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A Special Adventure Nearby

Ray Blain is a retired pediatrician and medical consultant, and author of a forthcoming autobiography Becoming A Doctor; My Dreams and Nightmares.
I was so impressed with the variety and creativity of nature displayed in such a small area that we returned to bring visiting family and friends from other parts of the US.

As a child in Massachusetts I remember being afraid in the dark and wanting a light on even while I slept. We lived in Holyoke, an industrial city near factories and warehouses. My first memory of traversing the streets in the dark alone were as a seven-year old new altar boy going to help for the first time at the chapel in Providence Hospital.

I overcame my fear that morning because my goal was so important to me. Over a decade of going to work as a cook at a local delicatessen, often at five in the morning on weekends, I began to tolerate the experience but was never comfortable. I also did not like unfamiliar confining spaces. Never did I think I would enjoy walking in deep damp caves.

My first experience at visiting caverns with active formations was in a cavern in Texas; both Texas and California have many. The entrance had glass doors to keep in the moisture which dripped constantly down to what the guide referred to as "fried eggs" on the top of forming stalagmites.

The calcium pillars had deeper spots where the water from above hit the lower surface. This created a depression filled with deeper yellowish mineral water the color of the yolk of a frying egg. The water slowly evaporates leaving the minerals to grow the column bottom over many eons. These pillars take thousands of years before reaching the growing stalactites by descending one evaporating drop of water at a time.

The pathway we walked in the cavern was paved relatively flat and wet. Electric lighting made everything around us easy to discern. Although the formations in that first cavern were relatively repetitious, I loved the experience

After coming to work as a pediatrician at Mather USAF Base in 1970, our family began to look for and explore fun and educational adventures in the area. We made many forays into the Sierras and up and down the Central Valley.

We were in the area of Moaning Caverns when we learned of Mercer Caverns in nearby Murphys. The town is a lovely place to visit, shop and eat. The signs to the caves directed us to turn down what looked like an alley between the buildings.



After traveling this road for about a mile, we came to a small parking area, Nearby was a ticket booth with descending curved steps entering the hillside. The guide explained how the caves was first discovered by Mercer as he sat on the hill noticing a cool breeze exiting from deep inside a hole in the side of the embankment.

The original explorers and visitors descended into the abyss using ropes and candles. Even though they could only see a short distance in the dim light, the formations were quite varied and impressive. The show has been forming for millions of years for you and I to see and admire. Sample crystals from Mercer won awards at a Paris international exhibition.

On our first visit we didn't have to use ropes, candles or flashlights. Instead we had the luxury of ramps, stairs (lots of stairs), electric lighting and a guide who loved her job.

During the entire descent a breeze rose from deep within. Even when we reached the jagged boulders at the furthest depth we could visit, the air movement was noticeable. The guide said they did not know where the air penetrated into the depths from outside. That first time we exited using the same long staircase used for the descent.

I was so impressed with the variety and creativity of nature displayed in such a small area that we returned to bring visiting family and friends from other parts of the US. Over the years the owners have discovered more chambers, built addition ramps and stairways so that visitors now exit by a route that was originally not available to us.

Scientists have mapped the caverns both top and side views and many photos are now available on the internet. The journey down can be over half a mile in distance and almost 200 feet deep yet I have never had claustrophobia or fear of being there in the dark.

Traveling to Murphys is a pleasant drive into the foothills and lower Sierras. An internet search yields some of the history, and many photos to preview what can be seen. But photos have limits — a personal visit is better.

Getting lunch at a shop or nearby store can add to the experience. It costs about $19 per person now to go into the caves on a guided tour, but few adventures can be so original and rewarding for the price. They have reopened now that the pandemic is less rampant. It's a nice way to begin venturing out again to view the magnificence, once again, of our state and country.

~ Raymond Leo Blain










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