Sometimes you don’t have to go far away to get away.
A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to win a couple of prizes in a fundraiser raffle held by the Houston Senior Center. One of them was a night at Mansfield Woods, a vacation cottage establishment in Wright County.
Like everyone I have spoken to about it, I was previously unaware the place existed. But it does, and it’s barely more than a stone’s throw from the Mansfield square to the west and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum to the east.
After our not-so-long road trip from adjacent Texas County, my wife Wendy and I arrived in the early afternoon and in no time we felt like we were somewhere much further away. After making our way up the long easement drive through an RV park off of Highway A and into the naturally beautiful property beyond, we stopped at the home of owner and operator Barbara Herring (which also functions as the office), who greeted us with genuine friendliness and quickly made us feel like she was truly glad we were there. Making it clear she was available (and willing) to help in any way possible, she provided us a few quick instructions and handed us the key to cabin No. 3.
From there, we drove up the dirt road into the wooded area where Mansfield Woods’ five cabins are located and settled in for what would be an extremely memorable 22 hours. The quaint little wooden cottages are situated on the side of a forested hill that’s home to many huge, 100-year-old trees. Each bungalow has a south-facing deck overlooking a low area with a pond, some picnic tables and a fire pit.
The cabin proved to be neat and spotless, and we were happy with our little Ozarks getaway and grateful for the chance to simply exhale and relax.
Ms. Herring had told us about a historic cemetery near the cabins, so we took a little walk and saw some gravestones bearing etchings from the 1800s. But something else she had mentioned had gotten our attention in a big way, and we wasted no time in checking it out: Hicks Cave.
Like Mansfield Woods itself, the existence of Hicks Cave is largely unknown, even to long-time locals. But it’s an amazing natural formation, weaving and bending for an incredible 1.8 miles, much of which is literally underneath parts of Mansfield.
As I expressed my very real interest in the cave, Barbara –much to my surprised delight – unrolled a huge, hand-drawn map of the cave produced in the 1970s that detailed every foot of its underground features and subterranean landmarks. As I marveled at the magnificent, slightly tattered document, I was fascinated to find out the cave is registered with the Missouri Department of Conservation, and that regulations required Ms. Herring to follow some guidelines when allowing guests to enter.
Anyway, equipped with flashlights, headlamps, camera bag and food and liquid rations, Wendy and I took the short walk from Barbara’s house and headed into the deep, black unknown.
It was awesome – even though we didn’t get very far. After moving forward through the solid rock “tube” and maneuvering through several right-angle turns and a distance of about 150 yards (in conditions requiring my 6-3 frame to bend quite a bit), we came to a section where the floor of the narrow cave was covered with wall-to-wall water for as far as the flashlight-assisted eye could see.
We stopped and surveyed the situation, and had no trouble concluding we weren’t prepared for what lay ahead. Rather than continuing and risking at least discomfort and at worst injury, we opted to sit down on a dry bank under the rock ceiling, and ate and drank the provisions we had packed in.
Talk about a wonderful, tranquil, serene experience. Neither myself or my wife has trouble with claustrophobia, and we just sat there without a concern – it was just us, the cave walls, the sound of dripping water and cool, damp air. And some guano, but we successfully avoided it.
Speaking of guano, one of the many really cool photographs we took in the cozy abyss was of a bat clinging to the ceiling. Said ceiling wasn’t even six feet from the cave floor, so I was able to be close to the subject when I pressed the camera’s button (I then apologized to my winged rodent acquaintance for the abrupt bright light that momentarily rocked his world).
And speaking of dripping water, another photo I snapped was of the cave ceiling itself. As we sat at the edge of the underground ribbon of H2O, we shined our flashlights upward and noticed much glittering and twinkling going on. We thought we were seeing fool’s gold, but on further review we realized that almost the entire surface was covered with tiny water droplets, and they were reflecting and refracting the light in a surreal, dreamlike manner.
After a while, we thought we heard voices. Thankfully, we weren’t going cave crazy – we did hear voices.
A family of four making a vacation out of moving cross-country from Virginia to western Washington had stopped at Mansfield Woods for the night, and two young boys were expressing their excitement during their underground adventure. As the rest of us remained on the dry area, the man of the family ambitiously went on.
We kept our lights on him as he trudged through the water, and we could see that it reached his knees as he disappeared beyond view. After he had been gone a spell, Wendy yelled his name – George – and we could faintly hear his reply.
I got a couple of cool photos of George as he made his away from us and as he came back. It’s safe to say that Hicks Cave was not only the highlight of our trip, but also a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
In the evening, Wendy and I enjoyed a meal she prepared in the cabin’s little kitchen area, and then spent more than an hour playing Yahtzee on the deck on a perfect fall evening. After the sun went down, George’s family enjoyed sitting by a fire a little way down the hill below. Dang, what a great way to spend a day.
We almost didn’t want to leave on Sunday, but life called and we eventually ended up back on the four-lane.
Before we departed, I wrote a few words in the “guest comments” book in our cabin: “A peaceful, picturesque setting, a clean comfortable living space, historic and naturally beautiful surroundings. Hard to ask for more from a getaway in the Ozarks.”
And it didn’t hurt that the whole time we were at Mansfield Woods we were treated more like guests at someone’s home rather than customers of a business. I’m thinking we’ll be back (even if I don’t win another night), no doubt better prepared to see some “big rooms” and other stunning formations that we know are there for the viewing deep inside Hicks Cave.
Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.