Greetings from Organ Cave, West Virginia! I'm your host, Sam Loomis, greeting you in the Throne Room of this historic site.
OK, I'm not really in Organ Cave, West Virginia as I'm writing this. There's no reception in Organ Cave (much less in West Virginia). We stopped by Organ Cave last week on the way home from the Virginia Tech trip. I had been looking for a tour that would stretch my comfort zone a little, and would allow me to see some of the more beautiful parts of the caves with my own eyes. As it happened, I got everything I bargained for and more.
We're walking along this trail into the cave - having entered through an enormous mouth and walked suddenly into a much smaller tunnel. Now, when I say "much smaller" don't get the wrong idea; this tunnel wasn't that small in itself - just the entrance itself was so large it made this tunnel seem smaller. We've been behind a rail the entire time, as our guide points out formations along the opposing cave wall and interesting historical facts. We come to a point where the path veers off into a lantern-lit tunnel that apparently leads to the "Hopper Room," while the majority of the not-so-small tunnel we're in trundles on into darkness. I point in the direction of the darkness.
"Does the tunnel go much further in that direction?" I ask out of curiosity.
"Yup," our guide says. "That's where we're going."
"Oh." That's an interesting bit of news. I had expected to go off the path, but for some reason not here. A little bit of excitement started to brew within me. I'm briefly reminded a phrase I had come across in one of the many science books I'd read before - the author himself was interviewing a scientists who was recalling a comic he'd seen long before, where a man is repelling into a dark hole, and a reporter asks why. The man replies: "Because it isn't there!"
"Now," our guide says, interrupting my reverie. "Do any of you have any fears or anything, like heights or enclosed spaces?" My dad and I look at each other. We both know the answer to this, though answering completely honestly might raise some complications.
"Well," I begin, wanting to explain that heights and I aren't best friends but also wanting to do this trip without the guide having to worry about me and my fears.
"Nah," my dad says. Short and to the point. Our guide begins to walk around the fence as we follow, and as he leads us into the darkness our headlamps reveal a hidden world to us.
"Now this right here is the Big Straddle," the guide says, pointing to a narrow tunnel without a floor. He had explained the nature of the Big Straddle to us earlier - the best way to walk across it is to support ourselves with our hands, while our legs are spread out over the chasm, finding footholds. He explains that there's no real danger. "It's so narrow you won't fall too far," he says, "but we might have to carry you out on a stretcher." This guy is either too honest or has a nasty sense of humor.
He begins to cross the tunnel, leaning with his back against one wall and his feet against the other. He shimmies across the chasm in this fashion for a few meters; we follow, copying his method. I kind of like it; it's easier than I thought it would be. He then stops and adjusts his position - he now has a hand and a foot on each side of the tunnel, holding himself in position with his arms and swinging his legs forward to the next footholds - then adjusting his arms for balance and repeating.
I continue using his old method, which feels much more comfortable. I can feel the weight of gravity pulling me down and have the sensation that if I move from my current position at all, I will fall down and keep falling. I try to switch over to his position a first time; after attempting this and failing to find footholds I feel comfortable with, I revert to the old method.
"It's really much easier this way," my dad says behind me. I look and he's straddling the chasm like a pro.
I try again to get into the straddling position; the guide is up ahead giving me some advice, telling me to support myself with my hands and that if I can move a little higher up I'll find better footholds there. They both explain how I want to swing, not step, but I don't see how on earth I'm supposed to manage swinging across this thing. And in the middle of all this awkward walking and trying to trust their advice, the guide's hand reaches out.
I grab it and he helps me off the Big Straddle and on to the ground. I've crossed it. I turn around and see my dad straddling around the corner. The tunnel looks just as intimidating from this side as it did from the other, but there's something different about it now - I've crossed it, and now it is subdued. As soon as my dad finishes crossing the Straddle we continue on our way, climbing down the boulders to the cave-river below.
We're stopping for a break, sitting down on a huge slab of rock to get drinks and some food. As my dad pulls our water bot
tles out of our bag, the guide tells us to look back. We look over at the tunnel behind us - though I thought it small compared to the cave entrance before, I can't imagine thinking of it as small now. Our headlamps only shine so far, and the distance we walked before is now pitch black. It strikes me that all the light in these caves came from our headlamps. We are sitting in an bubble of light, surrounded by an ocean of shadow. As I look out into the dark cavern behind us, I also realize that there isn't much tunnel ahead of us.
After we've eaten our snacks and gotten up, our guide gestures to the pile of rocks that seems to be blocking our path.
"Now," he says, "if you were trapped in here, where would you find an exit?" My dad and I look over the pile of rocks. There seem to be a few holes in the tunnel that we could follow. I see one in the back of the pile.
"Over there?" I ask, pointing. The guide answers without indicating if I was right.
"Why don't you go and see?"
My dad and I walk over to the hole - we shine our headlamps into it, and see that it leads to a dead end. My dad sees another hole to the side.
"How about over there?" he asks. We don't need the guide's prompting to go and check it out as well. We see that it quickly narrows off to a very uncomfortable width.
"Nope," I say, hoping desperately that I'm right. Our guide's silence confirms.
We check a few more exits, all failing. An excitement builds up inside of me - a mystery. Which tunnel is the way out? And where do all the narrow tunnels we can't fit through lead? Part of me wants to give up the tour and just begin on an expedition, squeezing through these crevices to find the other side. "Because it isn't there."
Finally, we give up. Our guide points up along a steep pile of boulders, which leads up to a small hole near the ceiling.
"We'll have to go up," he says. He leads the way up the steep pile, and we follow carefully, leaving this cavernous tunnel and all its offshoots behind, in darkness.
After much more exploring, we enter into a large room. The floor consists of large, flat boulders and there appears to be only one other exit. We sit in the middle and decide to take another break. As my dad passes me an energy bar to eat, he and the guide decide to turn off their headlamps. Once I have opened my energy bar, I do the same. From that point till now (as I'm writing this), I have had an extremely different view of vision.
The room immediately goes black, and I have never known the color black till now. The phrase "can't see my hand in front of my face" comes to mind. I hold my hand as close to my eyes as I can, and nothing - nothing - changes. In most dark rooms, proximity aids vision, because the light has less distance to travel before fading. But there is no light here. The darkness becomes a very tangible thing, closing up over my eyes, suffocating me. But I don't turn the light on. I'll wait till the others decide it's time.
My dad makes a comment about color. After all, if the "natural" state of the caves is pitch black, what color are the rocks really? Are they the dark brown I've been seeing this whole time? And in the end, what is my vision but an interpretation my brain makes of my surroundings? I would find later that if I just adjusted my point of view, being able to see makes me feel enclosed - trapped in an illusion, a filtered box through which I see the true world.
My dad and the guide are talking about something. I don't pay much attention. Though it makes me feel worse every time, there's a thrill to lifting my hand up and not seeing it. Some side of my brain gets more and more excited while the other tries to shrink back from the dark, but has no place to go. Still I don't turn the light on - after all, I can stand this. I can survive it.
My dad decides to take a picture with his phone to see what the lighting's like without our helmets. He aims randomly,
inadvertently photographing the far wall. There's so little light in the room his picture comes out black. He turns to a nearer wall and tries there. In the camera flash, I can swear I see something animal-shaped. I tell myself, though, that it can't be anything. I take a few deep breaths and try to admire the picture my dad's taken.
Soon we turn our lights back on. After my eyes adjust to the light, I look back at the spot my dad took a picture of. There's a vaguely animal-shaped rock there. I'm struck again by the illusion of vision. We leave the room, returning it to its state of blackness.
We toss our backpacks up onto a ledge above our heads.
"I assume we're going up there?" I ask.
"That's why we tossed the bags up there," the guide says. Good point.
I look around this little room. We've entered it through a tunnel in the floor. There's a narrow rock formation along one wall leading up to the ledge, and a tunnel leading out of the room, sloping upward. On the ledge a second tunnel leads out of the room. I figure that we're walking through the first tunnel, and coming out the second onto the ledge to get our backpacks.
"You just come up along here," the guide says, pointing along the wall at the narrow rock formation. A strange stone jutting from the wall makes a little hole we have to squeeze through. "You'll want to come through here feet first, then stay up against the wall, because that rock's gonna want to pitch you forward." He climbs up, shimmies his way into the hole, and slides through feet first to the other side. I begin to follow.
Immediately I feel apprehensive. His phrase "that rock's gonna want to pitch you forward" resonates with a familiar sensation - though I may be perfectly balanced on the ledge, the absence of a wall to one side makes me feel like I'm leaning over. This makes it hard for me to get into the proper position to go feet first into the hole. I try to get my feet in the right position - but every time I adjust I slip a little and quickly revert to my original stance. It isn't a far drop, but if I fall wrong... For the first moment in the trip I consider turning back. This thought is quickly rejected and replaced by a determination to succeed.
"Try backing in for now," the guide suggests. Relieved, but hoping he has a plan, I lift myself up and sit in the hole. "Now just try and turn around here," he says, and I begin to spin on my butt so that I am now curled up in the hole. Unfortunately, my kneepads cause my legs to get jammed along the rock and now I'm stuck.
"Now you're stuck," says my dad, laughing. I laugh too. The only other way to respond to such a situation is
to freak out, and that's not going to help at all. The guide starts telling me how to move - wiggle up, twist to the left, right, slide down - I end up feet first in the wrong direction again, but as
my hands reach back I find a tiny, tiny ledge behind where I'm sitting and lift myself up, placing my hands on that - this gives me enough room to finally twist around and get my feet in the right direction. Now I have to drop onto another narrow ledge to get to the big slab on which our packs are sitting. The guide sticks his foot out to act as a foothold. I use it graciously and stumble over to the backpacks. My dad soon follows behind me.
Once we all get settled, the next phase of this passage lies ahead. We must cross over what must be a ten-foot deep gap between our ledge and a long jut of rock. As always, the guide goes first, crawling, using his kneepads to get enough friction to stay on the jut. I follow nervously - I lean over, put my hands on the rock, and now must bring one leg forward to rest my knee on a corner of the ledge - and here I sit for a moment. The next step is to left my other leg, so that the only things keeping me from falling into the gap are my palms and one knee. I know, however, that the kneepads change the game enormously. Taking a step of faith, I lift my leg from the previous ledge and hold my breath - and I don't budge. The friction between the gloves and kneepad and the rock is enough to hold me completely still.
I crawl hastily along the jut, trying not to slip off the edge, and meet the guide up at a narrow path along the wall. We must travel along this path, staying close to the wall, for the rest of the room is an 80-foot or so pit. I shine my headlamp down there. I can barely see the floor. The guide makes a comment about wanting to drop a measuring tape down there to see how deep it is. I agree. "Because it isn't there."
We walk slowly along the path and into another tunnel. From here on out, we walk mostly through narrow passageways until one point where we have to take an 8-foot drop, but that's easy compared to what we've done before. Soon we cross through another straddle-esque tunnel and come out back in the tunnel with the river. We're on our way out.
As we cross through the tunnels again, in the opposite direction, I'm struck by the difference. I don't recognize it at all - some landmarks I notice are the same from before, but the room just seems different.
Along the way, our guide points out a small twig lying on a rock. Its roots have grown out over the stone, searching for water and nutrients. I don't know how long it's been here, but it certainly has put up a fight. I feel a great sense of mystery as I realize that life will find a way anywhere - even in the most desolate places. Look closely at the picture - it's hard to see. Just a few white roots among the fallen rocks.
We run into another tour group, and visit the hopper room which we had skipped before. Then we follow the group out of the grand entrance to the cave. There we get someone else to get a picture of us with our guide. Soon after we're changing into clean clothes and parting ways. Part of me hopes to meet our guide again sometime; he was a very pleasant man, and helped me get through some of the tougher points in there by continuing to give me clear instructions, patiently working me through my fears.
This was an experience I won't forget for a long time. It was entirely new and strange to me, and at many points I worried about if I could make it through the whole tour. A number of different fears threatened to rear their ugly heads and obstruct my path, but with the help of my dad and our guide I managed to defeat them and continue on into the unknown. And why would I want to do that?
Because it isn't there!