I am 10 or 20 or 50 feet underground. It's hard to tell exactly how far I've just climbed down. Once you've slithered into a dark, dirty hole with only a headlamp to light the way, everything starts looking more or less the same. My knees are bruised, and my elbows are scraped. I can feel grit seeping into my contact lenses, and beads of sweat taking leisurely trips down the back of my neck, picking out grooves in the places where a little less dirt has accumulated.
Several feet below me, at the end of a long vertical shaft, a guy named Will has just demonstrated how to advance to the next portion of Maple Run Cave. He slipped his feet into an opening in the rock then arched his spine to dip under an overhang. He twisted his head sideways and began the 20-foot slither to the next "room," a space hopefully wide enough for our group of six to stoop or stand together.
This is where I completely lose my shit in front of a bunch of strangers. I'd kept it together in front of the DFW Grotto group of "cavers" during the first day of cave exploration, but this second cave was something else, resembling nothing so much as a lengthy, petrified birth canal. How did this claustrophobic, risk-averse girl come to put on a helmet and descend into the rocky depths of Central Texas?
Well, my friend made it sound like fun. "Want to go spelunking next weekend?" Emily had asked, as we sat around a folding table at a friend's wedding, munching on tiny tuna sandwiches. It was a proper Protestant church 'do, where the preacher gets all Jesus on the crowd before shuffling everyone off to an adjoining building where there's no booze and a lot of crying babies.
I'd just finished having a conversation with someone who said the film Superbad was an inappropriate movie for women to watch because of its sexual content. Really, "conversation" is the wrong word. Basically, I'd mentioned that I had liked the movie, and then people at the table started grumbling when they realized they'd have to get their nice clothes dirty, what with their now having to tar, feather and ride me out of town on a rail and all.
So right then, spelunking sounded pretty awesome. I said yes, imagining long, cool strolls through gaping tunnels dotted with the occasional waterfall and cluster of stalactites. I did not imagine hours-long crawls on my elbows through cracks and crevices, only to emerge back into sunlight covered in brown muck.
I arose at dawn the following Saturday to make my way out to Irving to join members of the DFW Grotto. We were headed to Austin, where we'd tackle two caves, Whirlpool and Maple Run. Cavers are a blend of science nerds and hard-core outdoor enthusiasts, the kind of people who can identify 40 types of geologic formations and start a fire with two wet sticks and a paper towel. The term "spelunking" is actually a controversial one in the world of underground exploration. Rugged, gray-haired Bill Steele, the DFW Grotto chairperson explained, "Some people have bumper stickers that say 'Cavers rescue spelunkers.'" Cavers are badasses. Spelunkers are weekenders.
Steele has cave-dived, rappelled down vertical drops and spent nights trapped at the bottom of an underground cliff with no way out. "I was pretty sure we were going to die in there," he told me of an expedition to Sistema Huautla in Oaxaca, Mexico, where a guy who'd left their group early accidentally and unknowingly knocked away the rope they needed to return to the top. He kindly told me this story after my in-cave breakdown.
Before the trip, the newbies had been told to bring helmets, kneepads and elbow pads. I should have known I was in for trouble when I heard about the elbow pads—not to mention the "wide-mouthed pee bottle." In the realm of protective gear, elbow pads were in the same category as tie clips, as far as I was concerned. Why would anyone do anything that required elbow pads? Nobody's that goofy.
But by day two of my caving trip, I had met five people that goofy. One of them was the engineer named Will whose feet had just disappeared into pitch blackness. Staring down toward the beginning of the 20-foot belly crawl that I knew awaited me just beyond the reach of my LED headlamp, I felt my eyes start to tingle and get hot. I gingerly made my way down to the bottom of the shaft and got my first look at the rock tunnel into which I was now expected to slide.
I tried dangling head first to reach the opening Will had passed through, but I couldn't reach the floor of the tunnel with my hands, and I didn't want my head to go anywhere my hands hadn't gone first (which is also my rule for dating). There just wasn't enough room. I tossed my muddy backpack a little ways into the hole, thinking that would be some inspiration. Several minutes passed.
"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.