Miracle Cave, 2016 Second Place Adult Division

By Travis Lay

Black clouds had massed the night before, and the sky rumbled in the pre-dawn. But the hunter wasn’t concerned. He hand-cranked his pickup to life, then went inside and kissed his sleepy bride, whispering the usual words: Don’t wait up.

He’d hiked to the ridge crest when the sky suddenly lowered. The sun seemed to change course and wheel away, and in three breaths he was in the midst of a whiteout. Bolts of north wind shot between trees like frigid tracers, and flakes the size of quarters pelted him sideways. He hunched against the torrent and eased downhill, hoping to intersect the ridge trail. But in the maelstrom all sense of direction evaporated.

The Sawtooths were home country, and Drew Kyle had hunted them since youth. But now he felt like a tiny object inside a blizzard paperweight. As the mercury plunged he knew he had to keep moving, and all day he stumbled; along mountainsides, through ravines, over ice and boulder fields. He may have even crossed dirt roads, but the smothering gale rendered him nearly blind.

He plodded through the night, and at dawn, a meek hint of light permeated the blackness. His flannel coat was soaked, his pant legs frozen, and his mind slower. But the young man had known cold before. His boots were insulated, and the Army rucksack he’d carried through Europe contained food and matches. Although his canteen had run dry, he resisted eating snow and lowering his temperature.

He followed his feet upward in hopes a peak would offer vantage. The mountain steepened. Trees became scarce. The wind whipped violently and crystallized snow stung his eyes, but through the swirling chaos he spotted an outcropping. It protruded from the steepness like a battlement and was choked by brush on the leeward side. He picked through the tangle and crouched against the rocky mass, but rather than stone his body felt openness. Probing with frozen gloves, he discovered a cleft that extended beyond arm length. He ducked inward, and for the first time in a day, sensed stillness.

Hypothermia had conjured a blizzard mirage, Drew was certain. But as he lay still, shapes came into focus. The cavity was the size of a small root cellar. The dirt floor was dry, and faint light shone through the low, jagged opening. He watched scrub brush bend obstinately in the blasting wind. The thicket had acted as a drift fence, preventing the entrance from being sealed.

He watched his breath puff against the dim light of the opening. As his eyes acclimated the granite ceiling came into focus. It was smoke-blackened. In the corner was a pile of sticks and a huge tree stump. Drew rubbed his frigid hands against the skin of his abdomen, until his fingers itched with sensation. He crawled to the woodpile, but his heart sank when the ancient sticks crumbled to powder.

He turned to the stump and fumbling his hunting knife from its scabbard. As he chipped at the dense wood a rich aroma filled his nostrils; it was the scent pine pitch. Fatwood, as his Arkansan grandfather called it. The thick resin was known to last centuries, and had tindered many fires.

He knifed kindling and shaped a miniature wigwam. The paraffin-sealed matches proved true and the pitch flamed, issuing black smoke upward. He carved more chunks and huddled close. But as his body warmed, the fire sputtered. Noxious black choked the cavity and the flames gasped for oxygen. Drew crawled near the entrance and inhaled fresh, frigid air, wondering if his life would also flicker to an end. But as he lay shivering, he noticed a stone ring in the corner. Then the echo of another element: dripping water.

On the windward wall, droplets glissaded and plopped into a widening pool. The smoke had begun melting an ice plug. He crawled to the pool, gulping until he tasted grit, then stabbed at the plug with his rifle barrel. Ice chunks fell to the floor, and a muted stream of north wind whistled through a canted opening, stirring the smudge and forcing it outside.

He cut more kindling, this time arranging it within the fire ring. A match hissed. Flames breathed, and Drew watched in awe as smoke curled upward; then as if obeying a drill command, funneled sideways and exited through the jagged entrance. The hole was an angled ventilator shaft, and chips in the surrounding rock hinted it was man-made. Drew huddled against the modest warmth, marveling at the sophistication of the stone-age architect.

He settled into a cadence of chipping wood for an hour and dozing another. Drops of meltwater trickled into his canteen, and he nibbled sandwiches sparingly. In the firelight he discovered a ledge. It was littered with shards of obsidian that shown translucent when held before the flames. The ledge also held a stone mortar and a wedge-shaped rock, denser than the dolomite granite of the cave. Perhaps it had chiseled the breathing hole.

For two days and nights the blizzard punished the mountainside. But no matter how violently the wind whistled or how strenuously the scrub leaned, flames breathed and smoke vented, and Drew rested.

He awoke the third morning to silence. Light filtered through the breathing shaft, and the brush was still. He crunched outside, his hands snapping reflexively to shield brightness. Between his fingers he observed a glazed mountainside that was near-vertical. The cave’s outcropping was the only break for miles, and the summit a mere hundred yards away. Gathering his rifle and rucksack, he ducked out of the cave as the last shard of flickering pitch expired.

From the summit he expected clear skies, but his adjusting eyes beheld fog-shrouded valleys that extended forever. Brief moments of clearing offered glimpses. As a shaft of sun illuminated one distant valley, his binoculars revealed something out-of-place: a straight line that gashing through whiteness. Possibly a freshly plowed road.

Clouds smothered the clearing and Drew stowed his binoculars. A long succession of peaks and valleys separated him from the road. Reaching it would require every minute of daylight, and meant risking disorientation again. With no choice, he leaned downhill and plunged back into cloudy darkness.

Below the cloud cover, the Sawtooths were an ocean of snow. Drew swam through drifts, arms thrashing while his boots tangled in drowned brush. In place of wind he now battled silence; in its wake, the monster storm wrought a quiet so powerful the world felt empty. The storm battered him, but had also lent energy. The spectral silence he now faced offered no such companion. The caw of a magpie or chatter of an angry squirrel would have been welcome, but Drew was alone.

He strained through countless climbs and descents, battling solitude as much as terrain. His food had run out the morning before, and in the vacuum of stillness he narrowed his thoughts to a single image: the distant gash he hoped was a road. He focused on the next step, and stroking through the next drift. Gradually, peaks turned to ridges and ridges became foothills. Patches of earth met his feet beneath the snow, and as the sun dipped and the retreating mist of the storm glowed orange, he clambered over the high furrow thrown by the snowplow. The road’s flatness felt so foreign he nearly tripped.

He tiptoed awkwardly at first, following the groomed surface toward the sunset. Hunger pangs welled deep and his stomach twisted until the grinding could be heard. The grinding grew louder, filling the valley, and suddenly he stood in the glare of headlights. Brakes squealed and a figure stepped down from a log truck. Hands gently took his shoulders and ushered him into the cab.

The truck lurched into motion and man behind the wheel pushed a metal lunchbox across the seat. Drew couldn’t taste the food, but devoured every bite. Warmth gushed through him as he guzzled coffee from the thermos, and as he drank, his face reflected in the windshield. It was haggard and wind-blasted, and streaked with pitch-fire soot. The driver was talking. Something about Pikes Fork being the only plowed road in the area, and that Drew’s pickup had been found 30 miles away. His consciousness was drifting when the driver eyeballed his small, Army rucksack.

“Mind tellin’ me how you made it across the Sawtooths with nothin’ but that?”

Drew suddenly snapped awake.

“I had a lot more than that.”

He explained the ferocity of the storm and the fortuitous discovery of the cave. He told of the breathing hole and the stone shards, and explained how the cave was absent of metal, glass, or any trace of the machine age, and the cached wood showed no axe or saw marks. When he finished the driver smiled.

“I’m just glad you made it,” he said softly. “A man gets coldest he’s ever been, his mind twists up.”

“It wasn’t the coldest I’ve been.”

The driver downshifted and glanced at him curiously.

“Son, they’re callin’ this a 50-year blizzard. Where on earth does a fella get colder than that?”

“The Ardennes.”

Silence filled the cab. Outside the diesel droned and snowflakes shimmered like diamonds in the chunky, roadside walls.

“The Ardennes,” the man said reverently. “You made it through the Battle of The Bulge too.”

He nodded. The driver asked for a retelling and Drew obliged, his voice level, and every detail verbatim.

The story lived for nearly 60 years. Folks wanted to hear from the man who survived the great blizzard of ’49, and listeners always got more than they bargained for. Rather than hearing a story they shared an experience. They felt the blasting wind and inhaled acrid pitch smoke. They swam through drifts, endured the echo of stillness and cringed through hunger pangs. Because the words came from deep within, many doubters walked away believers. And the story never changed.

One thing that did change, though, was Drew Kyle’s hunting routine. Septembers were spent as usual, hunting deer with his daughter and son near their farm outside Stanley. But come the October elk season, he was off to Pikes Fork country. Before leaving, he planted a kiss on his children’s foreheads, promised he loved them more than the moon and stars, and always parted with the same message: “Don’t wait up.”

The year after retiring from the sawmill Drew lost his beloved Jasmin. They’d been together since High School, marrying the day before Drew shipped out to Europe. She’d always supported him, and somehow understood a man needs a mystery. Many nights she watched for his headlights, even though goodbye kisses were always accompanied by the same three words: “Don’t wait up.”

Widowed and his children away, Drew felt a solitude he’d only known once. It was the solitude he endured during the great blizzard. And oddly, his method of coping drew him back to winter of 1949. Amid fear and numbness something had touched him. Listeners felt it when he told the story, and like the distant gash he’d seen through a break in the clouds, it became his source of hope.

Now in his 70’s, Drew spent his days traipsing the Sawtooths beyond Pikes Fork. During a summer visit, his son Casey found a stash of maps in his father’s office: maps of the Sawtooths. Most areas were blotted out with marker. A few remained white, and within the white were dozens of hand-scrawled ‘X.’ Each year more area was blotted and fewer X’s showed. Casey shared the findings with his sister, Marie. The siblings didn’t like their elderly father venturing into the high country alone.

The heart attack should have changed things. At 78, Drew wasn’t expected to survive – but survive he did, and despite objections, continued to explore. Casey and Marie phoned daily, reminding him to take medication, and discouraging expeditions. Each time, he chuckled and promised to behave, and before the receiver clicked, promised he loved them more than the moon and the stars.

Though confident in their father’s love, they placed zero trust in his behavior. Health issues compounded. His blood pressure rose. At 80 he suffered a stroke, and his short term memory was slipping. With Marie living in Spokane and Casey in Seattle, the concerned siblings began contacting retirement communities. Their father needed to live where he could be properly cared for.

The blizzard of 2008 promised to be the worst in decades. Freezing rain snapped rural phone lines and 48 hours without contact left Casey and Marie frantic. Their father’s health was a concern, but there was another: during the summer they’d seen the maps. They were spread across the desk again, most areas were blotted. Only a few X’s remained. The siblings conferred, and it was decided that Marie would drive from Spokane.

In blizzard conditions the seven hour drive took 13, and it was nearly dawn when Marie reached her father’s farmhouse. Anti-lock brakes skipped on ice as she angled into the unplowed driveway, which was lined by a single set of tire ruts. A check of the garage confirmed the absence of Drew’s old Chevy.

She stomped snow from her boots and rushed inside. Coals glowed in the woodstove. The kitchen smelled of breakfast, and everything looked in order. Everything except two items on the kitchen table: Her father’s weathered old Army rucksack, and a clear orange prescription bottle.

Marie’s mind raced: She could drive to town for help. She could strike out toward Pikes Fork on her own. But as she weighed her meager options, the furnace kicked. In the warm gust of a floor vent, a sheet of paper fluttered beneath a magnet on the refrigerator. With her heart in her throat she sat at the table and unfolded it. Tears welled, but Marie didn’t cry. And as she read her face relaxed in a tranquil smile.

Casey & Marie,

Decided to try my luck hunting & may be gone a good while. Hug my grandchildren. I love you more than the moon and stars.

Dad

P.S. Don’t wait up*