Friday, March 5, 2010
In Earth's Womb
Now, let me stop here for anyone who is not familiar with the term and explain what spelunking is. Spelunking is the exploration of caves. The word is derived from "speleology", which is the scientific study of caves and their environments. Typically cavers such as we were are exploring caves on private lands (preferably with the permission of the landowners) and are amateurishly just looking to satisfy curiosity and seek adventure.
We were amateurs, but we weren't totally stupid either. We did not want to die, so we did our research. We checked out books about the topic from the library. I found a spelunking club at the university and we joined in order to be able to have access to the equipment they had for the use of members. Through our research we found some caves to begin with and began our explorations.
Our interest in caving did not last much longer after that. We went to a couple of commercial caves in the area--Tuckaleechee Caverns, Forbidden Caverns, and The Lost Sea Caverns. The spelunking adventures for Marvin and I ended and so did our association with the Spelunking Club at the university.
Then a few years later a revival of caving interest came to me through some of my other friends. We started out by going to some of the cave openings in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most of them have bars over them and can only be entered with a permit. Then there is another--Blowhole Cave--which can only be entered with a rope, or a ladder, or by falling in. Whichever way you enter Blowhole Cave you are still supposed to have a permit. We would just go to the caves and peer inside as we pondered what it might be like inside them.
In other caves it had been at times necessary to crawl on one's hands and knees in some places in order to explore. This opening was wide but only about twenty inches in height. One had to crawl into the cave on one's belly or, as was my preference, feet first and on my back. Either way it was a terrifyingly claustrophobic entrance that went for about thirty feet. As I proceeded I could hear a sort of distant roar that I soon identified to be the sound of rushing water. Eventually the passage became higher so that I was able to crawl. Ahead of us I could see a stream of water coming out of one wall of the cave and as we came to the water I realized that we were at the top of a waterfall that was about twelve feet in height.
We assessed our situation and determined that we were in a fair sized room the floor of which was sandy and the water seemed to be just eventually filtering into the sand. We climbed down into this room and looked around to see where we could go from there. As we stood with our backs to the waterfall, we could see a passageway to our left which we surmised probably continued into the depth of the mountain.
You have never really experienced absolute darkness and total silence until you have sat in the depth of a cave with lights off and voices quiet. It is a darkness that you can almost feel touching you, enveloping you, and drawing you into it. The quiet is so intense that the coursing of your blood becomes a roar and the beat of your heart is like a distant war drum ominously thumping away. We sat like that for a while, meditating in the darkness, listening, waiting.
I guess it became too much for us. We started talking, joking at first, but then contemplating "what ifs". What if our lights didn't turn back on-- what would we do? What if there was some sort of creature down here? What if there was an earthquake? We were soon ready to go. Lights turned back on, we were anxious to be back out of this cave.
Later, I think I went back into this cave at least one, maybe two more times. Some of our other friends who had heard our tale also went at various times. After my initial visits I no longer had an interest in going back into this cave. I guess I had started thinking about being in it and it started to scare me. Years later, sometimes as I was falling to sleep, I would have terrifying dreams about being in the crawlspace cave entrance and being trapped. I would struggle to wake up and when I did I would often be afraid to go back to sleep for awhile and only succumb when my exhaustion overtook me. Even now, I rarely have bad dreams, but when I do they usually have to do with that claustrophobic sensation of being trapped in a tight, enclosed space.
Have you ever gone spelunking on your own? Would you and if not, why not? Have you ever been to a cavern attraction? If so, what was your experience like?