By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"Sometimes I find that if I just stop thinking and do it, it's easier." These encouraging words came from Diana, a professor of biochemistry at UT-Southwestern Medical Center and an experienced caver. Perched above me in the same straddle I'd assumed 10 minutes before, Diana knew no cave fear. Stop thinking? Yeah, I thought. Stopping thinking is exactly what happens moments before anyone decides to crawl into a dark hole in the ground for hours—or, in the case of Steele, days. Bill once spent 13 days camping in and exploring Mexico's Sistema Huautla—he'll be publishing a book about the cave soon. If I didn't figure out what I was going to do with this tunnel soon, I realized we'd be on our way to breaking Bill's record.
Watching Emily, the showoff, crawl through the tunnel ahead of me showed me this was physically possible, though if I'd weighed 25 more pounds slithering through that tunnel would be considerably more difficult. Mentally, however, I was collapsing. And then physically I was collapsing too, as I reached for my backpack, falling and then landing with a thump at the bottom of the shaft. It took me nearly a minute to right myself enough to stand. Wearing a dirty white helmet beaming blue light, tears streaming down my cheeks, I looked up at a woman I'd known for less than a day and said, "I just can't do it." Well played, cave. Well played.
As I huffed and puffed and cursed in-between sobs, Steele helped me back out of the cave, leading the way and unlocking the exit. Most established caves have gated entrances, with keys hidden in nearby bushes, ostensibly to keep meddling teenagers and other folks out, though it seems like a really great Darwinian jump-start to me. You want to disappear into the all-consuming darkness, throwing away the thousands of years of human evolution it's taken for us to get out of caves and into affordable apartment living? Be my guest.
"I like seeing something no one else has seen," Diana had explained the first day, stooping inside a room in Whirlpool Cave. I couldn't believe how brave she was. I like seeing unusual things too, I thought. But the next time I attempt it, I'm going to do something a little less scary. Like hard drugs.