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road tripping: finding the elusive derrick cave

I was beginning to wonder whether it really existed. Maybe it only existed in the distant dreams of mountain men and bats leaving guano against lava walls; tubes and tunnels and caverns weaving a web underground.

It all began innocently enough while exploring cracks and crevices outside of the area surrounding Fort Rock. 

We'd gone on a late season camping trip with some friends. You know the type, where nights are cold and stars are visible in the ink above, with days breaking into sunlit skies and moderate temperatures.

The initial destination was Crack in the Ground and a roadside diner in Christmas Valley that dishes up darn good Reuben sandwiches. Like most park sites, there's always a map and legend with other scenic spots to check out. And, one such sign told of a cave that was cold and needed reliable illumination. The name, the words, set the marble into motion - the quest which became a crusade to find Derrick Cave.

It seemed real enough. There was a sign with a basic map, pictures on the internet of a sky-lit cavern with sketchy directions. And, it was supposedly not far from where we were - somewhere in the Devils Garden, all rather phantom-like and illusory.

Back in October - with no real Forest Service maps - we drove in a vague direction, relying on spotty cell phone service.

We passed markers like Buzzard Butte and Hogback which indicated a nearness to the cave. However, the cave eluded in some mysterious, crazy like a fox way. 

As dusk began to settle in with its muted color, we grudgingly headed back; sulking like kids who had to stop playing as the sun dipped behind the dim horizon.

We consoled ourselves with glasses of wine around a fire with flames licking the night and notions of our next search outing. But winter arrived, and with it the Holidays. Lives get busy; adventures get pushed into the recesses of the calendar in favor of all things jolly and bright.

February came, as did three feet of snow, even more at the cave which is situated above 5,000 feet. We had brunch with our friends instead and devoured maps and routes, savoring the dreams of dark and damp and the microorganisms that dwell inside, as much as the food.

April, should have been a golden month for a mission; the in-town snow long gone. The sun was peeking gingerly out from behind the clouds of the next storm, but our plans were made. We felt good; the type of good that climbers of Mt. Everest feel. That good! Derrick Cave was definitely on the radar, until we met snow head on. Snow had not been in the plan. Snow wasn't even a consideration, but there it was; we were stuck and out-of-luck.

Now, the story gets better. We were stuck with no shovel, and all doors of the running truck were locked, with us outside. 

Of course we didn't have coats on, we (the girls) only got out of the warm, running truck to find a discrete alfresco potty spot. Another minor complication was that our cell phones, which had miserly reception, were in the truck. Enter my guy to the rescue. His phone was tucked into his pants pocket. He never has his phone, ever!

The storm was rolling in fast, casting spits of rain from wind driven clouds. There was a small angst in our group as OnStar's number was dialed. The first attempt failed as the phone number wasn't the registered number. An actual person was needed. Now, I've seen the commercials on television where someone in need phones and like magic from somewhere in space and time the doors are opened or rescue help is sent. Well, I'm here to tell you, it actually worked. Hearing the click of the door locks was sweet, sweet music.

With the help of pine needles and a few broken branches, the Chevy was no longer wedged in the snow and we were free to travel back the way we'd come. A little hyped up about what had been overcome, and a little melancholy for what had not been found, we sought great solace in pizza with charred crust and ice cold beer.

The stellar weather at the beginning of May started crooning a siren's song, luring us to Derrick Cave. And, as legend has it, sirens are deadly luring creatures of enchanting music. So, a new checklist of necessary items was jotted down. A bottle of celebratory wine was packed in a basket, along with a few provisions.

We had a shovel, proper maps, saved maps and images on our phones, GPS and a full tank of gas, so what could go wrong? 

We were so invincible in the "three's a charm" search for the lava tube designated as a nuclear fallout shelter back in the 1960's. My thought was, how would anyone find it? And why in the world would anyone drop a bomb out in the middle of nowhere?

The cave was named after H.E. Derrick, a pioneer rancher, who had a homestead about three miles from the cave. It's said that it was a summer getaway for Fort Rock locals who would use the ice in the cave to make ice cream. And, yes, there was plenty of ice in the back of the cave. NASA also used the cave in 1960 as a test site for lunar landings, wanting to find underground spaces that astronauts could use if needed. Once again, it begs the question of why?

Cinco de Mayo was quite a celebration this year, but not for the usual reasons! There were no icy margaritas with salty rims, or cilantro-filled street tacos or Mariachi bands playing Cielito Lindo. No traditions from our South-of-the-Border friends. There was, however, a cave that had been an elusive pipe dream on two previous occasions. 

Derrick cave had a wide-mouthed entrance and blow-out holes that let glorious light filter into the front of the opening. 

Venturing further in, ice developed into stalagmites, rising from the floor of the cave and bat guano lined the walls. It was dark, so dark that you couldn't see your hand. And lichen in muted green and red clung to cold lava, looking like an impressionistic textural painting. It was surreal and beautiful, quiet and solitary, even with other people making their way in and out.

One companion made her way back to the truck, while two others ventured deeper into the cave. This left me along in the raven room. I stood and absorbed the cold, the dark, the quiet that was beyond quiet. Senses heightened, I was aware of my smallness in the vastness of creation, hearing slight drips that form the ice formations, slowly over time.

Time does move slowly when allowing yourself to be. And, in the course of time, I had to exit; entering the daylight once again, sun warming my chilled body.

With a contended sigh, big, bold red wine was uncorked and glasses were raised. My heart reflected on the words of naturalist John Muir, "In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks." The elusive had been found, sans the bats.

One last thing, did I mention there was a giant pine tree across one of the roads? Go figure.



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