Wednesday, July 27, 2005
The Secret Diablo River
I went on vacation in California when I was thirteen years old. I was friends with a kid whose father was an oil executive for Unocal, and they lived in a beautiful house on the edge of a golf course in San Ramon. In addition to touring Alcatraz, eating in Jack London Square, and hiking through Redwood National Park, I had the opporunity to explore Mt. Diablo State Park. The prescribed hiking trails were lined with trees, shrubs, and wildlife. This was no barren rock.
I got lost at three in the afternoon somewhere on Eagle Peak. I'd raced ahead of my friends and climbed up from the spiralling path. My idea was to lurk above and spit on them. I was crouched on a rock overhang a hundred meters above the path, waiting, when I felt a sting on my ankle.
I had disturbed a strange colony of ant-like insects during my upwards scramble. They were larger than ants, the color of caramel cream, and mean. Hundreds of them were marching for me, commanded by their hive queen to exact a thousand tiny nibble gougings of revenge for my callous kicking of their carefully constructed dirt portal. I was wearing sandals.
I swatted away those attacking my feet and stood up. Looking back whence I came, I realized my return climb would be far too steep to scale quickly, and furthermore, if these bugs were truly dedicated, I'd award them a prolonged opportunity to crawl on my face.
I didn't want rabid antlike meanies scurrying on my eyes. I didn't want them prodding my tongue, tickling my nostrils, burrowing into my pores, or tumbling into my shirt, either, where they could chew my nipples off, millimeter by millimeter. Not in my Team USA Olympic basketball jersey. No sir. It would get bloody. Mom spent fifty dollars on this at Sears.
So I kept going up, stomping and hopping all the way. Like ants, my little enemies used scent trails to mark their progress, and when I slapped my rubber down on a large cluster of the hungry little bastards, it was like I'd released a bomb. The following critters went nuts, running in circles around their flattened brothers. Soon enough they would use their mandibles to peel up the corpse jelly and bring it back underground for dinner.
For the moment, I was safe. I continued my climb, certain I'd reach the spiral path where it next circled the enormous mountain.
Ten minutes later, I saw an opening. A cave. I love caves. Ever since I'd explored Eagle Cave in Wisconsin, where I stole chunks of onyx and got shit on by bats, I've never ignored the compulsion to delve into a dark, sunless chamber of rock teeming with creatures of dubious reputation.
The opening was twice my height, so I entered standing. Using my fingers and the dim light seeping in from the entrance as guides, I stumbled deeper, wondering how long had passed since the last explorer had the good fortune to discover this cavern.
Deep in the dark, I could see a red glow emanating from a jagged opening. I made for it. I found myself in a tall cavern ringing a deep gap in the rock. Far below, I saw a river of molten lava. The air was still and hot, and I began to sweat. I laid myself flat on the edge of the precipice, and I watched the churning red river weave through the rock below. I was in awe, totally transfixed, elated to have found a window to watch the secret blood of the earth.
"Who are you?"
The echoing voice was quiet, deep, and full of gravel. I flinched. Glancing about, I saw nothing but the liquid red glow reflected above and the angry light of the lava boiling below. It spoke again.
"Why are you in my mouth?"
"I don't know."
"Get out. Now."
The cavern shook. Pebbles clattered. Stalactites fell and shattered. Terrified, I began to inch away from the edge of the drop. With the earth below me shaking so ferociously, I didn't want to risk a fall. Safely away from the molten stream, I stood and ran for the exit. I heard loud hissing and crackling behind me. I felt the temperature rise, and the walls surrounding the exit were now glowing orange. I flew out the entrance and skidded to a stop. I looked back inside the cave. Lava was streaming towards me. It was dripping from fissures in the walls, cracks in the ceiling, and probably from the sunken river. I fled the rock mouth and clawed my way further up the mountain.
Soon I found the path, and eventually, my friends. I explained how I'd gotten lost, and about the insect colony. I kept the story of the burning cave to myself. It was too strange, and even I didn't quite believe it. I was aware of my own overactive imagination. My mother was always telling me not to make up stories for attention.
We left, keeping to the spiral path religiously. We bought ice cream cones on the ride back to San Ramon.
The next day, Mount Diablo was burning. Engulfed in wildfire. I brought the newspaper clippings home from vacation.
11:18 AM - Bottle Rocket Fire Alarm
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