A Journey through Flagstaff’s Lava River Cave
The blue steller’s jay birds dance around the big and empty dirt parking lot, greeting us as we pull our stiff bodies up and out of the car.
It is early morning and although the sun came up two hours ago, the tall ponderosa trees are completely saturated in sunlight.
I pull out my day pack from the back of the car and unzip the pocket, retrieving my trusty and worn headlamp. I leave my sunglasses on the seat. It’s been a few years since I’ve done this trail and I remember to not let the sun or its warmth fool me.
We follow down the familiar wide and worn dirt path leading into the forest towards the main event we came see. Shortly, upon our right side, a big brown trail sign greets us. Carved and painted in bright yellow paint were the words, “Lava River Cave”.
Beyond this sign lays the man made shrine dedicated to the entrance of the cave. Here in the wide open space of pine trees lays rocks, purposely placed to encompasses the low and rocky entrance site of the cave. As you follow this circle around, a gap forms alluring explorers to venture on in, with a staircase cascading towards a hole in the Earth.
We carefully make our way down the short set of rounded rock stairs. At about the 3rd step down, the cave’s cold and crisp breath exhales onto our faces.
With the help of our head lamps, we navigate our way through the short scramble of rocks down into the darkness of the cave. Within a few minutes we have left the safety of the sun light and fully entered the dark cave.
This mile long tunnel, is the shell of what remains from hot lava flowing under the ground, more than 700,000 years ago.
“Oh my God!”, my sister squeals with excitement! “It’s so big!”
And she’s right.
As we peer around with our headlamps the light is illuminating this oversized tunnel that we are standing in. The light shines upon a mix of brown, gray and black colors along the tunnel walls and ceiling. Specks of silver streaks appear, radiantly standing out from the darkness surrounding it.
It looks more like an unfinished subway track created by man than it does a natural part of the Earth.
We walked through this tunnel, mindful of our footings around some lose rock areas, when at about a half mile in, we decide to test out the darkness and turn our headlamps off.
We stand there with our eyes wide open, but see complete darkness surrounding us. We may as well had them closed. Along with the darkness we noticed the silence.
Complete and utter silence.
We sit upon a large boulder upon the cave floor and shift around, trying to make ourselves as comfortable as we can. We both agree to spend a few minutes, sitting on this rock, in complete darkness and silence to really enjoy the present moment.
We put the timer on and relax our bodies preparing to take in this moment and remain still with the earth. But, it’s a funny thing when a person tries to remain still in a dark and muted cave.
Fear has a way of scratching itself to the surface.
Within seconds, my mind flickered and my heart beat fluttered imagining frightful scenarios.
“Are there little alien men surrounding me right now? What if this tunnel caves in? What if I hear a sound, that isn’t….human?”
Before these thoughts spiral out of control, I rope it in. I catch them in time.
Because these thoughts are complete nonsense.
In my head, I chuckle at myself. “Even if these fears come true…it’s too late. I’m already down here and I have no control of what will happen. So, instead of being fearful, let’s enjoy this unique moment.”
I maintain composure and switch my thoughts to every time I had wished for peace and quiet.
Every time I had to hear the same stories over and over again from co-workers around me. Every time, in bed I wished the tv would be shut off, since the blue light hurts my eyes. Every time, I imagined what pure silence sounded like.
And here I was in this space I have always so longed for.
I refocused, relaxed my forehead and cleared my thoughts. Anytime the fears popped up – I didn’t dwell on them and instead switched my attention towards my breath.
The timer went off and I hesitantly turned my head lamp back on. As I began to see the big and empty cave spread out before me, I realized that I had just understood what it meant to “let go”.
Letting go, doesn’t mean getting rid of the thoughts.
It means to accept the thoughts are there but you don’t have to pay attention to them. Instead, you have the control to switch to a better thought.
Similar to the saying, “you can’t control the first thought, but you can control the second.” The fears sprang up without my control but I chose to laugh at how absurd it was and moved on to a better thought.
As we hiked back towards the opening, the cave now had more visitors with their talkative thoughts echoing throughout the cave walls and headlamps beaming bright towards our direction.
“Did you see any skeletons?” a little girl asked as we bypassed each other.
No, no skeletons little girl. But I saw in the darkness that there is nothing worth fearing.