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day 2: wild caving

November 18, 2012

We came, we saw, we caved. Such a wonderful day.

After a shaky start (getting up at 5:45…:S) we headed out to the Cracker Barrel (half  ‘country store’ and half restaurant, one part white sausage gravy and a lot of parts charm) and ate way too much for breakfast. When we told our waitress Jan that we were going to Hidden River Cave, she told us that her father is buried in Mammoth Cave national park. Floyd Collins (an independent caver who discovered many routes in Kentucky before being killed in a r ockslide – check out his story; it’s so interesting and also tragic) was friends with her grandfather. The caves mean a lot to a lot of the people here.

And they should! We took a ten minute drive to Horse Cave City, a beautiful but SMALL town. It reminded me of something you’d read about in an old-fashioned novel. But the cave is right in the middle of the town; almost like a park would be in the middle of some other, normal place. Instead, there’s a plaque and a huge pit, with stairs all the way down to the wide opesn entrance of Hidden River cave.

Our group split into two and each had a five hour “wild cave” (I’ll explain in a second, I promise) tour with an experienced guide. Ours was Peggy, who in the words of another cave guide “is such a badass. She’s been caving since the eighties”. She was tiny and spry, very competent and kind in her blue coveralls. She helped all of us get our helmets (which proved to be INVALUABLE. I would have concussed myself fifty times if not for this sturdy piece of blue plastic on my head) and headlamps (the LED light kind). We got a ‘before’ picture and then were off, walking down the series of stairs, away from the sunlight, into the huge cave below.

Hidden River, as Peggy would explain, is a ‘young cave’, so rock slides happen and it is still changing a lot (but by changing a lot I think she meant over the course of decades, which, yes, is quick for a cave, but just not the time frame I am used to).  After a short introduction about what the cave has been to the town (a reservoir for drinking water, place for sewage, tourist attraction, place for bat rehabilitation…) we were caving. And REALLY caving.

What I meant by “wild caving” is that there are no footpaths or boardwalks. You alternate between walking, crawling, rolling, climbing, jumping, sliding, swearing, laughing and being awestruck as you move through the cave. One of our safety rules was to ‘maintain three points of contact’ – to make sure you have a handhold and footholds before you plan your next move. Rocks were sometimes very pointy and the ‘ceilings’ were low. We travelled in a line and always maintained light contact with the people behind us – we had to be able to see their headlamps. We passed messages back and forth along the line (like a game of broken telephone, but the message usually stayed intact) and watched out for each other, giving boosts when necessary.

I’m trying to figure out how to best tell you what it felt like down there. It may just sound like glorified hiking, but it really did feel entirely different. Maybe it was the extra sense of danger – that if something went wrong we were much farther from help, or maybe it was the monotone, otherworldly look of the caves (it sometimes felt like I was walking on Mars) or maybe it was the thick (in Peggy’s words) “peanut butter mud” that was everywhere and eventually covered my white shirt and orange pants. I don’t know. Probably a little bit of everything. The caves are cold, you could see your breath, in some places hear water running, see water dripping from the roof down, look at stalactites and other limestone features, see others forming, feel the cave winds, see eyeless crayfish and eyeless fish too. We came across hibernating bats and dead bats (they drowned, I’ll explain that soon) and had to wrap our heads around the fact that we were walking on a riverbed, where the Hidden River still does run when it rains enough.

It seemed like the cave had been made for people to go through it, but as my friend Lexi commented, it was just due to this river and erosion and the properties of different rocks. We were lucky enough to have Chad and Riley in our group – specialists in ‘bugs’ and ‘rocks’ respectively, so we got a lot of running commentary (there was also a running pun commentary as well, we were a pretty funny group: case in point [and I feel a little self-centred for putting this in, but oh well] Sam: “Brianna, I can’t believe you brought your watch in here. Do you think it will survive?” Me:”Only time will tell” *everyone groans*).

Trying to summarize five hours of cave exploration into a few paragraphs is as hard as you’d think. I’ll take you through a few highlights, though:

1. TOTAL BLACKNESS: Once we got to a wider opening (the cave ranged from subway tunnel size to microwave oven size in terms of diameter) Peggy had us turn off our headlamps and just listen to the soft trickle of water. Black as pitch, seriously. But also such a neat experience. It reminded me I was underground and made me appreciate how hard it must have been for people to explore the caves with torches, especially if they made a mistake and dropped it!

2. MINI CANYON: We got to a section of the cave where we were literally walking in a small valley between two faces of rock. At some points we had to turn sideways to be able to get through. The canyon walls were fluted and covered in soft clay. It was beautiful and dry (some places were pretty wet and muddy).

3. THE CAR WASH: We wriggled through a small, gravelly region – not much bigger across than a doorway is wide- and moved through a trickle of water (that soaked you because it was hard to get through the passageway fast!). We were rewarded by the passageway opening up into a beautiful dome of rock. But then we had to go back the same way we came.

There’s so much more, but it’ll have to wait. I’ll tell you about it sometime, I promise.

Once we were out of the cave, we took our “after” pictures (WE WERE MUD SOAKED) and headed back to our vans in search of dry clothes. Changing, I went over to the town second-hand bookstore because of a tip Peggy had given me about the local historian, Tom (?), who worked there. I went in and met this impressively-bearded man. I asked him if he had any books he would recommend, and he said “Let me read you something”. He read to me one of the poems from the book that I wrote about for my two page report! Now I’ll always remember his gravelly, rich voice when I read it. Lexi and Alisha were asking him about some of the pictures in the book store and he was telling us stories about tobacco farming and moving away. But then we were running short on time so we had to leave.

After visiting a large and curiously diversely stocked gift shop, we headed to a ‘real Southern BBQ’ restaurant. I had a great conversation with one of the other students and Lexi about the different ways we try to represent our world. And the universe being a huge computation, and how brains work, and perhaps it was too ambitious for the end of a very long and physical day, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Long post short, it was a WONDERFUL day. I experienced a lot and I learned so much. Tomorrow will be very different – less wild and more majestic/museum-y. I’m glad we had today – I’m very glad it happened.

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