LEWIS and Clark Caverns are up in the London Hills of Montana, near to where those two explorers first went on their travels. I had gone there after spending the previous day in the ghost towns of Nevada City and Virginia City. In fact, mention of ghosts seems quite apposite, as you’ll see.
There were three of us on the trip, old college friends from the Business Studies degree we had all undertaken. However, the other two had used their degrees far more productively than me. They had both walked straight into jobs in Montana, whereas I had taken a year out to travel – so I said – or “drift”, as others put it. I’d fallen out of love with Business Studies way before that, though, and came out with a very mediocre degree.
These caves were a great example of what we Americans do so well. Rather than leave the cave system in its natural, beautiful state, we’d blasted a whole new trail through the mountain, such that you didn’t need to go back on yourself at all: you had a route right through. Some 600 steps, mostly downhill, had also been laid in there, so that you could go in at the top of the mountain and gently descend to the bottom, making it easy on the legs. The tour of the caves was meant to be a solid hour underground but, with our guide, and in my “condition”, it turned out to be more like an hour and a half.
The guide was an old timer who had lived in Montana most of his life and, like some nineteenth-century prospector, had hoarded every single anecdote and joke that he’d ever heard in bars, just so’s he could recycle them for our benefit. He particularly enjoyed regaling us with tales of Loco Pete, another hoarder, who’d become successful prospecting for gold in Nevada City. He was then known as “Goldy” Pete, after he’d had a set of ill-fitting dentures fitted with solid gold teeth – or so the legend went. He only became “Loco” in his dotage, when drink and syphilis took over from gold fever.
Legend has it, so our guide informed us, that he’d visited these newly discovered caverns in the 1890s, determined to find gold there too. Reputedly his last words were “the motherload”, uttered, so our guide informed us, as he plunged to his death in the cave’s bowels. And sure enough, there’s a lump of rock up on Loco Pete’s Leap, as it’s known, that looks quite like a stooped old man with a long beard, just about to topple. He landed with a clang, our guide told us. “RIP,” he concluded: “Rest in Pieces. That’s gold pieces, of course!”
However, I didn’t start out to tell you about Loco Pete. I wanted to tell you something else that, in turn, has become the tale of my own strange experiences down in these caves.
Apart from the guide, there were about ten of us on the tour, so we got to know each other quite well. We swapped positions many times as we passed through the various caves – like Cathedral cavern (one of the most popular names for a chamber, I guess) and Sample cavern, where an older generation of tourists were encouraged to take souvenirs of their visit: breaking off a nice piece of stalactite, or hacking out the odd crystal. The damage is still there to see – as it will be for many thousands of years to come. However, in our enlightened times we like to think we are far more conscious of the damage we cause. Certainly, we all used Lysol wipes on our footwear to remove any contamination that we might import to the resident bat population.
Let me cut to the chase, though. The way the tour worked was that the guide would light our path through a particular section, turning on the electrics, then switch that section off as we moved on to the next. There were, then, several times when we were plunged into complete darkness – often for dramatic effect. Like the others on the tour, I guess, the sudden darkness created after-images where clots of blackness seemed to separate themselves from the lumps of rock and plod, like prehistoric beings, across the floor of the cave. It was something and nothing but disarming too. And coupled with this, the cave atmosphere created some strange noises: of people’s feet, scuffling the ground, their breathing extra loud in the confined spaces, such that it was easy to imagine an extra corporeal presence in these otherwise empty caverns.
You were never quite sure where anyone in the group was. Was that guy in the check shirt ahead of you or behind you? Had the Japanese couple stopped to take a picture, or had one of them just bent to tie a shoelace? Anyway, as we went through a particularly narrow passage, I thought I could hear someone just behind me, as though whispering in my ear – though what was being said, I could not determine. When I came to a wider section, I turned to see which of my buddies it was (it was definitely a male voice, I should say) but there was no one there. Just a clot of darkness created by my shadow looming behind me – and, beyond that, pitch blackness.
We went on, but the feeling persisted, such that I kept turning my head to look behind me. The guide picked up on my twitchiness and was soon regaling us with various anecdotes: of explorers trapped underground, of the lingering spirits of Native American Indians and, eventually, of troglodytes, Bigfoot and all the rest. We all chuckled amiably but it didn’t shift that nervous tic I seemed to be developing.
As if this wasn’t enough, when I ducked through another, particularly low archway, I thought I felt something land on my back, to the extent that I started batting my hands behind me, over my shoulders and up under my arms. I was clearly coming to be seen as the joker of the party, which was aided by my buddies’ reactions, as they imitated the orang-utan impressions I seemed to be performing. “Loco Pete rides again,” declared Bob.
I won’t prolong my account of this spelunking expedition, but from that moment on, I don’t think I heard much of our guide’s commentary. I was too preoccupied with something corporeal that seemed to be clinging to my back, breathing with a raspy, almost tinkling wheeze. It felt as though I had a rucksack on my back into which my tour pals were continually lobbing stones, so that it got heavier each step I took. I was certainly falling further and further behind the rest.
The tour guide was patient but I was obviously exhausting his store of anecdotes as he tried to keep the rest of the party entertained while I caught up. By the time we emerged from the cave system, I was struggling for air, as though hobbled by asthma.
That was five years ago now. I’d like to say that what I’d told you was merely the sort of anecdote each one of us can call to mind. But it wasn’t. It was something that changed my life completely. At the time, though, none of us saw it this way. My friends, aware of my pitiful state, had let me recuperate in the Visitors’ Centre while they sat outside in the truck, drinking beers. There was a copy of the Wall Street Journal on a nearby table in the Centre, which I don’t think I’d ever opened since I’d been at university – and not even much then, as my tutors were always complaining.
God knows why I suddenly picked up the paper and started reading an article about buying and selling gold. But I became so absorbed by it that I didn’t even notice when my buddies came back to see how I was. In fact, I remember Bob remarking, “He must be ill. Look what he’s reading!” From my perspective, the strangest thing was that I felt quite recovered. The wheezing had gone. Not only that, but I seemed to be fired with a sense of purpose. I joined my buddies in the truck, refusing the proffered beer as I wanted to keep my head clear. The phrase, “buy gold,” clanked around in my head, and I had to work hard at not proclaiming it aloud.
As I said before, all this was five years ago. What I didn’t tell you was that it was exactly five years ago, to the day. For I’m now back in that Visitors’ Centre in Montana, a very different man from the one who left five years earlier, as any of my friends – or former friends, I guess – would tell you.
On that day, five years back, I gave up my travelling, returning home to New Jersey, where I promptly invested all my savings in gold bullion. “Bullion” – what a lovely word that is, isn’t it? Connected to the French “bouillon”, you know. A golden sauce that melts with heat so that you can pour it into moulds and make bars that are tastier than chocolate! Buy gold, buy gold, buy gold!
There I go again! Those last few sentences didn’t come from me. You’ve got to believe me. I disown them. I detest them. They leave a nasty metallic taste in my mouth, although I know I trot out such garbage all the time. Credit for such outbursts should really go to my nemesis, Loco Pete, who has tainted me with his obsession for the gold stuff. You recall that famous king, Midas, who found that everything he touched turned to gold, making him into an anti-social pariah? Well, that’s me all right!
So, let me get back on track. When I got home to New Jersey, I sought out one of my old university professors for advice. He couldn’t believe it was me, one of his all-time most disappointing students. But he was happy to pick up on my enthusiasm for the yellow stuff and gave me a number of contacts and tips.
What amazed him even more was my subsequent success, which certainly did not come from following his cautious advice. How did I know, he would ask, exactly when the market was going to dip after it had peaked? He also wanted to know why my success came only with gold. “Diversify,” he would tell me. “Try platinum, tin, copper, silver – you name it.” But none of them had the appeal of gold. With gold – the word just chimes in your mouth, don’t it? … Sorry. As I was saying, with gold, I could do no wrong.
The professor was right. I did have the Midas touch, but I also had what went with it. My sixth sense, my hunches, my gut reaction – call it what you will – came not from me at all but from Loco Pete’s clanking dentures ringing in my ear: “Buy more gold -old -old,” “Buy bullion -ion -ion,” or, sometimes, “Sell quick, lighten your load -ode -ode,” the sounds echoing and jarring in my head like tinnitus. And what was worst, I was starting to sound like him. I’d tried to stop it. Even had my only gold filling removed, to stop it twinging whenever he – or was it me? – spoke.
Oh yes, I was rich as Midas – no, as Croesus, that’s the guy. But my friends drifted away. Even my family didn’t seem to want to know me. I had been married for a short time. Being such a rich guy, of course, I had women by the busload pursuing me, but most of them soon got fed up. Christine seemed different, but my “demon” eventually saw her off, too.
I no longer kissed her, she complained, but seemed to nibble her lips as though she were some coin I was testing.
But this was just the tip of the iceberg. I was drinking heavily, grinding my teeth and, worst of all, she said, talking endlessly in my sleep – “Buy!”, “Sell!” – obsessed with the yellow stuff. I owned several houses by this time, but I think I only bought new ones in the vain hope of escaping my demon.
For that is what it was, though it took me a while to realise it. This invisible lump that had attached itself to me in those caves was weighing me down with its – his – greed for gold. It gripped me like a succubus, taking away any pleasure I might have been able to derive from my newfound wealth. Though Loco Pete did not actually suck my blood, of course, he was certainly sapping my energy and turning me into a shadow of my former self.
Possessing me, in fact.
He literally wore me down, such that I began to walk with a stoop and then, even worse, started to develop a hunchback.
I sought medical advice, but no physical causes could be detected. And you couldn’t tell a doctor that you had a parasite – an old loony prospector – sitting up between your shoulder blades. Every morning I gazed in the mirror at a face that I found less and less recognisable. The pupils of my eyes stared back at me like timid mice, trapped in cavernous sockets. My cheeks were sunken, the skin stretched and blanched like moth wings. My remaining friends put my appearance down to my greed for gold, of course, and eventually gave up on me, as had Christine.
Which brings me back to the Visitors’ Centre at Lewis and Clark’s Caverns, where I started writing what was to be a suicide note. Yes, I’d come to that. Of course, reading back over what I’ve just written, I realise that it has turned into something more like a confession, a brief life history. But maybe talking might help me exorcise this phantom being that continually clanks in my ear: “Gold! Gold! Gold!”
But I wasn’t going to entertain this yellow peril any more. I was booked on the next tour. I would return to Loco Pete’s Leap, quickly clamber over the railing and be rid of him forever. So, what I need to declare here, before I finish, is the following: All my assets should go to Christine Martha Johnson, regardless of our divorce. And also, to say a big sorry to her, the rest of my family and all of my old friends.
Well, that last full stop should have been final, but it turns out not to have been. It is now about a year since I wrote the above. Believe me, I did go on that tour. But before I could reach Loco Pete’s Leap, I had a sudden sense of well-being, of a weight being lifted from me. To be more explicit, I felt a lump finally detach itself from my back and spring off. Even in the restricted space of the cave, I suddenly found myself walking taller.
So, that should be the end of my story. And I guess it is. I’m a new man, and Christine and I are communicating again. But it’s perhaps worth adding that, while listening to the news the other day, I heard about some new whiz kid who was making a killing trading gold, and I do wonder whether he too could have been on that last cave trip I took. Should I get in touch? Should I warn him?
But then the thought kicks in of being close to that “thing” again and I think, no. I couldn’t bear that voice again. For I also wonder whether there might have been someone on my own first trip to the caves, who perhaps came out a lighter, bouncier man. I could probably look into that, too. But I doubt I will.