Fate – well, actually, our car’s being covered with big vinyl YERT signs – introduced us to super cool Rhode Island couple, Joe & Rebecca back in July (see Friday, July 20 blog, last paragraph). They called to us across a Thai restaurant, “What’s YERT?” After we got to know them a bit, they told us that if we passed through Elk Bend, Idaho, we should stay in their cabin – or better yet, their cave… and talk to a old fella named Dugout Dick who carved a bunch of mines into the hillside back in the 40’s, turning them into shelters when he didn’t find so much usable ore.
Well, Elk Bend is a bit off the beaten path but a man who’s lived in a cave for the last 60 or so years is an example of sustainability we would not miss and so, a day later than we’d planned (due to the Vermont pod taking 4 dys longer to produce than we’d hoped), I wrote down the directions Rebecca had emailed me, ending with, “Look for the emus…” and YERT drove North from Utah with visions of caves with double beds and large flightless birds…
After hours of rolling hills and rain and no cell phone service, we emptied out of Rachel Carson onto a gravel drive at the feet of the Caretaker, Jim, a bright-eyed scrappy fellow with a hearty hello, and his two wonderful dogs, Max and Hailey, who leaned on us and brought us the ball, respectively.
Joe & Rebecca’s cabin was like mother’s warm arms. Jim had lit the woodburning stove for the very first time just before we got there. He took us on a tour of the whole place (He was only recently made caretaker but nevertheless is obviously fiercely fond of it all). We filmed inside the little side paddock where the emu laid down, and down again, when Jim petted him just so, and then we walked the labyrinth Rebecca built out of stones…
Jim led the way to Dugout Dick’s hillside where we found Joe & Rebecca’s cave – “2 over from Dick’s,” just where Rebecca said it would be. It was cold and rainy outside but inside the cave was warm and dry. They aren’t really caves, i should say, but mineshafts built into and out from the earth, with doors and windows of scrap automobile parts and various recovered “junk” items like woodburning stoves and little cabinets of scrap wood…all the air smelled sweet with sagebrush…but the hillside was littered with trash.
There were cats everywhere. Little mama cats and kittens and littler kittens still, all crying and scrambling under our feet in case of falling food. I am a cat person. I have rescued my share. I have laid dead kittens in the garbage after they perished in my backyard, but I found myself swallowing hard. We were out in the middle of nowhere, there was nobody to take care of these little guys at all, and they were starving. I decided to focus on the task at hand.
Dick was not around. But we did talk to Bruce, a sometime cave-dweller who looks after Dick much of the time. Bruce gave us quite a profound interview, inside his dark little house with his gasoline fueled lantern, and his library books on the “windowsill.” We filmed him and his little black blind-in-one-eye cat, Pennzoil and thanked him, planning to be back the following morning to catch Dugout Dick himself.
*Delicious Milestone!: Jim provided us our first real opportunity to cook dinner for someone; He had fresh food for us. Mark broiled the salmon, I sauteed vegetables, Ben made salad, and then Jim opened a bottle of the most delicious red wine, which we did not refuse. *Trash note: We decided early on that we could not drink single bottles of beer but if our host(s) uncorked a bottle, it would be unseemly not to help them drink it…
Have to admit I hadn’t had wine in awhile. By the time dinner was all eaten, and we got to watch some of Jim’s stunt driving on TV, i was rosy and all I wanted to do was to climb upstairs in my sock feet, and snuggle under the covers of the cozy double bed with Ben. Cave, schmave. I was in heaven. So, Mark spent the night there!
And Max the Pointer spent the night on the bed with me and Ben. He is a very big dog.
Next day, Mark came back from his field trip, we had a nice breakfast of duck egg omelets, toast and coffee, and then we headed back to the caves for the big interview. Bruce, who had been reticent to sign a release form, finally acquiesced, thankfully. Then we went to find Dugout. The door to his inner cave was all black and shut. Ben called in to him and Dick hollered back. We went in, we could barely see him, our eyes weren’t used to the dark. The cave smelled of thick old smoke and the pictures on the wall were completely opaque with soot. I didn’t last long in there as the tiniest kittens came out from under the sofa, mewing, couldn’t have been more than 3 wks old. I spent the entire interview walking around with the 4 babies tucked in my jacket for warmth, ’til they fell asleep crying from hunger, their little eyes puss-y and swollen, their tiny tummies empty. There was no food for them or for their mother, who was nowhere to be seen. She probably had her head in a Chef Boyardee can somewhere, desperately licking at at the last drops of artificial tomato sauce.
I heard the boys talking, asking Dick questions, heard his pauses and muffled replies, looked in every once in awhile to see his red miner hat bobbing slowly, heard him singing a song to his long lost love, Bonnie. Dugout Dick is almost 92 yrs old and lives on Chef Boyardee and Oatmeal. He has done for years, lives more sustainably than anybody I have met in these United States, lives on practically nothing. But I couldn’t appreciate his lack of carbon footprint for all the little cats that needed fixing. My stupid little girl heart broke when it was time to go and I set the 4 baby kittens back down onto the filthy sooty floor with no mother cat near, and no nest, mewing their tiny kitten hearts out, scrambling back to my feet.
I couldn’t say anything at all in the car. We stopped by Jim’s one last time and I told him about the littlest ones, in case he might consider taking them somewhere. He went the very next day and found a vet who will spay all the cats for free but he didn’t find all of the kittens. Jim said in the end Dick seemed sad and pointed his cane to underneath the couch. Only one little kitten was still alive, last I heard, the very littlest pale orange one. It’s funny, she’s the one I thought would be the first to go, she seemed so much smaller and mewed so much less than the others.
Anyway, who knows when the kitties came to the caves. Years ago, probably. Probably Dick did not ask for them to come, just started giving them his leftovers because they showed up and he felt sorry for them. Now they are many. Dick lives his life as he has for the last 60 yrs, and still leaves out his leftovers for them…I am, meanwhile, very thankful for Jim.
Not sure of the end to this story. Dugout Dick has a mining claim on the land which allows him to stay there. When he dies, the land will go back to BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and no one knows what will happen to the “caves.” Bruce says that he plans to carry on the same idea with land he’s bought just down the way. But for now, anyone can pay just a dollar a day to stay in a cave on the hill, to the miner who lives in the hillside. For $25 a month, or $300 a year, you can live off the grid, and be warm. Think about it. There is an outhouse. But please, do something about the cats.