The dry wind rustles through the sagebrush as the 97-degree sun backs the lava fields along State Highway 75.

If it were not for the signs, few motorists traveling this high desert road would ever believe there was a nearby natural refrigerator underground, waiting to turn beads of perspiration into frozen droplets.It's no mirage.

One of nature's curiosities, the Shoshone Ice Caves have long commanded attention: First from early Indians and settlers who sought refuge from the heat, and today, from tourists who come to eye the phenomenon that Sunset Magazine has called one of the major tourist attractions in the Northwest.

"It's definitely a lot more elaborate than other caves I have seen, " says Jim Farmer, a vacationer from Oklahoma.

A natural freezer creates the ice block in an arid desert. It stretches through a cave that is 90 feet underground and three blocks long. Even when the temperatures rises above 100 degrees outside, it never inches above freezing in the lava cave.

Early Indians, puzzled by the chamber full of ice, called it the "cave of mystery" and performed ceremonies there on their annual migration to the Camas Prairie.

White men first discovered it in 1887 when a 10-year-old farm boy stumbled across the 35,000-year-old lava tube, which was completely plugged to the ceiling with ice. In no time, the cave became area kids' favorite birthday party site because they could crank homemade ice cream.

Nearby townspeople flocked to the cave to chip away ice cubes, which they wrapped in gunny sacks and hauled away in freight wagons insulated with sawdust.

The town of Shoshone, which supported 22 saloons, was the only place within miles where a thirsty farmer could get an ice cold beer.

But the ice cave's popularity nearly led to its demise when a group of men, intent on making an easier access to the cave, dynamited a rock overhang at its entrance.

It was like leaving the freezer door open. The blast destroyed the air flow that allowed the underground ice to grow even in the driest years.

The cave's chance of becoming a national park melted as the ice receded.

Vandals further damaged it. The new tunnel sucked hot air into the cave and the ice disappeared. It would have been history if it had not been for a Gooding dentist.

Not realizing that the ice cave had been destroyed through man's ignorance, E.S. Robinson encouraged his son Russell in 1954 to examine the feasibility of the cave as a tourist attraction.

They were dismayed with what they found. The cave was filled with broken bottles and cans. What little ice was left was covered with mud.

Following the lead of photographs taken by pioneers, Russell Robinson hauled in chunks of lava to close the manmade entrance in the back and rebuild a permanent wall across the face of the cave.

But the ice still failed to form. In 1960, at the suggestion of a physicist who specialized in air pressure in wind tunnels, Russell Robinson began experimenting with the size of the cave entrance trying to restore original air flow. Within a year, the ice had expanded to 1,000 feet in length.

Today, the ice is 30 feet deep in places and could easily grow to fill the cave if allowed to. To prevent it from doing so, Fred Cheslik, a nephew of Russell Robinson, leaves the refrigerator door open and pumps out up to 2,000 gallons of water a week during mid-summer.

Twenty thousand people each year take the 40-minute tour along wooden planks through the cave, which resembles a cavernous concert hall.

Olympic figure skater Sonja Henie once posed for publicity photos skating inside the cave.

For most, though it's more of a visceral experience as tour guides like Andy Oleske point out such features as the skeleton of a grizzly bear believed to have become lost and froze to death.

Although he has led tours through the caves for several years, Oleske has never lost his awe for it.

"Leading tours through this place is my golf game, so to speak," said the Hagerman ad salesman who often leads tours on his lunch break. "This place is amazing. It's mind-boggling to think how it can be 105 degrees outside and you can be freezing in here. I just want to look at it and wonder, `How does it do it?"'