6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)

Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer

Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"

Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"

"Hot Spring Break "

"Stampede! "

"Seeing Things"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011

Monday, March 21, 2011

Gray's Catacomb

          Abandoned Silver Streak mine served as Allan Gray’s private escape from the alcohol fueled madness of his childhood home. By age ten, the gaunt, dark haired boy could smell the sickness and defeat seeping from his parents. Their sweat reeked of vodka, and they sat, day after day, in the mounting squalor of their den sharing spiteful barbs as their skin turned to leather from chain smoking. In the hazy, fetid air of their nearly windowless cabin, Allan could almost taste the metastasizing tumors that would eventually claim their lives.

          Left unsupervised from an early age, Allan made it a point to keep his distance from home. Rather than check in after a day of the torturously self-conscience nightmare known as school, Allan would vanish into the dense forest surrounding his mountain town, fishing streams, climbing trees, spying on strangers, and slaying squirrels with his wrist rocket. His parents never questioned his absence, not even when he began to stay out overnight, alone in his pitch black maze of tunnels.

          Allan found Silver Streak after following an overgrown jeep trail deeper into the mountains north of Timberline than he’d ever ventured. What a first appeared to be a small avalanche where the road came to a dead end against the mountain side turned out to be the collapsed entrance. Splintered support beams jabbed out of the pile of boulders and dirt like lopsided grave markers. Someone must have used dynamite to collapse the main shaft. After poking around, Allan realized the rockslide had covered the opening except for a narrow gap between two wedged railroad ties. A cool wind blasted from the crack indicating that somewhere, another opening to the outside world had to exist. Allan decided his mission was to return the next day with a flashlight, squeeze through the hole, and locate the other entrance from within the mine.

          Allan came back the following afternoon with a battery powered lantern quietly removed from his dad’s truck. His parents wouldn’t care about the condemned mine, but Allan would be severely punished for touching his father’s tools. Not that his old man needed any of the equipment. While most of the former loggers in Timberline had long since packed up and moved on, Allan’s dad hadn’t done anything but sit in a creaky old recliner splitting his wrath between family and television news since the sawmill closed.

          The young boy's heart thundered in his chest when he first squeezed through the narrow opening and showers of dirt rained down on him from above. Fearing a collapse, he had launched himself through the opening after getting halfway inside and slid down an embankment of gravel to the passage floor. A dust filled cone of light shone through the gap and Allan could make out rusted ore cart rails leading straight down a rocky tunnel seemingly carved through black granite. His lantern’s feeble glow revealed the passage ahead at least partially buried underwater. The air smelled musty despite the breeze and the temperature was noticeably cooler. Allan had pulled his light jacket tight around his neck as he first made his way into the unknown.

          The water on floor of the cavern was barely tolerable but after long stretches of freezing agony, the ground would emerge and he could walk on wooden ties between the cart tracks while his toes came back to life. In places, he could balance on the rusted rails and keep his soles just above the waterline. The damp walls of the mine possessed sporadic deposits of some milk white mineral; a kind of shimmering albino coral staining the otherwise black stone. To Allan it looked like walls of pearl set off with sparkling diamond flakes.

          During his initial expedition, the young boy was intrigued by the nearly translucent bodies of baby mice and leathery bats bobbing in the slow, frigid flow. He lifted one of the soggy rodents by its long limp tail, held the corpse in front of his face, and tried to imagine what it had been like to drown. The frail creature’s eyes had yet to fully develop, dark blobs behind a pink veil mercifully blind to the ugliness of the world. He pictured the thrashing of the damned gradually giving away to hypothermic resignation, water filled lungs, and ultimately, a sense of peace. Something about the idea made him happy.

          After passing the third intersection of branching tunnels, Allan had returned home knowing he’d need chalk if he hoped to find the other entrance without getting lost. After a month of nearly daily visits, he had mapped out a considerable portion of the tunnels by leaving notes and directional arrows on the mine walls. There were even numbers accompanying the various signs indicating approximately how many steps he could expect before the next branching passage.

          In spite of his mapping techniques, and venturing deeper and deeper into the elaborate labyrinth, Allan had yet to find the other entrance. Some tunnels eventually reached a gradually narrowing end, others seemed to branch forever, and the young boy quickly realized there were passages he couldn’t reach. In several places, the tunnels shot straight up into the mountain overhead where Allan could see even more passageways branching off.

          The corroded remnants of wooden ladders to the upper levels were still bolted to the walls, and the skeleton thin boy had tried climbing the sturdiest of the bunch, but the first damp rung crumbled in his grip before holding half his weight. One day, Allan thought, he’d be strong and brave enough to scale the sheer rock walls, reach the higher tunnels, and no doubt, the other opening.

          Despite the elusive nature of the second entrance, Silver Streak quickly became the only place Allan felt comfortable in his pale and dirty flesh. The anxiety of being in his parent’s presence, and the discomforting scrutiny he felt so intensely at school, all but vanished in those dark passages. Within the mine, he became a cave troll hunting heroic adventurers, a mad scientist living beneath an active volcano attempting to trigger an eruption, a deformed outcast, exiled from the village below and lurking at its fringes while plotting his revenge.

          Allan’s imagination ran wild, spurred on by a growing collection of graphic novels purchased from the spinning comic book rack in Ray Lynn’s convenience store. He had moved the hidden stash from his bedroom to a central chamber of intersecting tunnels nearly a mile into the mountain. The spacious cavern had become his central base within the mine. Despite rarely eating a home cooked meal, Allan never spent his lunch money at the school cafeteria. Instead, every penny went towards another gruesomely illustrated tale, flashlight battery, or slow burning candle.

          Unlike the other boys, Allan didn’t gravitate towards super hero comics; he had no interest in square chiseled jawlines, sculpted muscles, or goody two-shoes in ridiculous spandex saving the world. Allan preferred tales of horror and supernatural happenings. Zombies and ancient curses. He loved the idea of evil ghosts and salivating monsters most of all. The thought of being stalked by blood-dripping fangs, or glowing red eyes, especially while alone in his dark mine, was an adrenaline rush of pure terror he could endure and overcome. Hell, he could fall into an untroubled sleep afterwards. He laughed out loud when imagining the older kids at school attempting such a thing.

          His mother so despised the grotesque, bloody artwork she had gleefully burned his collection the previous summer after a report card showed him barely graduating fifth grade. However, with his stories of macabre safe in his mine, Allan no longer worried about his parents. They still flew off the handle every time the wind shifted, slapped and berated him at every opportunity, but he no longer kept anything within their reach that he was afraid to lose. He owned his own home now, and he kept his possessions in a cleaner, more organized manner than anything his folks had managed in years.

          One autumn afternoon, indistinguishable from any other day below the earth, Allan was making his way from the mine to find something to eat when a familiar sound caused him to freeze in his tracks. Standing in ice cold water, Allan could hear voices just outside Silver Streak’s collapsed entrance. What was worse, Allan recognized the young men gathered outside. Despite his eternal efforts to maintain an aura of invisibility at school, the three Steele brothers always whispered and snickered as Allan slunk by, burning cheeks concealed inside his hooded sweatshirt.

          Allan was awarded ample time to think about his reaction, his instantaneous decision, and never came to a definitive conclusion as to whether he would have handled it any different if given another chance. For the first time in his life, Allan truly felt alive in his fortress of darkness, and it was a sensation he had to preserve. The mine was his and his alone. Best case scenarios still involved the young men claiming the mine for their own and looting it of all his treasures. He refused to think about worst case scenarios that would, no doubt, come naturally to these hateful savages. If they couldn’t control their naturally vicious tendencies within the “safe” environment of school, Allan could only imagine what humiliation he would be forced to endure in the sanctity of his own house.

          Just as a pair of hands thrust inside to pull a scoopful of dirt away from the opening, Allan reached the sideways support beam, precariously lodged above the remnants of shaft entrance. The young boy had noticed the shifty looking wedge upon his first departure from Silver Streak and always gave it a wide berth. Even gently sliding through the gap on his belly caused slight tremors and sprinkles of dirt from the loose wedge above.

          As the noise and dust settled, Allan breathlessly wondered if anyone might have seen his lantern light before the tunnel collapsed. He imagined his parents being informed of his whereabouts and heard their smoke ravaged voices seeping through the wall of rock, promising punishments for such a pathetic attention grab. Allan smiled in the dim light of his familiar stone hallway. Nobody was going to violate his castle. If his dead-eyed father had imparted any wisdom from the collapsed springs of his moth eaten throne, it was that men had to defend their freedom. They had to be willing to sacrifice. Once again, Allan could see and hear nothing of the outside world. He was alone with the patiently waiting darkness. And something about that idea made him happy.

No comments:

Post a Comment