The floor is lava. No, really, it is. Yeah, it’s 2,000 years old and relatively safe to walk on, aside from those pesky grooves and holes that make it easy to twist an ankle, but still, it’s LAVA.
I’m stumbling around like one of the living dead today after a weekend full of adventure. Everything aches—arms, legs, and feet, in particular. I’ve got scabs on my knees and shins, and my tailbone is bruised. But it was a crazy fun trip.
Early Saturday morning, my husband, fourteen-year-old twins, and I drove to Maupin, Oregon to go white water rafting on the Deschutes River. We booked our trip through Forward Paddle, who I highly recommend. Our guide, Jim, is the owner, and was wonderful. He kept us entertained with stories, coached us on upcoming hazards, and most importantly, showed us a good time while keeping us safe. (Safety is very important when one, you’re no spring chicken and your limbs don’t bend like they used to, and two, you’re putting your favorite people in an inflatable raft and braving class 4 rapids).
We went through a set of rapids aptly named Devil’s Hole, rushing over a wall of water and submerging in a swirling whirlpool before bobbing up and going on our way. It was quite a ride.
Halfway through the trip, Jim asked how we felt about going over an eight-foot waterfall. This was met with silence as every passenger looked around, wide-eyed, at the others. “You okay with that?” I asked my boys. One was cool with it, though he looked a bit nervous. I’m sure I did too. The other, my adrenaline junkie and rollercoaster enthusiast, was all for careening off a waterfall. “Yeah,” he said. “Let’s do it.”
We went through a practice run—row, row, row, and then pull in your oar and stuff your butt in the bottom of the raft as fast as you can. “The most important thing is to stay in the boat,” Jim told us. “You do not want to fall out.” He didn’t care if we lost our oars, hats, or sunglasses—we just had to do whatever we could to hold on. There was a reason for this: the Diaper Wiper. If we fell out, the river would swallow us up, give us an ultimate wedgie, and then spit us out on two large rocks called the Meat Grinder and the Cheese Grater. Not a pretty picture, but an excellent motivator.
We beached the boat to watch another raft in our group go first. I have to say, it did not give me a great deal of confidence to watch them disappear over the edge of the waterfall and then see their guide fly out of the boat. (The guide was fine, by the way. When we caught up to him, he laughed it off—though he did get teased by his fellow guides. All in good fun.)
Then it was our turn. We dug in our oars, rowed furiously, and then tucked in as quick as we could. I grabbed the handle on my bench and hung on tight, which was a very good thing because I felt my body fly up and land on the inflated edge of the raft. Aside from one of us losing an oar and all of us coming up sputtering water, everyone was okay, and we let out a cheer as we zipped past the Cheese Grater. I believe we now have bragging rights for surviving the Diaper Wiper. Maybe I’ll put that on a t-shirt.
So that was Saturday. On Sunday, we headed up to Mount St. Helens, to explore Ape Cave, one of the longest lava tubes in the United States. The lower cave is 1.5 miles round trip, a nice walk down a gentle incline. If you go, take two flashlights in case one goes out.
It’s not terribly dangerous in the lower cave since the tunnel is huge, but you wouldn’t want to trip and fall over a boulder or ridge in the lava floor. There are some cool features—a suspended boulder called a meatball, and ridges that narrow to look like train tracks.
At the end of the cave is a tunnel that grows increasingly narrow. You’ll have to army-crawl if you do it, but it’s not too scary if you’re not claustrophobic.
To illustrate how pleasant a stroll the trail is, here’s a photo of me in the lower cave. See, not breathing hard at all.
The upper cave is an entirely different animal, and I don’t recommend it if you go alone, if you’re in poor health, or if you have small children with you. It’s an amazing, but strenuous, experience. Even though it’s only 1.5 miles long, it takes hours to get through because you have to climb over 27 (yes, 27) piles of boulders, each mound of rocks as big as a house.
Between those, you have to climb up several rock walls, formed by spilling lava. The largest, an eight-foot wall, had few handholds. It was good thing we were with a group, because it took teamwork to scale that one. Here’s a photo of me after surviving that.
It has been five days since we entered the cave. The water has long since run out, and we lost Uncle Archibald to the mutant cannibals who inhabit this God-forsaken place. I fear I shall never see the sun again.
On the bright side, my boys had a fantastic time. It’s an experience they won’t soon forget. (Neither will I. I bruised my tailbone on a rock and have that to remind me.)
We celebrated each obstacle conquered and enjoyed climbing up on rock shelves to shine our lights and look up and down the tunnels. Where the lava tubes narrowed, we could feel gusts of cold wind. The lava flows were different textures—smooth, rolling mounds and hard ridges on the floors, and spiky ripples on the ceilings.
Near the end of the tunnel is a skylight, which was a welcome sight after all that darkness.
Finally, we reached the ladder and emerged from the cave. (The tunnel goes on even further, but we’ll have to come back to explore that part. It was late in the day and we had another 1.3 miles to hike before we made it back to the parking lot.) See the hole in the ground there? Yeah. That’s the exit.
I’m sure we’ll return. Mount St. Helens is huge and there’s much to explore. We hope to head to Lava Canyon for our next adventure. Maybe next time we’ll encounter Sasquatch. I hope he’s not a mutant cannibal.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017
I don’t bruise easily. That’s not bravado talking—I’m really not a bleeder. It’s a problem because when I go to get my blood drawn every six months, it’s a real pain in the rear. Every time, I have this talk with the phlebotomist about how my veins like to play hide-and-seek (mostly hide), and how the best bet is to just take it from the top of my hand. Usually the person gives me a skeptical look and says, “That will hurt more.” I assure them it’s fine. If I’m lucky, the person listens to me and goes for it. If I’m not, the phlebotomist takes it as a personal challenge to hunt for a vein in my arm and I get poked three or four times before he finally gives up and settles for my hand. Even then, my veins are stingy and the blood flows so slowly I’m warned I might have to come in for a second draw.
This last time the phlebotomist was concerned about my hands being too cold and had me use a hand warmer to get the vein to rise to the surface. “You’re so cold!” she said, rubbing both my hands, looking for possible candidates. “Yeah. Sorry,” I replied. “I guess you can tell people you drew blood from a zombie.” She gave me a courtesy smile and inserted the needle, trying to get my vein to cooperate. (At which point I decided if I ever am undead, I should simply tell the truth rather than hide my identity. No one will believe me anyway.) “Did you drink any water today?” she asked, as my blood slowly dripped into the tube. “Tons,” I told her, nodding at my nearly empty water bottle, the fourth I’d drank that morning. “All I’ve been doing since I woke up is drink and drink and drink.”
The silver lining to not bleeding easily is it is super-duper helpful when you’re as accident-prone as I am. I am forever bumping into the edges of kitchen counters and tables, and never have anything to show for it. One time though, the husband and I decided it would be awesome to take our canoe on a creek that twisted and turned every twenty feet or so. We were kneeling in the boat, paddling like crazy, trying to navigate the curves. Then we hit some rapids and really got going. Problem was, we had too much momentum to make the last turn and ended up slamming into the shore. He was all right, and the boat was all right, but I went flying. My thigh hit the bench in the middle of the canoe. I got the giggles and couldn’t stop laughing, even though I had a bruise the size of a fist on my leg. I don’t know how fast we were going when we ran aground, but our collision had to be pretty darn forceful to leave a mark like that. I wore the bruise as a badge of honor.
Another time I went hiking during Christmas vacation with one of my best friends and his brother, and wore boots without treads. I guess I chose fashion over function, or maybe I didn’t know where exactly we were headed and how treacherous the terrain would be. I quickly recognized I’d made a mistake. My friend wanted to hike down this canyon that had been rubbed smooth by the flow of water. It was a gorgeous place, with pools of water about three feet deep, descending all the way down the canyon to a larger pool at the bottom. I took a few steps and realized the soles of my boots were too smooth to get traction against the polished rocks. Figuring I’d slip and break my tailbone if I tried to walk across a narrow section of rock, I sat down on my rear, intending to scoot along until I could stand without fear of falling. A sensible idea, until I started to slide with no way to stop myself. Next thing I knew, I was standing waist-deep in freezing water. That was the end of that adventure. The guys had to drive me back to where my vehicle was waiting, and I was too stubborn to tell them to turn on the heater. Instead, annoyed at myself, I shivered until I got to my own car, and then cranked up the heat. I refused to let on how cold I actually was during the thirty-minute drive to where I had parked, which I suppose is a good way to die of hypothermia. I survived, mostly unscathed except for my pride. We still laugh about the incident. My friend jokes that it wasn’t an adventure if I didn’t come back soaked or injured. That’s okay. We had a lot of fun on those excursions.
This Memorial Day, I had another mishap. My family and I drove to Vernonia to go hiking. There are fossil beds where you can spot seashells and there is also an abandoned railroad trestle. It’s not the safest thing to walk on because it’s a good 80 feet high, towering over the trees. After taking photos of the trestle from above, I decided to climb down a steep hill to get some shots from below.
I got down okay, but as I balanced myself at an awkward angle in the loose dirt, I felt pain in my ankle. I ignored the straining sensation in favor of snapping more photos, and then climbed back up the hill. My ankle hurt a little on the hike back to the car, but I didn’t think much of it. I even walked around a bunch the next day, running errands. By the time I was done though, my ankle was achy and swollen. I iced it that night, but it was tender on Wednesday, and I was forced to bind it so I could go to work. I looked pretty pathetic limping around, my ankle wrapped like a mummy’s. Not to worry though—I’ve been babying it since then, and I’m sure it will be better by the weekend. Just in time for my next misadventure.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
After I finished my master’s degree and got my first grown-up job, I decided to reward myself with a trip. I had been focused in college, trying to get through as quickly as possible to cut expenses. Perhaps overly focused—I took classes year-round, dedicating summer and winter breaks to study, as well as to working to pay for school. I’m not sure I would do it the same way if I were to go back in time—maybe I wouldn’t push so hard. Maybe I’d take advantage of a study abroad opportunity. At the time though, travel wasn’t something I could afford.
The first trip I took was to Europe. Since then, I’ve gotten to go to other places, like Australia and Puerto Rico. That first excursion was different though—I was on my own for the first time, halfway across the world. Well, not quite on my own. I signed up with a tour group, expecting to meet up with other travelers in their twenties. Instead, I landed in Amsterdam and discovered my fellow travelers were all of retirement age. After the initial awkwardness wore off, I had a wonderful time. It was like traveling with two dozen affectionate grandparents. I still stay in touch with one of the women I met. She’s now in her nineties, and sharp as ever. From her, I learned that having style is more about confidence than what you wear. She had so much charisma, it was easy to forget her age.
One of the most important lessons I learned from that trip is the world is not a theme park created for my amusement. I wasn’t in Disneyland. I was visiting real countries with real consequences. This was most evident to me in Venice. Our group was headed to dinner, and somewhere, dazed with wonder walking those beautiful labyrinthine streets, I fell behind. For one panicked moment, I was lost. I didn’t know where I was, or where we were headed. I knew no one (though some of the men in the streets seemed awfully eager to get to know me). Suddenly, the world seemed dark and dangerous. Luckily, our guide noticed I was missing and backtracked to find me. I was fortunate someone was looking out for me. From then on, I took pains to stay with the group.
Another important lesson from that trip was this: people think differently, and that’s okay. Growing up in America, I was unaware that people in other countries are not as squeamish about nudity. Eager to use the hotel’s pool in Munich, I donned my suit, grabbed a towel, and opened the door to the recreation area. An old man sat just inside the entrance, a white bathrobe draped over his shoulders. I’m not sure why he had the robe, because he sure wasn’t using it for its intended purpose. I got an eyeful. Old man full frontal. Shocked out of my naivety, but determined to try to fit in with the locals, I resisted the urge to run back upstairs to my room, and swam anyway. I wasn’t ready to shed my own suit, nor will I ever be, but I realized my way of thinking wasn’t representative of the rest of the world. I think that’s a good thing, because I learn more interacting with people who are different from me.
Then there was my trip to Australia. One night I gazed at different constellations than the ones I knew, and watched as a fruit bat sailed past the face of the moon. I met scuba divers from all over the world in the Great Barrier Reef, played underwater paparazzo with a shark, fed kangaroos, sat in on lectures at a university, and discovered that beets come standard on burgers in Australia. I’m not a fan of beets, but I loved learning that ketchup is called tomato sauce in the land down under. Even better, child safety seats are called baby capsules, which sounds much more exciting. Like tiny flying saucers for babies.
I also learned that the United States is on a world stage. At the time, one of the Bush daughters was getting married. Most Americans I knew could not have cared less, but I remember watching the news in Australia, which covered the story. Over b-roll of collectible plates featuring the young couple, the reporter claimed the nuptials of the President’s daughter were “as close to a royal wedding” as America gets. That aside, the Australians I spoke with knew more about American politics than I did.
One day a cabbie asked me about the upcoming presidential election, and whether I planned to vote for Obama or McCain. He favored Obama because he felt world relations would fare better under his leadership. I was surprised he had an opinion about it—I knew nothing about Australian politics, other than what I’d seen on the news during my stay. I realized how we vote in America doesn’t just affect the United States. There are global implications. I knew this, in theory, before that conversation, but hearing it from someone with a different worldview underscored the point.
As I’ve followed our current presidential election, I’ve been thinking about that cabbie a lot lately. I wonder what he thinks about this round of candidates. I hope, as a country, we do right by him and our other international neighbors. I hope we vote wisely for all of us.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016