|I’ve never been afraid of the dark. Being outside at night has always seemed friendly and intimate. Sort of cozy. I love to go walking at night along a dusty, country road, or along a trail through the scotch broom to the beach. Everything seems closer, and the sounds of birds saying goodnight or a dog barking combine with the scents of warm grass and trees. If I’m lucky, some old-fashioned roses will send me their fragrance that seems to be even sweeter than by day.
So you see, for me, exploring a cave just didn’t sound like a scary thing to do. I didn’t think of creepy, crawling things or closed-in, stifling small spaces or a bony hand clutching me in the dark, and I sort of like rocks. I thought spelunking would be fun; a new experience added to the adventure of college life away from home, and my first trek as a Recreation major. Naturally, I invited my new roommate to go, too, so as to share the adventure.
However, my roommate, Diane, was not so sure about caves.
“What about bats?” she asked. “Will there be bats? I don’t like the idea of them getting in my hair,” she continued, fluffing it with one hand. She had long, curly, copper-wire hair. Perhaps it would be a temptation for an energetic bat, but I didn’t say that.
“Bats sleep in the daytime,” I assured her. “I know a lot about bats, from making their acquaintance at camp. Spelunkers don’t always explore caves with bats, and I don’t think there will be any in the place we’re going. And anyway, they hardly ever get in your hair.”
Diane was not the outdoorsy type. I felt she only needed encouragement; poor kid, she had lived most of her life in the city. And she was a business major. Once she experienced the joys of exploring the Great Northwest Outdoors, I was sure she would be a convert. After all, helping people discover a love for the natural world was to be my profession.
The next day, we went shopping and bought her some light, hiking boots. I was hoping she would be comfortable in them, although my old Girl Scout training about giving your boots plenty of time to break in gnawed at the back of my mind. She wore them around campus for the two or three days before the trip.
On the day of the hike, Diane and I got a ride out Chuckanut Drive in a jeep with some other students from my Outdoor Club. I craned my neck to catch the view of the rocky beach far below us and the blue, blue waters of Bellingham Bay with the lumps of islands sticking up like the back of a sea serpent.
At the trailhead we pried ourselves out of the overflowing jeep. I took a deep breath—tangy October leaf smell mixed with high country pine and a bit of salt wafting in from the bay. Diane sneezed. Looking around for the trailhead, I saw the leaders already above our heads on a narrow switchback track, which seemed to lead straight up Chuckanut Mountain. Soon we were panting and plodding along after them.
It didn’t take long for us to find ourselves at the rear of the group, because Diane’s feet were beginning to hurt. I stayed with her, helpfully pointing out the vivid red and gold maple leaves still clinging to a few trees, and cushioning the path under our feet. Diane didn’t say much. She let out a few small moans under her breath.
Finally we came out of the trees onto the top of a boulder where the others had stopped and flung down their packs. Spread out around us were dozens of giant boulders which had fallen off the cliff high above our heads. We sat down to rest in the sun and have a drink of water on the warm rocks. I heard a whimper behind me.
“My feet! I must have a million blisters!”
“Let’s take a look,” I offered, thinking guiltily of those new boots. “We’d better put some bandaids on the hot spots.”
“Hot spots!” she shrieked. “Just look at my feet! They’re bleeding all over my socks!”
It was true. The socks were red and gooey where new blisters on her heels had popped and bled into her boots. I got out the first aid kit and went to work carefully on her feet, accompanied by little yelps and muttered swear words (Diane was very refined. She would never swear loudly).
After the medical attention and a bit of lunch, someone asked,
“Where are the caves?”
Oh, good, I thought to myself. Exploring will take her mind off her feet for a while.
“Underneath you,” said our guide, and disappeared into a hole in the ground.
We stared at the soles of his boots as he wriggled into the hole, and lined up to go after him.
“Oh, no,” said my roommate, the pitch of her voice rising with every word. “No-no-no! ABSOLUTELY NOT! I am not, repeat NOT, going down into that nasty little hole!” She shook her copper curls. “I will sit right here in the sun and rest my FEET until you come out.”
No amount of persuasion had any affect on her, so I decided to retreat gracefully. After all, I wanted to continue to have a roommate after this trip, and she seemed definite about this. I glanced over my shoulder and saw that she had settled herself on a warm, sunny spot with her feet up while the rest of us got down on our stomachs and crawled, one by one, headfirst into the hole.
When my turn came and I was face to face with that hole, I was strangely reluctant to enter. My head would certainly fit, but surely not the rest of me? What if I got stuck, like Winnie the Pooh in Rabbit’s back door? What if I couldn’t stand the feeling of being in such a small, dark place? What if giant cave gophers or even cockroaches lived in these holes? Something could drop right down onto your neck in the darkness, and there wouldn’t be room to run!
Thank goodness there were people behind me, waiting for their turn to squeeze into the darkness, not to mention Diane smirking above us, or I wouldn’t have gone. Cautiously I poked my head into the hole, and then my shoulders, pulling the rest of myself through the gap. I could see by the light of the headlamp strapped around my forehead, but could only make out the boots of the spelunker in front of me.
“I can do this,” I told myself. “If only nothing wiggly drops on the back of my neck!”
I tried to put the thought of spiders out of my mind.
After we were all inside, we sat together for a minute and looked around the now larger space. It wasn’t so bad. It was like sitting in a little room, with boulders for walls and roof. Everything was dry. We began to crawl ahead again, with our hands in the dust, and occasionally putting a palm or a knee down too hard on a lumpy bit of rock. Sometimes we had to slide along on our stomachs, but nowhere could we stand upright. Still, I began to feel more confident.
“I’m spelunking,” I thought. “I am braving the dark depths of the earth to uncover its secret knowledge. I am so cool!”
It was just a little disappointing that no stalactites hung from a glittering ceiling sparkling with gems, like in the stories, nor any deep, silent pools reflected on slimy walls. I didn’t hear any sounds of dwarf hammers tapping in the distance, and there were no bats. However, we did find a little space that was big enough for all eight of us to sit upright together. We rested and talked for a while.
“How come these caves are so small and cramped?” asked one of the others. “This doesn’t look anything like Carlsbad Caverns, with the large rooms and the bats.”
“It’s not,” answered our guide. “Remember the tall cliffs outside? These caves were made by giant chunks, called talus blocks, falling off those cliffs and landing in a pile right here. We’re like ants crawling through spaces between bits of gravel. The spaces between the talus blocks make the caves.”
He would have to mention ants.
And then he turned out the lights. We all did, to “experience” the cave.
It was very quiet. Too quiet. I strained my ears for the scratching of those giant gophers, but all I could hear was the breathing of my fellow cavers, and my heart bumping and thumping inside me. Then I began to feel that the walls were coming closer—moving in on top of us. The air felt hot and stuffy. I tried to take a deep breath, but it seemed like the mountain itself was sitting on my chest. I wanted to get out. I had to get out.
“I’ll just get up and run,” I thought, but of course I was in fact wedged between two other spelunkers. Trapped!
Just as I had decided that the most sensible thing to do was to begin screaming, our leader turned his headlamp back on. Quickly, we all did the same, and I could breathe again. Whew!
We went on. Soon our path started upwards, and it seemed we were more climbing than crawling. At last, our space began to get lighter. Ahead there was a hole above our heads with sunlight pouring down into the dark like a ladder. It sure looked good to me! I wanted to climb right up that sunbeam! One at a time, we poked our heads up through the hole into the air. As I squeezed out, I found my roommate stretched out on a rock, contentedly watching us struggle up to the outside world.
“It’s been soooo nice here in the sun while you were all groveling around in the dark with the gophers,” she remarked as I came up, brushing myself off.
“But you should have seen that gopher,” I exclaimed. “Six feet long with fangs and only holes for eyes. Think what you missed!”
“Yes,” she sighed, leaning back happily on her rock, “I’m thinking.”