Cave of Kelpius
August 6, 2007 — Plato found the idea of a cave useful in allegory. French Palaeoliths found caves valuable for artistic expression. Batman found a cave perfect for a crime-fighting base. And me? I just found a cave. In, of all places, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Truth is, Philadelphia has always been my go-to punch line for any of my jokes that needed a city as a punch line. I’m kind of sure there are reasons for my brotherly hate for the city of brotherly love, but they’re completely irrelevant now. It is with much sadness that I announce that I no longer have an arch nemesis city (although, I am eyeing you, Atlanta). I just returned from a weekend jaunt to Philadelphia that, besides being a dynamite blast, was filled with some great finds that have endeared me to the city and that I’m sure will all end up being fodder for O.T.I.S. at some point. The Cave of Kelpius is one of those finds.
I know it’s weird to talk about a naturally occurring object like a cave in a completely urban setting like Philadelphia, but there’re some caveats here. First, the cave is located in Fairmont Park, which, despite the singular form, is actually a network of parks. They like to pretend it’s a single park just to claim superiority in size over Central Park. Every city wants to be New York, as if that's a great template for a city. Sad, really. Second, the cave is not so much a natural cave, but an artificially made stone structure built into the side of a small hill. Like an old springhouse, the cynical would say. But I daresay no other springhouse in the world has a graven monument donated by the Rosicrucians to honor the spot. Or, more accurately, the man who is supposed to have used the spot in crime-fighting. I mean, as a sanctum for meditation. Lore goes that the cave was used for such a purpose by this Johannes Kelpius cat back at the turn of the 17th century. I need to tell you about him to show you how interesting it is.
So first the cat, then the cave.
Everything that could possibly be cool about a person was true about Kelpius. He was a philosopher. He had a Ph.D. He was an astronomer. He was a musician. He was born in Transylvania. He had a Latinized name. He liked to predict apocalypse. He even had disciples, for goodness’ sake. And all by the time he was 21. You know, the age you and I were in our post-college slump, living in our childhood bedroom at our parents’ house and getting excited about video game releases. The poet John Greenleaf Whittier even called Kelpius “maddest of good men.” Says it all, I think. That’s not a feather just anyone could wear. Kelpius and his followers referred to themselves as the “Society of the Woman in the Wilderness.” They were all men. So was Twisted Sister, though, so it’s not unprecedented.
Kelpius’ group of about 40 traveled to Philadelphia from Germany across the width of the treacherous Atlantic Ocean for the purpose of religious freedom. I drove three hours there to kick back and catch some oddity. Everybody is way better than me. The Society of the Woman in the Wilderness basically lived in seclusion in nature, thinking, living simply, and helping out Philadelphians whenever there was a need. As a result, Kelpius and then the Society were snuffed out by natural causes about a decade and a half later. Evolution, I reckon.
The actual cave alluded to earlier in the text and stated boldly in the title of this article is also called Hermit’s Cave. The few people that care about the topic dispute whether this actual cave was frequented by Kelpius, but no one really disputes that he and his followers did their monk thing in that area. The forest currently abuts a suburban neighborhood that makes me jealous of all the Stand By Me–type memories that all those kids must have and I don’t. I just want one corpse anecdote in my life, you know? That’s not greedy.
The cave is simple. It’s about the size of a small shed and made of gray, rough-hewn rock and mortar. The only entrance is small and angled downward into the hill, keeping the inside dark enough that you have to let your eyes adjust. A single camera flash will illuminate the entire interior. A handful of steps lead down into it, and the walls are actually remarkably free of graffiti, except for the back wall, which was simply but annoyingly graffitied at the time of my visit. The interior of the cave survived better than its accompanying monument in that respect, at least (see next paragraph; heck, even read it if you wish). The floor of the cave is dirt, with a few rocks scattered about, and the walls and ceiling join in an arch comfortably high enough above your head. It didn’t exactly inspire great thoughts on my part, but few things aside from bottles of Port and syndicated sit coms usually do anyway. But like I said, it's all about the cat, not the cave.
What has kind of sanctified this spot a bit, though, is that in 1961 (or, A.D. 1961, to be as precise as the monument), the Rosicrucians set up an inscribed granite monolith just outside the cave in honor of whom they referred to as “The Original Rosicrucian” or some such. If Kelpius were alive today he would rap about that. I should probably explain the Rosicrucians, at this point, I guess. It’s a problem, though. The Rosicrucians are a mystical society, and the thing about mystical societies is that they don’t really do anything except be mystical and secret. And they like to pretend that they’re a lot cooler than the rest of us. Damned Rosicrucians. The text of the monolith (which can barely be read through the graffiti that defaces it and just saddens the whole scene) just explains why it’s there and who put it there, which I’ve already told you...in less flowery language. As you can see in the picture, the monolith also states that “Satan > Nazis.” If I knew more about professional sports, I’d weigh in on the debate.
There’s a bit of contradictory information on the Internet about getting to Kelpius’ cave. First off, that it’s somewhat hard to get there. Secondly, how to get there. But as of right this second you now know it’s the easiest thing in the world to get there, and by the end of the next paragraph you’ll know exactly how...or at least exactly how I got there.
It’s located in the Wissahickon Creek area of Fairmont Park just 500 feet off Hermit Lane. You can Google yourself right to Hermit Lane. Park at the beginning of it (assuming you arrive there from Henry Drive, which, if you do, Hermit Lane is on your left right directly after you cross a small bridge). People do live on Hermit Lane, but the Henry Drive entrance is wide, away from the houses, and excellent for parking. As you walk down Hermit Lane, you’ll pass an entrance to the park on your left. Skip it. Then you’ll pass some kind of long unpaved driveway or something on your left. Skip it. Next, yet again on your left, is another park entrance. Take it. This will lead you to a ball park/playground complex. You’ll enter this area at the outfield wall of the ball park. Immediately take the bit of path to your left that sneaks behind the ball park wall. You’ll find yourself in an impressive dirt bike park so well made it almost seems naturally occurring. Keep to your left as you walk around the bike park and take the first path off of it that you see. Within minutes you’ll end up at the cave. Now that I’ve written them, these directions sound more complicated than they actually are. Just know that me and the girlfriend found it despite horribly inaccurate directions (and don’t think I don’t fully realize that somebody will probably be saying that after using mine, so let me say it first). We basically just wandered to it...so it’s that easy. Plus, the cave is actually at the confluence of three paths, so I’m sure there’s a hundred ways to get there (or three, I guess). I just went into detail to make sure you can find it if you attempt a visit. Unless you’re going to graffiti it, in which case skip to the paragraph after next.
I didn’t spend much time in the forest itself, so I can’t comment on it per say or per anything else, but it seemed peaceful enough, if a bit peopled for my taste. The locals seem to get solid use out of the area. When we went there was a group of kids at the dirt bike park, and when we arrived at the cave, there were three men on bikes taking a breather. While we were at the cave a couple walked past, but didn’t give the cave or us even a second glance (which doesn’t sound too strange unless I told you exactly what we were doing while visiting the cave...it definitely merited at least a second glance, if not a newspaper headline). So not so much of an adventure on the "interacting with the locals" front, but I like keeping my human contact to a minimum when I’m on these quests. I’m easily embarrassed.
And because this is the third O.T.I.S. article so far in which I’ve had to mention graffiti (and because I’ve had to mention it so much in this article particularly), I guess I should dedicate some space to the topic. Graffiti is cool. I’m all for it. It makes boring things not boring. It’s useful for setting territorial boundaries in urban settings. And it’s a great backdrop for '80s rap videos (being at its best usage in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air intro). But it should not go on oddity. While graffiti can definitely make urbane things less urbane, it only makes oddity less odd. Other than that, feel free...just do so skillfully. That’s the only other thing I ask. Now get off my lawn or I’ll buck shot you full of rock salt.