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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Lots to do in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge

I drag myself into Hemlock Lodge, at Kentucky’s Natural Bridge State Park, with a direct aim for the water fountain. After a hardy guzzle to satisfy myself, I fill one of my empty water bottles partway and exit out to the overlook, which runs the length of the lodge, over the tree-filled valley, the lake and the swimming pool.

I want to collapse. I’m exhausted. My muscles—from my feet to my shoulders—are complaining. I can wring perspiration from my shirt, I’ve sweat that much.

Some yahoo is out here talking on his cell phone. But I don’t care. I lie flat on my back, head on the concrete, legs straight out. He can step over me if he needs to get past. After several more swallows of water and a few minutes of “All she kin do iny more is stay home. It’s sad,” and “Oh, Ah know she is. It’s sad, sad. Are you goin’ ta the sale at the haa school?  What tahm’re you gonna be there? Ah was thinkin’…” I lose consciousness.

I just hiked nine miles, in mid-July heat, the last two without water despite starting out with two full Camelbacks. I didn’t ration it well.

I arrived here this morning from Lexington, where I spent the night with my cousin and her family. Mark, my husband, is fishing on Lake Erie, having just last week agreed to fill a spot that opened at the last minute. Soon after he got the call, I started planning my jaunt.

It started at the Lexington Healing Arts Academy where I experienced a relaxing yet energizing, three-hour yoga workshop, then to my cousin’s for the night and ultimately here to Natural Bridge State Park.

I arrived at 10 a.m. grabbed a park map and planned out two days of hiking. However, even freshly showered, I doubt my body will recover enough overnight to crave a hike of much distance tomorrow. Natural Bridge State Park lies within Kentucky’s Red River Gorge area, and I check the map for short trails from 715, the road that rings the area.

Morning comes and I find myself on a zipline tour. Earlier, driving from the lodge, desperate for something to do other than hike, I stopped at a rest area near the Mountain Parkway and found a flier.

Flying through the forest canopy for more than an hour builds an appetite. I lunch at Rock Bridge picnic area, three miles in on a gravel road from 715. Afterwards, I lock lunch residuals in my car and hike to Rock Bridge. The trail is tight with greenery on both sides until it opens up along a dry creek bed, which I cross. And there it is: the Rock Bridge. So beautiful, with ferns on top and vines dripping down. Mesmerizing, with sunlight filtering through the trees. A perfect spot for a wedding proposal. I wish Mark were with me. Experiences mean more if they’re shared. 
Three months later I do return to Red River Gorge with Mark. We drive through the single-lane rock tunnel, and I tell him how in July I had to wait five minutes to enter because I was behind a large truck, which inched its way through, sending out painful scraping noises the whole way. We hike to Natural Bridge (a shorter way than I took myself), Rock Bridge (which wasn’t as romantic this time—must be the lighting) and every other arch I’d seen on my own.

We hiked to (and walked across) the suspension bridge, Sky Bridge, Haystack Rock, Double Arch and more, and that’s not nearly half the area. We stopped at the visitor center, and ate at Miguel’s Pizza, where you can find something to fill you no matter your dietary restrictions.

The Red River Gorge is gorgeous, it’s close to home, and it offers lots to see even if you don’t hike. Whistling Arch and Angel Windows are just a quarter mile from the road. A lift at Natural Bridge State park takes visitors to the top of the arch—no hiking required. The view across the verdant valley reminds me of the Smokies.

Mark and I will be back. We have more than half the park to see yet.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Hooking fish and other things in Georgia

On Memorial Day, waters in the creek showed whitecaps due to Tropical Storm Beryl moving in. Mark and I fished from the dock. We were at Dad’s on the Georgia coast south of Savannah.

The previous night, just before the rains hit and during rough waters, we hung the boat. Dad built his floating dock in a “U” shape with the opening just big enough for his 18-foot Shoal Cat. He maneuvered it in, placed hooks through two belt-loop-like metal pieces on either side in the back and one on the bow and powered it out of the water. I pulled the plug from the back so the rain wouldn’t collect.

So, we didn’t have the boat to sit in, and the dock was wet from morning rains. Mark was smart and thought to bring a plastic chair from the porch, where we’d eaten crabs earlier.

We took turns sitting in the chair. I sat first; he stood. Not much time passed before he hooked a hotdog shark, what we call the tiny ones we catch consistently, and I shoved the chair down the dock, careful to hold on to it until he sat so it wouldn’t blow away. Then I caught a hotdog and he passed the chair back.

Dad walked down and pulled a five-gallon bucket from the boat and sat it end-up, thus making himself a seat. Mark offered him the chair, but he refused it.

After several more hotdog sharks and chair trades, I hooked something big. It pulled hard. I stood and eventually landed it: a butterfly ray. I’d caught one Saturday when we were out in the river. In the 13 years Dad’s lived there, he’d never seen one.

The chair had been mine, but before I could transfer it, the wind blew it into the water. Mark tried to snag it with his pole but was unsuccessful. Dad suggested grabbing it as it passed the neighbor’s dock, about 8 yards away. Luckily the tide was slow.

To get to the neighbor’s dock, I ran up Dad’s floating dock, and up the portion elevated over the tall grass and marshy soil, through the yard, squeezed through a hole in the greenery into the neighbor’s yard, which I ran through to the next yard. Out of breath, I stepped on to the elevated portion of their dock.

Mark waved me back. I figured he was able to hook it with his pole and reel it in, so I turned around. Only a couple steps later I heard yelling. I turned and he and Dad were pointing to the neighbor’s dock shouting. I was too far away to understand them, but the situation seemed urgent. I misunderstood Mark’s waving. I booked it down to the floating dock.

When I got there Dad shouted over, “It should float out the other side. Just wait for it.”

I waited. “It’s not coming.”

I reverse-pushupped my way down to look under the dock and saw the chair stuck between floats about eight feet back.

Dad recommended I not swim under to loosen it because of the barnacles. Barnacles cement themselves to any stationary, solid object consistently underwater. They’re tiny with rough shells. A time earlier when Mark and I came to Georgia Dad had left his boat tied up at the dock a few days without running it. Barnacles attached and created drag when he did run it. To remove them, Dad motored his boat to a sandbar at low tide, I got into the water, gathered a big gulp of air and went under to scrape them off with a hatchet. The tops of my fingers were bloodied when we were done, but the boat slipped through the water a lot better.

Barnacles hurt, so I wasn’t swimming around floats ensconced in them. How would we get the chair? Dad shouted over that he’d make something, and he started toward the house. 

Several minutes later I intercepted Dad in the yard. He carried a 10-foot, thin, metal pole on the end of which he’d duct taped a gaff. A gaff is a hook on a handle used for lifting fish when a fishing line might be too unreliable. They come in different sizes. The hook on this one was about the size of my thumb and index finger making a C.

I took the pole, rested it on my shoulder and reversed direction, as did Dad. After a couple steps I turned: “You wanna come down to see the action?” He answered, “Why not?”

A woman and two girls played on the dock just beyond the neighbor’s. As Dad and I walked, I told him I was glad I was doing this: doing the work to get the chair. I wanted to show those girls that women are capable of doing things most would picture a man doing. I wanted to be their hero for the day.

On the floating dock, I lay, belly down, and hung my head to reassess the situation. The chair had not moved. I lifted my head and pushed my now wet bangs to the side before grabbing the pole and hanging my head again.

I barely nudged the chair and it came floating out. I grabbed it with my left hand and held the pole in my right. It was ungainly because of its length. I asked Dad to take it. As he bent over, I lifted it higher and the gaff bit into my cheek.

I felt my skin pop and I screamed, not knowing how deep the hook entered but picturing myself disfigured. But…it didn’t hurt too much. However, I was still freaked out. Dad took the pole and looked at my face as I turned my cheek toward him. He said it didn’t look too bad.

I sat up as he pulled the chair from the water. With concern, he looked at me again and offered his shirt to wipe the blood. I declined and sat half a minute more, hyperventilating, blood running down my jaw, drying on my neck and collar bone. Then I got up and carried the pole up the dock, followed by Dad carrying the chair.

I stopped to tell the woman and the girls that I was OK. They’d witnessed me screaming, crying and hyperventilating so I doubted they thought of me as the heroin I’d wanted to be. But I let them know I was getting over it quickly.

A hook to the face. Now I know how the fish feel.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Even Lie-around Beach Vacations Have Their Hazards

“We’re going to Cuba,” Service tells me as we zip along in our Hobie Cat sailboat, the Jamaican coast appearing smaller by the minute.
“I don’t have my passport.”
“That’s OK; you’re with me.” He smiles.
He tells me it’ll take four hours to get there, after I ask. Since we don’t have water or any provisions, and the day is late, we decide an early start tomorrow will be a better opportunity. We’ll lunch on the island-nation, and I’ll be back in time for dinner at the resort with my husband.
Of course, our talk has been in jest. Why would I want to spend eight hours of my vacation at sea when I could be soaking up luxuries at the all-inclusive resort?

Mark and I are in Montego Bay, and Service (that’s his name), a watersports guy, has taken me sailing several times. I feel safe on or in the water with him. He’s also taken me snorkeling twice. However, the first time I go snorkeling is Service’s day off.

The leader of our snorkeling group directs us smack into a school of jellyfish. I’m swimming near the back of the group of 10 and pull up when I notice a jellyfish inches in front of my mask. I tread and scan across the water, just below the surface. They are all over the place: transparent tubes, with half-dollar-sized diameters and what look like strawberry seeds in them. The ones I see are about 18 inches long and folded over haphazardly, like miniature Slinkys. Service tells me later that they are usually more than three feet long.
I freak out, there are so many. I lean back and back-paddle out of there. Within seconds I hit one with my left forearm. I scream, more from being startled than from the pain. It’s not much worse than a bee sting. Tiny barbs only a couple millimeters long hang from my forearm in a narrow horseshoe pattern from four inches above my wrist up nearly to my elbow crease. Would it be better to pull them out or to let them be, I don’t know.

On my swim over to the escort in his kayak, I spot a large ray swimming toward the other snorkelers. I shout a heads up and then pull my arm from the water. The worker gently touches my arm and says to swim in and visit the watersports shack so someone there can apply vinegar to it, to take the sting away.
Almost 10 minutes have passed by the time I get to the shack, and a woman there tells me to rinse it before she pours the vinegar. I turn on the hose, let the water run over my forearm, but the barbs are stuck. I notice a thin, transparent goo came with them.  I use my thumb on the end of the hose, but the increased pressure does nothing to budge the stickers.
Mark should see these things, how tenaciously they hang on. I turn off the water and run off to search for him.
He’s not on the pool deck. Maybe he is still in our room yet. It’s ground-floor and is quite convenient with its patio being just beyond the pool. Intending to knock on the sliding glass door to see if he’s there, I run through the wet grass and step on the patio, but my foot slides across the tile and I crash down on the edge and scream for the second time that morning, more from pain this time. Mark is not in the room, and as I lie there a minute to recover, I realize he’s likely at the gym, too far away for me to get to—because this sting is starting to really hurt.
I limp back around the pool, and a gentleman tending flowers there asks if I’m OK. Not thinking of my most recent injury, I tell him of the sting. He says the best thing is to pee on it. I smile, tell him I’ll try it if the vinegar doesn’t work and head for the watersports shack.

Several people from the snorkeling group are lined up, hosing off various body parts, and the rest of the group is coming in from the beach. They’ve all been stung. As I wait my turn for the vinegar, I decide to pick the stingers out. I wish I’d done this earlier because it offers some relief. An English woman in front of me sees that my sting covers more area than anyone else’s so insists I be next for treatment.  I tell her what the gardener told me about peeing on the sting. “Well, they would know, wouldn’t they?” she says.

I sit by the pool, and after 10 minutes the sting returns. “Why not?” I think.
In the room I grab a glass from the sink and step into the shower. I empty my bladder into the glass and pour its contents down my arm. The pain disappears. Immediately. And it never returns.
Now, three weeks since the jellyfish sting, the bruises on my knee and foot, resulting from the patio wipeout, are barely visible, but the horseshoe pattern of tiny red bumps on my arm is still obvious. I can’t expect when they’ll fade.
The more visible injuries I have, the more memorable the vacation. This was a good one.

Monday, January 09, 2012

The Memphis Barbecue Festival: fun, food, drinks and drunkenness

Most of the booths at the Memphis Barbecue Festival are pretty extravagantly decorated: bright colors, big letters, faux columns and facades, tables and chairs set up, even couches. Lots had people on the roofs, swilling beer and smiling down on passersby. The smaller booths were about 8’ by 10’ and some twice as big.

Mark, my husband, and I arrive at 2 p.m., just as the festival opens. We had been at the Civil Rights Museum, reading the interesting exhibits, arranged chronologically. However, we left just before MLK got assassinated because I got hungry.

Mark buys a beer, and before we have a chance to go deeper into the vendor area in search of food, we stop at the information booth to sign up for a tour of some barbecue booths.

I am so hungry, but the tour starts in 10 minutes, so we sit on the grass in the shade of a small tree not too far away and wait.

The first booth we tour is just on the edge of the showy booths, and it is boring: plain white walls, two lawn chairs, a cooler and a grill out back. That’s it. A 23-year-old first-timer, cooking with his dad, mans the booth. The younger gives us the science of barbecue: how wet the wood chips should be, ultimate heat to cook with, optimum airflow through cooker for proper combustion. One couple on tour leave before he finishes, but I find it all interesting.

The next booth, sponsored by Hogwild, a local restaurant, has more entertainment value. It’s fully ensconced in the party area and is properly decked in wide swaths of red, black and yellow with a big, smiling, pink pig head painted at the entrance, like Porky is welcoming us inside.

And what a welcome sight it is. Inside is a long table with coleslaw, baked beans and other food. Off the front hang signs with the Hogwild website and motto. We pass through to the grill in back, and I wish for celery, wings, a candy bar, anything I could grab from that table. But alas, none of it’s finger food. I am ravenous.

The jovial proprietor says we’re just in time to see the cook prepare some ribs for grilling. “But first,” he says, “go back and grab some drinks.”

I want to grab a plate and load up, but instead I pull a plastic Solo® cup off the stack and dispense a margarita from the mixer on the far wall. Mark takes a beer and leaves money in the tip jar in thanks for our libations.
Back at the grill we learn that Hogwild soaks ribs in a vinegary barbecue sauce, and just before they go on the grill, they get one of two spicy rubs, one sweeter than the other. The proprietor pinches a dusting of each into our palms for tasting, and Mark and I both think the flavor excellent.

With my margarita gone, I watch two guys apply rub and put ribs on the grill. Below the grill is a pan of marinade—the same that the ribs had been soaking in the previous 24 hours. In a heat box below the marinade burn charcoal and wood, creating a unique smoke that pipes to the closed grill, flavoring the meat.

When the cooks complete the demonstration, one invites us to take our fill from the food inside. No one hesitates. First I refill my margarita cup.

Mark loads a bun with pork. Even I, who rarely eats meat, get a bit of bun-less pork I’m so famished.

We take the stairs and sit at tables on the roof. Mark chows down. I fork some slaw and beans into my maw and rest. I was so hungry, yet now my stomach has a sharp, centralized pain that prevents me from eating more.

After two minutes of me just sitting there, Mark slides my plate in front of himself. “I intend to eat that!” He slides it back. I shovel in seven beans and give up. The guide is back to collect us anyway; the tour is over.

I had intended to use my press credentials (“I write a travel column syndicated to four papers in Southwest Ohio…”) to get us onto some rooftops for partying this evening, but my stomach hurts and it starts to rain. Not to mention that I finished my second margarita and now feel like napping.

We do try to wait it out, the rain and my drunkenness. The rain stops, but with little food in my belly, I still want to sleep.

Mark keeps me moving. We walk to the car and drive to Corky’s BBQ. Our food comes quickly: chicken, beans and slaw for me; ribs for Mark. Even though I’ve sobered up after that hearty meal, I make a dumb suggestion. “Let’s stop at TCBY,” which sells frozen yogurt.

We do. My stomach hurts again.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Catching fish and a suntan off the Georgia coast

“Is it a stingray?” my husband, Mark, asked as I was pulling up my catch. Stingrays have a distinctive pull.  I’ve mentioned in an earlier column that stingrays are the bane of the south sea fisherman because getting them off the hook is challenging: there’s always the chance they’ll whip their tale around and sting. We catch them frequently when we’re fishing on the salt-water creek Dad lives on in Georgia.

That afternoon Mark and I took the boat out, just us two, up the creek just a little ways from the dock. We’d seen minimal action there during earlier trips.
We’d been sitting in one spot for nearly an hour with no action when Mark commented that all we were catching was a suntan. Despite the lack of action, we were enjoying the heat of the early October sun and each other’s company.
A minute later, my line started twitching. Excited, I set the hook and stood to reel it in. Mark coached me, reminding me not to pull too hard or reel too fast. He and Dad have drilled into me that I need set the hook only once; I have a tendency to reel and jerk, losing my catch, likely ripping the hook from the fish’s mouth.
Mark asked if it were a stingray because they do put up a fight, as my catch was doing, but stingrays don’t pull on the drag, stripping line, and whatever was on my line was strong enough to do just that.
“I don’t know what it is, but it’s not a stingray,” I answered, adding: “I don’t think it is,” to ease my disappointment just in case.
Soon my catch was at the surface, and we saw the sun glint off the bass’s sleek, silver scales before it dove below. Within a minute I steered it to the net Mark held. He lifted it into the boat, and I gave a victory whoop. Mark got it off my hook and measured it: 22 inches.  This sea bass—aka red fish—was the biggest fish I ever caught besides a shark.
Mark slipped the fish into the Igloo cooler with the frozen squid we always bring as back-up bait in case we run out of shrimp, which was not likely to happen that day.
I rebated with a live shrimp, cast out behind the boat into the honey hole where the bass had bit and let the weight take it to the bottom.
Forty minutes after the red fish bit, I borrowed Mark’s comment that we weren’t catching anything but a suntan. A minute after that I pulled in an 11-inch whiting, big enough to keep. Whiting are what we hook most frequently, even more than sting rays, and they make for a tasty dinner.
That suntan comment was our good luck phrase and 25 minutes later Mark made it again, and I pulled in a 17-inch flounder, which Mark had to capture with the net.
After he put it into the cooler with the other two fish, I said how I wished another boat would come by and the people on it would ask us if we’d had any luck so I could tell them about my two great catches, to revel in my victory. Mark shook his head and said that fishermen never reveal that they’re having much luck.
Five minutes later a small boat with “BAIT” printed on the side, with a phone number, slowed down as it passed, the only boat we’d seen all day. It was a crab boat, and the two young men on it, one shirtless, were on their way to collect from their traps set out further along the creek.
As they coasted past, the shirtless one asked, “Caught anything?
“Nothing but a suntan,” was Mark’s response.

I laughed out loud. The flounder flipped around in the cooler. Too far away to notice either, the crabbers nodded in commiseration and motored off. It’s our secret spot now.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Establishment of an American Village

In the 1840s failed crops and foul weather left Glarus, Switzerland, in tough times. Desperate to help their people survive, the Swiss government loaned families enough to travel to the New World and purchase land. The majority of the 193 who left Switzerland came to southwest Wisconsin, where they settled in a fertile valley with rolling hills, which reminded them of Switzerland. They affectionately named their new home New Glarus.
            My husband, Mark, and I arrived at the Swiss Historical Village in New Glarus just in time for the first tour of the morning. Eleven buildings of period furnishings arranged around a central yard comprised the village. Starting the tour with us was another couple with children and a woman with twin girls about seven years old and the twins’ grandmother. Those twins, with pale skin, light red hair and irises of barely blue, seemingly dazed out on something, stuck to their mother’s side like lint on a screen—as hard as our guide tried to engage them. Their languid manner and expressions of disinterest changing not during the 105-minute tour. The other children, a brother and sister about the same age as the twins, played on the lawn, occasionally checking in with their parents.

Our guide, an older gentleman, told us about the settlement of New Glarus. The Swiss government sent two scouts to America with an aim for St. Louis, Missouri. They were to purchase land, build cabins and generally get things organized before the would-be settlers left from their homeland. However, by 1845 St. Louis was quite the popular destination and land in and around the area was out of the Swiss government’s price range. So, the scouts pointed north, toward undeveloped land. In what would be southwest Wisconsin, they purchased 1,280 acres at $1.25 per.

The Switzerland group reached St. Louis, expecting their months-long journey, which had claimed six souls to that point, to be at an end, only to learn that their scouts had been there and left. The Swiss mix hired two more scouts to locate the original scouts, and eventually most met in the area of New Glarus. Some of the original group stayed in St. Louis because they could not afford to journey further.
            Our guide showed us the roster of passengers on the barge the settlers took from Switzerland. He focused in on one young couple, traveling with an infant. He proudly stated that those two were his great-great grandparents.
            Several more people had joined the tour by the time we reached the final building, the church. Our guide invited us to take seats in the pews as we looked all around. A large rope hung through the ceiling in the back, and, after our guide asked, one of the twins, after the mother plucked her off her hip, walked over to pull on it. No smile, no excitement or interest, and she couldn’t pull it at first; the bell it was attached to was too heavy. After a couple half-hearted attempts, the guide helped the twin toll the bell. The bell rang once, and the twin released the rope and started back to her mom. The guide looked at the rest of us like, “I am really trying.” He (and the mom) did convince her to come back and ring it several more times. With the momentum of the swinging bell, she could do this on her own. And, though she didn’t smile, her eyes lost that bored, dazed out look.
            A pump organ sat at the front of the church, and, wanting to demonstrate its sound, our guide asked if anyone knew how to play. No one responded. He asked again, looking at each of us, begging. I sighed and stuck my hand up, hoping my third-grade piano lessons would come back. It’d been probably 20 years since I had sat at a piano. I didn’t know what I would play, but I walked to the organ and sat on the stool with the spinning seat. My feet pumped the pedals and my mind drew a blank. Why did I volunteer? I thought, continuing to pump, Because the poor guide looked desperate and needed a break after working so hard to get a reaction from the twins. I put my right thumb on middle C, and plinked out the only song that came to me: “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
            After the ending “mac-a-ro-ni” flourish, I swiveled around to great applause and wide smiles (though I don’t recall seeing the twins’ faces). As I scooted into the pew next to Mark he whispered, “I didn’t know you could play!” It was nice to learn I still held surprises for him, after so many years together. The melody was also a perfect, patriotic ending to a lesson in American history.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

An Indiana Jones experience in an underwater cave: Part II

Mark and I are in Belize in a group of eight being led through Actun Tunichil Muknal, known better as the ATM. It’s an underwater cave. On the dry second floor we saw Mayan pottery and a skeleton and skulls of sacrifice victims. Now we’re back in the water. Our guide, Oscar, leads us out a different way from which we came. It’s more challenging, more fun. At one point, to ratchet up the adrenaline, he has us switch off our headlamps. It’s not totally dark; we can sense faint natural light ahead. We all advanced the 30–40 feet with anticipation but without incident.

The next challenge, a jumbled rock, reminds me of a 3-D block puzzle, the kind with bunches of long pieces with chunks missing that somehow all fit together in a particular way to make a cube. The rock formation is the incomplete cube and our bodies are the next piece to fit.

We all watch Oscar fit himself through to see the best way to approach this. Mark, who’s next, and has a bit more girth and a foot more length to push through, looks at me uncertainly. Standing in waist-high water, he’s out of his comfort zone. He climbs to lay himself in front of the formation in bath-deep water, so that his left side goes through first, legs straight to pass through the shallow opening under the rock. He’s lifted from mid back to head and juts his left shoulder forward, bends his neck back and rotates his head left. Using his hands, he shuffles his body through—but not his head. With his body advanced, he twists left, pulls his knees up, sits on his haunches, and carefully rotates his head through the opening that’s just big enough for it, completely aware of the piece of 8-inch long, thin rock that sticks out and grazes his neck. He names this formation The Guillotine.

The Slide is next. The entrance to this cave slide is like that to any water slide: the top has an edged area maybe two feet square holding ankle-deep water. But, like the Guillotine, it’s higher than we are so we hoist ourselves over the edge from thigh-deep water. The entrance to the slide is through an arch—like a donut—with an inside diameter of roughly two feet. Oscar barely fits through. At Mark’s turn, he lifts his rear onto the edge, swivels, loses his balance and falls backward where the rest of us stand. He goes all the way under. I expect to see the panicked look when he comes up, but it’s not there. (Later he tells me he panicked momentarily but realized it was silly because he nearly hit his head on the bottom, meaning it wasn’t deep.) Mark steps up again and squats his unlimber body down for the approach. His legs tangle beneath him and he falls ungracefully on his rear before arranging himself properly. I zip right down. The top of the slide has an immediate twist to the right and then straightens out. It’s about five feet long. We all wish it were 10 times that.

We silently follow Oscar as he advances along a wall. It’s straight up and down, and the water is chest-high. The bottom of the wall slopes gradually to the cave floor, and most of us advance by a combination of bouncing along the low curve and swimming. Mark is tall so can simply walk along the curve. However, in an effort to get more of his body out of the water, he climbs higher on the curve until he’s nearly walking on vertical wall. But, of course, he can’t walk a vertical wall, nor can he grip it. He loses all physical contact and looks back at me with an expression I recognize from Looney Tunes cartoons. It’s not a look of panic or fear but is the exact expression Wile E. Coyote wears when he runs off a cliff chasing Roadrunner, when he is suspended in air, turns to the camera with his big eyes and crinkled brow and shrugs before falling. He’s resigned to his fate and realizes there’s nothing he can do to save himself. This is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen from my husband, but I can’t laugh at him—until he’s on dry ground.

Within a couple seconds, he sinks to rock before his chin goes under even. His expression changes from “I’m a goner,” to “Of course. What did I think was going to happen?” Now this (sudden change in perspectives) is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen from my husband. Mark hurries to catch up with Oscar.
It’s sad to see the light shining in from the entrance, meaning our three-hour trek is almost over. All of us but Mark can swim out, so Oscar leads Mark on a climb. The third step is too slippery for Mark and he crashes into the water. But soon enough we’re all out on the trail again, with an aim for the van and our packed lunches. What an adventure we’ve had. I’d do it all again. I’m not sure Mark would.

An Indiana Jones experience in an underwater cave: Part I

Through the hourglass-shaped entrance, lushly dripping with vines and moss, we clearly see the cave’s second story. We also note how clear the water is that most of our group of eight must swim through to start our trek into the cave’s depths. Oscar, our guide, escorts Mark through the shallow river, over boulders and across a three-foot gap to a side entrance. They join the rest of us in chest-high water at the sloping left wall.
Climbing over and squeezing between underwater rocks, we advance into the darkness. The temperature of the air and water is mild, not uncomfortably cool. Near San Ignacio, Belize, Actun Tunichil Muknal, known better as the ATM cave, has interesting features besides water running through it: stalagmites, stalactites, draperies, and flowing limestone. Oscar points out some stone-dry draperies that have stopped growing. The difference is wetness. Limestone that is wet continues to grow.

Spiders scamper as we pass, and minnows swim the surface even as we’re deep in the cave. In our headlamps’ beams we see, floating in the air, sizable two-dimensional particles, like carpet fibers, and I wonder if we should be wearing respirators. Before we came to Belize, I read a review of this tour. The author wrote, “total Indiana-Jones experience that would never be allowed in the U.S.” That convinced me to take this tour. Mark’s mind wasn’t made up until a couple days ago. He’s uncomfortable in water.

After an hour traversing through depths to our shoulders, we climb to the second floor, which holds ancient Mayan pottery and burial chambers. We remove our shoes—but not our socks, to avoid leaving oils from bare feet. We’re not sure why shoes are prohibited. Oscar leads us past stone pottery, usually in sets of threes, and each piece itself sacrificed—or broken—in some way. The Maya broke some completely. Others simply have holes in their sides. We see several human skulls and even a full skeleton, that of a female teenager.

On this upper level we still climb over and squeeze between rocks, only without the benefit of shoes. Toes are stubbed, and as we cross what Oscar calls the Oochie-Ouchie section, my tender soles suffer.

The order of our single-file line changes somewhat in the upper portion of the cave because there’s no chance Mark will drown. But, after we stuff our sore feet, socked in orange cave dust, into our shoes, Mark’s behind Oscar again, and I’m right behind Mark. Oscar tells us where to place each foot on the rocks to descend to the lower level and then asks us to turn to the left for a big step. Looking down at Mark and Oscar, standing on a rock with my left foot, I step with my right and reach—and reach. I’ve lowered so far that my hip is even with my foot, right leg dangling in the water. I’m hesitant to jump down because I can’t see bottom, but logically I know it’s close.

Eventually our group is down, making our way toward the exit. Oscar asks us to turn off our headlamps. We can barely see light peaking in ahead. “We’re progressing from here with no light,” he tells us. Immediately, Mark turns to me and whispers, “Are you kidding me?” He’s all nerves now that we’re back in water. Reluctantly, he switches off his headlamp.