Long ago, some hero came to the entrance of the Snakehole for the first time and thought it might lead somewhere—it does; two-thirds of Pancake's Cave lies beyond—and ventured ahead. This act took enormous curiosity and may have provided about as much pleasure as the average man can stand.
Nobody is small enough to get through the Snakehole easily and for many it is a hard, scary trip. Naturally, those who have made it take delight in describing the place to those who have not yet been there. Veterans enjoy letting rookies go first while they sit around listening to their agony, giving advice and encouragement. In our party Beth and Sam were the biggest rookies, both six-footers or better. However, both are young and strong. There was some disbelieving palaver when the entrance to the Snakehole was pointed out, but they figuratively spat on their hands and did what had to be done. Mary Jane is not very big but she has spread out and softened since taking a newspaper job in Kansas. She came out of the Snakehole headfirst, red in the face, rock-burned but feisty.
"How did you like it?"
"First I was furious at you for getting me in there, sitting around waiting for me to squeak. Then I thought I couldn't make it. I wanted to squeak. My head knew I could make it if I got hold of myself. I did and now, if you must know, I feel quite good about myself."
Almost everyone has enough body (or more accurately not too much) to make the Snakehole. But the problem is not having a great body but coping with the one you have. It is a matter of grabbing yourself by the ears and saying, "Baby, behave. It is spooky but that is no excuse for choking. I am in charge here and you are going to do it my way."
Self-possession is not only necessary but easy to experience while caving. The underground environment, the reduction of customary stimuli, the physical demands of climbing and crawling, the taste of panic make one acutely aware of the present moment. The problem is usually something tangible, such as how to get a hip around a four-inch projection of limestone. When you succeed, there is a sense that you are very alive, in good control of your functions. You are astonished at the strong and sharp satisfaction and realize how seldom you find the same goodness in more complex and conventional experiences.
A metaphysician-caver I know claims that caving is not a do-it-yourself substitute for psychotherapy; instead, a shrink is "a poor man's cave."
To get there from the nearest road, you have to walk through a pasture, then wade a shallow, swift tributary of the James River a few hundred yards above a spectacular gorge. On the far side you pass through a thicket of hemlock and rhododendron and then climb an open slope. In the spring this slope is carpeted with anemones and windflowers. About 500 yards above the river crossing you come to a shoulder of the mountain, on top of which you can sit, smell the flowers and look at and listen to the white water boiling below. And here is the squarish opening to the cave.
Windflower is a small cave consisting of a single main passage less than half a mile long. Generally this passage is 20 feet or so wide and the footing is good. There are a couple of squeezes where the walls pinch in but no true crawlways. In one of the narrow places the floor of the passage is covered with two or three feet of clear cold water. On the way in, most people try to keep dry by straddling the water, hunching along above it with feet and hands braced against the walls. Invariably somebody slips into the water, and the party gives in to wetness and wades through the underground pool.