Wednesday, February 4, 2015


And there it was—the feeling that all had not been explored, that there is potential for virgin country in our American backyard.  Modernity lends us this injustice, that six centuries after the age of exploration, we must strive to escape an urbanized globe and find ourselves outside the reaches of roads, noise pollution, and fellow wanderers to achieve a consensual ignorance in which we lead, if only for an afternoon, an exposed, wild existence.  And then it hit me, as a kiss from an overhead stalactite.

    Below the bi-state city of Bristol, a small tributary to the South Holston River gurgles out from a rocky bluff in a hardwood hollow.  Rural countryside greets its escape from the hollow—a landscape that fails to suggest what lies in the trickle’s headwaters.

    That particular headwater I, along with a group of nine, traced into the mountain—or rather under it.  A wall of warm, stagnant air hit our faces as we ducked beneath a low ceiling.  With that, donning hard hats and headlamps, we were inside the best natural spelunking cave east of the Mississippi.  Exploration was not lost.

    As we were warned prior to takeoff, the setting is a living, wet cave, still forming as minerals drip from the cave ceiling and stalactite canals to the floor, creating pillars and mounds and a generally muddy surface composition.

    Old clothing is the uniform of champions here.  Not in the “wear old clothes in case they get dirty” sense, but in the “they will be ripped, punctured, shredded, soaked, and muddied beyond belief” sense.  Old work pants and a cheap sweatshirt or long-sleeve t-shirt are prime choices.  A synthetic base layer is optimal, along with your choice in synthetic socks.  Shoes should provide adequate protection and traction.  Boots and old sneakers are good choices.

    Within seconds we were on all fours.  Mineral formations don’t oblige body types or skeletal structures.  To progress, we were forced to take shapes, to solve the problems faced, physically.

    After much ducking and crawling, we came to a cliff—an underground mountain of sorts.  Our guide promptly climbed the boulders to the peak, where the chamber continued deeper into the ground, tied off a rope to a triangular rock, and tossed down the hand line.  We repeated this process twice, over two rises, those in the rear chocking the feet of those ahead and spotting as they made the ascent gripping the hand line.

    Because of these situations, being guided as a first-time spelunker is strongly-encouraged.  As one might imagine, spending time underground is dangerous--even more so without any prior experience or training.  Thus, the best way to explore a living cave is through a guide service or caving club, or “grottoe,” associated with the National Speleological Society.  They will be informative and skilled, warning against harming the fragile cave ecosystems and helping to prevent the spread of issues such as white nosed bat syndrome.

    At that time, we had reached the upper level of the cave.  Along the way we took our time in exploring tight spots, which did and did not lead to other rooms; most passed through walls or under the floor to reemerge again. 

    When in such a position, where one can literally not move to the left or right, but difficultly forward and backward, it’s surreal to attempt to observe the scene out of context.  To the average earth-dweller, who inhabits a house or apartment, who exists in the sunlight each and every day, and who makes their tightest squeeze when passing through a door jam or cars in a lot, a two-foot tunnel of living rock below a river and fathoms of earth and mountain is a foreign place to wind up.

    Yet, adrenaline seems to limit reflection or fear in such places.  For, with your arms stretched forward over your head, it’s amazing what crevices a human can navigate.

    As we began our descent, we came upon a hole.  Though hidden by a 12-foot mound, it was perhaps five feet in diameter, and extended downward a few hundred feet.  Crawling over the mound, we crab-walked down the chute until the slope grew steeper and sliding became the effective motive of transport.  One steep downhill turn, and we landed knee-deep in an underground river!

    In the dark, wading perception becomes difficult, particularly with others clouding the water.  So we remained in a straight line, sending clues up and down the line.

    After nearly a half mile of river channel had been covered, we found dry (ok, muddy) land again, and promptly climbed into a slot roughly 10 feet wide by two feet tall and 80 feet long.  An 80-foot roll commenced, and when we were finally upright again, a foreign light penetrated the darkness in our dizzied state.

    The sun.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

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