NOTE: Mike Carter sent me this text at my request, because I wanted to work on a poem about caving. I liked his text so much, I asked him to let me publish it here. It also gave me the idea to start a series of guest articles, entitled, “For the Love of …” Some other friends have agreed to write on motorcycling, hunting, and running. Mike is a deacon at the Somers Avenue congregation in N. Little Rock, Ark.
FOR THE LOVE OF CAVING
By Michael H. Carter
Total darkness is so black you can feel it. In big rooms the darkness swallows all the light you shine on it. Trying to understand the shape of a void may require walking around for hours trying to get your perspective. It’s a three-dimensional maze usually. It is difficult trying to understand the layout when various levels of passages crisscross each other and meander in strange, unpredictable ways. One snake-like tube may cross around over and under itself like a pretzel. Sometimes the best way to describe it is like walking around inside of a wadded-up garden hose, with several adapters coming off of the hose into other hoses at random points. It tires the mind.
Going where no man has gone before is a great thrill. These passages weren’t made for the ease of humans. Sometimes you must slither through keyholes. Sometimes you are wallowing through soupy mud. Sometimes you are swimming through cold water at 55 degrees.
Like a spider descending a web, sometimes you dangle on a rope in a black void with a bottom that you can’t see. If you come to the end of your rope and you are not at the bottom yet, you must ascend and get a longer rope and try again.
Sometimes there are delicate formations of indescribable beauty. Sometimes the smooth gray limestone is chiseled and fluted; other times you find yourself in a huge cathedral of stone. Sometimes the winds blow with gale force and other times the stillness is deafening with no ambient noise, unlike the surface world.
Your only lifeline in this underground wilderness are your buddies who are with you. If you are injured, they can’t bring in a helicopter or ambulance, and most people could not even get to where you must be rescued. This is probably the only uncharted territory left on this planet besides some of the ocean bottoms. Inside these hallways of stone the humidity is 100 percent.
If you like remoteness this is about as remote as you can get. It has been said that “mountain climbers consult maps to see where they want to go. Cavers make maps to see where they have been.”
Fossils are all around us. Monuments to the flood are everywhere down here. There is no weather here at least not above the flood zone. We see Ice-Age bear skeletons and tracks. Nests of these extinct Giant Cave bears are in a lot of places. Sometimes we see the art work and the torch fragments of ancient cave explorers from hundreds of years before we were born. Other times there are no footprints at all.
Light shines for the first time where light has never shown before. Yet there are conduits and passageways that make us constantly wonder, what lies ahead? What treasures are lurking or crouching just beyond the place where we turn around? One can only go as far as one’s supplies, expertise, and energy will allow.
Unexplored miles seem to go on forever, yet within the explorer is a yearning to find the end. Yet, in another way, we don’t want it to end. While the lust for exploring the unknown constantly beckons, one must leave this secret world and return to the surface and continue the everyday chores and responsibilities of life. But in the mind of serious cavers, a rodent keeps gnawing and squeaking, “What does that passage do and where does it lead?” It’s a curse, really, like an addiction that produces euphoria. In a canyon, miles from natural light, you stop to rest as steam billows off your body in smoky whirlwinds.
Old men, once great explorers now unable to crawl, continue the journey in these labyrinths by pouring over the notes and maps of survey teams. They search topographical maps looking for features that indicate underground voids. These old explorers are still tormented by that incessant gnawing and squeaking as it channels through the chambers of their minds.