Rachel, Rose and Neil picked up my son, Adam, and me first thing in the morning, and we set off to Tennessee. It was a car full of happy people and pleasant conversation, and at our final stop at McDonald’s for a last bathroom break, we met up with our guide, Neil’s brother Mike, who had gone through the cave several times before.
When we got out of the car at the cave site, Mike was kind enough to lend me a head lamp; I didn’t really figure that I needed one, but since everyone else had one, I might as well take it. I also noticed that Mike had a couple of helmets which he gave to the kids and several bags of trail mix, which seemed like good foresight — trail mix was a little heartier than cookies and might make a nice change of pace.
So off we went, hiking joyfully down the trail, oohing and aahing over our first sight of the square, black hole in the hillside. We switched on our headlamps and in we went. It was wonderful. Daylight quickly faded as we walked through several caverns dripping with water and stalactites. (Stalactites, Mike said, cling “tritely” to the ceiling.) In one room, the rock was black but was studded with tiny flecks of some mineral, mica maybe, which sparkled in the soft light of the headlamps. It was like looking up at the stars on a clear night, far away from any towns, the whole universe just spreading out before us, infinite but simple and beautiful. Mike told us about rim pools, in which a puddle of water would gradually dissolve the rock but would leave mineral build-ups which eventually formed a rim around the puddle. The rim pools reminded me of the mineral terraces at Yellowstone.
Then, he told us about soda straws, which are hollow little stalactites with water flowing down and out through their centers. Mike flashed his light on a bat curled up against a ceiling high up in the cave, and we looked down one long slope and saw the clear water of a stream at the bottom. It was all perfectly marvelous. Dark and quiet, but marvelous. We clambered over and around rocks, we slid down slick clay slopes, and we crawled up slippery clay mounds. One time, we had to lie down and commando-crawl sideways under a rocky ledge, but the commando-crawl was too difficult, so we all ended up just rolling over and over under the ledge for twenty or so feet until the roof opened up again. There were no walkways or guardrails or lighted mineral formations. It was not like a commercial cave at all. It was at least twenty times better.
Until we came to what is aptly known as Devil’s Staircase. To begin with, one person had to somehow climb up a tall, slick wall of rock and across a narrow chasm, using only a slippery impression in the clay for a foothold. Mike accomplished this feat, and then managed to wedge himself behind a rock in order to help pull the rest of us up. After about 30 minutes and much grunting and squealing with a few yelps of terror, we were up. We breathed a collective sigh of relief that the Devil’s Staircase was behind us. Mike said nothing.
Just around the next bend, we came to another high ledge that we had to get up on. This one, instead of being a slick vertical rock, was concave so that there was nothing even to slide against. Luckily, it was not deep, so Mike was able to stand and help push our feet against the slick clay on the far side in order to get something like a foothold. The first person up helped to pull the rest up from the top. Again, 30 minutes later, with much grunting and squealing and a few yelps of terror, we were up. Collective sigh of relief. Mike said nothing.
The next ledge was similar to the first, except that once we got up the vertical drop, we still had to pull ourselves sideways across a steep clay bank (no footholds) until we could finally grasp a rock that provided enough traction to keep us from slipping backwards. Again, 30 minutes. Grunting, squealing, yelps of terror. Collective sigh of relief. Mike said nothing.
Now we were high enough in the cave that occasionally, a flashlight would shine on a deep pit near the side of the cave. Or on a narrow crevice that one could slide down into and get trapped in. Or a deep chasm filled with broken boulders. Or a gaping hole with the sound of water dripping far down inside.
Sometimes, the path would split, and one path would lead up to the left around a giant boulder and another path would lead off to the right and down into the rocky darkness, and Mike would study his map for a long time before leading us off again.
Several tight squeezes through dark rooms with low ceilings and tight walls; several fast slides down steep, wet banks with no handholds anywhere; and several long climbs over piles of broken rock slabs that threatened to snag the foot or leg of an unlucky climber. Many grunts, squeals, and yelps of terror. Collective sigh after each one. Early on Mike said that we only had a few minutes to go before we hit the farthest end of the loop. After that, he said nothing.
Somewhere in there, we stopped to eat our sandwiches. While we ate, Mike pulled out some other things he had brought along, in addition to the trail mix and helmets for the kids. He had a long rope, two emergency blankets, an ankle splint, and a 40 pack of AAA headlamp batteries. A 40 pack! How long was he expecting us to be in here? God only knows what else was in there that he didn’t show us.
But finally, we came to the piece de resistance — a rocky climb down to either a yawning pit of death that could only be skirted by a sloping, wet clay bank without footholds or a bottomless chasm bridged by a flat boulder maybe three feet wide. After this boulder, one would climb down several other sloping boulders that emptied into bottomless chasms on either side. Neil had climbed a steep rock and come down from the other direction. Mike edged carefully around the Yawning Pit of Death and then said nothing about that being a good choice for the rest of us, so I opted for the Bottomless Chasm Boulder Bridge and lowered myself onto the boulder and then slowly, slowly slid across on my behind. Then I turned and helped my son and Rose do the same. Rachel was at the back and held onto the children as they climbed down to me. No squealing or yelps of terror here. Just quiet voices and careful movements and occasional glances between Rachel and me. One by one we slid across without accident.
After that, it was almost easy. Just a fast, 30-foot slide landing in an icy creek, a half-mile wade through the creek, and then we had made the loop and were back on the original track, just below Devil’s Staircase. And so we went out, soda straw stalactites, glittering ceilings, rim pools, and finally, sunlight.
We were soaked through and covered from head to toe with grey clay, but we had made it. Waiting for us at the car were chocolate chip cookies and clean, dry clothes; Mike had even brought blankets to hang up to change behind.
On the ride home, my husband called to check on us (he was out of town with my other son), and I said that it had been wonderful—that we had seen beautiful things, that we had learned lots of interesting facts, that Adam had loved getting wet and muddy, and that only once or twice had death seemed imminent. Altogether it had been a marvelous adventure. “After all, ” I told him when I reached the end of my tale, “it’s definitely not a commercial cave.”