Saturday, January 2, 2016

Under the Earth and Over the River and Through the Woods

"Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."
The tunnel at Chickies Rock Park
This morning, my boyfriend texted me from the subway tunnels beneath Grand Central Station.  We live in the future!  I remarked that I loved being underground, and he called me a hobbit, which could not possibly be more true!  My father (of blessed memory) and I often fantasized of building an earth-sheltered home, and so I know a surprising amount about earth-work construction  I genuinely love being inside the earth; I derive an almost spiritual pleasure from knowing that I am surrounded by the Womb of Being.

So many of my most magical memories take place in and around tunnels and caves.  I think, at some level deep in own bones, each of us understands the magic of caves.  They stir some ur-memory in us; painted bison slowly coaxed to dance by guttering torches and pounding drums.  And yet, so few people have ever been in a wild cave.  Where I grew up, almost all the land is underlain by limestone and running water.  And so, nearly anywhere you go in Lancaster County, there is quite likely a cave beneath your feet.

Indian Echo Caverns
When I was a child, we frequently went on school trips to Crystal Cave, a limestone cavern that was retro-fitted for tourists (including electric lights) in the 1800s.  As far as I recall, that's the first cave I was ever inside of.  My father (who shared my love of the underground) took me to several more caves, but neither of us were fit enough for serious spelunking.  These included Indian Echo Cavern (pictured at right) and Laurel Caverns.  As I got older, I began to explore slightly more wild caves, particularly Cold Cave, on the Conestoga Trail in Pequea.  However, it was a different kind of earth-sheltered locale that really makes the impact on me.  Even more than caves, I love tunnels.

I have always believed that, when you pass through a tunnel, especially a long, dark tunnel, there is the possibility of crossing into another world entirely.  The folklore I was taught as a child was that you should always hold your breath while passing through a tunnel.  There were various reasons for this, depending on who you listened to.  Theories seemed to break into two general camps (1) If you held your breath the whole way through and made a wish, it was sure to come true.  and (2) If you didn't hold your breath, you might become possessed by the spirit of the tunnel (which is a bad thing?).  In my head, these combined to build the idea that every time you pass through a tunnel, reality is in a kind of "Schroedinger's Limbo"; things might well be different on the other side.

The first tunnel with whom I remember having a relationship is the one that runs between Park City Mall's parking lot and Long's Park.  Originally built as a highway underpass, the tunnel remained after the road moved.  I can't find a picture of the tunnel online, but I'll get one for you when next I can.  For me, and I suspect for many others, my earliest memories of that tunnel are mixed up with memories of the fourth of July.  The city's primary Independence Day celebration is at Long's Park; the symphony plays the 1812 overture, including firing 15 or 20 Revolutionary and Civil War cannon.  There are fireworks and people grill.  It's very All-American.  There's not much parking at the park, so my family, and many, many others, would park at the mall, and walk through the tunnel.

When I was a tween, there was a rumor going around that Satanists met in the tunnel and that's where they did their black magic.  That was among the first times I'd ever heard people talk about magic in a non-fiction context.  I was very intrigued.  I desperately wanted to meet these Satanists, and learn their black magics.  I spent A LOT of time in the tunnel, but I was not permitted to go by myself (I was, like, 12 years old) and so it came to nothing.  I suspect there was very little to that rumor.  And yet, and yet....  Even today, 25 years after the Satanist rumor was put to bed, some glimmer of magic does hang around the tunnel.  This is probably the least wild of the tunnels I'm going to talk about.  And yet, even this one offers the dark stillness of being under the earth, the sensation of being ensconced inside the Mother of Mountains.

There's another tunnel close to my heart, and one that's recently been abandoned.  As you head south along route 324 towards Lake Aldred, you used to have to pass through a very short, very dangerous one-lane underpass. Although it's difficult to see in this picture, on the other side of the tunnel, the road turns sharply, making it very difficult to see whether or not there is anyone in the tunnel. A few years ago, they diverted the road a bit, cutting the corner and obviating the need for a tunnel.  However, the old tunnel still stands, slowly re-wilding.  I am intrigued to see how it's spirit develops.  I will take a photo of what it looks like now when next I am in Pequea.

There is, however, only one tunnel that really captures my soul, one tunnel that I am 100% sure has another world on it's other side.  Shortly after I learned to drive, I discovered this amazing nature preserve, which I always referred to, only half in jest, as "The Gateway to Arcadia". I think, perhaps, my father took my brother and I here when I was very little, but I'm not sure.  In any case, I hadn't been in years when I rediscovered it as a teenager.  All through high school, especially on that long, lazy watercolor summer of morphine between junior and senior year, I used to go there to think, and talk to the Land, and search for the door to faerie. I sometimes took my brother with me, but I don't know that I ever took anyone else.  It's entrance is quite hidden.

The Gateway is along a small, windy road, paralleling a creek. On the other side of the road is a steep embankment, at the top of which is the old railroad track, long since turned into a hiking trail. After a little while, there's a dirt patch you can pull over at, and a stone arch leading into the side of the hill. A small rivulet creek runs into the tunnel. If you wade in the creek (slippery!) through the tunnel, and come out on the other side, you find yourself in a hidden valley.  It's a tucked behind some hills, and difficult to find. Any real Lancastrian, I think, will be able to find it from the photos and description. If you need a map to find it, I'm not going to tell you where it is.

You see, like so many things from that time in my life, I'd completely forgotten about this place.  And then I found myself there in a dream, and that's when things began to open up, and I began to remember.  I went searching for it on my next trip to Lancaster, and I found it.  I spoke with Forsythia, the guardian of the tunnels of Faerie, the herald of spring, and asked her to help me find it.  I followed the yellow blooms down twisting country roads, winding our way through the Tucquon Glen, crisscrossing the Southern End.  After a bit of wandering, it appeared, a stone tunnel rising up from the woods.

There are two ways into the glen but I am not so sure they lead to the same place.  If you climb up over the hill, you will find abandoned railroad tracks at the top.  The last train here ran 25 years ago, and the tracks have since been removed.  Clambering over, and making your way down the very steep descent on the far side, you find yourself in a lovely nature preserve, full of wildflowers and song birds.

There is, however, another option.  You can wade upstream into the tunnel.  It appears to be short, but it is dark, and the stream bed is slick, the round stones and covered in slippery moss, stone of the walls is damp and old. Old graffiti, so faded as to be almost invisible, lies faint on one wall. A cross bedecked with horns. Is it the seal that opens the way, or does it only mark the path?

The tunnel continues. Light dawns ahead of you, the tunnel gives way to the forest, the sparkling sunshine reflecting through green leaves onto an antediluvian wood. The hills rise steep on every side. If you peer through the tunnel, you can see the road on the other side, and yet, as soon as you turn away, the outside world is utterly gone.  No noise penetrates the thick hills; only the sound of bubbling water and the cry of songbirds.

Life flourishes all around you, weeping willows kiss the river, sycamores jostle with maple, magnolia stands next to oak, yellow birch and hemlock predominate. Abundant wildflowers are everywhere, mulberries grow in profusion, butterflies flirt with orange jewel weed, forsythia hedges mingle with wild roses and tiny white baby’s breath. The smell of honeysuckle is all around you, and morning glories bloom in profusion. As you walk beside the river, deeper and deeper, further and further, into the ancient wood, you begin to feel as though you are being watched. A rustle in the undergrowth, a splash in the water.

The river grows large, too large to ford, but if you continue to talk walk, you will come across a tree fallen across, a natural bridge. The tree is ancient and slick with haircap moss, but it is still strong and holds your weight with ease.

On the other side of the river, the forest fans out thick and rises high, the trees are bigger than they have any right to be.  Further on, the cliffs rise up higher, gusseting even tighter my magic valley.  Time gets all wibby-wobbly here, slowing down, my memories become confused.  And yet, always, I know I am being watched, that the spirits of this place remember me, as I remember them.  Scrambling up I come to this tree and I sit a spell to thing.  But even here, you cannot see past the cliffs back to the real world. No sound penetrates the valley, only the river connects this Place to home.

Faces begin to appear in the trees, most natural, but then I spy this, and I know I am not the only traveler to have felt the Old Ones here.  I understand that others might see this graffiti differently.  But running my hands along the scarred bark, I can feel the boy who made these cuts; he was the same age I was when I found these woods, 16 or 17; the liminality of his adolescence shines bright.  I suspect he didn't know why he felt compelled to carv this image to commemorating his experience.  But I know what this means, and I give thanks to the boy who made this offering to the Land, even if he didn't know he did it.

If you've enjoyed this post, please consider donating the the Lancaster County Conservancy, which keeps Lancaster wild.  They own a lot of the land I'm talking about here, and they love it as much as I do.  My bff's mother is their Director of Land Preservation, so I can vouch for them personally.

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