I always wanted to be an explorer. When I was young, probably around my daughter’s age, I went to career day decked out like Indiana Jones. They reminded me it wasn’t Halloween, and asked what I was trying to do. I said I was going to be an explorer, and they told me I couldn’t, because everything is already explored.
Turns out, that’s not necessarily correct.
This past weekend, Ali and I headed down to southern Indiana to participate in Cave Capers, an awesome annual event hosted by Central Indiana Grotto. I’m usually wary of large group events because I’m not a fan of running off other people’s itineraries (besides being a little antisocial), but this was a wonderful exception. There were many caves which were only open for the event and the feel of the group was one of inclusion and fun.
I also wondered how Ali would do crawling through the depths of the earth, but her enthusiasm was admirable- part of which may have been a result of good memories from our very first camping trip together, which was a jaunt down to Mammoth Cave on her sixth birthday last June. I had chosen it because of its closeness to home- only three hours away, I could quickly abort the trip and we could head home if things went poorly. It was a turning point for both of us. Before that, I had nearly given up traveling and exploring, which I have loved my entire life, because I felt her age was prohibitive; that trip down to Mammoth Cave, though, proved that she was tough and ready to get out and see the world.
There was no going down there without seeing the caves, of course. They were show caves, made accessible for the tourist who wants to see underground with comfort and ease and we hit several, including Mammoth Cave itself, Diamond Caverns, and Hidden River Cave. They were beautiful, but the tours were sterile. Side passages peered out at us, inaccessible from where we stood on dry ground and boardwalks. Guides spoke about the interesting history of the area and the Kentucky Cave Wars in the early 1900s, and then we returned to the sunlight, with clothes still clean and hair unmussed.
This year, we learned a different perspective on caves. No more show caves- the ones featured at Cave Capers were wild caves, not generally open to the public and mostly unaltered. Instead of canned tours led by people who walk the same path through several times a day, these were adventures led by volunteer Grotto members who chose their caves based on their passion. We arrived at about 7 pm Friday night after some frenzied packing where I managed to leave behind the tent fly and bring only one headlamp, along with barbecue forks for marshmallows and no marshmallows. As it turned out, the Black Diamond headlamp from Wal-Mart that did make it there was woefully insufficient, as were my backup light sources. The new friends we made were happy to help us out, though, most notably Robert and Carl, who were also there with their daughters, respectively four and twelve. I thought this was especially cool since I’m a proponent of raising strong, independent, and adventurous girls, and while some whining and minor annoyances were a given with the age range, overall the girls were great. I signed Ali and myself up for two caves once registration opened at 8 pm, Salts Cave Saturday morning and Truitt’s Cave on Sunday, then headed to Robert’s campfire near the pavillion where a band played late into the humid night. He was the only person I knew more than by sight, having met and exchanged numbers him at the monthly meeting that Ali and I had attended in July after discovering the Grotto simply by chance when they were mentioned by a customer at work. I was instantly intrigued. We had just returned from backpacking at Isle Royale National Park, said to be the most remote national park in the lower 48, and I talking about it nonstop was looking for our next adventure. The customer was a clean-cut woman who I never would have expected such a recommendation from, and although I didn’t think to keep in touch with her, I did take her up on the idea and am very glad I did so. I found the meeting interesting, although it was hard to keep Ali into it as it was a club meeting that involved going over minutes but they were discussing this upcoming event and soon after, I signed up for us to go. Robert introduced us to several people, all of which were amazing- one was a woman who had walked the Appalachian Trail, half of which she did barefoot; another, also a woman, was a leading cave rescuer whose territory extended over nine states, and whose husband was a rescuer who travelled nationally. An old-timer who was pointed out to me had put three hundred and ninety caves on the map in his time, which ended over a decade ago and he has not been in a cave since, although he still remains in the caving community. That really struck me- even now, there’s still new places to discover. The stories could continue indefinitely, such was the group of explorers that surrounded us. We quickly made friends with Carl, a caver from the Danville area who was amused to find his own face on the front of the official guidebook, and three recent high school graduates enjoying their last summer before heading off to college, Morgan, Brandon, and Zach. Although those three didn’t attend all the same caves as us, this, plus Robert and the kids, made up the core group that Ali and I spent the weekend with, and Morgan accompanied us to the first cave on Saturday. This was Salts Cave, located in Lawrence County, somewhat of a drive away from the campground; after some time on Highway 37, we turned down country roads and pulled into a driveway, then continued past the garage into a field behind it; there, the caravan of cars parked in a neat line and cavers began to suit up. We then crossed the field, walked a short distance through a wooded area, and came to the cave mouth.
My memory of the journey through Salts Cave is a little confused; I was too preoccupied with keeping track of Ali on our first trip into a wild cave, not to mention watching my own footing on passages covered with sticky mud that skirted deep pits, to have a orderly mental map of our route, which makes it rather hard to describe- I have only snapshots, small moments of time frozen that jumble together incoherently. Muddy footholds across breakdowns; bribes of chicken nuggets promised to the kids for keeping moving; sitting atop a muddy ledge near the back of the cave where we all turned our lights off in order for us greenhorns to see total darkness. Ali and I had seen similar demonstrations in some of the show caves we hit last year, but it felt different this time- then, we had been tourists, confined to one path while we listened to a tour guide, emerging still spotlessly clean. Now, we were explorers, forging our own paths through this fantastic new world beneath, oohing and aahing over magnificent flowstone and amazing cave crayfish who seemed to explore the subterranean passages with us. On the way back, we reached an area where one could choose between a wet crawl through a low stream passage or a tight squeeze over breakdown which nearly reached the ceiling- we had gone over the breakdown on the way in, but it was a much more awkward climb out, which led us to brave the other passage instead on hands and knees through a couple inches of muddy water. A few times, I wondered if it was too much for the kids; the twelve-year-old, Arwyn, was already an experienced caver who had been through this one and many others, but for the younger girls it was a push through to the mud-splattered end. When we emerged back into the sunlight, it was with a sense of victory and achievement.
We headed back to camp, showered, and met up with Carl and Robert again to hit another cave, Porter, about an hour from camp in Morgan County. This was the easiest one of the weekend, having both the beauty and relative ease of a show cave. There were a few areas where stooping was required, but otherwise it was very open and even looked like a sidewalk had been poured at some point near the front of the cave, perhaps by someone who also thought of the show cave idea. I understand the desire, considering the beauty of it; Carl had mentioned before we went that it was possibly the prettiest cave entrance in the state and I’m inclined to agree, with lush forest covering the canyon-like walls leading up to it. We walked from one end of the basin to the other before entering the cave and I was amazed by the wildness of it- considering the fact that it was completely open, there was no graffiti or damage to it or its formations, except for that bit of sidewalk. We walked through a stream which ended in a waterfall at the mouth of the cave (or for us, began) and found ourselves in front of another small waterfall that ran through a large, rounded flowstone formation before venturing farther into its depths. A seam in the ceiling gave the cavern a surreal aspect, as if we stood in the belly of some prehistoric beast under the shadow of its backbone.
Again, I was struck by the beauty of these unique places that resemble so little the world above them.
We finished off that evening with whiskey and Steak N’ Shake then the next morning headed to our last cave for the weekend, Truitt’s, which was opened by permission of the property owner. The cave had been gated by the Indiana Karst Conservancy this year to keep out vandals who have been scrawling graffiti throughout it since the 1800s, and the gate itself is a rather cool construction, barred to keep people and larger animals out, but with slats wide enough for bats. We divided into two groups, one of all adults and the other being the kids’ group. We dallied a little more than the other group, explored some bear wallows and generally wandered around the piles of breakdown and enormous rooms, looking at the cave diamonds and other formations throughout. Near the entrance on a natural table was an opossum skull that had been picked clean by time and scavengers, and we kept our eyes open for graffiti from old times- one signature, partially legible, bore the date 1855, with a 1911 right below it. Over a century later they’re still there to be seen. Of course we didn’t add our own because that would be damage to the cave but I could almost imagine our own names there to be found another century from now- both of those dates seem so remote now, the latter being the time of hand-cranked cars, before the assembly line and the sinking of the Titanic. The earlier date, 1855, was the age of Walt Whitman, the California Gold Rush, and territory disputes between Native Americans and the still-new American government. What will they remember us for in another century? Will it be a legacy that we can be proud of?
After crawling back out through the slatted gate of Truitt’s, we said goodbye (for now) to all of our new friends and headed home to return to another week of “real life,” and like every return from an adventure, I wonder if that real life is really everything it’s cracked up to be. My Indiana Jones getup may not fit me anymore, but I’ll never lose the mindset.
Let’s go exploring.