Friday, November 9, 2012

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

It was a good day to stay in- it was dark and cold out - except that I didn't get to stay in.  I still needed to run to the grocery store and drop Nick at karate for sparring.  Before that, I caught up with Facebook where a good friend, Eric, one of the advisors from our old Explorer Post, was asking about a cave, J-4, in Pennsylvania.  Apparently, J-4 is still closed.  My friend Eric was moaning about it, but I wasn't all that sad, not about that kind of caving.  Eric is an avid caver.  He even belongs to a grotto.  Is that what they call a place where a bunch of bats hang out?  It suits him, to hang out with a bunch of muddy guys in tight spaces.   

I don't hate all caves.  Really.   I like the ones with a nice gravel path, the ones with stalactites and stalagmites meeting in the middle.  I like the caverns, the formations, and the history.  This summer, we went to Marengo cave in Indiana, a part of the cave that Grandma can walk through.  I love those kind of caves. 

Even better is Mammoth cave in Kentucky.  I went in that one when I was about six.  I remember that we walked for a long time.  There was one area where we walked through a narrow groove in the stone about chest deep and I could drag my fingertips along the cool damp stone.  Then we got into boats, and when we got out, we went into a large well-lit cavern where tables had been set up and ate chili with cheese and saltine crackers.  Kids always remember the food that they ate, don't they?  That cave was the greatest!  If you'd asked me after that tour if I liked caves, I would have told you that I loved caving. 

Not so much with the ones you have to crawl through. 

Was J-4 the cave with the level narrow tube I crawled through, the one that I started into faced toward the left and found, part way in, that I couldn't turn my head to the right because my helmet was too deep?  Mike said that the cave I was talking about was Leigh's Cave in New Jersey.  All I remember was the increasing pressure as I went deeper into the cave.  In that tube, when I realized I couldn't turn my head, I struggled against the stone, feeling it's lack of resistance.

"Somebody grab my foot!" I remember yelling as terror overcame me in a sudden wave.  I couldn't stand up.  I couldn't leave.  I was trapped!  I was going to die.  Worse than that, I could get stuck here, my butt stuck between two rocks, and I could live quite a long time before I died.  The cold stone of the cave would press down on my back like a cat holding a mouse. Hell is not always hot.  Sometimes it's cool and clammy, like the slime that grows on your compost pile.

"I can't do this.  Somebody grab my foot," I said sobbing.  Then, mercifully, someone did grab my foot.  I was connected to another human being, someone who cared enough to help me through.  Was it Mike?  An Explorer?  I have no recollection except that I think I must have made the same request more than once since I think that once it was Mike, once it was Eric, and another time it was a girl, an Explorer.  All I know is that until that person grabbed my ankle to let me know I would be okay, I was a human plug. 

It was a bit mortifying, seeing that I was supposed to be an advisor, all cool and experienced, but the other kids didn't seem to mind.  The advisors didn't mind either, since they really only needed me so that girls could go on the trips with us.  That was my only real job back then, to go on trips so that girls were allowed to go.  No experience necessary.  So when they went caving, real caving, I went caving for the first time.  Leigh's Cave was my first, that tube, a bit of a surprise.  Actually, the tube wasn't a surprise, but the strength of my fear was.

Further in, we went through another tube and this time, I did it on my back, my muddy pony tail pulling at my scalp.  Somehow it was easier, though I could feel the tons of weight pressing on me from above.  On my back, I felt stupid, clawing the ceiling like a cat under a bed, but there was a slight relief in the ominous pressure holding me down.  So, I went with it from then on.

It was always a relief to reach a cavern, a place where I felt I could sit for the rest of my life if the only way in or out was a tube.  Caverns feel great after the narrow spaces, or even those awful places where you can walk through, but you can't quite stand upright.  Leave me in a cavern, even in the pitch dark, and I'm happy.  I did that in a cave in West Virginia, yet another Explorer trip.  I'd been trying to test my fear, prove something to myself by going into that cave.  But when Mike gave me the option of waiting while they crawled further in, I seized it.  Mike assured me that they were coming back out the same way they came in and rather than become a human plug again, I waited for them.

After I saw the last of the light leave the hole they'd crawled into, I turned out my light.  I opened my eyes and then closed them.  No difference.  Except for the dripping, I heard no noise once the voices had stopped echoing back to me.  I felt quite peaceful sitting there in the dark and the vast cavern.  I tried to see into all the crevices above me but couldn't.  My Maglight wasn't strong enough.  I don't know why I was so happy there.  Probably because I didn't have to get extruded through a narrow chute that might collapse on me at any moment.  That kind of collapse didn't bother me in the caverns, despite the evidence that a collapse had created it.  There was air, though it was usually damp air that irritated my asthma.  I could get up and walk around if I wanted.   How was this different than being in a stone house? 

But in Leigh's Cave, I had to stick with the group.  I got a little relief when they explored an area adjacent to a cavern, one that was full of catacombs I had no intention of exploring.  One girl had to back out of a spot that dead-ended.  I listened to them talking her through it, trying not to let my imagination of her predicament take over my emotions.  I stood up and flashed my head lamp around at the cave formations until she was off in another part of the maze. 

Then, it was time to go.  I had a choice.  I could crawl through something they called the corkscrew or Mike would have to escort me back out the long way, the way we came in.  The long way was a lot of caverns interconnected by tight squeezes.  Not the long way.  Please, no.

"You can do this," Mike said.  "This way gets you straight outside."

I would do that.  I had to do that. 

It didn't look like I would fit.  It was like trying to put on a pair of skinny jeans.  I had to go through face down, they said, because of the way the opening twisted.  I put my head into the opening.  They made me come back out because I hadn't put my arms in first.  I wouldn't be able to reach up once I was in.  Arms first, then head and shoulders. 

Every fiber of my being protested.  I could stay in the cavern.  I needed more time.  I didn't have more time.  The last person had to be one of the experienced guys.  I started to cry.  I couldn't do it.  I was sure I couldn't do it.

I reached into the hole.  Then I put my head and then my shoulders into it.  Immediately, though my knees were flat on the floor of the cavern, I could feel the space twisting my shoulders to the right.  I scrabbled onto handholds wherever I could, pushing with my knees and hips.  I wriggled into that spot.

Then the stone clamped down.  I could feel stone pressing on either side of my extended arms.  My hips were totally pinned.  There was rock at each hip bone and another one pushing into my belly.  I started to cry again.  I couldn't rub my nose.  Snot threatened to choke me.  Someone behind me grabbed my ankle.  Someone outside crawled back in and grabbed my hands.  I might be a plug, but I wasn't alone.  They weren't going to leave me there.  I took a shallow breath.

They told me I had to lift my hips off the rock and twist to the right as I pushed them through the narrow spot.  I wasn't going to be able to get through any other way.  I didn't feel as though I could back out either.  I was too squeezed in to get back into the cavern and rethink my strategy.  I lifted my hips and twisted, like they said and the stone seemed to give way.

After that, I came loose.  That was the way out and I could move again, though I still didn't have much room to maneuver. 

Then, I could see light.  For some reason, light made all the difference at that point.  I scrambled up and fell face down out of the exit onto loose rocks, not caring that I scraped my hands.  I rolled over to see sky and clouds and trees and I cried all over again.  I was free.  The euphoria was great, but not quite great enough for me to love caving. 

But I did it and I'm proud that I did.

Thank you for listening, jb


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