Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Cave of One's Own

We took Richard and Annabelle to visit Luray Caverns today. Even though it had been six years since our last visit, in cave time that's nothing, and the place was pretty much as I remembered it-- a hundred-sixty feet deep and 55 degrees. The paved path winds a mile and a quarter down and back up through massive formations that continue to amaze and impress, despite their hokey names.

Despite the crowds and commercialization, though, there are still places on the tour where it's possible to imagine how thrilling and terrifying it must have been for the first people exploring the caverns in 1878 with only candles to light their way.

And just as last time, the romance of such exploration nibbled at my consciousness, and I recalled that then I did some research and discovered that there are over 3,000 caves in Virginia, most of them considered "wild" and unexplored, 95% of them on private property. Sometimes I think I would love to own a cave, but then I remember how years ago a friend of mine told me the story of a lost caver in South Dakota.

My friend was enrolled in a three month program at NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, and they were doing some rescue training in Wind Cave. One of the other students left her pack with extra lamps and batteries in the large Cataract Room and went off to search some of the smaller side passages.

Her carbide lamp ran out of water, so she waited in the dark, calling out to her fellow searchers. Panicking, she began to crawl around in the dark. Eventually, it occurred to her to pee on her lamp to activate it, and she crawled some more through, now, unfamiliar passages. Eventually, the light went out again, and she continued crawling in the dark.

They found her 48 hours later in an unmapped section of the cave, dehydrated but otherwise unharmed, but when the first rescuer approached, his long hair and beard haloed by his headlamp, she raised her hands to her face and whispered, "Are you God?"

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