Twenty years ago I had several friends who worked as geologists for the Department of the Interior and whose passion—not inappropriately—was caving. Because of them I once spent a lot of time getting to caves, into caves, talking with cavers and thinking about caves. There were at the time 30 or 40 of us around Washington, plus about a dozen others in small western Virginia towns—Front Royal, Waynesboro, Charlottesville and Lynchburg—who shared the feeling that the truest moments of truth were to be had by crawling, climbing or wriggling through the rocky innards of the Appalachians. There were few weekends on which at least some of the group were not so engaged.
By today's standards we were not very good spelunkers. Our equipment and techniques were comparatively primitive. Our approach was emotional rather than technical. Caves that challenged, exhilarated and frightened us are regarded with some contempt by today's speleologists. But there's no reason to be defensive about it. In the '40s and '50s we were the best, the most gung-ho cavers in the central Appalachians.
Friday evening, often having taken our gear to work with us, we would leave Washington and drive 200 miles southwest to the Bull Pasture River, a highland tributary of the James, where we leased a primitive cabin. The first group to arrive would start fires, chase out the week's accumulation of pack rats and skunks, grab the best racks for their own sleeping bags and heat up a bucket of water for hot buttered bourbon, then the traditional drink of spelunkers. While the clan gathered through the night and early morning, we drank, played poker, told war stories and catnapped—things we could have done other places, but without that we-who-are-about-to-die-salute-you air that we only half facetiously affected.
In the morning it was a point of honor to get up early, no matter how hung over you were, put on your uniform—coveralls, boots, hard hat, carbide light, musette bag—and go underground. In the limestone ridges were dozens of caves we knew, a few we had discovered ourselves and by all geological probability hundreds still to be found. We would split up into parties of four or five, cave for the next 36 hours and meet back at the cabin on Sunday afternoon. Then, with muscles aching, adrenaline ebbing and fatigue flooding, we would start home. Driving through the dark Shenandoah Valley, we gritted our teeth, hung our heads out the window, yelled, blew horns, flashed lights at each other, stopped to dunk our heads in roadside springs and drank coffee in every open diner—anything to keep our eyes open and the cars on the road. Every once in a while somebody would fail, and the resulting accident would be incorporated with the rest of our caving myths.
Occasionally someone asked us why we carried on in such damn fool, semi-suicidal ways. We had excuses: that we went into caves to find and map new passages; to observe, record and photograph geological formations; to band bats; to practice ropework. But these were only cover stories used to pacify wives, bosses and landowners whose pastures and spring holes held cave entrances. The reasons we caved were not scientific, practical or even reasonable. We were after one of the old, dependable highs in life, the risk high. It is produced by willfully choosing to do something that there is abolutely no need to do—rope up a cliff, jump out of a plane, drive 180 mph or, in our case, crawl under the roots of mountains. Once you commence such an adventure you keep at it until reason and instinct scream stop. The next step, the one beyond reason and instinct, is where the high begins—where all highs, no matter how induced, begin. That next step provides indisputable proof that there is more to you than reason and instinct.
If you have taken the trip you know the sensation exists, because you were there. If you have taken the trip once, then find you cannot or will not go again, you remember it was real because you miss it. You feel deprived, diminished because you are not reaching for the sensation again. But it happened in time to all of us. We dropped out. We quit the trip with a variety of excuses: we had to take kids to the zoo, paint the house, play golf, get a heat treatment for our bad back, be in Cleveland on Monday morning to make some more money. The real reason we quit, of course, was that one by one we could no longer take the necessary next step. It wasn't often a big scene—no screaming, blubbering, hysteria or white feathers floating all over the cave. It was just that after a time we knew when the really hard places were coming up and we said thanks but no thanks, not this time. Maybe next week. We found ourselves doing the same caves over again, making climbs, rappels and slides we had made before, taking tourists, girls, children, Peace Corps training classes into caves. We played at being gung-ho when we no longer were, and soon the game and all that went with it—whooping around the cabin, the tortured drives up the Shenandoah Valley—became pointless.
When we were caving we did not sit around and talk about why we caved. There was no chatter about mystic experience and moments of truth. We didn't need to discuss it because we were doing it and we knew. Nor did we brood about why we stopped. I am very likely the most introspective of that entire group and even I have thought very little about caving since I stopped. I would not have thought of it now, except that by accident—the accident being principally that I am my son's father—I got into a cave recently, not as a tourist but in the old emotional way. It was an instructive experience, but at the same time sort of a creepy, d�j� vu one.
My son Ky is 16. He and two of his particular friends, Terry and Sid, had been having a good summer trying to get wheels, girls, cigarettes, beer. They had fights in parking lots. They cursed continuously, if not variously. They had been working at making hay, stringing fence and digging ditches. Besides money they had gotten muscles, tans and long, flowing hair that they cashed in on one way or another. They loved getting cut so that blood flowed, dried and caked on their bodies. Everything, me included, was a challenge. They had spent the summer rubbing the velvet off their antlers. I do not claim that it was the best time of their lives, but it was a special one, a pretty good one, the first season of being studs.
Early in the summer someone told Sid there was a big wild cave in a mountain 20 miles to the west of us in central Pennsylvania. Because there is a bin of old cave gear in our junk room and because they had heard a lot of my old what-a-hell-of-a-thing-it-was cave stories and also because, as I say, they wanted to test everything, they asked me if we could explore this one. I did what was expected of me. I put them down. I said I had never heard of a cave in those parts, that it was probably an overhang, a 20-foot fault crack.
Sid said that was not how he heard it. Terry said, "My grandmother grew up around there. She heard about it when she was a little girl. She said it was dangerous." It came across as a challenge.