I am home on vacation — home for the first time in forever/7 months —and this past weekend I went with Rylee to a cabin up north. It’s the same one we went to the last three summers, too, so we know most of what there is to do. Mostly all that matters is the lake, but we always go in late August, so the weather is unpredictable. This was the first summer we’ve gone that didn’t see any sunshine except a half hour window early on Saturday morning. In bits of bad weather or boredom (but good boredom), in earlier years, we’ve done most of everything else there is to do nearby: hike, see the wolf center, see the black bear center, see the Rootbeer Lady's house. Make bonfires, make s'mores. Read, lots.
This year, with two full and cloudy free days ahead of us, we decided to use one of them to see some attractions just a little farther outside the area. “You should go to the Soudan mine,” the woman who owns the cabins told us. “It’s really pretty neat.”
According to the sign outside, the Soudan mine is Minnesota’s “Oldest! Richest! Deepest!” underground mine. To get down there, you travel a bit over 2500 feet below ground. This seemed like a lot to me. I went into the Crystal Caves for a story once, and that was only like 150 feet down, and I was not unafraid. I told Rylee I wasn’t sure I would be able to do it. “We’ll just go look at it,” she said, which I saw right through, but allowed.
"The sign says ‘tight spaces,’ do you see that," I asked her when we drove into the gravel parking lot. "Yep," she said.
We walked into the ticketing area and gift shop. Rylee asked the women behind the desk, “The sign outside says something about tight spaces — do you know how tight, exactly?” The woman who responded directed her answer at Rylee (“It’s really pretty open down there, the worst part is the elevator down.”) until I clarified that it was me who was the scared one. “You’ll be fine,” she said, kindly, so we bought tickets for $12, and also mood rings for $2.50.
Our guide showed us a short video (“The 1950s were a great time for most Americans” it said at one point, and Rylee and I exchanged looks, because that is an interesting definition of “most”), and then had us pick hard helmets off a shelf outside. We walked over to the elevator shaft, and were told that the 2500 foot ride down into the earth would take 2.5 minutes. 1000 feet per minute.
1000 feet per minute doesn’t sound that fast, but LET ME TELL YOU that it is actually really, really fast. I was packed in a dark metal crate with one lone ally and 11 other people (enemies, all of whom I’d flatten to get out first, if I had to) and stood there with my eyes closed and my fingers pressed to my mouth to keep it from swearing or yelling. On the few occasions I opened my eyes, it was to look out the window for hellfire, which you just start to expect after a while. Instead, it was all concrete, right up against the window, zooming past.
When we got to the bottom, I was the second person to exit after the guide. Another man moved to leave first, then hesitated upon seeing me move, and then because I said “I WANT TO GET OUT,” he let me go. I waited for Rylee, who’d been at the back, and she came out already apologizing. “That was a lot scarier for you than I thought it would be.”
One of the women from behind the desk had come down with the second group, and when we loaded into the railcars, she sat next to Rylee and me. Across from us were a couple and their 7 year-old nephew, who quickly revealed himself to be a small, male me. “Does it feel like normal air pressure in here to you?” he asked his aunt. “Why am I hearing water??”
When the cars started moving, the woman guide leaned over to me, the adult woman, not the 7 year-old boy, and said, “You are doing So. Good.”
When we got to the mine it was beautiful and spooky and Rylee and I agreed that between the railcar ride and the hollowed out caves, they’ve got a major opportunity for what would surely be the best haunted Halloween tour of all time. We were down there an hour, and the elevator down really was the worst part. After that it was all history and cave jokes, like pretending the electric lights won’t go back on again.
At the end of the tour, when everyone was loading back onto the elevator and I was hanging back strategically, in order to place myself once again near the front of the car, the male guide — who must have gotten intel from the woman — touched me lightly on the arm and said, “Did you learn something today?” I had hardly half a second to try to think of a mine fact I could regurgitate in order to impress him before he answered his own question: “You’re braver than you thought.”
Anyway here’s a picture of us in our hard hats: