Return to Big Rock Cave
Wonalancet is mapped out by a few strips of highway, a church, a big field, and lots of farmhouses. In the early 20th century, the Out-Door Club blazed most of the trails leading up to the Sandwich Range and other local areas. Many of the paths led from cottages or farms that served as inns for summer tourists. Today many of the trails remain on private property – Wonalancet hasn't changed much in the last hundred years.
The sign for Cabin Trail can be tough to spot from 113A and for good reason – it's at the end of someone's driveway. I found it by looking for the dirt parking area across the street, then u-turned and nestled the car under the low-hanging trees.
As I killed the engine and pulled on the e-brake, another car parked behind me. An old gent and two cocker spaniels spilled out. He looked like Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond and my memory has already placed a fishing hat on his head.
I figured me and Wilder should get ahead of him and his dogs immediately. I got out of the car, grabbed my bag, and headed for the back door, where the Aussie sat frozen and tense, like a prize horse at the gate, ready to run. I love the wide-eyed look he gives me from the back seat: it's time, it's time, he says. One of the spaniels ran to me to say hello and I couldn't resist scratching its belly. The old gent called over to me, “You hiking up there today?” He pointed to the Cabin Trail with a gnarly, old, well-to-do finger.
“I plan to,” I said, trying to figure out if they were.
“It's buggy up there this time of year,” he told me, waving his dog back over to him. His other spaniel nosed about aimlessly in the roadside growth. There was traffic and the man wasn't very loud, so I stood there for a moment silent. “Unless you don't mind,” he muttered. Then he shrugged.
“I've got a spray for my dog,” was all I could think to say as I swatted away a flying thing. I added, “Have a nice day.” He led his dogs down the road in the opposite direction of the trail and I sprayed Wilder's feet with the cedar/lemongrass oil product that keeps the ticks off. Wilder dislikes the ritual and pulled each foot back as the spray hit him, but he knows it means we get to go, go go as soon as I'm finished.
I lashed the hands-free leash to my waist and we jogged up the driveway to the trailhead. I reflected on the overwhelming collective fear of ticks – and bugs in general – that has predominated for the past few years and I felt reassured that the benefits of being outdoors, dirty and muddy and knee-deep in ferns and wildflowers outweighed the risks. I am vigilant with tick checks – both on myself and Wilder – and Wilder is trained to go in the kitchen and roll over so I can bug check him everytime we go inside. I've embraced the creepy-crawlies, the nervous ticks and itches that come with imagining buggies being all over me as I fall asleep in the dark, humid summer nights. Now when I find one on me, I just pick it off, call it something obscene, then toss it in the bushes or send it to the septic tank.
The endless struggle with irrational fear will always linger with me whenever I visit Big Rock Cave, going back to my first visit a few years ago, in the shadows of Mt. Paugus. Spooked by imaginary bears lurking under every boulder and pile of leaves. Encroaching trees on slim paths doused with huge piles of mystery animal droppings. Turns out Paugus used to be called Deer Mountain for a reason.
These days I don't really have time be scared by things, as Wilder and I have trails to run and wilderness to explore. Wilder's a fearless little beast, anyway. Once he stuck his nose into a bush in the backyard, where a black cat – unbeknownst to me – hid. It shrieked and pounced right at him. He was obsessed with that bush right up until we moved away, determined to meet the cat again.
With that in mind, we hummed along, turning onto the trail for Big Rock Cave, a mile and a half away. I was pleased with how quiet and peaceful this trail is for an easy adventure to an interesting place. The path narrowed soon after we turned and danced around blow-down and boulders. As we crunched through last year's birch leaves, I realized we were climbing little Mt. Mexico. It's more of a slab than a mountain, but it's 2020-feet high, and I broke a sweat on a warm spring morning. Even Wilder sat and asked me for a water break, which I happily obliged.
The woods here seemed less dark and foreboding than I remembered from that daunting autumn day I climbed Mt. Paugus, spooked out of my gourd. Birds were chittering and I spied a chipmunk or two dashing in the sun. Wilder's nose followed the trail – perhaps a trail I didn't see, though he only led us off the path once or twice. We sloped over the forgettable summit of Mexico. I only noticed when we descended to a sign welcoming us to the Sandwich Range Wilderness. Down below, the path got much narrower, the trees much taller, and the woods a shade darker, a tinge cooler. These were the woods I remembered from Paugus.
There was nobody out here so I let Wilder off his leash and down we went into the wilderness. After a good ten minutes of going down, as the trail winded to the right and winded some more, I began to wonder when we'd reach the cave. Would our morning hike turn into a mid-day adventure? But I overthought it, because soon we stood under looming boulders, covered in forest growth, lending them the appearance of ancient ruins.
The first trails out to Big Rock Cave were cut in 1898. There were three, all from different inns. There was enough room in there that the old-timey Victorian ladies didn't even need to take off their hats to scoot inside.
Today the White Mountain Guide simply refers to Big Rock Cave as a place that “invites exploration.” It is very much in need of climbing, crawling, stooping, and sneaking around. But with a dog, there are less chambers to access. We relaxed in the main entrance, an A-frame shaped room, then we went all in.
At the end of the tunnel, we could crawl right under a boulder overhang, through a pile of branches and roots, to exit the cave. That was the easy way. Wilder sniffed at it, then decided to go left, which required scrambling over some clunky rocks, with little room to stand comfortably (if you have four paws). But before I could even lure him back, he hopped the quagmire and used his momentum to land safely on the solid ground beyond. Below this section of bad footing was another cavern – a four-legged climb down for someone with shoes and fingers – a little place for discovery, for reflection, or to jump out of and yell “Boo!”
There were plenty of paths around the backside of the boulder wonder, plenty of places to chill out. The sun crackled down onto us as we ventured back into the cool shade for a water break. We splayed out in the dirt and felt right at home, just a coupla bums.
We made great time heading back up and down Mt. Mexico. As we approached the trailhead, three peppy middle-aged ladies bounded up the hill toward us. Each took turns saying hello to the pup. As they laughed and gabbed, one asked aloud, whether to me or just in general, “There aren't any bears up there – are there?”
I hadn't thought of bears during my return to Big Rock Cave. Which surprised me, since last time around I was picking up branches, prepared for a fight to the death with a big bristly beast made out of nightmares, musty and musky and covered in ticks, no doubt.
I kept this to myself, locked up with a smirk. Instead, I wished them well, and off they went to find out the answer for themselves.