IT took the Greeks to give us the word spelunking, a noble-sounding name for the dirty and exhausting sport of cave exploring. It took my first college roommate to suggest that I try it. It took a curious mind on my part to accept. So we went. We drove to the Black Hills of South Dakota where there are an abundance of small and out-of-the-way caves. Our party that day consisted of five or six people from the dorm with varying degrees of experience in cave exploring. I think it might have been a classic example of one of those events where ``what we lacked in experience, we made up for in enthusiasm.''
My roommate Charlie had been to Jasper Cave before. He knew the route through the cave and assured us that he could take all of us through it safely. He had outfitted each of us with a helmet, flashlight, extra batteries, candles, and told us to wear clothes that we wouldn't mind throwing away at the end of the day.
The trail to Jasper Cave begins along the highway between Custer, South Dakota, and Newcastle, Wyoming. We left the car at the roadside and walked the mile to the cave entrance. I remember feeling that mixture of dread and anticipation that accompanies the first-timer on any venture that he knows will be a memorable experience, but has the potential to be dangerous as well.
When I saw the entrance, I knew the day would be easy. The opening was big enough to walk through standing upright. No sweat. Nothing to this Greek-named sport, I thought.
Ten feet inside the door, I was sliding, legs first into a black pit which appeared to have no bottom. I don't remember the thoughts that crossed my mind as I wriggled down the narrow tunnel, but I do remember the trickle of fear I felt.
Caves breathe according to the outside barometric pressure. If the outside pressure is greater, the cave breathes in, attempting to equalize the air pressure. If the inside pressure is greater, the cave breathes out.
On this day, Jasper Cave was breathing out. The wind blew particles of dirt and sand into our faces. The same wind, funneled through the narrow passage we were crawling down, made it impossible to talk to each other.
We wiggled down the tunnel for 30 feet and entered a room where we stopped to collect everyone. The wind, which had been so powerful at the narrow entrance tunnel was nearly lost in the larger room. When everyone had gathered, we exchanged comments on the first minutes of our underworld visit.
Charlie then led us through places with names like the Manganese Alley, the Two-Dome Room, Prince Albert's Chimney, the Bat Trap, and the Registry, before we arrived at the end of the cave, the T-Room.
There we had dour lunch, talked, and compared the emotions we were feeling. There was energy in the air, excitement and a sense of exploring not only the inside of the cave, but of exploring the inside of our own minds as well. How could one ever be bored in a world filled with this kind of adventure?
We took a moment in the T-Room to turn off our lights. Total darkness is an eerie feeling, one we seldom experience. At night in our cities the man-made lights dilute the darkness. In the country, the stars let us make out the faintest of landmarks, but after two hours of crawling through Jasper Cave, we were well beyond all source of light except our own. We waited several long minutes as sour eyes struggled and failed. We even noticed that removing the sense of sight made our voices sound different.
I had been in total darkness inside tourist caves like Rushmore Cave and Mammoth Cave. In those, when the guide turns off the lights, it is interesting, but the visitor knows that with a flick of a switch, the guide will flood the cave with vital light. Sitting in the T-Room and knowing the struggle we had had to get there, it was a real thrill to know that no switch existed and we would have to get ourselves out the same way we came in.
CRAWLING back through the tunnel, I noticed one thing which anyone in a cave experiences. The route looked completely different going backward. Charlie has a photographic memory for routes, above or below ground, and he never hesitated.
Just before the Bat Trap, Charlie stopped. He explained a split in the cave and told us about a different route we could take to get back. It was shorter, but had a tight crawlway. We decided to try it. We dropped into a round pit and I watched as Charlie fit his body into the crawlway. Ryan's Wriggle it is called. Ryan must have been pretty skinny, I thought.
My turn. I put my arms out in front of me as if I were diving into a swimming pool. Charlie had done this so I thought I should, too. I soon found out why. Even with my arms extended, the sides of the tunnel scraped my ribs and the top gave me a stone back rub as I pulled with fingers and pushed with my toes for 10 feet through the crawlway. I had to breathe in short gasps as I slid forward, inch by inch.
I had scraped along for six or seven feet when I got caught. I pulled hard, but made no progress. My heart was pounding in my chest and the short gasps of breath were vastly insufficient. I pulled again. Stuck. Something at my waist held me fast. I pulled, then understood. I wiggled backward, pushing with my fingers and pulling with the tops of the toes of my tennis shoes until I had backed up four or five inches. I pushed ahead again and turned my hips slightly left. I went on through and soon emerged from Ryan's Wriggle into a low room.
Exhilaration. I returned Charlie's smile and told him how I had just been stuck in the tunnel because the fit was so tight the hip pocket of my blue jeans had caught on a flake of rock. What a strange sport, where success is the ability to cram one's body through the smallest of places.
The shortcut had saved the climb through the Bat Trap and Prince Albert's Chimney. We walked through the Two-Dome Room and ripped the knees out of our pants on the stone slabs in Manganese Alley, then crawled up the windy tunnel to the entrance and walked out. Daylight never looked so good.