Going to Vietnam changed my life. Before our taxi blasted its way through the traffic-clogged streets of Ho Chi Minh City, my sensory perception of the universe was on a muted wavelength. Much like doing psilocybin mushrooms (I can only imagine), Vietnam heightened my senses: colors were brighter, noises louder, smells and tastes more pungent. It sounds cliche, but the country was on a wavelength completely different to the chilled-out vibes of the California coast I've lived on for the last twelve years.
The rogue valley is remarkable for the singular memory of purchasing a flashlight from Wal-Mart, a trip at the time which felt monumental in its exoticism as all moments at Wal-Mart do; my most recent resulting in the purchase of a pair of aviators which simultaneously and joyously made me feel like a cop and a pedophile, and the near purchase of a Yo Gabba Gabba beanie. Trite tourist trinkets, paltry and jingoistic gestures toward local folk traditions. There fireworks, but I can't remember watching them. We sat by our fire (we must have purchased wood for the everyday price of loss of dignity), swatting mosquitos and swapping stories. Alex regaled me, as he did for most of the trip, with tales of mountains climbed, fourteen thousand footers in Colorado by the age of fourteen. The night passed quickly and our next morning we made the short journey to the Oregon Caves National Monument.
Located twenty miles east of Cave Junction, Oregon in the northern Siskiyou mountains, the Oregon Caves National Monument includes over 4,000 acres, a marble cave system, visitor's center, and restaurant. While writing this particular blog entry, I found myself asking: what is the difference between a national monument and a national park? Well, this is what I found out (and this is according to Outside magazine online): national parks are protected due to their "scenic, inspirational, education, and recreational value" and national monuments have objects of historical, cultural, and/or scientific interest. National monuments can protect wilderness areas or historic buildings, are typically smaller, and multiple cagenices administrate national monuments while the national parks are administrated by the Department of the Interior. And now you have more information than you ever needed on the difference between national parks and national monuments.
So how is Oregon Caves National Monument an object of historical, cultural, and/or scientific interest? While the caves were primarily preserved as a tourist attraction, they do contain fossils of historical significance. Discovered by Elijah Jones Davidson in 1874, several groups after tried to profit from the caves, but it was the advent of the automobile that increased its popularity after the 1920s. To increase tourist traffic, the Forest Service and the Oregon Caves Company built the Chalet, which housed female workers and overnight guests, and contained a restaurant and ticket sales office. More buildings were added over the next several decades and those buildings are now considered national historic landmarks.
The Oregon Caves National Monument has the best tour guides in the entire national park system. I have visited the site multiple times and each visit my guide has been knowledgeable, entertaining, and excited about their job. I have to say these guides make me want to be a park ranger.
Alex and I parked the car and made our way to the ticket sales office amongst the mostly Indian families. I forgot to bring my jacket and it is rather chilly in the caves. The only jacket they had on loan was a boy's medium jacket, which fit around me, but left me with hilariously short sleeves. We walked to the top of the hill where the tour starts and waited for our guide. Alex and I found our way in the front of the group, irritated with how slow everyone was walking up the steep, slippery steps inside the cave.
This is a hokey tour and that is what makes it enjoyable. The guide peppers the tour with quaint historical facts about bears dying inside and people stealing artefacts. These caves are not particularly spectacular in their formations; instead you are paying for a great tour, a couple of pretty stalagmites and stalactites and a chance to mercilessly mock fellow tour goers.
I am happy that people want to get out in nature and see the sights in America. In fact, nothing makes me happier than the idea of people visiting domestic locations and funneling money into the national park system, but when I have to wait for every tourist to huff their way up the steps and drag their whining children to the top then I have to come up with ways to entertain myself. And this is how Alex and I came up with the story of how unicorns are created.
A long time ago, unicorns were powerful intergalactic space creatures who ruled the universe, but they were hated by all the creatures in the planetary system because of their cruelty (we never got into great detail as to why they were cruel; I think it might have involved slowly gauging out other species' eyeballs with their horn). Eventually the unicorn dictatorship was overthrown by a group of rebellious narwhals and they sook refuge on the backwater of Earth.
They hid in caves and slowly calcified creating stalagmites and stalactites. When these reach the maximum length and a stalagmite is about to meet a stalactite, then a unicorn is able to escape and makes it way out into the world. Their horns release a magical force allowing them to break atmosphere and return to the open byways of the galaxy.
We had to do a lot of waiting on this tour. The tour guide attempted to entertain us, but she only had a certain stock of stories and really needed to be saving them for the rest of the group. A very entertaining middle aged Indian man spent most of the tour sneaking up on members of his family and making a ghostly "spoooky" sound.
Oregon Caves National Monument is a must see if you are traveling through southern Oregon. It provides enough entertainment for adults and I think kids would be impressed. I remember it being relatively inexpensive and not too far off the beaten path. Plus, the restaurant serves some pretty good chowder, pie, and hot chocolate at the floor of a beautiful, forested mountain valley.
Next part: Oregon Caves National Monument to Ukiah, California.