pittsburgh to the NSS convention in California the following week. After dropping Courtenay and Emily (our two daughters) off at grandmaís for an extended visit, we were off to our first stop, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. I have been caving since I was a kid in the 1970ís, but Uneva was still relatively new to the hobby. "She finally learned that resistance to being assimilated by the caving collective is futile". I joked when, last January, after 15 years together, she caught me completely by surprise by suggesting that we go to convention. At that point, during our entire 15 years together, I could count her wild cave trips on one hand. Hey, who was I to say "no"? Tuesday night we stayed at the Mammoth Cave Hotel. Good basic accommodations, though the room we were in looked like something out of the 1950ís, and the price was something you would expect at a fancier motel. Still, for proximity to the cave (10-minute walk) and an air-conditioned place to sleep, this place canít be beat (and they know thatÖ)

Wednesday we partook in the Wild Cave Tour at Mammoth. A word to the wise here Ė if you go on this tour, they are very picky about footwear, more so than in years past. I guess my old beat up cave boots looked a bit suspect. "You look like you do this often", our guide said to me as she was sizing up our group, seeing how I was dressed. "All the time", was my response. "I donít know about those boots", she said as she eyed mine. Ok, they are somewhat trashed. But I still cave in them often and, while nearing the end of their life, they still provide decent support and more traction than they look capable. Anyhow, if you go on the Mammoth Wild Tour, make sure the boots you have feature tread which looks almost new, as it seems that was what they are looking for. Many of the guides are well-intentioned college students, and are very nice, but are not otherwise cavers. The tour itself was fun as always, and I offered to take the rear and help anyone having a slower go of it. Wednesday night we were back at the Mammoth Cave Hotel, after an evening hike over to the Whites Cave entrance. I like Mammoth Cave!

Our goal for Thursday was to get to Overland Park, Kansas (which is basically an extension of Kansas City, Missouri). Our departure from Kentucky was a bit delayed however, when we decided to check out the American Cave Museum in the town of Horse Cave, Kentucky. For those of you not familiar with the town of Horse Cave, this is the town whose main street has a huge cave opening beside/under it, which is so often featured in photographs. This cave, now called Hidden River Cave, has quite a history. Apparently the close proximity of human activity combined with the poor understanding of hydrology in the immediate area over the years had resulted in the pollution of the cave to the point where the stench pouring out the entrance was at times overwhelming. The American Cave Museum, owned and operated by the American Cave Conservation Association (ACCA), features a chronology and explanation, through interactive displays, of the types of activities which contaminated the cave, and of their highly successful efforts to restore the cave to health. A short tour of the cave on a developed trail is part of the general admission, while a longer "wild tour" can be had by advance reservation. After taking in the displays, doing the short tour, and perusing the gift shop (they had a T shirt with the "bat sticker bats" on it, hard to find these days, I snatched up the last size large they had), we were off (a bit behind schedule). Our route took us to St. Louis, MO, where we would rejoin I70 and head west. Unfortunately our late departure meant that we hit St. Louis at rush hour. Oops. At one point a car began honking and waving at us. As he passed, I saw bat stickers on his vehicle, as he hollered "Hey, Cavers!". Was he on his way to convention also? I hollered and waved back, smiling. We passed through the rolling hills of Missouri as dusk approached and faded to darkness. I couldnít help thinking about Tom Sawyer and the cave he had gotten into with Becky Thatcher. Was there a cave nearby which had inspired this particular chapter of the story? Somewhat bleary eyed and ready for rest we arrived in Overland Park sometime near midnight.

One strategy I employed when choosing places to stay was to pick a place on the far side of the city we would be staying in. This way, when departing the following morning, we would not fall victim to the cityís inbound rush hour. This worked quite well. Most of the territory west of Mammoth Cave which we would be covering on this venture was new to me. 15 years ago, shortly after we met, Uneva and I flew to Denver and rented a car and drove over to Arches National Park in Utah and back, but that was it. Several years ago I had driven home from a professional conference in Spokane, Washington, taking a more northerly and completely different route (through Yellowstone in October, WOW!) than we were taking now, and the states of Missouri, Kansas, Nevada, and California were completely new to me. For me, the drive across the country, seeing all this new stuff, was half the fun.

Friday morning we headed off into the plains on Kansas. Tornado Alley. My childhood fear of Tornados has grown into an intense fascination with them (my respect for which was strengthened when my car was almost blown off the road by one on the way home from work in June 1998, when tornados hit downtown Pittsburgh for the first time ever). Dorothy and Toto were heavily on my mind, and a frequent topic of discussion. The weather forecast for Kansas this day was for scattered Thunderstorms quite a bit south of where we would be, but that was it. Kansas features some of the straightest interstate highway I have seen. Very straight. Very flat. Very long. Musings of Dorothy and Toto occupied our minds. This train of thought and discussion was eventually broken somewhere in western Kansas when we came across a billboard which read something like "see the worldís largest buffalo" or something. Several other similar signs for this attraction followed. One nice thing about Kansas, there are a fair number of places to gas up and eat. This was not true in eastern Colorado, as we found out. As we crossed the border most of the other vehicles were exiting the highway, and we noticed a darkening sky ahead. And the wind was picking up.

Eastern Colorado, up to Denver, is topographically an extension of Kansas, but with far fewer signs of civilization. Suddenly it seemed as if we were the only vehicle on an otherwise deserted highway. We stopped for gas in Flagler, CO. As I stood outside at the pump, the wind had a bit of a disturbing edge to it, and the sky overhead did not look friendly. I paid the attendant and we were on our way. As we continued west, distant thunderstorms on either side of us, with fierce lightning, strengthened. I kept my eyes peeled for signs of the "anvil" type cloud, from which experts say tornados usually drop. The thunderstorms neared. For what seemed like a considerable stretch, we watched as the storms barely closed in on us, and enveloped the highway behind us. I felt a bit like "storm chasers". Would I get to see another tornado? Clouds took on a boiling appearance on either side of us. Then came hail. Debris in the sky to the right of us took on a swirling motion, and suddenly it became very difficult to control our vehicle in the strengthening, increasingly turbulent wind as the darkening, boiling sky closed in on us and began pelting us with hard rain and larger hailstones. Thunder boomed and lightning flashed close (very close) by. OK, enough storm chasers, IíM OUTTA HERE! Pedal to the metal baby, God bless straight flat highway! Traveling perpendicular to the path of a storm is what I have always heard is recommended if you find yourself in a situation where you are forced to outrun a tornado. Fortunately for us, this storm appeared to be heading south, and we were heading due west (at a very high rate of speed, I might add). For what seemed like a longer time than Iím sure it was we flew like bats out of the fires of hell across the plains of eastern Colorado. Finally we saw another vehicle, behind us, traveling as fast or faster than us, out of the same storm. Had he stuck around long enough to see a tornado? We hadnít, and Iím therefore not sure there was one, but the storm clouds seemed a safe distance (i.e. VERY far) behind us, and the rain had stopped, and so I eased off the gas a bit, to where the speedometer needle came down off itís stop and was once again within range to register a speed. Never before had a speed so in excess of that which was posted as the limit seemed so slow. As we neared the population of Denverís satellite cities, we slowed a bit more. Our destination for Friday night was the Heritage Inn in the town of Idaho Springs, just to the west of Denver in the foothills of the Rockies. As the bluish outline of distant mountains came into view across the ever so flat plains, and the immensity of this mountain range became more apparent, Uneva and I joked that this was probably where the first settlers traveling westward in the 1800ís issued a collective "oh sh-t".

The Heritage Inn turned out to be a wonderful, affordable place to stay, complete with working fireplaces in every room, and the historic town of Idaho Springs featured several good restaurants where one could get a good steak. A brochure in the room detailed various local attractions, including "Oh My Gosh Road", which drew our interest.

Saturday would be our longest single day drive yet, distance-wise, as our destination was Barstow, California. We awoke to a beautiful morning with a clear blue sky and crisp mountain air. We got an early start, which enabled us to take an hour (which turned into two) to check out "Oh My Gosh Road". This road starts at the edge of town and proceeds up a steep hill. Just outside town the pavement ends and it becomes dirt. As advertised, there are old gold and silver mine entrances dotting the way on the surrounding hillsides, and even a few at road level. As we climbed in elevation the vegetation changed and scenic vistas began to appear. "Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for bringing me here" Uneva said, taking in the scenery. "Hey, this was your idea, thanks for suggesting it" I replied. After some exploring in the mountains (God bless 4 wheel drive), we returned down the treacherous hill to the highway and proceeded west. When we had traveled this stretch of I70 through the mountains 15 years before it was night, so we missed the beauty we were now seeing for the first time. "Weíre not in Kansas anymore!". Our morning exploring had put us on a tight schedule for the rest of the day, but it was worth it.

Through the mountains to the towns Glenwood Springs (and accompanying Glenwood Canyon) and Grand Junction at the base of the western plains and on into Utah we continued. From our trip 15 years before, I remembered that eastern Utah didnít thrill me too much. Kinda flat. Not much vegetation save for the tumbleweeds occasionally rolling across the highway, mesa type land formations occasionally breaking up the otherwise somewhat monotonous terrain. Thatís my take on it anyway, I know others differ with me. Hey, to each their own. On our previous trip we had traveled as far west as Moab, and then turned around. Why did our map designate that the road shortly beyond Moab, clear to the end of I70 where it intersects I15, was a "scenic highway"? Maybe the mapmaker liked mesas, I figured. Oh well. On we trekked. Uneva was driving at this point, as I was still tired from our excitement the day before, and our early rise cut my rest short. I began counting the little dirt roads which intersected the highway as "farm exit only" little mini interchanges. We passed the exit for Moab. Fresh territory again, but not much change. More "farm exit only" mini interchanges. We passed by the town of Green River, Utah. Interesting. Through the center of town runs a river. Surrounding this river in this otherwise semi arid landscape are lush clumps of trees and other vegetation, a true desert oasis of sorts. We continued on. Still more "farm exit only" mini interchanges. Then the terrain began to change, and we were going up. Very up. Very very up. Into some of the most interesting and unusual (to a lifelong easterner anyway) and strikingly beautiful terrain! Awe inspiring colorful canyons of rock and stone were all around us! WOW! Up and down we went, through the reddish golden canyons of this very unexpected scenic treat! Eventually we began to go down, very down, and shortly thereafter saw the sign, "I15, end I70, 5 miles". At I15 we turned south and marveled at the mountains to our left. Zion National Park is in this vicinity. We also marveled at the reckless drivers. I15 saw considerably more traffic than we had seen since St. Louis rush hour. All heading to Las Vegas from points north, we figured. We also marveled at the presence of state cops. Until this point our journey had been pretty much cop free. Time to set the cruise control at the speed limit, these cops werenít there for just a presence, they were busting folks. At one point some (I wonít use the word here but it rhymes with "witch") yakking on her cell phone cut off Uneva, almost forcing us off the road. Not too far after, a Utah state cop came flying up behind us (which caused a bit of panic until he passed us by) and busted the "witch". YES! There IS justice in this world! I smiled and waved at her as we passed her by, about a mile down the road. She saw me. She wasnít happy. Tough. Shortly after this, we stopped for gas again, and Uneva said sheíd had enough driving (understandably), so I took over. The gas price was creeping up the farther west we got, but Iím proud to say that not once on this trip did I pay over $1.98/gallon (this wasnít too easy in California in some places).

Into Arizona we went. Arizona? Uneva checked the map. Yes, I15 takes a path through a corner of Arizona for a brief stretch before entering Nevada. OK. I was in southwestern AZ once as a kid 30 years ago, didnít remember too much except desserts and cactuses. This route through Arizona was a bit different though, as shortly after we passed the border into AZ the highway takes one down through some pretty cool, winding canyons. More unexpected scenic treats! This was rapidly becoming my favorite drive day yet. As evening approached we came upon the lights and glitz of Las Vegas. Not very impressive, at least not from the interstate highway, not to me anyway. Kind of anticlimactic. What impressed me more than the lights and glitz were the sprawling swaths of identical, almost cardboard looking houses lined up on perfectly straight, parallel streets, cramped in the very flat desert between the surrounding hills with little yard space and a sameness which I would find horribly oppressive as a place to live. Again, thatís just me. My sincere apologies to any readers who would disagree, to each their own. It was dark now, and were heading toward California.

The traffic was fast and congested. Uneva noted that, according to the map, we were apparently on the "Las Vegas/Los Angeles connector". As we crossed into CA we were greeted by a dangerously wide dual speed limit - Cars 70, trucks 55 - and numerous state patrol officers presumably assigned to enforce this, and CAís over paternalistic seatbelt law as well. After some distance we came to a town, and I decided I needed a break. 55mph traffic in the right lane, 70mph traffic in the left, and a whole array of clowns zigging between the two in an effort to pass 55mph trucks, then take advantage of the football fields of open road in front of them, no fun driving in this, especially at night, especially after having started in what was essentially Denver. Oh, did I mention that all this was happening in a construction zone loaded with a dizzying array of highly reflective orange barrels (we PA folks should be used to orange barrels, but this was nuts)? Strange how a state so bent on "safety" - what with their overprotective seatbelt law - would allow such a difference in speed limits, which studies have shown makes a road more dangerous. We pulled off for gas. The thermometer in the vehicle said 98 degrees. Was this correct? One step outside verified that it was. After gassing up, I got to talking to the attendant. Hot? This was cool, he told me, it was 120 earlier in the day. We were in the Mojave Desert, after all. Oh. I asked him about the seatbelt enforcement in CA. "Worse than speed limit enforcement, much worse", he warned me.

As we continued down that dark desert highway, with our heads growing heavy and our eyes growing dim as we approached our stop for the night, the Eagles song "Hotel California" rambled on in my head. We finally reached Barstow, California, 800+ miles of mostly scenic beauty from Denver, Colorado.

Sometime during the evening, we were still in Utah as I recall, we made our first cell phone contact with Dennis Melko. Dennis and I were planning to meet up Sunday evening before convention and share a room on Sunday night, as we had both signed up in advance for the Monday led trip to Church Cave, one of the areaís premier vertical caves. Dennis was a bit behind us, as we had left Tuesday and he had left Friday, but he was catching up. Dennis took a more southerly route, through Tennessee, Oklahoma, and eventually New Mexico.

Sunday morning came at last. This is the day we will get to convention! But before departing, it was time to sightsee. Uneva noticed a brochure for "Calico Ghost Town", a restored mining town featuring self guided tours of one of the old mines. Cool! Off we set, into the desert, to check this out.

Calico Ghost Town is located in a rocky area of the Mojave Desert northeast of Barstow. Sunday morning proved to be the perfect time to see it, as very few other folks were there. Interesting geology, the town sits on a rock bluff, with a canyon on one side which features very colorful folded layers of rock, thus the town name "Calico". Numerous mine entrances dotted a hillside just outside town. Several of the buildings were original, many were partially or completely restored. One of the original buildings, a house, was turned into a museum, with photographs of the town over the years, from the very old ones taken toward the end of itís active mining days, to ones documenting its decay into a ghost town, then its eventual purchase and restoration in the 1970ís. Interesting. The mine tour was cool, but pretty much like any other in a man made dug hole in the ground, but hey, it was a hole in the ground! This would have to be a stop when we would return with our daughters in some not to distant future year (presently scheduled for summer, 2005).

After touring Calico it was time to return to Barstow and then head north to Porterville, home of the 2003 NSS convention, saying goodbye to interstate highway. It was on these two lane roads that the real danger of such a wide spread speed limit - cars 70, trucks 55 Ė became truly apparent. After traveling 70mph for a stretch, getting stuck in a string of traffic behind a truck going 55mph became truly frustrating. The frustration of other drivers became apparent, as numerous cars engaged in rather risky maneuvers trying to get past such trucks and other cars whose drivers were not inclined to take such risks. Needless to say, to this point, CA was probably my least favorite state to drive in.

Our next significant city we were to pass through was Bakersfield, CA. On the way, we passed over some mountains near the (village?) of Tehachapi. These mountains are the divide between southern CA, which is mostly desert, and central CA, which is grape and orange growing country. Shortly after Bakersfield, and all around Porterville, the highways are lined with orange trees.

Sunday evening, after several more exchanges of relative positions and progress reports via cell phone with Dennis, Uneva and I arrived in Porterville. Our first task: Secure our motel room at the Best Western. True CA diehards chose to camp in the forecasted 100+ degree heat on the football field at Porterville College, where the convention was based. Most of us easterners chose the motel route (God bless air conditioning in CA). The motel lot was lined with cars with bat stickers, always a friendly sign. We signed in at the motel, then immediately headed over to the college to sign in at convention and check out the trip sign up sheets. At convention sign in we ran into several friendly familiar faces, including Kim and Tom Metzger, John Pearson, and others. The trip signup table had yet to be overrun, as trip offerings were still quite plentiful. Monday Dennis and I were already signed up for the vertical route in Church Cave. Tuesday Uneva and I signed up for a trip into the Catacombs section of Crystal Sequoia Cave, then for the cookout at the cave and caver oriented commercial cave trip afterward. Wednesday would be a non-cave day, a day to check out the vendors, and maybe do some hiking in nearby Sequoia National Park, Thursday would be a Crystal Sequoia Cave Wild Tour day, and for Friday I got on a vertical trip to Lost Soldiers cave. Unfortunately Uneva is not yet vertical, and this meant leaving Uneva vehicle-less for that day, but the motel was a 10 minute walk to the convention site, and she would also have time to finish up some work she had to bring with her (who says teachers have no work in the summertime?).

One of the best things about convention was the location. There was just so much to do and see! One of the worst things about convention was Ö the location. Most everything to see was located in the mountains in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, which were at least an hour or two by car away. To give the convention staff credit, Porterville was probably the closest location of a facility such as Porterville College, where you could base a convention, to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

We returned to the Best Western for dinner, as it had a pretty decent restaurant attached. "Ahh, the company of cavers" I satisfactorily proclaimed as I glanced around at those occupying the tables and booths. Cavers had packed the place, and it was very welcoming to see all the different, colorful, cave T-shirts. Funny, I knew not one of these folks, but yet there is a common bond among cavers which enables even the most shy amongst us to walk into a room of complete strangers (who are cavers) and feel at ease. Uneva, still relatively new to the caving collective, wasnít exactly sure what I meant. Immediately after dinner Dennis called to say he was in Porterville (my cell phone rang while I was waiting to pay the bill), and wanted directions to the Best Western. He had arranged a room at the Motel 6 for later in the week, but given the fact that we wanted to head out Monday morning at 6:00am, we decided to room together on Sunday night, so he would be staying in the second bed in our room. When he arrived, we unpacked all our caving gear, and organized what we would need for the trip the following day.

Church Cave is located in Kings Canyon National Park. One has to see this park to believe it. Our meeting area was the Boyden Cave parking lot. Boyden Cave is one of two commercial caves in the combined area of Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks, Crystal Sequoia Cave is the other. Boyden Cave is located at the bottom of a valley, by a river, surrounded by fantastic towering mountains of marbleized limestone, and reached only by a long narrow twisting turning road which hugs the precipitous cliffs and offers awe inspiring views as it descends the canyons. At the parking area Dennis and I began to suit up. Other cavers arrived. After some introductions and the decision of which trip in Church Cave we would do (several routes are possible), we opted for the most vertical, which included a 250í drop just inside the entrance. This also included the longest hike to get to the entrance.

Just past Boyden cave the area is generally off limits, and a park permit is required to visit the area. Our hike was mostly uphill (as advertised). A steep dirt trail ended at the base of an even steeper trek up marbleized limestone rock. This rock is very interesting to hike up. When it is dry, as it mostly was this day, it offers an amazing amount of friction, which enabled us to ascend a very steep slope which seemed more vertical than horizontal for a great distance (elevation wise) with relative ease, yet the areas which were wet were slipperier than ice (God help you on the hike down if it rains while you are in the cave). At last we reached the entrance and suited up. Our leaders rigged the drop and descended. About halfway down the drop is a shelf where one can take a break if needed, and Dennis volunteered to station himself here to facilitate top/bottom communications as we did not have radios. I volunteered to stay at the top and double check everyoneís vertical rig, and go last down the drop. As folks crested the lip and began to rappel, I would hear Ooohs, Ahhs, and "Oh WOW"s. What was so great? Barb (a caver from Colorado) went shortly before me, and said "Carl, you will want your camera for this! Ok, my turn (at least!). Over the lip I went, and was immediately greeted by a stunning array of curtains, columns, and other flowstone surrounding me. I did the "rappel with your right hand and take pictures with your left" for as long as I felt safely comfortable doing so (which wasnít very long). I passed Dennis on the shelf. "Hand me your camera and Iíll take your picture on rope", Dennis called as he tossed me a hand line to grab so that he could pull me toward him. Once at the bottom of the drop we were greeted by a series of sometimes quite challenging and exposed climb downs, into the depths of Church Cave. I could tell this was going to be one of the most fun and challenging trips I would do. Through passages, climbs, crawls and squeezes we proceeded, until we got to the Cathedral Room. This room, roughly 150-180 feet high, is a huge dome with flowstone solidly decorating the walls from top to bottom. One of the ways to enter Church cave involves descending this dome. A stop for pictures, then it would be several more climbs, rooms, and squeezes until we reached a tight horizontal exit. I hate to say this, but as this was several months (and so many cave trips) ago, many of the names escape me now (I am horrible with names), but several that I do remember were Skip Withrow and his friend Barb, both of Colorado, and several local area cavers (John, another John, and two of Johnís friends, Alan, and a girl who went by "Yip"). All were GREAT people (I feel so horrible I canít remember the names any better!), including our leaders. The caretaker of Boyden Cave was also on our trip, and he offered a free trip into Boyden once we got back to the cars. Cool! Boyden is the smaller of the two commercial caves in the park, but the decorations were nevertheless quite impressive. It was evening now, and with a 2-3 hour drive back to Porterville we said our goodbyes. The evening drive up Kings Canyon was as amazing as the drive down. I was tired, and Dennis was driving. Speeding back to Porterville on a California highway lined with orange trees at night with the windows rolled down and the radio turned up and the wind in our hair (or in my case, whatís left of it) after a great cave trip was a perfect way to end the day. We arrived at the Best Western in tome to meet Uneva for a late dinner. Dennis bid us farewell at this point, as he had to secure his own room at the Motel 6 (the Best Western was sold out, presumably to cavers, as they had offered us a "convention special"). As Uneva and I entered the nearly empty restaurant, I noticed three of the cavers I had just caved with, John, Alan, and Yip, and we sat by them. Very interesting discussion. It turns out they are local cavers, but not part of the "local clique" as one put it, and came to convention to get in to caves they otherwise canít get into, including Church. While very upbeat in their conversation (they had us laughing numerous times), they painted a somewhat bitter picture of caving politics in that area of CA.

Tuesday was Unevaís turn to get underground for the first time in California, with a trip into the Catacombs section of Crystal Sequoia Cave. Three "wild cave" trips were being offered in the otherwise commercialized Crystal Sequoia Cave: The Catacombs tour, the Ensantina tour and the Wild tour. Each of these takes cavers off the commercial trails into various undeveloped areas of the cave. We were the first at the parking lot, joined shortly after by two other folks, Scott and Julie. "Big Bill" Roberts and Mike Dillon, who work at the cave, were our guides. After some pictures at the "spider gate" at the entrance to the cave, Big Bill and Mike led us through the cave to where we would depart the commercial trail. The formations to this point were impressive, as was the marble striping in the streambed. Many of the caves in this area feature marbling in the rocks to at least some degree, and it can be very beautiful to see. The Catacombs primarily consisted of a network of climbs and crawls which I have to admit tested my flexibility at times. Uneva wowed me with her ability to slink through awkward tight areas and crawls (long legs have a distinct disadvantage in parts of this cave). At one point Mike laid the gauntlet of challenge when he stated that the "red belly crawl" (or some name to that effect) down a passage we were in was rumored to lead to another entrance. Down the crawl Julie plunged, followed by Uneva. I got part way in and politely said "F(orget) this", while Scott stayed behind as well. Julie got to a point where she believed she felt outside air before it got too tight and she had to turn around, which forced Uneva to turn around also. Shortly after, we headed out. Big Bill and Mike were about the best tour guides one could ever want, in terms of their knowledge, humor, and patience with relative newcomers. On the way out another person approached Scott with some NSS type business. After they were done discussing, as we were exiting the cave, with a suspicion in my mind, I turned to Scott and said, "Scott, I donít believe I caught your last name". "Oh darn, it seems I can never cave incognito", was Scottís response. Yep. Uneva and I had just been caving one on one with NSS chairman Scott Fee and his girlfriend Julie Morgan. Pretty cool, caving with the prez! Big Bill and Mike were a bit stunned, and were saying things like, "Well, were glad we didnít know you were the chairman Ďcause we sure would have been nervous leading you on the trip". Scott reassured them that they had done an excellent job leading, which they had. The hike back to the cars was dominated with discussions about cave conservancies (Scott said there are a TON sprouting up, which he thinks is GREAT, and he is a member of our local MAKC), issues regarding the resent NSS acquisition of Great X cave, and such. Tuesday evening, after some quick driving sightseeing in Sequoia National Park (we would see more later), we returned to Crystal Sequoia Cave for a BBQ dinner and caver oriented commercial tour.

Wednesday was our non-cave day, a day to check out vendors, and do other above ground sightseeing. Gear offerings were rather thin, with IMO being the primary supplier of gear, and even their offerings were pared down a bit (Alex seemed to regret not having brought more). While in a "used caving books" store I noticed a copy of the 1989 "Caving in TAG" convention guidebook, noticed the price, then set it back down. After mulling it over for 5 minutes or so I picked it back up, walked over to the cash register table, and pulled out the credit card. No sooner had I signed the receipt and the book was placed in a bag did some poor fellow come running in the door with a fist full of cash and say to the guy at the register, "OK, I have money for the TAG guidebook", only to hear the guy reply, "Iím sorry, it just sold", and handed me the bag. The poor fellow tromped out the door, somewhat upset, and I felt kinda like a schmuck, but hey, Iíd done nothing underhanded or sneaky, I just beat him to the punch I guess. It turns out the guy who ran this store had several requests for this book, but didnít have it until about 20 minutes before Uneva and I entered the store, when an old lady came to offer her late husbandís caving books for sale. Later, while visiting Speleobooks, Fred Grady and Emily Davis (formerly Emily Mobley) were discussing the logistics of a possible 2005 convention in Shepherdstown, WV in 2005 (if you havenít heard this rumor yet then consider yourself as having heard it here first. I do understand that since this discussion took place they have had some difficulty securing their first choice of a site in Shepherdstown, and nothing is certain, I recently saw a call for bids for a home for the 05 and 06 conventions, so who knows). Anyhow, our last stop was back at the trip info board, where we ran into Joel Desplain, who gave us driving directions to White Chief and Marble caves. Then it was off to the hills and sequoia trees to take in some above ground sights.

Unfortunately it was late afternoon by the time we got up into the hills, no time to go to White Chief or Marble caves (another destination for return trip in 2005), but this was the beginning of the prime time to seeÖbears! Uneva had never seen a bear in the wild, and this was a particular thrill for her. Near a parking area we saw a bunch of cars stopped. We got out, and saw what the attraction was, a mama bear teaching baby how to forage fallen trees and logs for food! Realizing the potential danger, we all kept a careful distance from mama and her cub, as we watched them for maybe a half hour. Once back in our vehicle again it was only a short distance before we saw another bear, foraging in the trees. By now it was getting dark, and we headed to a small restaurant just outside the park for dinner. While awaiting our food a commotion rose up outside. Apparently the owner keeps the stream behind the restaurant stocked with ducks, and a bear had come to "visit". We saw the bear as he was being chased away. "Seen enough bears yet?" I asked Uneva, who was smiling.

Thursday offered another chance to get into Crystal Sequoia cave, where Uneva and I were signed up for the "wild tour". This tour was a bit shorter than the "catacombs" tour, and while this trip featured some fun climbs over breakdown and neat things to see, it was not as enjoyable as the other trips I had been on. Perhaps the late nights, early mornings, and all the driving were starting to get to me. In any case, after the trip, we took advantage of our last opportunity to see various sights (including the General Sherman tree, the largest in the forest, that sucker was HUGE!) in the park, as we would not be returning the following day. That evening we attended the slide salon. Whoa! If ever there can be such a thing as cave photography and multimedia overload, this is it! Many awards were given for many amazing photos, and Peter and Ann Bosted cleaned up on the honorable mentions.

Friday was our last day at Convention and I was signed up on a vertical trip into Lost Soldierís Cave. I met our group at 9:00 in a shaded parking lot on a dirt road in the woods at the foothills to the mountains. Introductions were quite informal. The hike to the cave was on a narrow trail through the woods, and numerous folks on the trip, including our leader, were well versed in the French language, which was spoken frequently, to make several cavers from France, and from Montreal, feel welcome. I donít speak French. Oh well. The French speaking folks seemed very nice anyway. As we progressed on the trail through the woods to the cave, as advertised, the poison oak became quite thick. As an easterner who is very aware of Poison Ivy, but not familiar with this plant, I learned very quickly that it can come in any variety from groundcover to small tree!

The entrance to Lost Soldiers is up the bank of a dry streambed in the woods. While suiting up, I happened to ask our leader Peter his last name. "Bosted" was his reply. Oh wow, now this was cool. This also explains why he was interested in seeing what camera folks were bringing. I had my Kodak disposable. Peter was understandably unimpressed. Once in the cave I would understand why.

To get into the main part of Lost Soldiers requires one to do several tight but short vertical drops. Not far from the bottom of the last drop do the pretties begin. At one point I noticed a huge piece of bacon hanging from the ceiling with a distinctive shape to it. "Hey, I saw that in a photo last night!" I declared. "Yes" replied Peter, who then said that this was one of his first, and favorite, caves to photograph. Way cool, caving with a photographic master in a cave so often featured in calendars and other spectacular collections of cave photography. Hallway after hallway, room after room, stunning and unique decorations abounded. What a grand finale to convention! And to see up close and in person so much that I had seen the night before in photographs, and to be led by the photographer, was an experience not likely to be repeated!

Evening came, and Uneva and I opted for a quiet dinner by ourselves rather than the banquet, as we were still quite tired from being up late at the photo salon the night before, and this would allow us to get packed and get to bed early, as we had a long drive (to Glenwood Springs, Colorado) the following day. Besides, I had missed her on this caving day without her. Please hon, get vertical! J

Saturday morning came, and many of the cars with bat stickers were gone from the parking lot at the Best Western. Instead of a friendly caver there was some impersonal yuppie in a Saab on his cell phone parked beside me in the lot. No more "hey, where ya off to today" discussions in the parking lot to be had. I believe Uneva had begun to understand what I meant by my "ahh, the company of cavers" sentiment when, as we entered the restaurant at the motel and noticed that most of the cavers had been replaced with folks from general society. A certain warmth, a certain camaraderie, a certain feeling of being in the company with like minded folks, was gone. We scanned the area and noticed an open table beside John Pearson and Gordon Birkhimer, two of the last cavers in the place, and sat by them. Travel plans were discussed. Dennis had left mid-week to visit some friends elsewhere. I had meant to hook up with him again, but so much to do, so little time.

After breakfast we started on our journey home. Back down the orange tree lined 2 lane highways to Interstate 15 at Barstow, at the edge of the Mojave desert. Time now was early afternoon, we would be crossing the desert during the hottest part of the day. At least it would be neat to see in daylight that which we had passed through in the darkness of night before. We stopped for gas at the small town of Baker, CA, on the edge of the Mojave National Preserve. The temperature readings on the outdoor thermometers at the gas stations and other attractions which lined the main street through town read between 116 and 119 degrees, with the thermometer in our vehicle in general agreement, at 117. Whoa. Humid or not, this was HOT. It turned out that we had been at Convention during a "cool" spell, as the temperature had stayed in the double digits the whole week, until today. Upon re-entering the highway we turned on the radio. Frequent advisements for desert travelers interrupted the programming. We rolled down the windows and turned up the heater to try to keep the engine cool (as the radio recommended, vehicles whose drivers had not heeded this advice lined the edges of the highway with hoods up and steam rolling out) and sped at 80 MPH to keep from getting run over. This was the Los Angeles Ė Las Vegas connector after all, and this was Saturday. "Oh, this has got to be real good for my tires", I thought sarcastically, as a noticeable vibration, present since we left Pittsburgh, worsened. At 56K on the vehicle these were still the original tires, and though they still had some tread left I was planning to replace them when I returned to the ĎBurgh. With the heater on "hot" and the fan on "high" and all the windows rolled down, the engine temperature would stay within the "normal" range, though at the very top end. "Do not use your air conditionerÖ roll down your windowsÖ turn on your heaterÖ travel at a lower speedÖcarry plenty of waterÖ " the radio reminded us again. Well, we had 3 of the 5 under control anyway. The vibration worsened. By the time we got to Mesquite, Arizona, evening was approaching and the temperature was beginning to ease. We turned off the heater (whew). By Utah it was cool enough to turn on the AC again (whew). At the town of Beaver, near where we would pick up I70, we stopped for gas. It was late evening now, and darkness was approaching. An attendant came out to pump my gas. Funny, the sign said "self serve". Oh well. He volunteered to check my oil, fill the washer fluid, etc. Great! He then said, "sir, it looks like you could use some tires". Oh, I get it. I noticed the "Cooper Tires" sign on the building, and figured he noticed my PA plate, and wanted to sell me tires Ďfor my long journey homeí. "No Thanks, I have an appointment to get new tires as soon as we get home", I replied. He smiled, then walked into the building. A few moments later another man came out, walked around my vehicle looking at my tires, then approached me and said, "Sir, I understand my associate recommended some new tires, and you are not interested at this time?" "Thatís correct", I replied. "Ok Sir", the man continued, "Iíll be honest. We are a tire dealer, and we do try to sell tires to folks who stop for gas. But in your case, we are both really concerned about you traveling all the way to Pennsylvania on these tires. Please let me work up a price." He seemed genuine. He suggested I step out of my vehicle to have a look for myself. I did. Oh sh-t! There were all sorts of bulges and tread distortions, no wonder the vehicle was shaking, it was amazing it wasnít shaking more! He quoted me a price of $400 something for everything. Better tires than I would have gotten at home at a cheaper price. I said "do it!". This would further extend the time it would take to complete our dayís journey (we had reservations at a motel in Glenwood Springs, Colorado), but at least we would get to Glenwood Springs with a much decreased chance of a blowout. Yeah, I guess flying through the near 120 degree heat at 80+ MPH for several hours wasnít too great for my tires. Oh well. The job was completed within 45 minutes and we were on our way, in darkness now. I canít remember just what time we got to Glenwood Springs, but it is very safe to say it was technically sometime Sunday morning.

Sunday was to be a "Colorado sightseeing day", as we only had to go as far as Denver. We had originally planed to hike around the mountains near Vail and find Mount Uneva. Yes, there is a "Mount Uneva", and Uneva and I thought it would be neat to see. But, we were tired, and a long hike had lost itís appeal after the rigors of the day before. An advertisement for Glenwood Caverns caught our eye. This was a short walk from our motel! With an entrance about 1000 feet up the side of a mountain, Glenwood Caverns had been somewhat difficult to access prior to the installation of a dedicated cable car a year or so ago, which takes one up the mountain side to the cave area. At the top was a gift shop with all sorts of caving stuff, a restaurant with good food and a great view of the mountains (we ate lunch there, on a deck outside), and several hiking trails. Glenwood Caverns, previously a commercial cave, had been closed for years, until cavers purchased it, re-opened a limited part of it for commercial tours (presumably to help pay for it), and took steps to preserve the remainder of the cave which hadnít been damaged by previous commercial activity. Interesting, a commercial cave run by cavers. A poster in the gift shop listed names of those in the Colorado Grotto, and others, who had helped with the restoration effort. Skip Withrow, who I had caved with in Church Cave, was on the list. As the Wild Tours required reservations, we opted for the commercial tour. All the tour guides are cavers, most being members of the Colorado Grotto. I got to talking to one about our trip to convention, and asked if she knew Skip. "Skip Withrow? Oh yeah! Great guy! And Barb too!" was her reply. Small world. Ahh, once again in the company of cavers! Our commercial tour was rather short, but took us to some very pretty rooms, especially the one at the end of the tour, and made the wild tour sound very tantalizing. "Thatís the one I want to go on", Uneva said. Cool. Mark this as a stop on the next trip, in 2005. After our tour we said goodbye to our caver guides and were on our way. We stopped briefly in Vail to see if we could pick up a book detailing the hikes on Mount Uneva. All the stores were closed, as it was now late Sunday afternoon. Oh well. We were both very tired. We decided to stop for dinner in Idaho Springs at the Buffalo Inn, a place with great steaks where we had stopped on our way out. We continued on to Denver under the cover of darkness.

Monday it was back through Eastern Colorado, Kansas, and Missouri, to St. Louis, where we would spend the night. Tuesday night we would arrive home, late. The drive home from Denver was pretty uneventful, a bit anticlimactic, but with both of us frequently reflecting on the great time we had.

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Modified: Wednesday, 12-Mar-2014 09:38:20 EDT