Things I Remember

I used to write a blog about dive bars and restaurants in Denver that I called Denver Dives. I really enjoyed it as a writing project, and on a basic level I just enjoyed having something to write about that I also enjoyed on a personal level. Since leaving Denver 4 years ago, however, I’ve not had a writing project and it has been something I’ve missed.

Recently I’ve been reminiscing about the past a lot, not quite sure why. Maybe this is an examination of my own mortality, maybe it is seeing my parents push 70, maybe it is feeling and seeing myself get older (and watching my kids rise up out of the ground at the same time) that is making me think about the past… whatever it is, I’ve decided that this could be the source of my next bit of writing.

I am not really writing with anyone else in mind, but if you have come across this for some reason, I hope this doesn’t completely waste your time. Here’s the first memory, which I am calling The World Under There.

I remember the first time that someone told me that water comes to your house from pipes, and that these pipes run all over the city beneath the streets. I was about 8 at the time, and after hearing this I stood out in front of my house for a long time, just staring at Main Street. The picture in my head, of immense caverns beneath the street filled with pipes, was almost impossible to believe. The manhole covers must be the doors into this underground world, where who knows what kinds of strange things happened. There would be men there, clad in coveralls and carrying tool belts, fixing things. They would wear those miners helmets with lights on them and drive around in carts, moving silently around the city.

Not long after this, my daydreams of an underground universe were shattered a bit when someone else told me that the pipes were just buried in dirt under the street. But I never forgot them.

The Julien Dubuque bridge in Dubuque, Iowa

Dubuque, Iowa where I grew up is known as the River City for its location on the banks of the Mississippi River. Being on the Mississippi affords it with a kind of anti-Iowa setting: rolling hills, towering bluffs, wide vistas across the river to Illinois and Wisconsin. Living as my family did on the east side of town — the ‘flats’, as we called the part of the city on the banks of the river — made it a fact of life that to get anywhere in town, you would probably have to go up a hill. The Dubuque hills and the river and are not that important to this Memory, but what is important is the geography of Dubuque itself. Those hills and bluffs are made up of limestone, and beneath all that limestone is abundant beautiful groundwater, and the combination of porous limestone with lots of groundwater made the perfect environment for caves. Lots of caves.

Crystal Lake Cave in Dubuque. The big one

Finding things to do when you’re 15 in Dubuque was a challenge, a challenge my friends and I tackled by entertaining ourselves in a variety of ways: shopping cart demolition derbies at the local shopping centers, lots of really absurd and time consuming board games, pickup sports, and poking around in things and places that we really shouldn’t have been. You had to be an opportunist to keep yourself occupied in Dubuque, so when one of my friends heard a story about some caves you could get to by trespassing through someone’s backyard, I was in.

So it was that four of us set out one day in search of secret caves. It was a hopeless mission really, because we were not 100% certain of the location of the entrance to the caves, so our expedition into a random person’s backyard could very easily end in not finding any caves and getting ran off by angry residents. But sometimes just having a bad mission is better than having nothing at all, and we were excited.

The house with the reported cave entrance was located on the west side of town, out where all the houses had huge discombobulated yards with lots of random trees and fences and overgrown vegetation. We cased the house, and it appeared that no one was around, so we hopped the fence and commenced poking around. To our good fortune, our intel was good and it did not take long to find a hole in the ground on the far end of the yard which turned out to be the entrance to the cave.

Excitedly, we ambled down through the entrance, squeezing past rocks and ducking down almost immediately into a low passage. We were buzzing with energy: excitement to be crawling into the unknown, coupled with worry that we would somehow get caught. Everyone switched on their flashlights, and I remember carrying an extra, just in case.

The cave started off cramped, cool, damp, and with that musty moist earth smell that is the unmistakable scent of caves. There were ubiquitous bits of garbage near the entrance, remnants of cave explorers past. We scrambled along in an awkward crouching walk for several minutes, not knowing what to expect but continually surprised that the cave kept on going, when all of the sudden the passage opened up. We found ourselves in a large cavern where all four of us were able to stand comfortably. As we looked around it became clear that there was only one way onward: on one side was a small opening, big enough to fit in at a crawl. I volunteered to take the lead.

Cave stories always seem to include the same couple of elements. First there’s the lets-turn-the-lights-off-and-see-how-dark-it-is moment. We had ours before we started crawling, and I can confirm that it was dark. The other, and maybe this is just me, is a bit of momentary paranoia, when part of your brain sits back and assesses your situation: you’re underground somewhere. You’ve walked who knows how far exactly, and with each step onward you’re making it a bit more challenging to get back out if something were to go wrong. The line between an exciting afternoon and peril is heavily reliant on a cheap plastic flashlight that could easily fail if you drop it, bump it, or maybe just because it feels like failing at that very moment. This was where my head was at as we crawled, and then slithered like snakes, deeper and deeper into the depths. The momentary paranoia, tempered by claustrophobia, crept beyond momentary as the passage got tighter and tighter. I began to breath harder. With no end in sight, I suggested we turn back. To my relief, everyone agreed.

It was at this point when I made the completely irrational decision that instead of simply backing my way out of the passage, that I would attempt to use the small amount of space that I had to turn around. Maybe it was the mild panic that clouded my judgement, maybe it was the pretty high opinion I had of my flexibility in comparison to my friends and early teen males in general, I’m not sure at this point. What I do know is that I started to twist, shove, wrench, and grapple my legs and arms in all different varieties of pretzel to make this happen. Eventually, I got to the point where one of my feet was in my face and pinned so tightly against the top of the passage that I thought I had managed to get myself stuck. To this day I sometimes think back to that moment, where I thought that I had unintentionally wedged myself into a narrow cave, and found myself picturing someone breaking one of my legs in order to drag me out of there. I also had a moment of clarity, where I wondered, ‘what in the hell am I doing?’. After some wiggling, shimmying, and physically pushing my leg back in the direction it was meant to be pointing, I managed to get myself unstuck, and proceeded to back my way out of the passage on my stomach.

I emerged into the larger cavern breathing hard, filthy from sliding along, and fully limber. The empty larger cavern. I had just finished fighting my way out of a life and death flexibility challenge, and everyone abandoned me? Just then, Steve poked his head out of a crack that I hadn’t seen before.

‘Dude, this way,’ he said, eyes shining. They had found something. I turned sideways as I followed him down a new passage, one we obviously had not seen before.

It was vast, the next cavern, so large the four of us could have had a decent game of 2-on-2 basketball without having the slightest worry about the ball hitting the roof of the cave. And it was bright in there, too bright for it to be lit by just a bunch of flashlights. As I stood there, awestruck, eyes taking it all in, the source of light quickly became clear. Cracks of light were seeping through from a spot on the ceiling. Coming closer, eyes adjusting, I could make out that the light was vaguely in the shape of a circle: it was a manhole. Standing there, on the other side, the memories came back, and I think I may have even laughed. I wasn’t wearing coveralls or a miners helmet, and I definitely had no intentions of fixing anything, but I had somehow found my way there, to the underground world.

As a postscript to this, life went on and a few years later I earned my degree in construction engineering, which pretty much meant that magic was replaced by logic, and indeed if you were going to put pipes in the ground, I could have a good solid chat with you about the compaction level of the soil beneath the pipes, the pros and cons of cast iron pipes versus reinforced concrete, and exciting aspects of trench benching. Despite all this, though, to this day I still can’t help but smile when I see a manhole.