At any national landmark between the very edges of North American coasts west and east, at any nature reserve or rock formation or mountain range or waterfall, if there is a gift shop, in it there is a bin of brightly colored rocks that you can put in a velvet satchel and purchase. Why?
I’m part of the problem. I want these rocks, and I cannot explain it. Walking into these gift shops, I have always immediately intuited the location of the rocks, and, sinking my fingers into their crevices and around their unnaturally smooth edges, stood over them in half-crazed desire. I want these, I think. No—I need these. I know they are useless. I know that once I have put them in a bag and paid for them, they will lose their power and appeal. So I haven’t bought any rocks since I was 11. Until last week.
I could make excuses. I could say that buying them only cost an extra $5.75 over what was otherwise a $12 ticket to Crystal Cave in Spring Valley, Wisconsin, and that would be technically true. I could say that because I’d be “panhandling” them from a bag of mining rough, as opposed to hand-picking them out of a bin and dropping them in a dainty drawstring pouch, I’d be earning them more authentically—practically like a real miner. I could try to pretend I’m joking, but the young woman who sells us our tickets and hands us our new bags of dirt can see that I am quite serious.
We have a half-hour before our tour, so the cashier says we can pan for our gems while we wait. She points out a stack of wooden pans and tells us to take one each, plus our bags of dirt, and follow her outside. She shows us the sluice—a 30-foot-long wooden trough with water running through it, with what are clearly child-sized benches on either side. It doesn’t matter; the website says gem panning is for “prospectors of ALL ages.” (Emphasis mine.)
She then heads back inside without a word, and though at first I’m surprised she doesn’t give us more direction, there’s not much to it. We pour the dirt into our pans and dip them into the water, draining the sand and picking out the previously hidden “gems” that emerge. We identify them with the little guide card we were given, finding that between Rylee and I, amazingly, we have handfuls of rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and crystal points. I become instantly and incredibly wealthy, and, as we head back inside for our tour, begin considering taking a member of One Direction as a younger lover.
This was true, or else I now had a wet bag of rocks in my purse. Only time will tell. What I knew for certain was this: the easy part of the trip (the above-ground part) was over.
CRYSTAL CAVE IS, AT nearly a mile long, hailed as the longest cave in Wisconsin and, at close to an hour-and-a-half drive from the Twin Cities, the single best field trip many of the area’s school kids will ever enjoy. I was there in middle school, but that was before I was old and wise enough to fear death constantly. This time, when our tour leader, a bearded guy named Josh, leads us—the last two cave-explorers of the day, the perfect number for a tragedy—down the stairs into the cave, I know to stand at the top and take one last, rueful look at the daylight around me.
The first time I panic is after we’ve descended two long sets of stairs and Josh refers to our landing spot as “the first” of three levels below ground. The second time I panic is only a minute later, when he mentions the number of bats—about which I had known, but somehow forgotten—currently in the cave; I can’t remember it now, but it was well above my preferred number of zero.
“How many bat attacks have you witnessed?” I ask.
“Zero,” says Josh, lying through his teeth. “The other day was the first time I’ve ever seen a bat come into contact with a guest, but it just landed for a second and then flew away.” I guess this is supposed to help. “Also, there were just 12 cases of rabies in the U.S. in the past year, and only three of those died.” Josh, I decide, is better at cave and bat facts than he is at reassuring others.
Josh is also good at asking easy questions, and the middle-school teacher’s pet in me is good at answering them. “What breakfast item do you think that formation looks like?” he asks. “Bacon!” I whisper excitedly. “This is flint, used for starting...” he trails off. I, grinning madly, finish his sentence: “Fire!” “The ceiling is dripping carbonic acid,” he says. “Do you know what we drink that has carbonic acid?” he asks. “POP!” I yell, jumping from one foot to another. I feel a bit sick down here.
One of the main problems with caves is that you can’t see any way out of them. There is no way to tell just how far beneath the surface you are, so when Josh asks us to guess, I say “500 feet” because that’s about how far it feels. It turns out that the real answer is only about 70 feet. I feel embarrassed until Josh tells us that a lot of people guess “a mile.” Seventy feet doesn’t seem so bad, I think. “There’s a bat right there,” Josh says, pointing directly above my head. I’m not proud of the sound that comes out of my mouth.
AS WE WALK THROUGH a narrow cavern full of stalagmites and stalactites, Rylee asks Josh about his experiences with the cave. There are areas not featured in our tour, he tells us, because they are too dangerous and tight. One such room, dubbed the “bat cave,” can only be crawled through on hands and knees and takes three hours to finish. When Josh tells us about it, I want to scream and cry on his behalf, and I also want to hug him. I’ve come to feel protective of this red-headed, bat-loving tour guide of mine, even if the way he spends his free time makes me confused and upset.
Nearing the end of our tour, the next area we enter feels small and ominous. Josh sidles up to the wall and asks us if we’d like to see “total darkness.” I would suggest running from people who ask you that, but again: Where to go? Rylee says yes, Josh flips a switch, and everything goes black. Seas and caves, he says, are the only places on Earth where such darkness can exist. He asks us to wave our hands right in front of our faces. There is the sensation of my one hand moving (and the other clenching Rylee’s), but the visual proof is not there. (If a hand waves in the cavern, but nobody sees it, is it even still attached to my arm?)
The last room we see is the wish room, where thousands of coins are pressed into cracks at least 15 feet up the walls. Some, Josh says, are dated as early as 1882. He asks if we want to make a wish. I pull a quarter from my pocket and carefully place it on a ledge above my head. I hope we make it out of there, I hope Josh doesn’t ever get stuck, and, seeing as they’ve been perfect hosts, I hope the bats have long and wonderful lives. I also wish for them to land on some sixth graders, but then I take it back. Then I wish it again. They’re young. They can take it.
Katie Heaney is a writer based in Minneapolis. She has a memoir coming out in early 2014.