EAST LAHOOD – A snow squall followed you over Homestake Pass and caught up in full-fledged fury at ground zero.
It blotted out the Big Sky from the lip of a natural marvel that made you want to fall in love with Montana all over again. So you did, but you had to drop deep into the bowels of Cave Mountain at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park to do it.
You and maybe 20 others from Bozeman and Helena, Missoula and Livingston left Christmas bustle, workplace wrangles and interstate tangles behind. You suspended a gray, blasé December Saturday afternoon to go cave crawling in dancing candlelight, where the temperature hovers around 50 degrees all year long.
Maybe you’d been to the caverns in the summer. For this, the first of six days of guided tours tucked around Christmas, it was the same two-mile, two-hour experience with a handful of differences.
If you sweated a bit on the three-quarter mile walk to the entrance it was a pleasant sensation in the snow storm. Bats didn’t flit near the entrance but slept away the winter on cave walls.
The static LED lamps that lit your way for the first half of the descent had replaced incandescent light bulbs in a $1 million makeover completed just a few years ago. Those lights went AWOL midway through the ever-descending route, at the aptly named Halfway Room.
There tour guide Derrick Rathe of Polson, barely 24 hours after finishing finals week at the University of Montana, lit the candle-bearing lanterns you’d all been lugging since the visitor center.
“Stay close together and use each other’s lights to see down these stairs, because some of these stairs are really slick,” Rathe advised. “And swap hands to hold the handrails because I’ve already had three people fall in the first tour today. Let’s head on down.”
And so the light show – really the shadow show – began.
For far longer than not, there was no light at all down here. Two Three Forks ranchers, Tom Williams and Bart Pannell, were hunting for game in the winter of 1892 and discovered what American Indians had known for ages: The mountain smoked or, as they learned upon further investigation, steamed.
They peered down a hole that would require a rope to get into. Williams and a couple of others were back six years later, wielding candles, ropes, and presumably a pick or two. They had to break their way through formations to get into the caverns.
Their candles likely provided the first light that shone on the stalactites, stalagmites and columns of calcite in millions of years.
A Butte entrepreneur named Dan Morrison was asked to check out the caves. He quickly staked mining claims and began leading tours through what he called Limespur Cave. That giant gaping hole in the hill you passed west of the entrance to the park was Morrison’s limestone quarry.
His tours between 1900 and the early 1930s were technically illegal. In a contentious court battle, the Northern Pacific Railroad won title to the caverns, then shocked everyone a few years later by turning them over to the federal government. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt designated them as the 12th national monument. He named it after Lewis and Clark, who passed below on the Jefferson River in the summer of 1805.
Morrison consistently broke padlocks into what he considered his cave to lead tours for the rest of his life, which ended in 1932 at age 80.
“You guys get to see it as Dan Morrison’s tours got to see it, by candlelight,” Rathe told your group.
What now took two hours to reach, explore and return to the parking lot was an expedition of 12 to 14 hours under Morrison. It involved more than eight miles of hiking to, in and from the caves; 2,000 steps down and the same 2,000 back up; and 60 feet of ropes to scale each way.
Your candlelight danced off the cavern walls. Whereas light came from stationary sources above, here it was fainter and moved along with you.
You noticed a lot of things in the dark that you wouldn’t in the light. What went unseen or obscured played deliciously with the imagination. Darkness isn’t something to be conquered. It’s part of a bigger canvas that deep in the earth, high on a mountain, in the middle of a city or awash in open prairie is as essential as oxygen to the human species and most others.
You found yourself listening closely for sounds of the cave and sniffing for its scents. There weren’t many of either beyond the footsteps and subdued buzz your group made, and a rare whiff of dampness.
Up in the Cathedral Room, before the candles were lit, Rathe discoursed on stalactites that held tight to the ceiling and stalagmites that might reach it, and columns they formed when they finally got together.
These were truly living caverns that, light or no, were changing all the time. An interpretive sign at the visitor center noted, “To create all the decorative formations inside the caverns just three ingredients are required: slightly acidic water, limestone and time.”
“A cave is the most delicate ecosystem and it thrives on people not coming in here,” Rathe told the group. “We do a very good job of walking the fine line between respecting the cave and also bringing people in here.”
Grab on for support in tight places if you must, he said, but know that the oils in your skin stay on the formations.
“That stops them from growing for about 10 to 15 years. Once something has been touched enough times, it won’t grow again.”
You entered the Garden of the Gods by candlelight. This was where Morrison’s tours ended and turned back up and it’s where you got the trademark total-dark experience.
Hold a hand in front of your face, Rathe instructed. If you think you see it, it’s only because your brain knows it’s supposed to be there.
He told of the man who broke into the caverns in the 1930s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps was building the same stairways, handrails and tunnels you were following. The burglar’s idea, Rathe said, was to break off formations and sell them to rich miners in Butte, to get money enough for a train ticket home.
“He got halfway down and tripped and broke his flashlight. Can you imagine how long his box of matches lasted him?” Rathe said.
Two days later, the man was found, lying on his side. He thought he was sitting upright against the wall. He’d lost his mind and gone color blind.
“If you were standing here completely silent and no one moved for 10 minutes, I guarantee almost all of you would fall over,” Rathe said, adding, “We will not try that.”
Candles relit, the tromp resumed through the silent, surreal underground.
You had anticipated the last stop, Paradise Room, to be special, but you hadn’t expected Greensleeves.
Sure enough, around the corner and down a natural ramp of rock, the vast room opened up to Christmas music recordings and a string of colorful Christmas lights atops the peaks and valleys of the cave formations.
Rathe had his flashlight on, pointing out things like the 16-foot stalagmite known as the Chinese Pagoda; Atlas, the caverns’ largest column; the Empire State Building; Freddy the Frog; Sherwood Forest; and Babe Ruth’s Bat.
The room looked much different by candlelight, he said. For summer tours red, green and blue LEDs installed in the past few years reveal for the first time the natural color of the formations.
“It is unbelievable what things look like in here,” Rathe said. “I’m just not going to ruin it for you. I’m going to make you come back.”
CCC development in the late 1930s of what was commonly called Morrison Cave made the cave system more easily accessible. One of the major advances was the discovery of this Paradise Room, which opened the possibility of a separate exit.
In 1938, the same year it became state park, blasting and digging began on a 538-foot exit tunnel. It took 18 months, but when it was finished, visitors could make one-way trips through the caverns. When yours was finished, you blinked in the winter daylight. The storm had passed.
Adeline Walters, who had just turned 6, skipped along the trail between her parents, Ty and Jesse Walters of Livingston.
“I loved it,” she said shyly when you asked.
“What did you say when we got to the cave with all the Christmas lights?” her mom asked.
“It’s the best Christmas I ever had,” she replied.