The Book of Mormon: A Brilliant MessEpisode 33
"A Jew, Nephite and Jaredite walked into a bar..."
EPISODE 34 TRANSCRIPT
Greetings! Welcome to the podcast at ForeverLDS.
Today I wanted to offer listeners a special treat, especially fans of Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites and the 12 (soon to be 14)-volume Tennis Shoes Adventure Series.
The most common question I’m asked is “When will you make an end?!” My typical reply is, “When it is finished!” It’s a complicated book, and sometimes I need a mental break. ForeverLDS is a perfect diversion that allows me to keep the creative juices flowing.
Generally, topics I present in podcasts are related to questions that I’m pondering or plotlines I’m pursuing in the series. So, if you want hints about what’s happening in the book, listen to the podcasts. Not always an accurate barometer, but a lot of subjects I research for the sake of the novels will send me on a tangent that, if I don’t pursue it, will make me go nuts. Sorry. Just something I wrestle with. Such diversions are therapy.
I used to love sending fans who inquired about the next book a paragraph or two of what I’d written that day. It’s getting harder and harder to do that. New paragraphs lately are major spoilers, but that ought to be good news for readers. The plot is thickening and there’s no turning back. Those who think they have this story figured out? Yeah, will, if so, you know more than me, ‘cause most days even I’m surprised by what unfolds. I feel like this story already exists. I’m just chipping away at the marble. That probably sounds really poetic and deep, but don’t take it too seriously. Artists are notorious for making what they do sound more mysterious than it is. Things just unfold one sentence at a time.
Those who amaze me are those who figure out how to send a probe to Alpha Centauri, or clone a wholly mammoth, or become a special ops soldier, or a parent who persists in loving a wayward child—unconditionally—or a child who unconditionally loves a wayward parent. Those are life’s real heroes—true purveyors of love and light. I’m just a storyteller. Sometimes I can help others to catch a glimpse of those things, but I know so many who do it so much better. I look on with incredible respect and awe.
Today I thought I might purvey a meager glimpse by talking about the major plot device which has been a part of the Tennis Shoes Adventure Series from the very beginning: A certain cave near my home town of Cody, Wyoming that I used to explore several times every year from the fourth grade till I graduated from high school.
From the 1970s I knew this labyrinth of caverns, whose entrance on a cliff face near the summit of Cedar Mountain, a mountain whose summit I could see every morning as I stepped out onto my front porch, as Frost Cave. I guess I always knew it had other names: Crystal Caverns, Shoshoni Cave. Strangely, I think was an adult, already into book 3 or 4 of the Tennis Shoes series, before I learned today’s official name—as posted on a sign near the parking lot: Spirit Mountain Caverns. Cool name! If that had been the name I was familiar with in my youth, I probably would have used that name in my first book. Sounds considerably more mystifying and enigmatic than “Frost Cave”, but that’s not the name I commonly heard people use.
The name reputedly dates back to the Crow Indians who lived in the region. These Native Americans had presumably noted places on the mountain where steam issued from geothermal hot spots. At least, that’s the legend. No hot spots at that elevation now. There are such hot spots along the cliffs of the Shoshoni River 2000 feet below the mountain, closer to town. I don’t remember any steaming crevasses on Cedar Mountain itself.
Such steam generally indicates the presence of hydrogen sulfide, or sulfur dioxide, a gas which is poisonous. My brother, Charly, three years older than me, got first-hand knowledge of this when he ventured into one of these much-smaller steam-emitting caves along a cliff at the river’s edge. I remember those caves. They stank—bad—like rotten eggs! Charly, what were you thinking?? He crawled in to see if it might eventually open up into a bigger room—same idea we always pursued when exploring Frost Cave. Instead, he became overcome by the fumes, and passed out. A friend noticed he was unresponsive and dragged him out by his feet. Willie Ames! Willie, if you’re listening to this, my brother would like to thank you again. If not for Willie’s heroics, I might not have an older brother today.
The rescue got a big write up in our local paper, the Cody Enterprise, and was quite the story in 1977—same summer that Star Wars was released. I remember the newspaper article had a single quote from my mother: “He probably would have died.” Really? Mom, was that the best quote you could give them? Even to me, at 13 or 14, it struck me as lame. The reporter made it sound like that was the outcome my mom would’ve preferred! Small town news. Anyway, the article served as a warning to other would-be explorers to steer clear of foul-smelling, steam-emitting caves.
Some reports claimed if one climbed deep enough inside Frost Cave they’d eventually encounter the same hazards. That was probably the motivation for dynamiting the downward passageway in the late ’50s, early ’60s, forever blocking off the only known route to a legendary room with waterfalls and crystal, phosphorescent walls and ceilings known to us young spelunkers as the Rainbow Room.
The actual history of this cavern is fascinating. I wrote a chapter note about it in Tennis Shoes, Vol. 8: Warriors of Cumorah, but for those who only ever listened to the audio, you’d never saw it. Even that ditty was too short to fully unveil the mystery, notoriety, and even controversy, surrounding this cave.
As the story goes, in late 1908 or early 1909 a man named Ned Ward Frost—himself a colorful character and true frontiersman whose name might’ve been better known if he’d been born a couple decades earlier. Ned was running his hunting dogs (or hunting dog, depending on which account) along the backside of Cedar Mountain when they caught wind of a bobcat (or mountain lion, again, depending on which account). The dogs got ahead of him and disappeared through an opening in the mountain. Ned Frost followed. After whistling his dogs back, he took out a book of matches and burnt them down to the last one, nearly getting lost. Needless to say, the bobcat, er, mountain lion got away.
Within a few days, word of the find spread through the little town of Cody, which had only been founded a dozen years earlier by Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody himself.
On the transcript of this blog I’ve posted a couple photographs dated February 11, 1909—so within weeks of the actual discovery—featuring Buffalo Bill with his signature goatee. The man standing two places away, I suspect, is Ned Frost, wearing a dark scarf and high black riding boots. The cave’s discoverer and legendary “Wild West” showman are accompanied by a small group of tourists, including three stalwart, hard-faced women in woolen skirts. In the first photo, everyone is standing at the mouth of the cave. In the second, they’re seated on the cavern floor, undoubtedly not far from the entrance as the passage starts to become too complicated for camera equipment and petticoats after a few hundred feet.
They’re cool photos, especially the one where everyone is sitting down. Each man is armed with an old-fashioned kerosene lantern. At first I looked at those and thought: “What? Every man was required to bring his own private coffee pot?” No, that spout was the thing that emitted the flame for illumination. And the photographer’s assistant—or at least the rugged-looking gentleman holding a flashlamp has, in his right coat pocket, an enormous bottle of spirits that must’ve been necessary to help keep the tourists warm.
Hard to believe this is the same year that, on the other side of America, the Wright Brothers would launch the very first airplane. In 1909 Wyoming was still very much the Old West. A third photo, dated the same day, Feb. 11, shows Buffalo Bill’s party riding up the mountain on horseback. A handwritten note actually on the photo happens to credit the female riders as the first women ever to visit the grotto.
There’s no doubt that Buffalo Bill Cody preplanned for Cody, Wyoming—my home town from the second grade through high school—to become the glorious tourist mecca for celebrating the American West that it is today. The finest western museum—one of the finest museums—period!—is there: the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. It’s massive! I did not appreciate it growing up, yet it was ten blocks from my house! Most of the original Charles M. Russell and Frederick Remington paintings. One entire floor dedicated to Native Americans. I wouldn’t know where to begin. And that’s when I was a kid. Today, I’m sure it’s doubly impressive.
So in 1909, when Buffalo Bill stood in the entrance of Frost Cave with Ned Frost, a colorful new vision blossomed in his mind. One more extraordinary attraction to bring visitors to this otherwise tiny community.
Even growing up it seemed to me Cody had more motels than residential houses! John Wayne—the “Duke” himself—rode in a convertible waving his hat in our 1976 Fourth-of-July Parade. I posted a picture of that event and actually looked for myself in the crowd, because I was there! Not sure, ’cause many faces are too small and out of focus. This was the nation’s Bicentennial! And our little town of 5000 was where John Wayne chose to be. The legend was dying and would pass away a couple years later. But Cody, Wyoming was where he spent America’s 200th birthday.
Undoubtedly Cody’s prestige and fame was a result of the fame and celebrity of Buffalo Bill. He had a lot of clout, even in Washington, D.C., and he wielded some of that clout to convince President William Howard Taft to declare Frost Cave a national monument in September 1909—just 9 months after it was discovered! The Antiquities Act itself, enacted by President Teddy Roosevelt to designate national monuments, had only been in existence for 3 years. That means Frost Cave was placed on the same footing as Yellowstone National Park, The Grand Canyon, and Devil’s Tower. President Taft’s signed proclamation declared it “a cavern in the state of Wyoming, of unknown extent but of many windings and ramifications and containing chambers of large size, magnificently decorated with sparkling crystals and beautiful stalactites, containing impenetrable pits of unknown depths is of great scientific interest and value to the people of the United States."
The first problem this second-designated Wyoming national monument encountered was the name. Frost Cave. Hmmm. Sounded too cold, like it was an uncomfortable, freezing place nobody would wanna visit. The fact that its discoverer’s last name was “Frost”? That was just bad luck. The truth? These caverns are the same temperature year-round. 55 degrees. Doesn’t matter if it’s 30 below zero outside. Inside the cave it’s 55 degrees. I know this ’cause we made a couple “dead-of-winter” expeditions up Cedar Mountain and it was a relief to get inside the cave to get warm.
They changed its name to the Shoshoni Cavern National Monument—a name I’d never heard growing up. There’s no report as to whether the name-change irked Ned Frost or not. Maybe it should have. At least keeping his name associated with the official monument might have helped preserve a deserving legacy. As I said, if Ned Frost had been born a few decades earlier, he might have earned a reputation placing him in Western history right alongside Jim Bridger, John Fremont, and Buffalo Bill.
Ned Ward Frost was born in 1881 in Minnesota. His family came to the Cody area in 1884 by covered wagon. By the age of seven he’d killed his first grizzly bear and went on to became one of the most world’s foremost big game hunters and guides and reputedly one of the most accurate marksmen of the first quarter of the 20th century.
By age 14 he was shooting antelope to supply meat houses in Coulson, which later became Billings, Montana. Can you imagine? Antelope! I’ve heard antelope is one of the nastiest tasting meats in North America, but at the turn of the 20th century it was a thriving business.
Through trapping, hunting, and guiding, Ned was able to buy a large tract of land and construct a 17-room ranch house in the Wapiti Valley, just east of Yellowstone. For a number of years he operated a successful camping and guiding company for visitors to Yellowstone National Park at a period when visiting Yellowstone National Park was no easy feat. Ned Frost’s horseback tours took 16 to 18 days. The portable tents were tepees, and as stated in Frost’s brochure, “each [teepee] accommodat[ed] two persons . . . . furnished with canvas floors, ostermoor mattresses [whatever those were], woolen blankets, warm, heavy comforters and a private toilet tent for ladies.” I guess the men didn’t feel the need for such frivolities. The advertisement goes on: “The meals are the best . . . in canned goods, smoked meats, fresh vegetables and trout, all prepared by women cooks in a covered cook-wagon. Many ladies (not sure what the difference is between women cooks and “ladies”, but hey, it’s the early 20th century!)—Many ladies make the camping tour and enjoy it thoroughly; children as young as seven or eight years have made the trip . . .” Today a comparable trip might penetrate the remote tributaries of the Amazon or the Congo. Actually, I don’t know if there is anything comparable today! 16 to 18 days in the wilderness? Yet for that hardy generation, such a vacation must’ve sounded as exotic and luxurious as a 2-week, all-you-can-eat Carnival Cruise on the Mexican Riviera.
Frost was a hunting and tourist guide for some of the richest men in America and European royalty.
In 1916, however, he and his company cook, Ed Jones, suffered a serious attack from an “immense” grizzly bear. The newspaper report reads, “Frost was conducting a tourist pack train through [Yellowstone] park, Jones being the cook. Because of park regulations the party traveled without arms. Monday night Jones discovered a male bear raiding the camp grub outfit.
“Bears protected in the park roam unmolested and ordinarily are not vicious. So Jones did not hesitate to attempt to drive the animal away. Resenting his interference, the bear charged, hurled him 80 feet with a blow from its paw and was mauling his back when his yells brought Frost to the scene. Unarmed, but undismayed, Frost unhesitatingly went into battle attacking the enraged beast with the first weapon he could seize, a frying pan. The bear turned upon Frost and an unequal battle with the advantage all on the side of the grizzly ensued. A sweep of the bear's claws tore Frost's leg open from the hip to the knee, but he fought on floundering away from the grizzly's lunges and belaboring her [somewhere along the line the male grizzly becomes a “her”, but anyway]—belaboring her with whatever he could lay his hands on.
“Jones, almost disabled, rejoined the fray and the two men between them succeeded in confusing the bear so it wasted its efforts in attempting to maul both at the same time. The noise of the battle brought tourists running to the camp and the bear fled. Frost and Jones were taken to the hotel where an army surgeon dressed their wounds. Later they were brought to [Cody] in a serious condition, but are expected to recover.
“Frost is one of the best known of the park guides. He discovered Ned Frost cave on the road to the park, which has never been explored and is believed to be larger than Mammoth cave in Kentucky.”
See! Even after the federal government changed the cave’s name, folks were still calling it Frost Cave, so we weren’t alone.
Ned Frost retired as a guide a few years later, citing poor health. He passed away in 1957. In 1952 the Wyoming legislature set aside September 25 as a state holiday: “Ned Frost Day,” although I’d never heard of it before I read his obituary while researching this podcast. I have a feeling not many Wyomingites know it either. So listen up citizens of Cody! September 25. Ned Frost Day.
As for the cavern he discovered? It wouldn’t be long before it, too, became as obscure and unfamiliar as its discoverer.
The funds just weren’t there to develop this national monument, and what meager federal funds were available were set aside for developing Yellowstone. The cave entrance was just too inaccessible. It wasn’t until 1934 that crews from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” Civil Works Administration graded a narrow car route with winding switchbacks to a parking area about a hundred yards from the cave entrance. Even today the road gets washed out, experiences rockslides, and becomes impassable. Like my characters in Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites, we didn’t even use it. We climbed straight up the mountain face, using those switchbacks just to pause and catch our breath. Oh, and some reported rockslides were probably caused by us. We loooved to get our hands around the most enormous boulders and heave them down the slope, watch them bounce or shatter or take even larger boulders with them. More fun than 4th of July fireworks.
Sometime in the early 1950s the people of Cody started to feel frustrated with the federal government—a common state-of-mind as I’ve come to observe amongst mountain west residents—because, or so they felt, this tourist draw and supposed national treasure was being ignored! They started up a campaign to have Shoshoni Caverns National Monument de-listed by the feds and placed back into the hands of Cody’s city government, who felt they could better manage the site’s potential. Honestly, it didn’t take much convincing, and in 1954 the Shoshoni Caverns National Monument became one of only 11 presidentially declared national monuments to be become a presidentially undeclared national monument. Some the denizens of southern Utah might be encouraged to discover such a thing is possible and (Ah-hem!) has definitive precedent.
Cody renamed the grotto again—this time Spirit Mountain Caverns. Does that name have any historical basis? I dunno. To me it sounds like a name that came out of a committee board meeting. As far as having any real basis in Crow folklore? Believe what you want. But it’s a cool name! It’s just not what we called it. It was Frost Cave.
The city leased the property to a local businessman, Claud Brown, who set up a corporation, attracted about 300 investors, and with that money paved the parking lot, built some wooden walkways, and strung some inside lights. Publicity proclaimed it the “Western Carlsbad.” Brown’s plan was the charge one dollar and fifty cents to every visitor. His starry eyes even dreamed of eventually building a cable car to transport tourists up the mountain. However, unlike Kevin Costner’s magical baseball field built in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas, the people did not come. By the mid-’60s Mr. Brown couldn’t even afford to keep the lights running. He abandoned his lease, pulled out the lights, and allowed other improvements to fall into disrepair.
That was 1966. For the next 12-14 years, the cave just sat there. Oh, the city did put a steel-grated gate over the cave entrance, but not the same padlocked gate with the tiny, square entry hole which picture I’ve posted on the website. That hole literally forces an explorer to enter the gate facing the ceiling and leaning backward. Truly a “contortionary” event, seemingly designed to discourage people who, like me, tend toward the chubby side from getting stuck in one of those tunnels like Winnie-the-Poo in Rabbit’s doorway.
It was during that 12 year period of neglect, between 1966 and about 1980, that me, my best friend, Eric Vesterby, his father, Dave Vesterby, my brother, Charley, and my stepbrothers, Miles and Frank, came on the scene. Despite Cody officially closing the cave, that first gate left a wide gap at the top relatively easy to overcome.
This was also the period when, I’m sure, the most serious vandalism occurred. People carved and spray-painted their names along every free space around the entrance and deep into the tunnels. Even Walt Disney is said to have signed his name in the cave. But spray-painting and graffiti wasn’t the worst part. It was those troglodytes who brought hammers and other rock chipping tools.
A turn-of-the century visitor of Frost Cave described it as “a carnival of color running from red to purple, blue to yellow, brown to orange.” We didn’t see much of that. At least not near the entrance. To find any colorful crystal and other speleothems—There’s a word for you: speleothems. Basically just means “cave formations”—stalactites, stalagmites and the like. To find all those you had to go deep. Deeper than most spelunkers were willing to go.
It’s sort of a cautionary tale for local government seeking to restore property rights on a national monument. If you seek to do so, don’t let happen to your monument what happened to Frost Cave. In the early 70s a second group offered to develop the cave for tourists, but turned out to be conmen. After establishing the lease, several trucks drove to the cave’s summit, and soon drove back down the mountain, trucks full to the brim with crystal and other valuable speleothems. It was a ransacking. Such shysters, after exploiting the artifacts, disappeared and were never hear from again.
If a local government wants to re-secure land rights from the Feds, be prepared to be responsible stewards. Identify what’s most valuable or unique and preserve it, and if mineral or other rights can be responsibly exploited or harvested, leave the land better off than when you found it.
I’m sure I heard the legend of the Rainbow Room around the same time I first explored the cave, in the summer after my 4th grade year, or about 1973. Can you imagine letting 10-year-olds go on such an adventure today without supervision? We did that kinda stuff all the time. We did stuff more dangerous, and thought nothing of it. Sometime I’ll have to tell you about the Bigfoot costume I made in Junior High home-economics class and used it to wander across the highway up North Fork Canyon at twilight just as a pair of headlights were approaching. If you ever hear tales about Bigfoot near Wapiti Campground, don’t worry. Probably just me.
According to my older brother, we first heard the legend of the Rainbow Room from a man named Howard, or Howards, who ran a sporting goods store on Cody’s Sheridan Avenue. Mr. Howards also worked for Search and Rescue and had participated, sometime in 50s or 60s in the demolition of a major tunnel that led deep, deep down into the arteries of the cave.
Frost Cave is primarily a vertical cave. Not so vertical you need ropes, at least not in most places, but descending gradually toward the base of the Cedar Mountain and potentially under the Shoshoni River and up again into recesses of Rattlesnake Mountain on the opposite side of the river. In 1955, prior to the demolition, a team of spelunkers from Billings headed up by Francis Nelson slept three nights in the caverns and mapped eight different levels and eight miles of passageways. He suspected Frost Cave might be the deepest cavern in the United States, descending several thousands of feet. I’ve posted his rough, hand-drawn map, which features numerous open-ended tunnels he claimed he didn’t have time to explore. To me the map doesn’t make much sense. A cave is three-dimensional, not two-dimensional. It strikes me as incredibly oversimplified, but I posted it anyway. The point is that today explorers can only get down to level 3, possibly some parts of level 4. No deeper.
So it was that Mr. Howards described a room with waterfalls and phosphorescent ceilings he dubbed the Rainbow Room. Was that name first coined by Francis Nelson? Was it his team that made the discovery? Who knows? But every expedition that we made was marked by teeth-gritted determination to find a new route—one that hadn’t been dynamited—to this legendary Rainbow Room. We considered it a sin that someone would demolish such a passageway. Most environmentalists would probably consider it a sin today! Back then the managers were trying to transform Frost Cave into a commercial enterprise, and they were too afraid someone might get lost. Such an incident had occurred in about 1925 when someone got down in there and lost their light. Imagine the terror. Imagine how hoarse your voice would get screaming for help. It took 12 hours to locate them. Profitability for Spirit Mountain Caverns was precarious enough without that kind of liability. Then there was the fear of poisonous gasses in the lowest levels, so—boom! They collapsed the only known passage to the lower reaches.
Alas, our multi-year efforts to find a secondary route to the Rainbow Room came to naught. We did go deep. I never really thought of it in terms of “levels”. It was just, “How deep could we go?” It felt to me like a few of our expeditions transcended 3 or 4 “levels”. There wasn’t a single trip that I didn’t feel like we discovered new passages and tunnels. Still, we weren’t about to spend several nights in there like Francis Nelson’s expedition in 1955. That would have freaked out our parents. I read an old news clipping, the article itself from 1993, claiming in 1986 a group of Colorado cavers discovered a mysterious tight crawlway. Air gusted through the opening, suggesting large rooms in the sections beyond, dropping down. But the cavers couldn’t squeeze through the opening, so they never reached the subterranean world beyond.
Today Spirit Mountain Caverns are said to annually attract 700 to 1000 spelunkers. For access a key to the gate must be obtained from the BLM offices in Cody, that is, after signing a waiver exonerating the government of all liabilities in case you go in and never come back out. They have other rules, mostly associated with safety and preserving the site from further vandalism. I know many scout groups and other individuals inspired to visit the cave based on curiosity sparked by my novels. A few LDS blogs give me credit for that, but not a single articles from secular publication seems to know that these novels even exist, or that about 3 million are in circulation. And that’s fine. I’m not sure I want to think I inspired greater interest in the cave. However, it’s time to confess, so many annual visitors does heighten the likelihood that any possible secondary route into the cavern’s lower reaches have been exhausted. But maybe not. No one likes to entirely cut off the possibility. And why not identify the place demolished and dig it back out! Likely easier said than done. But we can always dream.
Still, I must go on record, even if the Rainbow Room is re-discovered, I highly doubt it will prove to be mystical portal into the Book of Mormon. The core idea dates to a dream I had, in Gainesville, Florida, during the last six-months of my LDS mission: a vision of a time-travel adventure featuring adolescents visiting the Book of Mormon. Prior to that I don’t think anyone had ever told such a yarn. And for that opportunity, I feel very blessed. I keep hoping others will follow suit, or pursue variations on that adventure. Whatever celebrates this great volume of scripture. Some have said to me, “Yeah, I’d like to write a time-travel thing with the Book of Mormon, but that was your idea.”
Are you kidding me? You think I hold some kind of copyright on time-travel or other fantasy gimmicks related to the Book of Mormon?! I most definitely do not, and if the Spirit nudges you to write such a story, do it. There cannot too many works of literature directing our thoughts and attention to that great volume of scripture. So dive in and make it happen.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast. Not particularly religious like just about every other podcast on ForeverLDS, but I hope it was a fun history lesson on the riveting true legacy of Frost Cave.
Who knows where story ideas come from anyway? I’ll take ‘em wherever I can get ‘em, because I’m wholly convinced—especially in this case—they are not mine.
Our podcasts on ForeverLDS do not necessarily represent the views or doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and are in no way meant to criticize the Church, its doctrines, or its leaders. Please follow Forever LDS on Twitter and subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Stitcher, and feel welcome to leave comments on our website, www.foreverLDS.com.
Stay close to the Lord. If you don’t feel as close to the Lord today as you did yesterday, who moved? Small hint. It wasn’t the Lord. Thank you for listening. This is Chris Heimerdinger. And this is ForeverLDS.
Mark Davis, “Spirit Mountain Cave went from being a national monument to just another hole in the ground”, Powell Tribune, Oct, 31, 2017.
Robert V. Goss, “The Frost and Richard Camping Company”, 2014, http://geyserbob.org/camp-frost.html
Allison Batdorff, “Cave Offers Inside View of Spirit Mountain”, Billings Gazette, Feb 23, 2005
Phil Roberts, “Shoshone Cavern, Wyoming’s Only Delisted National Monument”, Feb 23, 2015, https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/shoshone-cavern-wyomings-only-delisted-national-monument
Michael Milstein, “Cave’s glory faded quickly”, Billings Gazette, 1993
Chris Hill, Wayne Sutherland, Lee Tierney, Caves of Wyoming, University of Wyoming Press, 139-142, March 1976