Pinnacles National Monument is what now remains of an ancient volcano—a funky outcropping of jagged rocks in the middle of farm country, no doubt set in there by a mischievous Creation Committee to confound the farmers while also giving geologists something to do on weekends. From what we could tell it seemed like the perfect stop for a little adventure after a long, first day of vacation driving north on the 101.
Pinnacles’ Balconies Trail meanders through the chaparral beside a dry creek bed, skirting massive boulders on its way to the jagged outcropping that forms the Monument’s centerpiece. For those with trail maps, numbered markers identify points of particular interest along the trail. Those of us who had neglected to obtain a trail map, however, were forced to make up explanations of our own:
Luke: “No. 4: The oil from the leaves of this wild bulova bush was used by the Chumash Indians to wax the floors of their hogans.” Dana: “No. 7: This is the burial site of a Chumash warrior who slipped and fell on the over-waxed floor of his hogan.” Bryn: “No. 10: The root of this plant was once used to make chumashed potatoes.”
We snapped pictures on the bridges, dodged the poison oak, and before long found ourselves at the entrance to the Balconies Cave. About all we knew of the cave was that we were supposed to bring a flashlight. We had three, and as many cameras, plus a half-gallon of drinking water and just enough naïveté to make the endeavor seem like an outing fit for a family with a two-year-old. We headed in.
Initially, the cave seemed innocuous enough. Hill-sized boulders had tumbled in on each other to form a narrow passageway through which we passed one at a time. Sunlight peeked through all along, rendering the flashlights unnecessary. The ground was flat and firm. Eventually, however, we came to a narrow opening which led to an inner chamber. The rocks that formed the base of this passageway provided a natural staircase which one could descend quite naturally—provided, that is, that one had the torso of a dwarf and the legs of Wilt Chamberlain.
I went first while Luke and Bryn brandished the flashlights and Dana held onto Seth. Dana then handed Seth down to me, then a flashlight, and then the others followed. Thus we played a sort of leapfrog fire brigade as we traversed the cavern, pausing every few feet to get our bearings and try to figure out which way to go next. Each step took us deeper into blackness. It was cool and a little damp inside the cave, very dark and somewhat precarious.
“Where dat cave, Daddy?” “We’re in it, Seth.” “I don’t wike dis cave. Pwease can I have some water, pwease?”
More than once we were pushed well beyond our comfort zones. “Bryn, stay there with Seth and don’t let go of him.” “You’re just going to have to slide down on your bottom.” “Seth, hold on tight to Mommy. I’ve got you.” “Luke, help your sister.” At one point we even found ourselves (gulp) instructing Seth to put both hands on the side of the cave and not move until someone could get to him. When at last we saw sunlight signaling the exit from the cave, we emerged tired, a bit unnerved, and glad to be done with our “little adventure.”
We rested in the open air and drained most of our supply of water. Without the benefit of a map, we asked a fellow spelunker how far we would have to hike to get back to our car. When he informed us that it was another 2.5 miles to the east entrance of the park, our hearts sank. Alas, we were parked at the west entrance.
“Guess what, kids?” we offered with strained enthusiasm. “We get to do all that again, only backwards.” We reentered the cave, only this time we were not exploring; we were attempting an escape. As we now found ourselves climbing up through the cave, Seth had to be carried much of the way (boy in one arm, feet on jagged rock, one hand for balance, seven-year-old pointing the flashlight in the wrong direction). But even with the increased difficulty, we fell into our roles: lifting, steadying, comforting, bracing, offering light, pointing the way. Plunged though we were into darkness, we were calmly determined, ascending together toward the light.
We felt a sense of grand accomplishment when we found ourselves once again on solid, sunlit ground. As we walked out of the canyon, we paused at a special spot in which the sound of the wind-rustled leaves reverberated off of the canyon walls, creating an ethereal, directionless whisper. The resonance there took on a heavenly quality that transcended the physical space and provided the perfect punctuation for the afternoon.
It would be easy to overstate the significance of our trip through Balconies Cave. The metaphors we lived there are perhaps too obvious to be powerful to anyone but us. Still, just two weeks hence, as we watched in horror the events surrounding the September 11 attacks, we were grateful to have had our own small experience with sudden darkness, an experience which required us to link hands and help each other move cautiously but resolutely toward the light. My prayer is that as God’s Family we may continue to press forward—together—until the darkness is behind us and we can feel again the transcendent peace that can only come from loving and helping one another.