Cave Time: Scratch Another X on the Calendar


By Karl fon Ungern-Sternberg [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Dave Reagan wrote about idleness…Take some slow down time and read this. Your heartbeat will calm and your shoulders relax.

The Dog Days of Summer:

It’s an interesting thing to be idle. After the coffee is gone and the animals fed and the plants watered and a few balls tossed for the dog, I’m at a bit of a loss. I walk from the house to the shop, back to the house, to the truck, stop and consider the garden, back to the shop, and so on and so forth, trying to find some emergency or source of inspiration. Maybe a leaky faucet or a gate gone off its hinges. But all I can do is just sit down and look off in the distance. I look at the fence and wonder where the deer might next get in. I look at the small sucker firs and think I should probably get the chainsaw out and take down a few more dozen. I’m aware of the bench I built that sags each time I sit in it and know that I need to add a brace underneath. But in the end, I just sit there, stare out at the donkeys and watch as the occasional car drives down the road.

I have experienced this before, twenty years ago I did cave time. Cave time is when you are living in a short-backed silver mine on the scree slopes of the upper Salmon river in Southern Idaho. You have just your barrel stove and thrift store candles for light and it is around these which you orbit, first by day, then, briefly, at night.

Cave time can be done in different ways, and we all had our distinct ways of going about it. There were eight of us there the first winter, each in their own dark dugout, and a couple down on the banks in a rubbertire house.

The proprietor of the land, Dugout Dick, was also the miner. He’d acquired the land on mineral rights just after the second world war and had scratched out a half dozen holes in the hopes of finding silver. In the end, chipping nothing but a little nickel, he considered what he might make of his work. And so it happened, fifty years later, he found himself the landlord of a little community of cave dwellers.

Dancing Bear was one of them. Like his name implies, he was an old Dead Head that had come to the caves by way of the shipyards in SoCal and then the horse stables at Santa Anita. He mostly did cave time much the same as my SoHum neighbor does now – with the radio and a bottle of booze. Once a week I’d visit him for a game of scrabble, a couple of shots of Jack, and we’d listen to the Warriors basketball game on the am radio waves traveling from way back home, over the snowy Sierra divide, across the great starry desert, to arrive, finally, in our short stubby hole in the mountainside.

But it was his horses that gave his life meaning. He stabled them in a pinepole leanto down on the river bar. Much as my neighbor has his dog and I’ve got my donkeys, the horses kept him going. He didn’t often ride them but they depended on him and thus he had purpose.

Purpose. Those who have it generally have no idea what it feels like to be without.

Old Dick knew how to do cave time. He was nearing eighty and except for a few years in a small one-room, log cabin, the rest of those years were spent in a cave.

To kill time he played guitar, read the Bible, and when his arthritis wasn’t too bad, worked on his garden. He couldn’t walk so well and needed a cane just to get to the garden gate, but once there, he’d pull a dinner knife from his back pocket, get down on his hands and knees, and crawl, up one row of potatoes and back down another, using the knife to loosen and pull the weeds.

He’d end the day with a Sharps beer, maybe play a hand of solitaire, then, with the sun dropping behind the mountain, he’d read a final passage or two from his leather bound book and blow out the candle. Cave day done.

But I also saw how cave time wore on him. He needed companionship as much as anyone. And love. He told me how he had once responded to a classified in one of those old lonely heart magazines, the precursor to todays internet dating. There was a woman down in Tijuana and the two of them started up a correspondence. After a few months, he asked her to marry him and she accepted. Problem was, she hadn’t been expecting to live in a cave. Three days in, she left him and he’s been a bachelor ever since.

Killing time.

When the work is done, when the day is done, when the harvest is dried and stored, when the winter sets in, or the back gives out, the kids move out, the plant closes, or we simply have nothing left to give, we retire.

For more than a decade my little homestead on the hill was the engine that kept me going. First the cabin, then the bridge to the cabin, then the road. A bit backwards, I know, just got excited about building that damn cabin.

Then came the animals, and the fencing, and the gardens, and then more fencing to keep the animals out of the garden.

And for a long time, I’d complain about how there was too much to do and it would never be done. And for a long time, as it turned out, that was true enough.

Then one morning, maybe half a year ago or so, I woke up, had my coffee, ate breakfast, fed the animals, pulled on my boots, stepped outside and… huh. I looked around at the fences still standing, at the gates shut, the animals all where the animals were supposed to be, at the water lines leading up and down and around and all of them tight, at the fruit trees just watered, the solar panels sucking down the sun, keeping the batteries humming, the metal roof that will surely last longer than I, and said – huh, well now what am I going to do?

Chuck was the first person I met at the caves. He was out chopping wood, a cigarette in his mouth, shirt unbuttoned and belly sweaty like the rest of him when I pulled up and rolled down the window to ask him about the place. He never did say a word, and never did offer his name, just pointed the ax down the road and then split another log.

But in that moment I had read it, right there, spelled out in capital letters for all to see, in blue-green prison ink just below his belly button, it read – CHUCK. And then, just before he turned away, the other two, same ink, one under each nipple, also in all caps, that read “YOURS”, and under the other – “MINE.”

Chuck was another old miner who knew how to do cave time. He’d spent much of his life a mile deep down the copper shafts of Butte until a twenty year prison sentence for killing a guy with a cue stick brought that to an end and had him learning how to just do time.

Once a month I’d drive him to Butte to pick up his social security check and he’d have me stop at the thriftstore. He’d go to the bookshelf, open his arms wide and then press together the entire run of books, magazines, catalogs, whatever paper was pressed between his palms, and pull them to his chest like it were an accordion. Then he’d walk to the counter, set the entire mass down by the register, and ask – “how much?”

He’d take them all home and set them in a pile by his bed, then proceed to read each and every one, from top to bottom – AAA road atlases, Richy Rich comic books, 1950 anti-communism treatises, science journals, thrillers, the letter C of the encyclopedia Britannia. All of it, tearing off the read portions as he went and tossing them in the fire.

Day after day, this was his practise. And at the end of the day, just before he blew out his kerosene lamp, he’d pick up his big black marker and put a big fat X on the calendar, counting down the days till he could slick back his hair, pull on his snake skin boots, and head out to Butte for another bag of books.

Some days we just sat. Dick had a short slab set on a couple of boulders to make a sort of bench outside his dugout. We’d eye the billygoat to make sure he didn’t take his horns to something worth keeping, or maybe follow the path of a tumbleweed blowing past. Sometimes we’d both just sit there, our heads down, saying nothing, while Dick pushed the end of his walking cane around making little squiggles in the dirt.

We’d do this until, eventually, a car would come. We’d hear the sound of it before we’d see it, it’s engine reverberating off the river valley walls, and just as it rolled around the bend, we’d look up and crane our necks over to watch it emerge. It was a big sweep in the Salmon, a good half mile in length, and so we’d watch as the car slowly moved along, our heads barely turning, just a bit faster than if we were tracing the arc of the sun. We’d sit, and we’d watch. From the south, to the south east, to the south east east, to the east, to the east just barely north… until finally, our heads now fully turned to the left, pretty much due north, and we’d see the car disappear behind the mountain, just the faint sound of its engine still fading, then lost in the jumble of the river, and so we would return, to the dirt between our feet and Dick pushing his stick, drawing another squiggle.

August. I don’t know if there is an officially recognized start to the dog days of summer, but to me, it’s August.

As a baseball fan I have a long association with the dog days of summer. You’ve put in the hard work of spring getting ready for the season. Stretching, doing sprints, hauling soil, starting seeds. You feel good and there is nothing but promise and potential ahead. And for awhile, through April and even into June, that is enough. But then you’re into July, and finally into August. The days are hot and smokey, the team might be in the cellar or a game or two back, but mostly the garden looks good, though the cucumber beatles are starting to take their toll and some of the leaves a bit yellow and stressed, a little cranky, like the knees of your starting center fielder.

How many months have we been doing this and how many more still to go? Watching the plants grow? Sitting through yet another inspired but off-key rendition of the Star Spangled Banner? Really?

I’ve been watching the dogs to see how they do it. Their days are not unlike mine – a lot of sitting around waiting for something to happen. They look at me and I look at them, then we all look at the donkeys and the road when a car happens by.

I have somewhat studied zen and know that there is something to get from this. Hell, I lived in a cave not just one winter but went back for another. But still. I don’t feel ready.

Dog time, cave time, watching the plants grow ever so slowly. Sometime around 11am each morning I start to feel the despair. Come two in the afternoon, I’m ready to hit the road. But somewhere around three, three-thirty, right about now as a matter-of-fact, I realize…just a couple of more hours, and then – time for a beer on the deck. And then right after that – it’s time for dinner. And then, right after that, best of all, with another beer waiting in the freezer, the dishes cleared, the animals fed, the sky starting to get just a bit of color… the Star Spangled Banner. Sung by the boys choir of bumtown or the local 51 plumbers and roofers, doesn’t matter. Game time. And I realize –

I can do this. Another hour or so and I’m there.

Scratch another X on the calendar.



  • This was the Perfect article to read right now in my life.

  • Great story….I too ran into “dugout dick” many years ago when a friend and myself spotted a quirky sign along the salmon river and went to investigate.It was there that we met Dick and for 2 bucks he gave us the best tour I ever had.Fed us some jerky,played a couple of songs showed us his “cave” (I really admired his patched up shoes) and introduced us to some of the “cave dwellers”. A real genuine character and a gentle man,the likes of which you’d maybe meet once in your lifetime if your lucky.PBL

  • Cave time here in the desert is when it gets too hot to be out and about so one hibernates in an air conditioned space to doze, read, do little to nothing and wait for the cool of the evening to lay down to sleep until the wee hours of the morn to experience the sweet cooling fragrent air just before dawn and another day to begin.

  • “…we’d listen to the Warriors basketball game on the am radio waves traveling from way back home, over the snowy Sierra divide, across the great starry dessert, to arrive, finally, in our short stubby hole in the mountainside.”

    I would have eaten the great starry dessert the first night. Whole thing.

  • Thoughtful and a great read. Thanks!

  • Nice. And I’ve enjoyed my starry dessert the last three nights.

  • Center all on a pool producing oxygen and bug and fish have a nutrient source could disconnect one from the evil tentacles of society,like convinience stores and food grown on waste,by artfull,but moneyed men.feed pool plankton and have a cougar,or lynx,for companion,beside your pool,watching dragonflies,who also like alga.nutrient pacifies predators.lynx can be convinced hes a house cat,and enjoy his fraud.horses are like dogs.

  • Very enjoyable read. MMMMMMMM Starry Dessert.

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