"I'll take a look sometime, maybe." The boys shrugged, having scored a partial point, and there the matter rested. A month or so later I was in that part of the country and asked around until I found the site of what I'll call Well Cave. It opened on a mountainside above an old stone farmhouse. The entrance was closed off with a rusty gate that looked as if it had not been opened in a long time. "I was worried about kids getting in there," the owner told me. "I've only been in that hole once, a hundred yards or so. Real muddy. Some old timers say it goes all the way through the mountain, but that's probably a lot of baloney. Help yourself if you want to look. Key's in the shed."
The cave turned out to be what is known technically as a sewer cave, formed by an underground stream eating through limestone. The first hundred yards was easy going, a wide stand-up passage over the mucky bed of the old stream. But then the tunnel dead-ended in a silolike opening, pinched off by a limestone pothole filled with six feet of water or so. The passage appeared to continue beyond the water, but I had neither the equipment nor inclination to explore further. When I came out I asked the owner if I could return sometime with gear and assistance. "Anytime," he agreed.
I told the boys what I'd found and said that sometime we would try it.
"When I get some time," I told them. Being in the mood and condition they were, they got quite a bit of social mileage out of bragging how they were going to put on hard hats and defy death in the bowels of the earth. And every time they said something, they added a little more pressure to do it, which in turn made them lean a little harder on me and me on myself.
"All right," I finally said, "well go in the morning. But we'll have to get that gear sorted out tonight and check those lights."
"How far will we go?"
"To the end of it. If it's an hour, it's an hour. If it's two days, it's two days. Put some candy bars in one of the packs." It had a nice, bold, the-die-is-cast ring to it. I had given them a nice, big, rough post to rub their horns on.
Some things you ease into, the familiar giving way to the extraordinary so gradually that it is difficult to know exactly where and when the adventure begins. In caving there is no such problem. One minute you are outside in the weeds, gnats and sun. The next you are entombed in rock and darkness. The air is cool (55� the year around in this part of the world) and still. Nothing grows or lives except you. There is always a moment's pause at the beginning, while you fill your lamps with carbide and water, clip them onto your hard hat, light them and adjust the length of the flame. All the while you are keeping an eye on the dim rays of natural light that seep through the entrance hole from the other world, considering the abrupt change and its implications. All the faces I remember in cave mouths were similar: contemplative, alert, some excited, some frightened, all sensitive to the moment. This is how it was in Well Cave just before we started down.
There is another common phenomenon of caving: camaraderie. The constricted environment and darkness bind you to your companions more surely than a rope does to fellow mountain climbers. You are not directly or physically vulnerable to the mistakes of others, or so dependent on their skill. But together you are absolutely alone in a tiny pool of light from the carbide flames. It is as if you were riding an asteroid together through blackest outer space. I have caved with people who were near strangers to me above ground or with friends or lovers—but whatever you had before is intensified underground. After an hour or two you feel you are sharing this pool of light with exactly the right person. You cannot imagine what it would be like without him. No one else will do quite as well.