Stepping Into The Light.

Trigger Warning: Dear Mom, don’t read this post.

(I made the mistake of telling my Mom the some of the details of this adventure on Sunday. She asked me to please never ever tell her if I did this or anything like it again.)

Stephens Gap Callahan Cave Preserve (no relation to any Callahans or Stephens I know) has been on my mental bucket list for a few years, from the moment I first saw a photo of it. It is one of those surreal natural wonders that I a) couldn’t believe existed and b) certainly couldn’t believe existed only two hours from my front door. But it requires a permit, you must travel with at least one other person, and there was no way I could take my kids, so a full day where I could take on such an adventure requires a bit of planning to pull off. I tried last year while the kids were in camp, but Noah got strep. But this would be my year.

Oh and also – the whole thing is super dangerous. This is the “real” kind of cave – unlike the thoroughly safe DeSoto Caverns I visited earlier this year, this one is not lit or guard-railed to make it safe, does not have staff to show you what to do, and you have to sign all the waivers acknowledging that you may or may not survive. I very specifically did not Google how many people had died there until after the trip (the answer is three – that I found articles on, anyway.)

I recruited three people to join me – a photographer who interned with me last school year, Jake Marvin, his mom Kim, and his sister Anna. Kim came prepared. A backpack full of water and a bottle of liquid Benadryl – basically what every cave expedition needs (I mean, helmets and a flashlight would’ve been real nice, but Benadryl was just as well.) It was a mile hike to the cave, along which I got a text from my dear husband.

“I’ll always remember you.”

The cave is set up as such: there’s the “pit”, which is a 143 foot drop straight down with a waterfall running through it. The pit faces upward in such a direction that it catches light beams in a most magical way. To the left of the pit there’s a climb-down entrance. We arrived at the climb-down entrance first, and it was so steep looking that I said, “Okay – here’s the pit.”

…until we found the actual pit. At which point I realized that other hole had indeed been where we would have to climb down. This is the pit:

170609f Outside of Stephens Gap_MG_9719

After Jake and Anna completely freaked their mother out by getting way to close to the pit, we headed back to the climb-down entrance.

We began our descent, which wasn’t as steep once we got started. It was, however, quite slippery. There were streams and waterfalls in several places along the entryway, making rocks slippery and unstable. Just as I said “look at all these jagged rocks just waiting to break a tailbone!!”, I managed to slip and fall onto my tailbone. Thankfully I have enough cushioning back there to break the fall with no damage.

As we got lower into the cave, the dancing sunbeams took our collective breath away. As we rounded the corner where we could truly see the scene, we were all in awe.

This is what we saw.

170609 Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9832

The sunbeams were alive, getting brighter and dimmer and sometimes completely disappearing, leaving the cave instantaneously dark. Sometimes they would fade just enough to allow the waterfall behind them to be seen.

170609 Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9772

As water and waterfalls were coming from multiple directions (you can see another waterfall in the right of the above picture), it was impossible to keep our camera lenses dry, hence the droplets on many of the shots.

Since Kim was The Mom of our trip, I sent her to investigate the pedestal – the large round rock upon which the light beams were shining. It was perched on the edge of the pit, about 50 feet up from the bottom. Everything was wet and slippery, and we’d pre-agreed that no one would be going onto the pedestal unless we felt it was safe, even though that was the shot we had come for.

Kim and Anna inched their way around the top edge first, looking for a step down. There wasn’t a viable choice.

170609 Anna in Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9783

Jake and I were busy setting up our cameras and getting our angles just right when they finally reported (or yelled, as all of the waterfalls made it extremely loud): the only way to the pedestal was from below. Which meant walking through a stream/waterfall, then climbing up the rocks leading to the pedestal.

Anna tried it first. I give Kim full credit for her allowing of this endeavor. But she made it look easy – somehow. And Anna was the first we got in The Shot.

170609 Anna in Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9806

Starting in the bottom left-hand corner of this picture, you can see the rushing water that she had to navigate down. That rushing water goes straight into the pit, so slipping is not advised.  She stayed up there for a few shots, then climbed down and back up to us.

Kim went next – she wore her Wonder Woman shirt for the occasion.

170609 Kim in Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9851

She couldn’t hear our photographical instructions over the roar of the waterfall, which led to this gem of a picture.

Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 5.34.41 PM

Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 5.34.50 PM

Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 5.34.57 PM

As Kim made her way back up, I got a bad video of her navigating the water:

It was my turn. I would hate myself forever if I didn’t try this, no matter how frightening it looked from my angle. I set my camera up on the tripod and left it in Jake’s trusty hands. I brought a dress tied to my backpack – I untied it and draped it like a scarf around my neck. And I slowly began my descent through the waterfall. I shimmied from side to side, trying to find the driest rocks and the safest hand-holds possible, but still fully immersing my feet in the rushing water several times. There were thankfully some really polite rocks that offered perfectly contoured handles on the way down. But still, I admit it: I was a bit terrified.

I made it to the bottom of the pedestal and began climbing up. The rocks were of a size that made it fairly easy at first, aside from the fact that they were all covered in mud that was most likely comprised of 24 different types of bat guano. When I got to the final rock of the pedestal, I realized that there was no way up without a full marriage between my legs, hands, and butt and the fairly thick pile of guano mud. So I went for it. I received a full-body mud treatment, but I made it to the top.

I unfurled my dress and threw it over my workout clothes that were now covered in a wet layer of slop. My long dress dusted through the mud. I took out my ponytail and shook my hair loose. I heard cheering from the other side of the ravine – I’m sure it was for my super-glamorous model preparation.

And then I posed. And Jake got The Shot for which I had waited so long.

170609b-with-white-border

As I looked up to the sky, it was every bit as surreal as one would imagine. The sun twinkling above me, waterfalls dripping and rushing from multiple directions, and rainbows dancing in the beams and mist – all only viewable from my current location. I wanted so badly to have my camera there with me – but the wet and muddy journey combined with the extreme moisture of the air around me prevented that option entirely. However, experiencing the moment – staring into that rainbowey, waterfalley, sunburstey canvas – it was about as close to heaven as one can experience on this earth.

This absolutely should be one of the most notable wonders of our country.

170609 Rachel in Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9843

Getting down was actually more terrifying that getting up – the foothold I’d used to get onto the rock was not accessible from a front-facing position, and I was not willing to slide down on my stomach. After sitting there for a few minutes not knowing if I’d ever leave the pedestal, I gave myself a pep talk.

C’mon Rachel. You’ve been doing planks and push-ups all year. You’ve even been lifting weights, albeit the lightest ones. You need to put some belief in your arms and lower yourself down. It’s the only way.

I planted both my palms solidly through the mud and onto the platform, then slowly lowered my body down to the next rock I could find footing. For a tenth of a second I thought I would surely slip and slide off into the pit, but I didn’t. My level of adrenaline was off the charts.

I had done something. Something that felt entirely unsafe, at least in my narrow construct of life.

Jake went last. I felt bad because by the time his turn came, my camera was hopelessly moist (something that was giving me no small amount of anxiety, considering I’ve already lost one camera to moisture), and all of my pictures of him had a slight smudged quality.

170609 Jake in Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9875

Once even my camera decided to turn him into a ghost…which, honestly, is a pretty awesome mistake.

170609 Jake the Ghost in Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9862

The sunbeams “went out” once when he was up there – you can see what it looks like here with just the waterfall:

170609 Jake in Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9868

But the beams returned, we got a few more photos, and then he began his descent back down.

170609 Jake in Stephens Gap Cave _MG_9877

When we finally all climbed our way back out of the cave, I immediately texted Chris and proclaimed our survival. He was overjoyed that he would have more than just a memory of his wife.

As we walked back on the trail, the full extent of my personal moisture began to take hold. I very much realized what it must feel like to be a toddler walking around with a dirty diaper. Had I thought to bring a change of clothes? Of course not. And so, I drove two hours back, waited around an hour, picked up my kids from camp, and headed home – and a full five hours after emerging from the cave, still a good bit damp, I finally was able to begin the process of de-guano-ing myself.

IMG_8142IMG_8143

I’m positive that the long-lasting effects on my skin will be amazing. And I can’t wait to do it all over again (but don’t tell my mom.)

Hands-On Alabama History: The Conclusion.

From the beginning

1st-Day-of-school-2016s-3 I promise this was from the beginning of this school year. Ignore the wrong dates. I’m a qualified teacher really I am.

To the end.

Last-Day-of-School-2017_MG_8512

It was an absolute adventure.

And my most ambitious and longest school year yet is finally over.

Although we’d finished most subjects, we officially ended it all on May 24, toward the end of a two-day field trip to Huntsville when Ali and I mutually agreed that although we did not go to all the places in my giant Alabama History plan, we were both officially done. Two days later, after she finished her field trip reports on said trip, we were DONE done.

Last Day of School 2017 _MG_8502

We did a total of 36 field trips, some(crazy)how, over her fourth grade year. (Some were multiple trips on the same day, so it’s not quite as insane as it sounds.) The book she wrote about those visits…is substantial.

Alabama-History-Book

It was a remarkable year – one that we all learned more than usual and we will all remember extraordinarily fondly, but also a busy year. And oh by the way, Ali grew just a bit.

Ali-Beginning-and-End-of-Alabama-History-Project

(Noah grew too and also Noah learned to read this year but poor kid – gets overshadowed by our giant history project. Someone clap for Noah! He can read! Hooray!!)

(Okay thank you. Now let’s continue.)

Last Day of School on Ruffner Mountain _MG_8599

I didn’t get all of our Alabama History adventures written about during the year, but Ali’s reports are so much better than mine, so I’ll just let her cover the ones I never got around to:

Arlington Antebellum Home and Gardens: This was our least favorite trip – we went in December and it was really cold that day, so we didn’t enjoy the grounds. The admission price was high, and there wasn’t that much to see. The Christmas decorations were pretty, though, and the “A Christmas Carol” theme was fun. Ali and Noah made the best of it and slid down the very uneven floors in the Antebellum mansion. (The floors were uneven because plumbing was installed post-construction. Makes for a fun indoor slide.)

Arlington Small

Tuscaloosa – we went to the Bear Bryant Museum and the Children’s Hands-On Museum. The Hands-On Museum wasn’t exactly history related, but it was my favorite museum when I was a kid, and I wanted them to enjoy it again. As expected, Noah now asks me to take him back there at least every other day. This was our last field trip with Carla Jean, so it was a delightful, yet bittersweet, final opportunity to enjoy our perfect symbiosis of friendship and education.

Tuscaloosa Small

Southern Museum of Flight and the Birmingham Public Library Maps Exhibit: we took my Dad along to the Southern Museum of flight, which was fantastic, because he was able to teach the kids so much about the planes he’d worked on in the Air Force. Like their inappropriate nicknames and the fact that the switch that drops the missiles is called the “Pickle Switch.” Important information. The kids really enjoyed this museum – they had many planes to play in and several hands-on areas. The education director, Mr. Charlie, was a wealth of information and really fun to make and fly paper airplanes with.

Southern Museum of Flight and Maps Exhibit

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute: This was one of our most important visits, but also ended up being one of our most risky visits. It is definitely geared more toward teens and adults, yet I was brilliant that day and invited friends to come with us. Needless to say, our group of 11 kids ten years old and under were greeted at the front door by a museum curator with strict instructions on how to behave and respect the museum. They did well, considering, but I wished I had left Noah with someone and just taken Ali. It was a grave experience, and there’s so much Civil Rights history that happened right here in Birmingham to absorb. The videos are quite graphic, as are the exhibits. It’s both a vital and painful piece of understanding Alabama’s history.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

U.S. Space and Rocket Center: Alabama played an important part in the Space Race. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is a fantastic campus (it’s way more than a museum) to learn about and appreciate that impact. They have actual vessels that have been on the moon – that alone is worth the drive. The staff there was extremely helpful and voluntary with their loads of information. They made the kid’s visit so much more fun.

US Space and Rocket Center

The Double Helix Park, EarlyWorks, and The Huntsville Depot – We did a triple take for our last field trip day (maybe that’s why we were so done by the end of it) – we first walked The Double Helix Trail in Huntsville, which is a really excellent .8 mile walking trail in the shape of a double helix. Along the way, you learn about characteristics that are on each genome and how they affect our genetic makeup. They also have an app that you can download and turn the walk into a Scavenger Hunt, which we did and the kids adored.

EarlyWorks is a Children’s Museum in Huntsville that, instead of being a science-based hands-on museum like McWane in Birmingham, it’s a history-based hands-on museum, specifically focused on Alabama History. It was an excellent place to spend an afternoon – the kids loved playing Mercantile, running through the River Boat, and setting off dynamite. Oh and their pile of stuffed dogs is AMAZING.

The Huntsville Depot had a fantastic collection of train cars that could be played on, and even had working buttons and switches that made thrilling noises. They also had a museum of old cars and a train museum. We didn’t make it in time to go into the train museum, but the kids enjoyed the rest of it immensely.

Huntsville Field Trips

Interviews – we didn’t do nearly as many history interviews as I’d hoped to. The fact that all the interviews would be in the latter part of the project (nobody’s still alive from the prehistoric days, after all) contributed to my failure in that area. By the time we got to the end of the year, I was just trying to desperately finish the field trip part of our project. We did have one interview event, however, that was seriously tremendous. Our famous meteorologist James Spann came and spoke to us and a group of about 40 other people who have been participating in our Alabama History project, or that just wanted to come and hear him speak. It was very off-the-cuff, and he talked about all sorts of fantastic Alabama stuff (such as the route one would take if they wanted to turn the four hour trip to the beach into a four day trip, going through every little town and eating at every tiny bar-b-q dive along the way.) He took questions from the kids, as well, which was really fun and quite hilarious. We talked about tornadoes and racism and small-town Alabama and everything in between. He was the perfect person to single-handedly handle the interview portion of our project.

James Spann Interview

And that’s it. I’ll see you again in four years, Alabama History.

If anyone wants the last version of my spreadsheet, they can find it here. I do plan on doing a seminar later in the summer for anyone interested in the details of how we made this year work. I plan on having a curriculum guide written up and copies of my spreadsheet ready to go, so let me know if you’d like to be a part of that.

I mean, I plan to do all that, but it is summer. And it’s been a mighty long school year. So feel free to nag if you don’t hear from me. Until then, I’ll be making like Noah and taking a nice, long, nap.

Last Day of School on Ruffner Mountain _MG_8598

The Opposite of StormChasing.

The Alabama Weather Scene has changed since I was a kid.

Not in content so much – I remember tornadoes and warnings and staying indoors as things were flying about Wizard-Of-Oz style from my youth. My mom claims to have sat in a rocking chair on the front porch with me in her arms while a tornado tore through, dropping a tree on the back of our house. (I guess it was just a mother’s instincts to know that the front porch was our safe room that day. Who knows.)

Anyway.

The weather is the same. But the warning time of coming storms has greatly increased, as has the paranoia around those warnings.

When I was a kid, most of Alabama, it seemed, laughed off tornado warnings. In the same way, yet opposite, that we laugh at ourselves for shutting the state down for an inch of snow, we laughed at ourselves for never worrying about tornadoes – they happen all the time, after all.

2011 erased that attitude. We as a state suffer from PTSD of 4-27-11, and we take even thunderstorms seriously now. That, along with tornado prediction technology and coverage being greatly improved since I was a kid, is what has changed Alabama. When you add paranoia + predictions, you get state shut downs.

On Wednesday, a good portion of the state was in Tornado Possibility Dark Color 4 (out of 5 – if we ever get Dark Color 5 again, Chris swears we’re leaving the state), and so out of precaution, every school system closed – even The University of Alabama.

(Except for homeschool. If we’re going to be stuck at home all day, we might as well do school. Poor kids.)

But this type of “Tornado Day” was the weird, unpredictable kind – there would be no “front” or long line of storms coming through that you could watch with dread and trepidation, knowing to the minute when it would reach your neighborhood. It was the mostly sunny day kind, therefore adding to the explosiveness of the atmosphere, with violent pop-up storms coming seemingly out of nowhere in random areas.

Ugh.

Existential weather dread is worse when the sun is shining and the radar is clear. It’s downright ominous.

So I spent the day indoors, checking the radar every 5 seconds, fighting the losing battle of cell phone battery life versus the constant reminder of “Charge your devices in case you lose power!”

We were antsy. SO antsy. It was a beautiful day but even going out into the front yard seemed un-recommended.

Finally, at 5pm, I could take it no more. We were originally supposed to be out of danger by then. There was one small yet nasty storm east of us that the meteorologists were covering nonstop (seriously y’all – hail the size of freaking baseballs), and so no one was giving Birmingham the promised all-clear. There was some sort of “dry line” that was supposed to be coming through any minute, therefore clearing the environment of anymore storms.

You can’t see dry lines. But you can imagine they’re there if you think really hard and are positive you’ll explode to stay indoors for one more second.

So Chris and I decided that surely we were good.

Chris left straight from work to run, and we arranged to meet him at the Botanical Gardens later to trade off so that I could run, and that way the kids could run around the gardens in the meantime.

So we set out on a beautiful summer afternoon. When we got close to the gardens, big fat raindrops began to fall.

Of course.

But it was surely just a sprinkle, so I decided we’d ride up to the top of the city first – for a peek on how it looked on this weirdly sunny stormy day.

As we got closer to the ridge, the skies behind us began to look darker and more ominous. Quite like an Oculus bearing down upon us (for those of you who have already seen “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”)

I checked where Chris was running on my Find My Friends app – a mile away, in the direction of the nastiness.

I should save him. He’s gonna get soaked.

Right after I get my picture.

Tornado Running170406-Birmingham-Before-the-Storm

I grabbed a couple shots, the dark cloud eerily covering the sun on a clear and innocent-looking day, then began chasing down my husband.

“Okay kids – you’re on Daddy watch. Keep your eyes out your window.”

It took a few turns, but we found him, right as he was crossing the street. He had headphones on, so I yelled at him. “Hey!! Do you need a ride??”

He didn’t even look back. He shot me a peace sign from over his shoulder and kept running. He totally thought I was some random busybody motorist.

I followed him down the road and yelled again. He yelled back that he was okay and kept running.

I drove around the block, parked, and started checking Twitter and the radar. A spectacularly nasty little storm had unpredictably (as predicted) popped up from nowhere and it was headed straight our way, then on toward our house.

Chris took the clue that we’d chased him down and paused to look at his radar. He texted me.

“On second thought, come get me.” (Paraphrased.)

I drove around the block, grabbed my husband, and peeled out to drive to his car.

We discussed what we should do. I wanted to go home and hide in the basement. He wanted to drive away from the storm. I finally realized he didn’t want hail damage on his precious car. He concurred. It made sense – as long as we could decisively tell which way the storm was not headed.

As we got back to his car, things began looking worse. And closer. He quickly formulated a plan and told me to follow him north – to a suburb on the opposite side of the city. We screeched out as rain began falling in earnest and giant lightning bolts started touching down. I might’ve whispered a few choice words just out of earshot of my children (I hope.)

Managing no red lights, we got on the freeway and sped north of town.

In no time, it was a bright, sunny day in front of us and to the left – but behind us and to the right it looked downright gross.

We ended up at a lovely park we’re never close enough to visit (Black Creek Park in Fultondale), taking a nice, calm family walk, while getting multiple texts from neighbors asking if we were okay and sending pictures of hail everywhere and the tree down on our next door neighbor’s house.

Tornado RunningFullSizeRender 68

The wind was powerful and dry where we were, and we quickly surmised that we had, indeed, finally found that “dry line”, whatever the heck that was anyway.

We walked down the lovely rails-to-trails path, pausing with a hush to watch some groundhogs scurry into their holes, and finding a playground with delightful eccentricities to add to the beautiful and deceptively placid sunset.

Tornado RunningIMG_5919

The kids even found a massively nasty bug they followed around the playground for a good while – clearly a win.

Tornado RunningIMG_5908

He was inches long, y’all. I looked him up later and – no lie – he’s called a Hellgrammite. They usually live their entire larval lives (5 years) under rocks in streams, and only emerge if a thunderstorm chases them out. Everything made so much sense.

(Then they’re a full-grown adult for one week before they die – but for that one week they’re the most terrifying, dragon-sized fly you’ve ever seen. Go ahead – Google “Dobson Fly” and see what I mean. Add that to Alabama’s Hunger Games status.)

But I digress. Besides that nightmare, we spent our evening simply enjoying the exultation of successfully fleeing a hail storm.

Tornado RunningFullSizeRender 69