Friday, December 3, 2010

One More Adventure... okay Two :)

Hey Team,

So just because I'm back in the states, doesn't mean the vacation was over.
I flew straight from San Jose, Costa Rica where it was warm and rainy... straight to St. Louis, Missouri, where it's cold and... rainy.


But not for long. On Thanksgiving it snowed! It was fierce for a while and me and my second cousins Gabi, Brady and Jordan had an awesome snowball fight! Love the snow. And love spending time with them, my Uncle, Aunt's, Cousin's and more. It was a wonderful trip, with great conversation, silly games being played, TONS of turkey and pumpkin pie, and...

Scuba Diving.

"What? Scuba Diving in St. Louis? Where, in the Mississippi? Was visibility 2 feet?"

No my friends. After 10 years of knowing about it, I finally sucked up the cost and went scuba diving in the Bonne Terre Mine. And all I have to say is... WOW.

WOW at how expensive it is: It cost $320 for 3 dives with gear rental.
WOW WOW at the total surreal, bizarre, abyss like experience of diving in a flooded mine which still has mine carts, jackhammers, shovels, blast pans, and "the structure".

So the Bonne Terre mine was used as a lead mine from like 1860-1963, when it closed it's doors. At that point the pumps were shut off and the lower 3 levels of the 5 level mine flooded creating a billion gallon underground freshwater lake. It's the largest such lake... in the world. I'm not sure how the diving company that operates it got involved, but there's only one, and they run an interesting ship. They're nice-ish, and seem to groan about us silly tourists. But they do take you on amazing dives, and heck, maybe people have done stupid things in the past, so it's warranted.

I want to get past the negatives of this fast. It's expensive (noted already), but it's not to bad if you have you're own scuba gear (which oddly enough a number of folks in our 16 person dive group did). The group was too large, and should have been kept to 10 or less. But I'm sure finances dictate large groups. If you get past the first days of diving you will be in much smaller groups. There's no real customer service: when I said that I usually suck up a lot of air and if I could get the tank topped off or get a bigger tank they said "You can rent a bigger tank, just talk to the desk." I'm already spending 100 bucks on rentals and you want me to pay an extra 10 bucks PER DIVE for a bigger tank (that costs you nothing)... for the last dive I did just that. And speaking of rental... 100 bucks... really? I've NEVER had to pay for scuba rentals in all 30 dives I've done. Now maybe things would have been cheaper if I'd said "I have my own gear". But even places that do rent gear, it only costs 15-25 max for the whole day. Then again, these guys are a monopoly at a totally unique diving destination... so you either pay or go home.

And I paid... and I'm glad I did.

The dives here are done on trails. You have a guide and 2-3 safety divers. They're marked with blue glow sticks. Us silly tourists are marked with green. A good idea, since everyone looks the same in black wet or drysuits underwater. You suit up upstairs in the shop. They go through the dive plan: what you'll see and how it will work. When the air checks are and so on. Then you walk down a tunnel marked: Mule Entrance, and enter the mine...

...which is a lot warmer than outside. It's a constant 63 degrees or so, which feels balmy compared to the 35 outside. At this point you descend some stairs into a huge cavern with giant pillars holding the ceiling in place. It's bizarre how smoothe the ceiling is. You walk to an underground dock on the edge of the "lake", suit up and jump into the abyss.

And man, it is like the abyss. Blackness descending to... oblivion. In reality the mine ranges from 20 feet in the shallows, to 150 feet in the main lake, to some passages that are more than 300 feet deep. There are 27 "trails" they take you on, in order. So to see all you can see would take 27 dives. There are places where you can surface on the lake, and others where you have an overhang, a tunnel, or some other obstruction.

This is the reason that when you jump in, and hover over the blackness, they take you to the shallows and you practice clearing your mask and sharing air. Because if something goes wrong when there is an overhang... and you panic... you die.

That's it.

Cave diving is the most dangerous "recreational sport" in the world, and this is one step shy of that. That's probably why they don't joke around a lot. Why it's all pretty serious until the dives are over. You fuck up... you die. And in the end it's your responsibility to make sure you do it right.

Now that little factor is, what I think, made it so hard for me to get my balance underwater here. I've dived in the fricking OCEAN... it's a little bit deeper than 150 feet. But it isn't lit like James Cameron's "The Abyss" and look like the Mines of Moria from Lord Of The Rings, where the Balrog lives.

So the first dive we cruised along huge walls, over a mine cart where you could play with an axe, next to a jackhammer in the wall, up over this wall and onto a platform of rock with drops on both sides, which is where we did our air check. I passed on the first one: but was sent to the "watch em close" section. By the time we circled the pillars and came back, i was bumped to the "tough shit, dives over, goto the surface and swim back the rest of the way" section. It was okay here, since it was pretty much a straight swim to the dock. I kept my face underwater, and enjoyed the views, surreal cliffs and watching the other divers.

Back with 200 psi of air. You start with 3000. 500psi is considered where you should surface...that's why I was sent up when I was, because that's what I had left.

You leave your gear, head to the divers lounge: "DIVERS ONLY: All Others Are Trespassing" on the door. You try to warm up. Eat a bit. Let the nitrogen out of your body.

Then head down for dive 2.

Dive 2 wasn't a good dive. I kept breathing fast. I was trying to balance my air so I wouldn't miss the end of the dive. I couldn't get my bouyancy correct, so I'd keep floating up and down. I kept running into the many other divers, or them into me. We got to this overhanging spot, that was super dark: There was light shining through the "keyhole", which we were to swim through to a lighter area. Dynamite blast pans floated up at the ceiling, as did the air: which hit the ceiling and looked like mercury trying to find a way out. Totally surreal.

I was able to wedge myself against the ceiling as people went through the hole, and I took a nice pee in my wetsuit... and got more relaxed. Yep, as all divers know, peeing in your wetsuit is something you often do. Some won't. I think they're lying. You're in water. You pee. And when the water is 58 degrees, the warm pee feels good. (You can go "ewww gross" now :).

I swam through the keyhole, was nice and ready for more dive... air check. "Tough shit, your dive is over". I'd only gotten about half of it.

Now we swam back underwater, but I was pretty bummed and annoyed. At myself for sucking up all the air and being freaked out. And at them for not giving me more air when I asked for it. The solution: "You can rent a bigger tank".

Ugh. I bought lunch. Warmed up. And decided to get the bigger tank for the final dive. At this point I'd spent 300 bucks. What's another 10?

So glad I did. The last dive was INCREDIBLE. One of my best scuba dives ever. Ranking up there with the Jellyfish dive in Austrailia. The night dive in australia. The sharks in the Bahamas. WOW.
With 20 percent more air, I focused on keeping slow breaths. And i stayed up near the guide so I wouldn't have to deal with all the other divers. Great call.

The views were incredible. Sometimes complete blackness, with just the guides flashlight cutting through it. Sometimes lit from above and beyond. Deep blue. Swimming down staircases. Through the keyhole again. Into the "Smoke Room", where the decay from the metal floats like smoke because there is no real current down there. Around the corner to "The Structure": A 50 foot tall oil derrick looking thing that you could play on. You could jump from rail to rail. Swim through the holes. And hold yourself above a 300 foot pitch black shaft that descends into the darkness. This was a blast. I felt like Spiderman. The channels, the tunnel of love: IT was about 40 feet long, maybe 50, and 6 foot square... and you swim along it. Something goes wrong here... whew.

It's always hard to describe how awesome dives are when they are awesome. If you scuba, you've probably had some where you say "This is why we do this", and here's a dive. If you don't dive... get certified. It's relatively cheap to do (in fact it's cheaper than the dives I did today), and it's one of the most amazing things you can do.

When I got back to the dock: 500psi. Perfect.

Met some cool folks, and took some pictures (to come soon), and felt good that I'd finally done it. I don't know if I will again until I own my own gear... or win the lottery. :) But seriously, it was absolutely worth it.

Only downside: It wore me out for ADVENTURE 2:


The next day, me, Brady and Jordan headed to this place that I can best describe as the

I'm not kidding (and Jeff, you know), this place is amazing. It's in an old warehouse. And this guy who invented it, just created this place out of recycled materials: pipes, pie pans, chimneys, cranes, firetrucks, AIRPLANES. And welded them together into a maze of amazing adventure! There's wire cages 50 feet off the ground. Slides that are 3 stories high. Fake trees you can climb in: and real ones too. Theres an 80 story slide build into a CAVE. And the CAVE is nearly endless. You can walk, climb, crawl, shimmy, squeeze into places you never imagined. If you look at the wall and see a hole 18inches in diameter... it probably goes somewhere. Crawl through and find out. There's a skate park (which no skateboards) that you can run, climb and slide all over. We finished our day with a 40 minute Matrix, slo mo battle where we'd shoot at each other in slo-mo and get hit and slide down the ramps, then get up and do it all over again.

CITY MUSEUM... AMAZING. It's why Jeff named his band after the place. Because there is No Place Like It (Just like there is no place like the Bonne Terre Mine). It's so fantastically adventurous and dangerous, and there's only one real warning sign at the front. I love it. It's almost like someone realized you can build places for people to have fun and they can take responsibility for their own safety. But I shall step off my soap box now. :)

So a great day was had with my relatives... though I was a bit sore from the day before.

But I've got no complaints. Only happy memories.
And a note to my friends who think the only "real" travel is out of the USA (You know who you are :)...
there's no Bonne Terre Mine or City Museum anywhere else. There's no slot canyons of Utah, no Colorado Rockies, no Grand Canyon, no New York City, no New Orleans... you get my drift. We've got amazing adventure right here in our backyard... so even though I highly recommend getting out of the USA to see the rest of the world, it doesn't mean you have to get out in order to travel. The USA rocks to travel in: Just ask the friends I met from other countries on the trip who have been here and love it. Jump in the car, slam on the gas, and see where the open road takes you.

So I got back to LA on Tuesday night late. Got picked up by my buddy Tom, and was glad to be back. It's funny how these trips are always exactly how long they should be. (I think I said that already). Walked into my house (that needs some cleaning), and felt really shitty... as in... oh no... I got food poisoning shitty.

Not Guatemala bad food poisoning, (for those who remember that pooping, puking story in the middle of nowhere), but pretty bad. It makes me wonder if my relatives were trying to get rid of me by giving me that ham sandwhich...hmm.... :)

Still getting recovered, but it really didn't bum me out at all. Why feel sorry for myself about food poisoning? I just had an incredible adventure, saw and did incredible things, met incredible people and had a blast with my wonderful family.


Now for real, until next time,
this is Craig Ouellette
last surviving member of the Nostromo,
signing off.