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Friday, March 5, 2010

In Earth's Womb

           Not long after I first started attending the University of Tennessee in Knoxville way back in 1969, I became interested in spelunking.  It was my friend Marvin Lowe who first brought the topic up and I'm not sure what got him to thinking about it, but he piqued my curiosity and we both started doing some research into the subject of spelunking.

           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.

             One cave that particularly stands out in my memory was an opening in a bluff along the Little River in Walland, TN.  The opening was about four feet tall and about four feet wide.  The passage continued as such for perhaps one hundred feet until it ended at a small room which was about ten feet in diameter and six feet at its highest point.  There smack dab in the center of the room, looking like some sort of miniature shrine, was a small pile of feces.  We did not determine whether it was of human origin or from some other animal, but decided the cave was not worth spending any more time in and proceeded to leave.  Being a couple of college guys, we named this cave "Shit Cave" and it became a source of amusement for us for some time afterwards.  

            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.

          Early in 1975 I moved into a log cabin in the Laurel Valley development in Walland, TN with three of my good friends---Vernon Clouse, Bob Chance, and Wendell Welch.  This development bordered the Great Smoky National Park land.  A short distance from the cabin where we were staying was a trail, an old logging road perhaps, that went to the top of a mountain.  Along the trail there was a sort of rocky place which at the bottom had an opening into the ground.  Some of checked inside this opening and found a narrow passage that led into the earth.  We decided to come back later with flashlights and check it out.

          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.

         Since this passage was large enough to enter comfortably, we continued on.  Stooped over, we walked on for quite some distance and as the passage became smaller we continued to crawl on our hands and knees.  We came to a point where the passageway split.  Ahead of us we could see that it was becoming too small for any of us to pass through.  To our left, the passageway continued with dimensions similar to where we were.  We decided to go that way.  It did not go far before the passageway dead-ended in a room that was about fifteen feet in diameter and perhaps five feet high.  The room was unique in that floor was a domelike formation.  We sat on this dome for a while and turned off our lights.

       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.

        I never did any spelunking after those days in 1975, but since then I have been in many large caverns that are open to the public for guided tours.  If you have never visited a cavern it is really quite an amazing experience.  For those of you in the U.S., I highly recommend the caverns that are part of the National Park Service, such as Carlsbad Caverns or Mammoth Cave.  There are also hundreds of privately operated caverns that are fascinating to see.  Throughout the world are many cavern attractions to visit.  I encourage you to check one out next time you have an opportunity to do so.

          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?




  1. Fasinating post Lee, I have only gone to Cheddar Caves and Wookey Hole caves in Somerset UK and I found them wonderful yet claustrophobic and once was enough,
    As for going to private caves that would be a no gon zone for me.
    You must have had some wonderful expereineces and some not so wonderful, but what memories to recall.

    To change the subject can you answer me a question? I have this week just started to get SPAM comments advertisingand so on it is the first time it has happened,
    Can you throw any light as to why this happens?

    Have a great week-end

  2. I've been in a public cave before, but after seeing the movie The Descent, not sure I'd want to go exploring and become trapped!

  3. I haven't been spelunking, but my dad has always been known as Missouri (Indiana) Jones for his adventures in caves and other areas in MO. I been barely inside-my fear of spiders and dark places gets in my way.

  4. I have never been exploring in a cave. I would like to simply for the adventure. It would be fun to discover and undiscovered cave and find historical relics and such.

  5. rLEE-b ~
    I've been in a few caves open to the public, such as the Mark Twain cave in Hannibal, MO. which served as the writer's model for the chapters involving Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, etc.

    Once, while vacationing in Virginia City, NV., I was climbing to the top of a mountain when I came across a cave opening. I figured it was probably the remains of some old mine. I started in, but it got dark pretty quickly, and then I evidently startled some animal because I heard something go running back further into the cave. I didn't get very deep into it but vowed to bring a flashlight with me the next time I returned to V.C.

    And I did... About a year later, I was back, and flashlight in hand, I went into the cave. It was pretty neat. I'm not sure how many feet deep the cave went - it wasn't large - but it was more extensive than I had imagined and it branched off into two separate tunnels. I was moving SLOW and CAUTIOUSLY in case I came nose to nose with a bear or something. I was prepared to run back toward the opening at a moment's notice. Ha!-Ha!

    What I found was that the right tunnel led to a small room where a lot of tree branches and leaves had been piled up to make an uncomfortable sort of bed. My guess is that a deer had been living in there. The left tunnel continued in for a little longer but then just kind of came to an unsatisfying end - probably the end of some miner's dream of striking it rich.

    Just another adventure experienced alone by...

    ~ "Lonesome Dogg" McMe

  6. I love all the cave pictures! But....

    Caves= bats= BIG NO!

  7. Yvonne --the caves open to the general public are interesting, but not for everybody.
    Since you have disabled your word recognition "capcha" screen, like I have, this is probably the reason why you're getting the spam. I've been getting it also and it's mostly on a couple of the same old posts. I just reject and delete them. So far it hasn't become unbearable and if it does I turn the capcha back on.
    Good luck!

  8. Alex -- I loved the movie "The Descent", but it made me very uncomfortable at times as I recalled some of my own experiences.

    Teresa -- Missouri is well known for some of its caves. I don't recall ever seeing any spiders in the caves I went in, but it is dark.

    Gregg -- A cave discovery would definitey be cool and relics would be double cool.

    Stmc- There are a lot of mines out west, but that's some pretty dangerous stuff I hear. Definitely more unstable than what occurs in nature. Hmmm -- I always wondered where deer sleep at night.

    Tamika -- the bats give me the creeps -- I'm scared of getting rabies. But unless you're there at dawn or dusk they're probably asleep and won't do anything.

  9. I’ve been to public caverns and they are fascinating, but I would not think about exploring on my own as I’m simply not and have never been an adventurous, outdoorsy person.

  10. I've been quite a few times just for the adventure's sake. It's an expirience I like having for the sake of writing about later for fiction.

    Great post.

  11. Lee, this is Ryan from the whip blog you visited. Nice post. I've been spelunking for years. Back in the early '90s I got into rock climbing and rappelling with my dad and a few others. We ended up exploring an unexplored vertical shaft in the hills outside of Puebla, Mexico. Our team spent several years trying to reach the bottom but have at this point given up. Two of our team made it down 1200 feet on rope. We were hoping to have one for the record books but...

    I teach an outdoor skills class at my local Christian school. In December we went to Devil's Den State Park in Arkansas. It's a fun little cave to explore and not technical so most anyone can do it.

    Nice article. I look forward to your whip one next week.

  12. I've been fascinated by caves since I was a very young child, but have only had the opportunity to go into a few. My favorite public caves that I've been to are the Linville Caverns in Linville, NC. There's a guided tour through these caves and you see all kinds of amazing and wonderful things like an underground river, blind albino fish and a crack in the mountain they haven't been able to find the bottom of. (They've rigged up an iron grate over this crack so you can actually stand over the abyss and look down - pretty cool.) At one point they do turn out all the lights and insist everyone be silent for at least sixty seconds... that's one long minute, down there in the dark, so palpable it could be wrapping its fingers around your throat. Amazing. Great post, Lee!

  13. Jane -- probably if hadn't been for my friends and my youth I wouldn't have been so adventurous. And especially now I'm not doing any cave exploring anytime soon.

    David -- ah, yes, the sacrifices we make for writing experience.

    Ryan -- Thanks for the visit. After I stopped caving and embarked on a career in show biz, my friends back home started rapelling and descending into vertical caves. That's where I guess I would have stopped for sure. I don't do well with heights.

    B.Miller-- I used to see the billboards advertising in caverns in Linville. Sounds like they had all the typical cavern schtick going on. I guess every cavern you go into has the lights out minute of silence effect. It is really quite awesome and sobering, especially if its just you and a few others in a cave without the electrical switch and emergency measures. It would be awful to be trapped like that and try to find your way out. Hey--now there's a story for you to write-- that's really some dark fiction!

  14. Never done it, spelunking on my own, that is, but it's on my bucket list, has been ever since I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a kid. I DID one time take a quided tour of Carlsbad Caverns. At one point the guide told everyone to sit and be absolutely quiet. I have never in my life heard such total stillness. You could hear the drippings of the stalagtites falling and landing on the stalagmites. Awesome.

    What a wealth of experience you have in this realm!

    The Old Silly

  15. I don't do caves. Sorry. A little too claustrophobic for me. Something for everyone.

  16. I'd be willing to explore as long as it wasn't too tight a fit. I'd cetainly never go in on my back! That sensation IS claustrophobic to me and I'd probably freak.

  17. This is such a fascinating post, I read it all. It sounded scary with your lights off. We went into the Copper Mines in Michigan once when on vacation it was scary and also fascinating. This mine had a lake in it with the top of a large tree sticking out of it. Thanks for sharing your story, have a nice weekend.

  18. Thanks Lee for the advice, much appreciated.

    Also thanks for the visit, yes we had a good life together, that photo of him was taken a week before he passed away.



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