As instructed, I lay on my back and wiggled into the narrow opening. It was tight, and my headlamp did little to light up the darkness beyond the gap. Scraping through, I took a deep breath, and my chest pressed against the massive rock above me. Stuck! Fighting panic, I breathed out and wriggled the rest of the way through into the silent, dark, empty space.
A friend and I had accompanied a local ‘grotto’, a group of spelunkers, to explore a beginners cave in western Colorado. Being the least experienced caver, I tagged along at the back of the group, until we came to the narrow slot, barely visible at the bottom of the gray wall of stone ahead. The leader pulled me to the front and asked me to go first, since I was the newest participant. It was strange and exciting.
I was intrigued by caves from an early age. Lots of stories featured magical events in caves, and the Disney “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (followed by reading the Verne story) fired my imagination. We kids dug shallow caves into soft hillsides, usually causing dirt to cascade down upon us before we got very deep. I visited a commercial cave in Texas, and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. It was all a mystical wonderland of unknown possibilities. Stalactites and stalagmites formed fantastic shapes in hidden nooks and crannies wherever you looked. The moment in every cave tour when the lights are turned off and darkness, like none ever experienced, surrounded me, as my imagination sparked wildly — frightening and amazing me.
Caves are primal; they harken back to an age of stone weapons, hunter gatherers, and hunted hunters and gatherers. Their very nature is dark, foreboding, mysterious. It’s not hard to imagine any real or fantasy creature in the shapes formed by the flowing stone, and in some places, others have left a record of their hopes and fears carved or painted on the walls. Jules Verne, Tom Swift, Edgar Rice Burroughs and legions of others shared the fascination with dropping into the bowels of the earth to explore its mysteries. The hollow earth theory captures the imagination with a whole subterranean world populated by primitive peoples and prehistoric animals.
Caves are formed naturally, either through faulting or erosion, and are found all across the globe. Limestone formations are subject to dissolution, creating cavities (caves) and sinkholes. The solution dissolving the rock begins to deposit minerals as conditions change, creating stalactites (tight to the ceiling) and stalagmites (up from the ground). Strange pools form, where even stranger blind animals live their entire lives in darkness.
But caves also provided shelter to early man in a dangerous world. Find a cave, evict its occupants, build a fire at the mouth, and you have created a place safe from the weather and predators. Centuries later, men learned to build structures capable of the same degree of protection, but for some, a cave represented the ultimate in safety and security. Zorro and Batman both used their caves as sanctuaries — protection from the outer world. Even today, so-called man-caves provide a sanctuary from the intrusion of wives, families and the real world.
Dark-seeking bats inhabit caves, only stirring if disturbed or when night comes and they venture out to feed. Amazing creatures, we have erroneously saddled them with all the fears and terrors that the dark might contain. We imagine vampires turning into bats to reach the upper windows, where their unsuspecting victims lay sleeping, blissfully unaware of the impending visit. (Bwaah-ha-ha, I vant your bloood!)
If you’re afraid of the dark, caves can hold a skin-crawling fascination. Head lamps and lanterns only partially keep the darkness at bay. And anyway, everyone knows that the lamp or lantern will go out just as the evil thing approaches, leaving you to pant helplessly, blind to your certain, imminent doom.
In a cheezy ’50’s scifi flick, the mole men lived under the mud in vast caverns, and rose up out of the floor behind the explorers to do them in (squelch, squelch, auggh!). We saw them at the local Saturday double feature, then came out to a rainstorm. Walking home in the rain wasn’t a big deal, but we had to follow muddy dirt roads a large part of the way. Needless to say, I walked in great trepidation through the mud, only occasionally scared by my brother’s antics (squelch, squelch, auggh! Cut it out!).
In that Colorado cave, we pushed on to the deepest part where we rested then began the long trek back to the surface. As we approached the slot from the other direction, the leader asked me to come last, since I had gone through first on the way in. One by one the others slipped through and it got darker and darker in the cavern until only my headlamp lit the space. Shadows moved with every turn of my head, and the places outside the reach of the light seemed darker than before. I worked my way through the opening with a little less trouble, but with an innate fear that something was going to grab my legs on the dark side.
I was able to breathe again once I passed through.
When we got to the surface I thanked the leader and remarked to my friend how nice it had been to be allowed to go first through the slot. He chuckled and pulled me aside.
“You know why he wanted you to go first on the way in, and last on the way out?” His grin widened, “You’re the biggest in the group, had you gotten stuck going either direction, you wouldn’t have blocked the way out for anyone else.”
I was shocked, envisioning myself wedged in the rock, alone. “You wouldn’t have left me there?”
“Well,” he said earnestly, “It was that or get out the Swiss army knives.” His grin was not reassuring.
Suggested reading: The Caves of Colorado by Lloyd Parris; Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne