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Humor June 2017

Ernie's World

How Black is Black?

By Ernie Witham

My stomach grumbled.

“What was that?” a young girl on the tour asked.

“Sounded like a wounded bat.”

Some places really deserve their colorful names. Greenfield. Yellow Pine. Red Bluff. And, this year, the “all-White” House. We found another one on our recent journey into California’s Gold Country: Black Chasm Cavern.

“Ready?” The guide asked.

“Ready,” we echoed back.

She shut off the lights. We were standing on a platform more than 100 feet below ground. I could not see my hand in front of my face. Though, I did notice that it smelled like the sun-dried tomato and cheese bagel I’d had for breakfast in Sutter Creek. It made me hungry. My stomach grumbled.

“What was that?” a young girl on the tour asked.

“Sounded like a wounded bat.”

“The guide said there are no bats down here because there is nothing for them to eat.”

I wondered briefly if the guide was having trouble finding the on switch or if maybe today was her last day and she decided to leave early. I figured I might have to use the flash on my camera to lead us out one strobed step at a time.

“The guide may be long gone,” I said into the darkness. “Anyone got any snacks?”

Black Chasm Cavern, located in Volcano, California, was discovered by miners in the 1850s looking for gold – though the Miwok Indians probably knew about it much earlier and just didn’t care that much, seeing how they preferred living above ground gathering acorns. Not to mention that it’s always 57 degrees in the cavern.

The miners did not discover any gold but they did describe huge chambers and strange crystals that came out of the rock walls horizontally and turned in all directions.

“Those are helictites,” the guide had told us. “These rare crystals are only found in a few caves worldwide. Unlike stalactites that are formed by dripping water, helictites are formed when water finds its way through the porous rock and forms into strange shapes.” I took a bunch of photos of the things.

The tour requires walking down 165 fairly steep steps to a series of viewing platforms. On one stop we could look straight down and see part of an underground lake, 225 feet below ground. The guide pointed out a rope that hung from the ceiling. “You can rappel down the rope to the lake and take a small rubber raft to explore hidden caverns.”

I’ve never had a lot of luck rappelling. Once, in New Hampshire, I lowered myself over the wall to rappel from one roof to another and watched as the piece of plastic I was holding slipped right through my hands. I landed in a sitting position on the lower roof.

“You have to be certified to do it,” the guide said.

“Or certifiable,” I suggested.

At the very end of the last platform there was a great stalactite formation where the guide offered to take our photos. This took a while as there were several families and a few smaller groups. Finally, it was our turn. I handed her my camera and she said she would try not to drop it.

“What happens if someone does drop a camera or phone over the edge?” I asked.

“If they can find it, the next rappelling group, whenever that is, brings it up.”

“Be careful then,” I said, “I hate to miss lunch.”

After the photo op, the guide showed us the Black Chasm Cavern signature helictite, which looked like a crystal dragon. Everyone took photos of that and we ascended to the next platform up and the guide asked: “Anyone want to see why it’s called Black Chasm?”

Pat said no, but everyone else said yes and that’s when the guide had gone up to the top and turned out the lights. It would have been the perfect time to throw some loose change over the railing and listen to it clang to the bottom, but I couldn’t tell where the railing was and I was afraid I’d throw it the wrong way and knock the tail off the dragon and be forever banned from Gold Country.

The lights came back on. I looked around to make sure Pat was still there. She was already heading toward the stairs. Guess she must be hungry, also.


For more adventures please check out Where Are Pat and Ernie Now?

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