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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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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.)

A Visit to Hilton Head.

It’s been over a month since mine and Chris’ annual anniversary trip, and I still haven’t finished this blog post about it. Because every time I try to write, I find myself in this situation….

I’m supposed to be blogging right now. But instead, I’m browsing online, trying to figure out the best way to use credit card points to take another vacation with my husband.

(Repeat above paragraph fifteen times on fifteen different days.)

It’s an addictive thing, time away. On the first day back, when I was supposed to be enjoying the rapturous beauty of my children’s angelic faces, I was thinking repeatedly, “They talk so MUCH. They are so LOUD. They ask SO MANY QUESTIONS. I forget … how do I normally stay calm and sane?”

But then I remembered my last interaction with Noah the morning before we left.

IMG_7011“I’m gonna need a LOT of hugs today before you leave, Mommy.”

Okay. They’re pretty awesome. But I really, really, REALLY like time away with my husband, also.

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We rarely do much deep talking and we NEVER do that thing where couples go away and spreadsheet and calendar out their entire year and their goals and their budget and their hopes and dreams. No, we’re more of the vacating type of vacationers. We do a lot of sitting on the beach, eating (I totally ditched my sugar rules for the trip), photo taking, running, and biking.

(I get that last part might not feel like vacation to some. But it feels like vacation to us.)

This year, I even remembered to bring my tripod along to get a decent picture of the two of us – a rarity for certain.

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As I stared at my phone to click the shutter button that would send the message to my camera, Chris complained about being feasted upon by the very angry South Carolina Gnat Army. It was all very romantic.

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This photo was much more realistic of the magical moment.

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But wait. Let’s start at the beginning of the trip.

We spent the first night in Savannah, arriving at 2am because we really really wanted to get vacationing as soon as possible. We woke up late the next morning and took a very circuitous walk to lunch. Strolling through countless historic Savannah squares and taking pictures of water fountains, all while Chris recounted monologues in his Kevin-Spacey-in-The-Garden-of-Good-and-Evil voice and style, is a perfect start to vacation.

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At one point, we were deep in one of these very silly conversations, and had accidentally walked between some orange cones.

“Hey!! HEY!!! This sidewalk is CLOSED!! What did you think those cones were doing there?? GEEZ!”

Oops.

I guess we thought they were there for decoration?

He was not amused.

But we didn’t let that angry utilities guy take away from the magic of Savannah, with buildings dating back to far before there were utilities or grumpy utility workers.

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We enjoyed lunch along the waterfront, watching the giant shipping boats and other charm of the Savannah riverfront.

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Chris wanted to remember our day with a selfie. I don’t believe in this sort of photography, because it’s never flattering (or maybe I’m just a bad selfie taker.)

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So when he asked me to send him the picture I took for him, I sent him this one instead. Again. Much more realistic of the moment.

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After enjoying Savannah to the point of dripping sweat (seriously it is SO HOT AND HUMID there), we drove on to Hilton Head, an island off of South Carolina of which we had never visited before. A lot of our friends rave about it, so we had decided to give it a try.

We had been gently warned by the hotel concierge the week before that “we really like our beiges in Hilton Head” and everything is “very beige.” We prefer bright beach colors ourselves, but we figured we could take a beige vacation every now and then.

She did not warn us, however, that the original planners of the island must have decreed that no roadside visibility was allowed for any establishment.

Want to find the beige Publix? Good luck. It’s hidden behind half an acre of trees and don’t expect there to be a sign telling you it’s back there.

By the end of the trip we were highly amused at how many shades of beige we were now able to differentiate between. And how many grueling hours local builders must put in, studying the spectrum of beiges they were allowed to use to find JUST THE PERFECT beige. When we’d come across a gray house we would squeal with excitement.

DID YOU JUST SEE THAT IT WAS GRAY!!! IT WAS ALMOST AS IF THE ISLAND HAD COLOR!!!

Hilton Head is basically the Uncle Knit Knots of islands.

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But seriously. We didn’t mind. (Too much.) And the skies made up for the lack of color every morning and night.

(Although maybe this would explain why I did the unthinkable and actually woke up for two sunrises on vacation….I was color deprived.)

Sunrise #1

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Sunrise #2

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And of course, we caught many sunsets, further satiating my need for bright and bold colors.

Sunset #1

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Sunset #2

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Sunset #3

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We even caught a full moon over the water.

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And of course I tried to get some @happyroadkill shots, but y’all – EVEN THE ROADKILL WAS BEIGE.

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The only place we found true color was at the lighthouse, which must have existed before The Beige Decrees or surely it would’ve been a lovely stripe of light beige and light-medium beige.

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But it didn’t matter.

It was FINE.

We relaxed. And we were happy. Even in the beige hotel basket.

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(Although woodgrain was a really daring shade of beige for the island.)

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…And now it’s time for me to get back to searching for our next vacation.

Revisiting The Past.

I know that the trendiness of photo re-creation was at its peak a couple of years ago, but for some reason, it peaked with me over the last couple of weeks.

First, there was a soccer picture of my brother and I. We were more of a baseball/softball family, and we only played one season of soccer. The date for soccer pictures fell right after I’d fallen off my bike and scraped myself up substantially, as well as right after I’d lost my front teeth. I looked like I’d just played an AMAZINGLY brutal season of soccer, even though in reality I’d touched the ball with my cleat two times all season (I swear back then they had six-year-olds playing on full-length adult soccer fields. Or maybe it just felt like it.) Meanwhile, my older brother looked pristine and untouched. As such, it’s always been a family photo favorite.

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As Noah and his cousin Andi finished up their soccer season, it was my goal to recreate the photo. Andi is my brother’s daughter, so how much more perfect of a recreation could you get (other than my brother and I putting on our soccer uniforms again…which wasn’t going to happen.) Plus, it just so turned out that Andi had quite conveniently just smashed up her own face in some random kid accident, so she was the perfect fill-in for my role. She, however, actually was a complete beast at soccer, so at least she deserved the tough girl look.

So after the last game, we snatched them away from the bright green cupcakes just in time to snap their picture before they covered themselves in sugary stains.

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Yup. It was, indeed, perfect. Except that they don’t mind standing closer together than we did. And their shorts are a more decent length. And they didn’t tuck their shirts up to their chests.

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A few weeks later, a photo showed up on my Facebook memories. It was nine years ago, and it was Ali and her best friend AJ, who have been best friends since before they could walk.

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The adorable unpredictability of toddler poses just made me so happy, and it just so happened that we had a playdate scheduled at their house later that day. I felt a re-creation was in order.

I texted Ashley.

“Does AJ still have her Elmo?”

“No, I’m sure it got thrown out.”

I asked Ali.

“Do you still have your Elmo?”

“Yes! I just saw it the other day!”

Lucky Elmo.

I found the bench, cobwebbed in the basement, and got Ali to bring Elmo.

I told the girls. “Okay. You two are old enough to get this PERFECT.”

I started arranging AJ’s fingers just right around Elmo’s arm. She began giggling and couldn’t quit. I couldn’t really blame her. But, after a bit of studying of facial expressions and poses, they delivered.

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It was as good as it could be, considering 9 years had really given them a chance to grow out and off of that bench (Ali remarked, “Good grief that bench looks like it shrunk by 5 years!!”)

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After we finally let them achingly stand up from that tiny bench, they pleaded. “Please don’t make us do this when we’re 20!”

I like how they think we’ll be able to make them do anything when they’re 20.