Weather Permitting

Photos from Floyd Collins Crystal Cave, May 2019.

All eyes were on my city over Memorial Day weekend, as fans poured in for the Indy 500, swelling the size of Indianapolis to half again its normal population. To me that’s the signal that it’s time to get out of town, and the Louisville Grotto offers a wonderful alternative to the insanity going on in my hometown. Easily one of my favorite events, Speleofest is the grotto’s annual fundraiser, and rest assured that it includes partying as well; Sunday night featured a band and an open bar, and all the other nights somehow resulted in rowdy cavers too.

On Friday night we stuffed the Jeep with our caving and camping gear as we prepared to head south. The straps for the roof rack were found to have been damaged, so instead every available inch inside was full, including the kids’ laps and mine. Carl expressed concern about the lack of visibility, but was overruled; we opened the garage and turned the Jeep’s ignition.

Nothing happened.

Again, and nothing; the battery was dead, and we took the visibility and battery issues to mean problems that we did not want to deal with driving late into the night.

The kids went up to their rooms and either cried or plotted our deaths or both; I took the perishables out of the cooler and put them back in the fridge, took a beer and went upstairs as well. In the morning Carl went and bought a jump box and new straps for the roof rack. We repacked the Jeep, jumped the battery and headed to Kentucky.

The downside to not arriving Friday night is that we missed Saturday’s cave trips; we arrived in the afternoon, and soon enough we found where to set up camp, next to our friend Squirrel. He had set up camp with his usual flair, a tarp stretched overhead with climbing ropes to protect tent entrances and the extensive camp kitchen from any possible rain- it seemed to rain every year at Speleofest, although the weather looked like it was going to work with us this year- the radar was clear, and it looked to be a beautiful weekend. We set up and eventually Squirrel returned from his day’s cave trip, shouted a greeting to us from his truck and unloaded his gear. Soon he sat and fixed his eyes on me and asked me bluntly why I wasn’t writing.

I made my excuses; busy with life, I haven’t had time to do anything interesting to write about. He looked even more skeptical then, and more so after a few more attempts to justify myself. Whatever the case, I am properly chastised, and it must have worked, since here I go typing away yet again.

Of our caving family, Squirrel is Dad, and it is quite the collection of misfits that find their way to him; the same generous nature that encourages an aspiring artist back to work is also what makes him always willing to leave an extra chair open at the camp for whoever should feel so inclined to use it. As the evening wore on people came by, wandering in and out of the camp while we sat catching up. One close friend of ours, a Kentucky grandmother and total badass, told me how most of her recent caving has been vertical due to a bum knee that makes crawling troublesome, and that resonated with me: I love the fact that her solution, rather than walking away, was to up the ante to rope work. A hippie computer programmer had come in from Virginia, and a muscle-bound Puerto Rican accountant scoffed at our own three hour drive in deference to his own trip from Connecticut.

“What brought you so far?” I asked.

“Speleofest, of course,” he said with a grin.

The canopy of stars and the campfire around which we sat served to accentuate the shadows as night fell; Squirrel’s face grew slowly more indistinct, until the only clear feature was a white patch of beard. He rose and threw more wood on the fire from the crate in the back of his truck and the flames leapt, seeming resolved to lick the tree branches above. Arwyn and Ali had gone to bed by then, and the conversation had shifted from cave trips to life stories as a mason jar of honey bourbon moonshine slowly made the rounds. The night was perfectly clear so I walked off to look at the stars, and stayed pensive as Carl and I eventually turned in for the night. Around us, the camp was still very much alive; Squirrel’s miniature village square was but a small piece, with other people’s tents to three sides, and hammocks to the fourth. Crunching gravel and murmurs of conversation replaced crickets and night birds, although one particular whippoorwill cried its displeasure to us all weekend. Up the road I could hear snatches of conversation, its cadence giving me only the perfect amount of words to imagine it whatever I wanted.

“Well, to be perfectly honest,” began the first speaker, before dropping to inaudible.

“I honestly think…” began another, again dropping beyond my hearing. A discussion ensues, but they stay fairly quiet, and only a word or two at a time rises enough to be heard.

Eventually they grow quiet, or they walk on, and another conversation grows from a different direction to fill the aural void. They, too, ebbed, and another rose, the pattern continuing; and it was a tide of susurrus that carried me to sleep in the humid night.

The next morning we all headed out to our respective cave trips: Carl headed to Big Bat, a favorite of all of ours, and Squirrel got in on a trip based around a geological discussion of Mammoth Cave. The girls and I went to Floyd Collins Crystal Cave, a site that exemplifies the Kentucky Cave Wars with a rich, chaotic history. It deserves its own write-up, and that it will have; Big Bat will be further detailed as well as it proved to be a much more exciting trip than intended.

Being a commercial cave at one point, the passage in Floyd Collins is easy, aside from the steep hills; old wooden handrails line parts of the path, but we were advised not to touch them as some were falling apart and others were growing mold. The path was not the only sign of the previous uses of the cave: we found signatures from the 1920s, burned-out flashbulbs and an old Kodak Verichrome box, with the date of September 1953 still clearly visible. Until the 1980’s, the cave also contained the body of Floyd Collins himself, a monumental caver who died trapped in nearby Sand Cave in 1925.

Natural features accompany the history, of course, and the cave walls were covered with a sheen of gypsum that made it sparkle throughout. Helictites twisted together like worms and gypsum flowers blossomed around us en masse.

We headed back to camp after that, and I stayed behind while the girls ran off; not much later, the sky opened up as it always seems to do at Speleofest, radar be damned. The rain was of little concern since the tarp covered most of the immediate campsite, so I sat at camp dry and comfortable, trading shelter for stories to the passers-by. I was regaled with a tale of the storm that blew down much of the campsite of the 2007 NSS Convention, hosted in my own state of Indiana; we spoke of headlamps and cats and aircraft carriers, tick bites and foot loops and tin roofs.

As the afternoon wore on, groups began to trickle back into camp from the various cave trips that were ending but there was not yet any sign of Carl or of the other group that had also gone to Big Bat, pursuing a different route. The growing concern was that the cave has a propensity for flooding, due to the eight hundred acres that it drains; if they were flooded in, they could potentially be stuck for days. I watched cars come and go from the campground as we whiled away the afternoon. The sky lightened as the storm passed, and eventually began to darken again.

Some time later, a thoroughly winded Carl stumbled into camp with a story to tell. They had encountered maybe three inches of water on the way into the cave via the natural entrance, which was neither unusual or unexpected, and they explored for a while, eventually running into the other group and joining up together as they all planned to exit via that same entrance. On the way out, the water that had been noticed before was suddenly nearer to waist high and rising; as the ceiling ahead sloped toward the crawl out, the airway narrowed to only a few inches. They retreated to the Helictite Room, the highest point of the cave, and after assessing the situation decided to make for the Mushroom entrance at the other end of the cave, coming out behind an old cemetery, down a ways from a settlement of barn quilts. As they made their way in that direction, they still had to be wary of rising water, since that area was not unlikely to flood as well. Being familiar with the cave, though, they knew what to look for: there is a pit that is the beacon. If it holds water, beware- they would have had to retreat yet again and prepare to wait. Thankfully, it was dry, and they made it out of the cave with no further incident and the exhausted explorers made their way back to camp.

Flooding is a danger that I often get asked about, and it is not one to be taken lightly, yet there is an even more potent hazard that can be encountered in that type of situation: panic. When they initially encountered the flooding, they were very near the entrance, and if any had decided to attempt it rather than to turn back, they could have quite easily drowned, not only causing the obvious endangerment of themselves but of the rest of the group as well. They made the correct decision in getting away from the natural entrance, and as the clock continued to tick past their call-out time, mobilization on the surface was quiet but beginning nonetheless. Six grotto members were refraining from the festivities in case they would be needed for a rescue situation, and a time had been set for further action if the missing cavers had still not reappeared. It was about an hour before that deadline when one of those same grotto members approached me within Lonestar Saltpeter Cave, where the Wine and Cheese Social was taking place. It was lit by countless votive candles, strategically placed throughout the cave, their flickers calling to mind the sparkling of gypsum and the twinkling of the stars, both of which I hold so dear.

“We’ve heard from them,” he said. “They’re safely out.”

With word from the Big Bat groups, the party truly began in earnest; we roared our joy to the night, to the continuing disgust of the whippoorwill.

The next morning our heads all felt a little delicate, and we brewed strong coffee while slowly beginning to pack up the peripheral items of the camp. It was a day of goodbyes and one that heralded the return to real life that felt disappointing, but no longer daunting. The tarp came down, and the stoves were put away; even the fire bowl was rolled up into the back of Squirrel’s truck, leaving nothing but flattened grass behind and a tidy pile of ashes. We shared our final laughs and sweaty hugs and then we all went our separate ways. There were drives to make, and flights to catch; work to be done too, as always, and we will all settle back into our routines, sooner or later. The memories will sustain us to the next adventure, and the next reminder, that the good old days are still not over.

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