Since my first trip to the mud caves in March 2000, I guess I’ve been there at least a dozen times—sometimes for day trips and sometimes to camp for a night or two with young people from the church or fans of the Starman series. The most recent trip was January 26-28. Four young people went with me on the adventure: Joi Weaver, Ashley Romero, Erin Vandeventer, and Brian Nick.
On our way, we stopped for lunch at Tommy’s in San Clemente, a 1950s-style restaurant with posters from that era and classic rock playing in the background. I was surprised and impressed that the young people knew who James Dean was. For lunch, three of the five of us had burgers with fries, one ate sushi (that she brought in from outside), and one consumed a hot fudge Sunday. We were almost as diverse as the Episcopal Church strives to be.
We made a brief stop in the gold-mining town of Julian at an elevation just above 4000 feet, and were reminded that it might be very cold where we were going. In Julian it was “brisk”. However, the desert floor was lower than Julian so we weren’t overly alarmed. We didn’t stay in Julian long since we wanted to reach the mud caves before it got too late, and the drive was taking longer than we’d hoped.
As it was, the sun had already set when we arrived at the mud caves. The moon was just past half and there were wisps of silver clouds in the sky when we set up camp. There was still plenty of light, and I pointed out that the moon was bright enough to cast sharp moonshadows. At the first opportunity we walked the hundred yards to Plunge Pool Cave, spelunked the fifty or so feet past the entrance, and came into the large chamber whose roof was thirty or forty feet above us. A rift that opens to the top of the palisade provides a measure of illumination during the day but in spite of the moonlight, it was completely dark at night. We turned off our lights and stood in the utter darkness and talked for perhaps maybe an hour. It’s amazing how much people will share with one another when you can’t see anyone.
Both nights we stayed were cold, but the cold only became a factor well after dinner, and as soon as it was light in the morning, it was warm enough to get around with only a simple jacket. During the day the temperature was quite pleasant.
We explored five different caves on our one full day. One was open to the sky but the other four were true tunnels through the mud palisade. Since they were carved by water, they followed the line of least resistance. The paths were artistically contoured in curves and turns. Occasionally there were skylights through which sunbeams could find their mysterious way into the gloom. Apart from this rare incursion of sunlight, we had only small flashlights and, for Joi, a candle.
We spent roughly half our time in camp. Cooking, eating, and cleaning up, of course, but also talking, reading, talking short walks, and praying. In spite of a thorough list of “what to bring”, I forgot to pack my cook kit. Fortunately Brian brought one.
Brian also brought wasabi green peas for a trail snack. The sharp flavor of horseradish was startlingly different from the usual trail mix. When I got back, I bought a bag of wasabi peas myself. The badger, fox, coyote, or whatever it was that ate our hot dog buns and half an apple on the first night scattered the trail mix Ashley brought, but left the wasabi peas untouched.
The new but cheap can opener I bought for the trip conked out after opening about four cans. After that we had to open cans the old-fashioned way—with a knife. The Boy Scout sheath knife I’ve had since the early 1960s always comes in handy whenever I camp.
Among the many excellent moments was seeing feathery clouds on the second night with the moon above them. The sky was deep midnight blue, and clouds the shape of angel wings covered half the heavens. They showed glowing whiteness as moonlight shone through the vapor. Another outstanding memory was when Brian and I waited for the girls to catch up as we were exiting one of the caves, and heard their ethereal voices singing praises to God in beautiful harmony as they came closer and closer to us.
Over all, it was a moving experience made up of candles, skylights, narrow slot canyons, dust, climbing ridges under evening starlight, and campfires enclosed in a barbecue pan. Most of all, it was a time of cementing Christian charity and building community.
Each time I go I learn a little more about what I need to bring. It should be great the next time I take a group down, which might be April.
On our way out on Sunday, I said Mass on Ghost Mountain. We sat in a circle in the middle of what had been the Souths’ home. I asked Brian to take a photograph as I prepared to break the Host. I wanted a photo of my hands, dusty, scraped, and with dirty fingernails, as I prepared to perform this ancient action that provided the earliest name for the Eucharist: the Breaking of Bread (Acts 2:42).
I rinsed my palms and fingers in water beforehand, but that was the best I could do. The simple Mass emphasized the incarnational aspect of what we were doing: asking Jesus to enter into our world. We need to rough it sometimes to remind us that this is the heart of our worship. None of us had showered for two days, and even washing our hands was haphazard. Still, we had the elements ordained by Jesus, the words established by the apostles in imitation of Jesus, a man anointed as a priest in apostolic succession, and the faithful. Sometimes having the bare minimum reminds us of what is essential.
We were fasting for Communion, which we thought would happen much earlier in the day than we anticipated, so that meant we didn’t get our first meal until past 3:00 p.m. When we left Ghost Mountain, we drove into Julian to go to the old-fashioned soda fountain, but the streets were jammed with tourists and there was no obvious parking available. So we kept going for five more miles and came to one of the best pizza places in the area. Almost anything would have tasted good when you’re that hungry, but we especially enjoyed the top-quality pizza we ate, comfortable in a dining room by ourselves.
Sadly, the inevitable break-up came as we entered our cars after our meal and began the final drive home. We went our separate ways, arriving home after dark.
The young people who joined me have also blogged about the trip. I only have the one photograph, but they took, and posted, a lot more. Brian Nick has a couple of posts with some photos at http://www.thenickfamily.com/
Joi Weaver has a couple of posts, including some great meditative reflections, at http://www.comeaway.blogspot.com/
Erin Vandeventer put her reflections, with a lot of photographs, at http://www.charlesburneyisourhero.blogspot.com/Ashley Romero posted a brief but poetic reflection at