Originally published in the Miami News-Record on October 11, 2015.
Awhile back, Mike and Lana, the friends that came over to sort-of camp in our yard and go four-wheeling back in the summer, asked us if we would be interested in visiting an underground laboratory in a cave in the Ozarks. How does one say no to such a proposition? Kady and Sam are studying earth and space science this year, so I thought caves would go right along with such a trip and you know us homeschoolers and the constant educating of our children and stuff. We were SO in.
We were only going for an overnight stay and would really only spend about 24 hours on the property, but goodness gracious it looked like we were packing to stay a year. We had lawn chairs, flashlights, coolers, bags, sleeping bags, enough bug spray to kill half of Missouri’s insect population, plus hot dogs, sandwiches, and I made enough blueberry muffins for an army. We arrived, grabbed a bite for lunch and finished up just as our tour guide showed up. He looked like a lumberjack. He had a beard and wore a flannel shirt and very serious-looking hiking boots. His name was Nathan, but in my head I referred to him as Tour-guide Lumberjack Barbie. He was adorable.
He took us on a hike through the beautiful wilds of a tiny dot on the map called Protem, Missouri. He explained about the cave and its impact on the environment. He told us about how the owners were working very hard to protect the endangered species that lived in their cave. He said, “The elaborate septic system that keeps the groundwater free of waste was paid for by the snail.” And rather than wonder why or how a snail paid for a septic system, all I could think was, “Where is this snail and will he pay for stuff for me, too?” Turns out, there is a species of cave snail that is only found in this particular cave in the whole wide world. It’s a VIM (Very Important Mollusk). And apparently when you have a VIM on your property you are a VIP and people pay for your toilets.
Not far into our hike we came across a pygmy rattlesnake. But being homeschoolers, we didn’t run screaming; we all gathered around to inspect it. Tour-guide Lumberjack Barbie nearly had a stroke. “Folks, that’s a poisonous snake. Folks? Rattlesnakes are poisonous. PEOPLE! RATTLESNAKES ARE POISONOUS SNAKES.” Poor fella. Apparently he had never led a tour for homeschoolers before. We are a curious lot.
Little did we realize that our hike was taking us downhill. (Or at least, I didn’t – maybe everyone else did.) When I heard, “Okay, let’s head back to camp for a quick rest then we’ll walk down to the cave,” I was thinking, “Oh, it’s been such a lovely trek so far. I can’t wait to see the rest of the trail.” Then about 10 minutes later after a nearly vertical incline that would make a mountain goat faint, I was sucking so much wind I was seriously considering trying Kady’s inhaler even though I’m allergic to albuterol and it causes my throat to swell shut. I was pretty much just thinking it would bring about death quicker than the heart attack I was certain I was going to have. Lana is an RN and Mike is a firefighter. They both looked ready to spring into action if I keeled over – something I think we all felt was fairly imminent. However, I made it. I survived all 4,270 miles of that hike.
I also exaggerated a few times in the previous paragraph.
You’ll have to come back next Sunday to hear the rest of the story. I know, I know… I’m not one for suspense either, but such a tale requires more than my 650-ish word limit. And believe me, you will all want to read about how I’m pretty sure I killed a salamander with my butt.