SI Vault
Journey to the center of the earth
Bil Gilbert
May 20, 1974
A man in the maw of a cave can only wonder what lies beyond. Lured into the depths, he may find hell or heaven but, surely, he will find himself
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May 20, 1974

Journey To The Center Of The Earth

A man in the maw of a cave can only wonder what lies beyond. Lured into the depths, he may find hell or heaven but, surely, he will find himself

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Bath and Highland counties in Virginia and Pocahontas, Pendleton and Grant in West Virginia run together, a wild mountainous section that for promotional purposes has been called the Switzerland of America or God's Country. Within these highlands rise seeps and springs that feed the Potomac, James and Ohio rivers.

The tract has been settled for almost 200 years, but there remain large unoccupied sections, and the overall character of the area is distinctly rural. It is a place of small towns and villages (Petersburg, W. Va. with 3,000 people is the largest community in the five counties), small farms (beef-grazing is the principal business) and small roads (west of Interstate 81 there is not another superhighway for 200 miles). This pattern of light, irregular settlement is dictated by the nature of the land. There are long ridges studded with peaks and knobs, cut by river canyons and locked valleys. There is heavy forest—Appalachian jungle growth of hardwood, hemlock, pine, rhododendron, laurel, greenbrier, grape and ivy. Early settlers simply lived around these obstacles. Technology for flattening them now exists but the rough country remains, often it seems because people are in the habit of living with it.

Purists might object to these highlands being called a wilderness, but then wilderness is a relative term. There is in nature no wilderness as there is wetness, dryness, coldness, a delta, a desert, an ice pack. Wilderness can only be defined in terms of man—that is, a place which has only lightly and not too obviously been used by him. How much human activity denies a place wilderness status is a matter of taste. There are some preserves set aside by law and patrolled by rangers that are much more wards of man than the privately owned highlands.

As a small example, there is a ravine 30 feet deep and 20 feet wide that has been cut through limestone for a quarter of a mile by a big spring flowing to a tributary of the Potomac River. The ravine is hidden by enormous hemlocks. In a few places where light filters through, there are patches of watercress and cardinal flower. The mini-canyon is plastered with mosses and liverworts. On a face of rock near where the water flows out of the mountain there is a beautiful bed of walking ferns. This is a curious plant. It has slender fronds, much the shape and size of a bullfrog's tongue, which grow in graceful arches. Where the tips curve to touch the ground they take root and send up new plants. The walking fern is perhaps the rarest fern in the Eastern mountains. It is finicky about growing, needing limestone, shelter and stable conditions of light, humidity and ground moisture. These ferns are better indicators than any legislative act or rustic sign that this ravine is wilderness.

The ravine divides two pastures of a farm owned by a family that settled there in 1797. The ravine was never timbered because it was not worth the trouble of cutting and dragging the hemlock out over the sharp water-pitted limestone. In the thicket there is little in the way of forage to attract cattle. Also the limestone has eroded into a series of knife-edged ledges, as full of holes as Swiss cheese. These act as a natural cattle guard. The ravine survived for a long time because it was too much bother to remove or reduce it. Now it is kept because it is of special value to the owners and a few others. The family picks watercress from the pools. Every now and then somebody walks up the ravine to admire the rock sculpture and the walking ferns or just because it is a nice place. An elderly member of the family says that on a hot summer day the ravine is more comfortable than any air-conditioned bank building he has ever been in.

In the highlands there are a good many places like the Walking Fern Ravine, which, if not wilderness, are treated as such. It is good country for rock climbers, white-water canoeists and cavers. There are some traditional spots where climbing cliffs overlook fast white-water streams, and here on a Saturday morning 30 or 40 pickups, campers, vans, 4WD vehicles and an occasional Triumph may gather from as many as 10 states. Enthusiasts of this sort may leave work on Friday afternoon and drive through the night to the highlands for a weekend of climbing or paddling. The highlands are a great place to learn these sports, but once they are mastered the region does not provide ultimate tests. For spelunkers, however, the situation is different. There is fine caving country elsewhere, but the best and most varied caving is in the limestone mountains of the two Virginias. The highlands are honeycombed with caverns grading upward in difficulty to places like Schoolhouse, Grapevine and Butler, which because of their beauty and risks are regarded as classic American holes in the ground.

There once was a cabin on the Bull-pasture River in the highlands that was used as a kind of spelunking headquarters. Some weekends 50 people would use the cabin as a base. I remember one morning waking to find a Yale student hunched over a notebook, apparently having written through the night. "I cannot sleep when I am near caves," he said. "I am making entries in my journal."

Here are some made not long ago in mine.


Caves are often named after the families on whose property an entrance is located. Pancake is a common name in the highlands. However, this particular cave is not located on Pancake land and the name given here is fictitious. (This deception and others used later are to make it more difficult to find the caves. Anyone looking for a cave or a bird or a walking fern will tend to respect it more if he must exercise a little ingenuity to find it, rather than having it located like a Holiday Inn in a guidebook.)

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