“Lean back, lean back,” Cassia commands as my feet paw at the rock wall. I grip the rope even tighter and tell myself not to look down, though if I did I would not see much: the darkness is impenetrable. I squat awkwardly into my harness as the idea of sitting on a cord dangling in mid-air is not natural for me. The descender, a rack-and-pin device, attempts to pay out the rope in its methodical fashion. Cassia’s face disappears from the lip of the hole and with it much of my confidence.
“Let the equipment do its job,” I hear her say as I descend gradually into the yawning abyss of black. “Relax,” she continues, “sit back, and remember you are in control of your pace.” I do not feel in control. The supporting rock disappears and for a few minutes my legs grope and thrash the air. Both hands clutch the rope while I twist and turn my head to find the missing wall. The cable creaks and swings; I am dangling in nothingness.
“How are you doing?” I hear Cassia’s disembodied voice above me ask. I am too busy swallowing my panic to answer. My feet are still making small circles in the air in the futile hope of finding a perch. The rest of me is in full concentration, rappelling snail-paced towards the grand chamber of Moaning Caverns in Vallecito, California.
Darkness intimidates me because sight is an expression of myself. Vision, which requires the presence of light, allows me to interact in meaningful ways. It gives me power and authority over my environment. What would my world be like if I didn’t have this capacity? That is what I will unearth with Cassia, a guide at the vertical cave who has been leading spelunking expeditions for six years. I reach the main floor, unclip from my harness, and perch on a stalagmite dome. I watch my feet and hands trembling uncontrollably. The relief is as short-lived as the time it takes for Cassia to zip easily 165 feet (50.3 meters) down to me. I follow her deeper into the gloom of this alien world.
The darkness moves thickly around me, inundating me like a huge swell in the ocean, squeezing my lungs with its thick fingers.
“I gasp for the limited air as if I am ensnared underwater.”
My pupils widen and my lids stretch up, compensating for my blindness. Now over 230 feet (71.6 meters) underneath the earth I am vulnerable, dependent on Cassia, my feeble headlight beam, and my sense of touch for guidance. The anemic gleam from my light dances over the nubbly footpath, slick with water. It glances across the surrounding landscape of protruding dysmorphic white towers. Outside the torch’s limited circle inky black oozes to fill the place: in my mind it has taken on monstrous abilities. I huddle closer to Cassia as old childhood tales of demons, trolls, and goblins race through my head.
We wander through Stygian tunnels and unlit passages that escort us into narrow niches. Sometimes our tunnels taper and fold into shelf-sized notches, at other times they expand to gallery-like recesses. As I faithfully follow Cassia’s planned route my comfort level adjusts to the new world. There are no glowering beasts here to attack us, only endless burrows whose silence is filled with the drip-drip of falling water and our shuffling steps. We squirm our way through chinks no larger than a man’s head. I get stuck halfway inside one of them and abruptly lose the small measure of ease I felt. I crane my neck to pull forward, bumping my head into a slab. My lamp is useless now, as is my eyesight. I want to thrash about but resist the temptation. Instead I exhale deep and slow until my chest sags inward. I heave and half-twist to the right, clawing with my hands against the frustrating smoothness of the canal.
“The limestone, nature’s softest rock, rends my torso;”
I feel like an animal loosening its outer dermis, raw and defenseless. Soon I am drenched head to toe in sweat. I inch forward muscling into the earth, my fingers clawing for space. Slowly my perspiration helps wiggle me out, softening my hard exterior and making my skin slippery. I emerge triumphant: I have dueled with the cave and emerged victorious. I will have the battle scars to prove it.
The challenges are not over yet. The winding shafts narrow into a cavity into which Cassia and I must drop down. She calls this section the “Leap of Faith.” Peering in I cannot discern a floor, but I am told that the drop is only two feet. There is no rope or harness here to cling onto: I must jump into the unknown, sightless.
“You’re sure it’s only a two-foot drop?” I ask Cassia, seeking reassurance.
“I’m sure,” she drawls back, “I’ve done it a dozen times. You’ll be fine.”
I creep towards the edge, my legs descending at a snail’s pace into the unknown. Time ticks on, but my toes haven’t touched the substructure. If I feel the bottom then I will be safe. By now my entire body is dangling from the precipice, my fingertips clamped like barnacles onto the rock above my head. What shall I do?
“Let go!” Cassia exclaims from beyond. Can she hear my nerves? I hold my breath and loosen my hold. My feet safely thud onto the floor of a cozy sanctuary. The passageways we have wriggled through have led us into an egg-shaped den. As Cassia joins me she explains that this is her favorite “room.” She crawls onto her back and I nestle next to her. We gaze at the ceiling in silence, each of us lost in our own thoughts.
“The infinitesimal calcite crystals twinkle and wink, a thousand mineral stars, as our torches graze them.”
Abruptly, the cave transforms from a menacing sepulcher into a landscape of beauty. I imagine we are outside gazing at the night sky instead of hundreds of feet below. It is tranquil here, a different type of peace than I ever imagined uncovering: the peace of lost time. There is no sun or moon to mark the passing hours. Time melts away. There is no time. Entombed inside this smooth, implacable calcite enclosure I am filled with an endless sense of waiting. Cassia checks her luminescent wristwatch and I realize we have been spelunking for over two-and-a-half hours. The darkness is no longer my enemy, but I am eager to return to fresh air and sunlight.
When I see the first halo of illumination above me I know the sweet-sharp ecstasy rescued miners experience. My challenging, taxing, and inspiring tour with Cassia is almost over. The taste of escape is palpable. However, there is one final problem as we make our way to the main chamber of Moaning Caverns. We have to climb a thirty foot chimney with the aid of a knotted rope. Cassia shimmies up first, as easily as a squirrel clambering a tree trunk.
Out of the chimney she looks back at me, saying, “Ready when you are!”
Compared to all the sliding, falling, and pressing I have been doing, this part seems easy. I can see the end in sight. I grasp the first knot in the rope and attempt to haul my right foot into the lowest hold; my leg will not reach that high and I slip back to the ground. I try again using a wee ledge to my right, and fail again. I make five attempts to clamber up the chimney, but never make it off the ground. My hands are slippery with sweat and fear takes over. I’m not afraid I’ll be stuck inside this funnel forever, but distressed that I will not climb up on my own. My courage has abandoned me, powerless to overcome this situation. I look up to see Cassia’s face framed by the exit. She doesn’t look annoyed or impatient which relieves some of my anxiety.
“This is it, I think, the final endeavor. The last test of fortitude.”
I look for another solution to the ascent since the rope isn’t working to my advantage. I dry my hands on my pant leg while looking at what is above my head. Standing on tip toe, there is a sill I barely reach with my fingers. I hook on and swing my left foot into a dent; using my left knee for support I shimmy my right foot onto a higher cleft. I heave myself upwards, ignoring the rope, until my right hand can clamp onto another hold. It is a protracted and painful process, yet inch by inch I advance through the portal to meet Cassia at the end of our journey.
This expedition was a chance for me to face my fear of absolute nothingness, to use perceptions other than my sight in an unaccustomed environment, to challenge my physical and mental limitations in unreliable surroundings. Moaning Caverns is not a secret destination and spelunking is not a unique pursuit, yet they are both new to me making this a fabled opportunity. There may not be any unmapped territories left on the planet, but there are plenty I have never seen. There may not be any untried adventures, but there are plenty I have never undertaken. Each novel experience is a step leading me outside my safe world. Ultimately, travel is not about uncharted lands or daredevil feats. Travel is about stretching personal boundaries, seeking uncommon inspirations, asking unanswerable questions. So I will continue to search out famous cities, unsung hamlets, outré amusements, and ordinary pastimes in hopes of discovering an unexplored expanse: myself. Where will I go next? What will I do? The questions are irrelevant; wherever I go it will be a memorable journey in this beautiful world.
Once upon a time the sound of wind echoing through the hollow limestone deposits emanated from the entrance, giving the cave its name. Prehistoric people exploring the area would often be enticed by the noise, which resonated like the cry of a child, and fall in through the natural entrance of the underground chamber. Moaning Caverns no longer makes these spectral utterances because modern safety constructions have dampened the reverberations.
Have you explored any caves? Did you ever have to rely only on your sense of touch?