True story of a man trapped in a cave and my quest to experience where he lived and died.
| In Search of Floyd Collins
The story you are about to read is completely true. Every word of it. The facts, the feelings and emotions I experienced, the prayers, the tears, even the conversations, all true. It's about a personal experience of mine relating to a local Kentucky caver that lost his life in 1925. I believe his spirit guided me.
In the fall of 2005 I had the opportunity to work in Kentucky for a couple of months. Being born and raised and still living near Detroit, Michigan, I accepted the challenge. I packed some clothes and hiking gear, knowing there would be places to see in the backcountry on my weekends off, and drove to Lexington to start my job.
After being there for a few weeks my girlfriend flew from Detroit to Lexington to spend four days with me. During our time together we ventured to Mammoth Cave National Park and explored some of the caves with a group and tour guide. Caving is something everyone should experience. If you're not claustrophobic, you can enjoy the wonders of Mother Nature below the surface of the earth. Passageways, large rooms, small squeezes, pools, mud, slime, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, pits, bats, salamanders, cave crickets, cave rats, fish with no eyes, fabulous rock formations, stalagmites, stalactites, so much to see. Provided you have one thing... light.
Ah yes, light. If you've ever been on a cave tour and they turn out the lights when you're deep underground to show you the blackness of the abyss, you'll notice your eyes will never adjust to the darkness because they need light to focus. Without light nothing will ever come into view. That's why the cave fish have no eyes. They've evolved over time with no need for them. No light, no vision, no eyes.
After our tour of Mammoth Cave we walked through the gift shop where they offered many types of trinkets and things to buy, including books, maps and history literature of the cave country, which this area of Kentucky is referred to. One particular book caught my eye. It was called "Trapped" by Robert K. Murray and Roger W. Brucker. A true story set in early 1925 about a caver named Floyd Collins who was exploring the nearby Sand Cave when he was suddenly pinned by a fallen rock from above. I immediately felt compelled to buy this book and learn the tragic history of events that took the life of this local explorer. This is where my story begins.
I purchased the book and upon returning to Lexington immediately started reading this mesmerizing series of events. I had difficulty putting it down. Murray and Brucker did a fabulous job of keeping me involved as if I was there at the scene, feeling like I was trying to help get Floyd out. Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, I was there experiencing it all. I can't go into great detail about the story, if I did I'd be writing another book. But in short, here are the basics.
Floyd was an avid solo caver. He discovered many caves in the area surrounding Mammoth Cave. His most famous discovery was Crystal Cave, at the time of this writing closed to the public since 1961 after the government's National Park Service bought the land to go with nearby Mammoth. Floyd believed that these nearby caves somehow connected to Mammoth Cave and he spent most of his time exploring underground trying to find this link. The nearby Sand Cave was his final exploration.
One morning in late January 1925, he went into Sand Cave alone to explore a long, narrow, deep crevice to see if he could find a connection to Crystal or Mammoth Cave. He never came back out alive. Sixty-five feet deep and a hundred and fifty feet from the cave entrance in a narrow squeeze passage, Floyd was on his way back out when he pushed on a rock for leverage with his left foot. The rock gave way and fell from above and pinned his left foot tightly in a crevice. He couldn't move. He tried many things but couldn't reach his foot because the passage was barely wide enough for his own body to squeeze through.
It wasn't until the next day before it was discovered he was missing. Searching the areas he was known to crawl into, his coat was seen by one of the searchers hanging on a tree outside the entrance to Sand Cave. After hollering down into the cave to see if he was there, Floyd's voice was distantly heard from the bowels of the earth saying, "Yeah, I'm down here. I'm hung up. Come get me out."
For the next seventeen days they tried to free Floyd from his tomb. The passageway was so tight that only a select few could make their way down to him, periodically giving him food and water, trying to dig out rock and sand from around him with only their bare hands until the skin would scrape off them and bleed. What's more it had been raining for days and the ground was saturated above the cave. The loose limestone was now starting to collapse around Floyd, and later a cave-in closed the passageway above him.
It was determined that a rescue shaft would have to be dug next to the cave entrance to get Floyd out. This had to go down nearly sixty feet, then laterally twelve feet to get to where he was trapped. All through solid rock, limestone and sand, while the rains continued and kept water running into the shaft. The sides continued to collapse, even with shoring, and work doubled because of more debris. They estimated they could dig out two feet an hour and be at Floyd's side in thirty hours, but at times the drilling and digging was so slow that they only gained four inches per hour. When they finally broke through into the passageway with the lateral tunnel two weeks later, yes, two weeks, not thirty hours, they discovered they were about six feet or so above Floyd, making it still impossible to free his foot that was trapped below.
To make a long story short, they didn't make it in time. One doctor said, after examining Floyd upon discovery, that Floyd died probably only hours before they got to him. Exposure and starvation were said to be the culprits. Now instead of being a rescue mission, it became a recovery mission. All who were involved trying to rescue Floyd while he was alive were now not going to risk their lives to recover a body. The sixty foot deep shaft was so unstable from the rains that it was determined too dangerous to try to get Floyd's body out, so the shaft was filled and the cave entrance sealed with concrete. Floyd was now entombed in his sixty five foot deep grave.
Hundreds were involved in the rescue effort. People came from neighboring states to try to help. Crowds came just to be near the area where all the action was. Sunday, February 8, 1925 was noted as Carnival Sunday. An estimated ten to fifty thousand people were having picnics, frolicking and buying hot dogs and hamburgers from venders that set up their portable booths among the trees and charged outrageous prices for food. The military had to construct a five wire fence in a fifty yard radius from the cave, attached to trees, just to keep the crowds back.
The event was ranked the third largest news story of the century, topped only by the story of the World Wars and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.
Nearly three months later, in April 1925, the Collins family wanted Floyd out of the cave for a proper burial. They contracted a group of men that said they could get him out by digging out the original shaft, but then making a new lateral shaft lower to come in below Floyd instead of above. Once they did this, Floyd's body was extracted and brought to the surface where he was then buried on April 26, 1925, beside the Flint Ridge family homestead near the path to Crystal Cave.
Crystal Cave was sold a couple of times after that, and the business of showing the cave was getting pretty poor around 1927 due to the fact that Crystal was at the end of a muddy, choppy road that people didn't want to spend the time going down. After all, they could see all the other caves, including Mammoth, before they even reached the road to Crystal. So business slumped.
The new cave owner had a brilliant idea to boom business. How about moving Floyd's body to inside the cave so people could view him as they entered? Well, that's exactly what happened. Poor Floyd was again dug up and put in a glass covered bronzed metal coffin. Considerable work had to be done to make him presentable, and on June 13, 1927 his casket was put in Grand Canyon Avenue, the large area just inside the cave entrance so people could pass by and look at him.
The plan worked and hundreds would come to see the cave and Floyd. Not necessarily in that order, though.
Floyd was once again moved in 1989 from Crystal Cave and buried in the Mammoth Cave Baptist Church cemetary on Flint Ridge, where he continues to rest today among other family members.
Now that you have the background of the story, I highly recommend putting "Trapped "on your list of must reads. I promise you won't be disappointed, except for the outcome of course. A truly tense, aggravating sad story of a rescue attempt that went sour. For reasons you'll have to read about.
And now comes my experience with the Floyd Collins story.
It's Friday, October 29, 2005, almost eighty one years after the Floyd Collins tragedy. I've finished reading the book. I am completely moved and saddened by it all. This weekend I don't have to work. I am not going home to Michigan this weekend, either. I've thought of something else to do.
I want to find where Floyd died. I want to see where all this took place. After reading this intense story I feel like I was there trying to get him out. I'm mysteriously drawn to go back to cave country and explore the areas where Floyd explored. Alone. Not the caves, just the areas. I'm not stupid, but I want to find Sand Cave.
I was on the road early Saturday morning before the sunrise. Grabbing a coffee to go, I left Lexington and drove through the Keeneland Horse Training Area just as the sun was peeking over the horizon. The early morning thirty degree temperature left a covering of frost on the hillsides, which converted to a misty fog when being kissed by the warmth of the sunrise. Today was going to be the last day of racing at Keeneland Race Track this fall and the riders and horses were warming up on the track, breaths of steam coming from the noses and mouths of both horses and riders. I stopped to take a couple of pictures, and then continued on to cave country, about two hours to the west and south.
I feverishly studied area maps the night before, exactly locating the points I needed to track down on my journey. My first stop was Sand Cave.
The maps had it marked well, just before the entrance road to Mammoth Cave National Park. Upon my arrival, Floyd was there looking at me at the beginning of the pathway to Sand Cave. Well, a picture of him. And a brief description of what happened there eighty years ago.
I was alone. It was still pretty early in the morning, having crossed a time zone on the way and picking up an extra hour. No one was around except for me. I exited my truck, looked at Floyd, and proceeded ahead with apprehension. A decked walkway lunged from the parking area straight into the woods, twisting here, bending there, until it swept slowly to the left and stopped when it merged with a larger deck area overlooking the Sand Cave entrance. This was as far as you were allowed to go on the public pathway, about thirty feet above the entrance and fifty feet away. I stood there staring at the cave. A strange feeling came over me like I was being watched, though no one was physically there except for me.
Thinking of what took place in front of me long ago, the turmoil and despair of everyone involved in the rescue attempt, and of Floyd himself being trapped below me waiting for his release, my eyes started to well up. I could sense the chaos, the frustration and the dwindling hope that permeated the entire scene. I was being pulled in. I needed to get closer. No, not closer. I had to get in. I needed to stand inside the entrance to the cave where Floyd entered and saw his last day of natural light.
As I looked around and realized I was still the only person there, I proceeded to climb over the railing on the deck to the ground below. I walked along above the cave, still up about thirty to forty feet, then around the other side, skirting the edge of the rock overhang that sheltered the cave entrance. The rock ledges were slick from moss and morning dew and I slipped a couple of times, but caught myself on nearby trees and was able to climb down until I was at the entrance level.
It didn't look this big from the observation deck. I was standing in front of the cave entrance, actually next to the shaft that was excavated down sixty feet. Although the shaft has been filled again, a depression of about twelve to fifteen feet is still visible.
The shaft was dug in front of the entrance to the cave because they estimated Floyd was pretty much straight down and slightly over from there. I walked around behind the shaft area, then hesitantly into the cave entrance. The rocks were damp and wet yet there was no water flowing. I could taste the humidity and staleness in the air and it swallowed me. Then I looked into the opening where Floyd crawled down to his doom. I started to shake. Tears began to form again. Sorrow overcame me. Looking into the crevice I started to talk to Floyd.
"Floyd, I'm so sorry for the pain and suffering you had to go through. I'm sorry for the chaos that took place right here on the surface while you were so close and still far enough away that you were alone. I'm sorry you had to go through Hell to get to Heaven."
Expecting to see a vision of Floyd at any time, I decided it was time for me to leave Sand Cave.
Standing in the cave entrance looking out to the open air was terrifying. In front of me was freedom. Behind me was eternal capture. I walked forward.
Upon reaching safety beyond the rock overhang I looked back at the cave entrance and said goodbye to Floyd. All the time I was down there and all the time walking out to the parking area, not one person came along. I'd like to think that I was so moved and engrossed by this tragic story that this one hour was given to me to spend with Floyd Collins. He and I. One on one. For some reason I needed it. Whatever the reason, I don't know. Maybe I was here eighty years ago in another life. Maybe this was some kind of closure. Why did I feel compelled at the cave entrance to talk to Floyd and apologize for everything? I don't have an answer.
When I left the parking area I turned on Park Ridge Road and drove until I reached Flint Ridge Road, this is where Floyd is now buried since he was moved from Crystal Cave in 1989 to the cemetery at Mammoth Baptist Church. The Collins family is buried here and surviving family members wanted him to be with his father and other family members.
I pulled into the dirt drive of the church off Flint Ridge Road. Again I was alone. Stopping the truck, I exited between the church and the cemetery. Floyd's grave is the first one you come to, facing the church, closest to Flint Ridge Road. The inscription on the headstone reads:
"William Floyd Collins
Trapped in Sand Cave. Jan. 30, 1925
Discovered Crystal Cave
Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known."
I knelt down, said a few more words, touched his headstone and got in my truck and drove away. But somehow I didn't feel satisfied.
The rest of my day in cave country was spent exploring caves. With a guide on a tour, of course. The most interesting fellow was the guide, Mike, at Hidden River Cave in the town of Horse Cave. The afternoon tour consisted of me, the guide, another couple and their teenage son. That's it. So it was especially long, informative and personal. I learned much more about Floyd Collins. Everybody knows who he was and has stories about him. You'll like this next one.
The tour guide we had is a caver himself. He helps re-explore area caves for the Geological Society and they're in the process of drawing and plotting new up to date maps of the caves and passageways underground. Seems a lot of the old original ones are not too accurate and they want better maps.
Mike was exploring with two other fellow cavers in Mammoth Cave, near Crystal Cave. It was discovered years after Floyd's death that Mammoth and Crystal do in fact join together, just as Floyd had predicted but never was able to make that connection himself.
Mike continued on through a narrow squeeze for a short while and entered a large room below. There he decided to wait for the other two cavers to catch up to him. He turned off his headlamp to save batteries and waited. He waited, and waited, and waited.
Finally, a good distance across the large underground room, he began to see a faint light getting brighter as it came closer to the room from another passage.
Mike called out, "It's about time you guys got here."
Again Mike yelled, "Hey you guys, over here." He turned on his light.
Still no answer.
Mike now noticed the light was coming from an old style lantern with a single figure walking next to it. Then it was gone.
Puzzled, and thinking his friends were playing games with him, he decided to crawl back up the squeeze to wait for his buddies and when he returned they were not far away, wondering where he's been. He asked them if they came into the large room another way, but they said no. They ventured down another passageway in the other direction. Besides, they also had headlamps, not old style lanterns.
Mike figured he just saw Floyd walking from Crystal Cave to Mammoth Cave in the link that joined the two.
Told you you'd like that one. I did, too.
I was going to head back to Lexington after that tour until Mike said something else. He said that even though Crystal Cave is now closed to the public, you can still walk the old road off of Flint Ridge Road about a good mile and see the cave entrance. The cave is closed by steel gates bolted to the rock walls, but the old ticket house that sold tickets for entry to the cave back in the 20's and 30's is still there, along with Floyd's old abandoned house he lived in near the cave until his death.
Well, after hearing that, I now knew why I wasn't yet satisfied. I couldn't go back to Lexington yet. It was now after 5pm and light was getting scarce. I proceeded to book a room in a local motel for the night and tomorrow I would hike to Crystal Cave, passing Floyd's house and the old ticket office, maybe passing Floyd himself.
Early Sunday brought more frost and another thirty degree morning. Rays of sun piercing the clear sky lit up the fall colors on the rolling hills like the bright colors you see in fireworks. I grabbed a quick breakfast and headed out the door, coffee in hand. My personal mission here in cave country was not complete yet. Floyd still beckoned.
I passed no one on the road in at six thirty a.m., not one car. I saw nobody in their yards, no one tending their livestock, not a soul letting out the dog or getting ready for church. No one. Alone, again.
Once I turned down Flint Ridge Road, the long driveway to Crystal Cave was ahead on my right about a mile or two. No signs identified what it was, but according to my map, and the feeling of being drawn in, I knew it had to be the right one. A steel gate closed the road to any wheeled traffic. I parked my truck and walked past the tubular steel restriction. It was six fifty a.m.
Quiet. And I mean quiet. I could hear the frost melting off the leaves and dripping to the leaf covered forest floor. As I looked ahead I saw nothing but trees and vegetation being pierced by a narrow two track stone road. My estimation was that Crystal was at least a mile or more from where I was standing. Floyd started to pull me in.
I walked briskly because the air was cold and cutting. Large piles of animal scat were everywhere along the road and I could see semi-digested berries in them. Whatever was leaving these large droppings liked eating berries and was presumed to be sizable. My immediate impression was a large bear and I was getting very nervous, but refused to turn back.
Constantly looking deeper into the woods for any movement, I continued on.
The road twisted here and there, up and down a little, but basically stayed atop the ridge and descended on both sides. I figured I was walking at a pace of about three miles per hour, possibly putting me there in twenty minutes or so. In the distance down the road I thought I saw the side of a small building. I was excited that I was already there, but upon arrival it was a large downed tree staring back at me. The road continued deeper into the woods. The more scat I found, the more nervous I got. But I kept going. Floyd was near. I could feel him.
It was exactly twenty five minutes into the hike when I first saw the two buildings. The trees cleared out and into the vast openness sat a very small house to the left, and just to the right was the ticket building. The road made a circle in front of the two and then rejoined itself where I stood to head back out. This is where Floyd lived and Crystal Cave had to be close.
The ticket building was larger than I expected. It had a wrap around porch with a ticket window and what appeared to be a small kitchen for concessions on one side of the building, and another small room with two washrooms on the other. An open air hallway that you could walk through from the front to the back split the building in half. I explored inside a little, but being alone I hoped I didn't find anything I didn't want to. Like something that would leave large scat on the road. I moved over to the house.
A sign on the front said "Floyd Collins Home." Wow. Floyd was here. Right here. I didn't dawdle there too long. I wanted to see the cave.
As I looked around for something to show me where the cave was, I saw no evidence of it nearby. I walked around the ticket house and close to Floyd's house but didn't see anything. Around the back of Floyd's house another road, very poor condition, continued into the woods to the north.
I didn't have a compass with me but I kept watching the sun rise and knew that direction was east, so I followed the rocky road farther and deeper. After about another half mile the road turned sharply left and started downhill towards the Green River basin.
Walking became somewhat treacherous and after walking down another quarter mile or so, I stopped and had to make a decision. It was still quite a ways to the valley floor, where I thought the cave would be, but I also thought that this may not be right. Watching the sun I knew I was now heading more southwest and my map didn't indicate anything like that. Seems the ticket house would be close to the cave entrance, not another mile downhill on a road that autos of the twenties and thirties couldn't possibly travel on, let alone drive back up the steep incline.
Help me here, Floyd, I thought. Do I continue on or head back, defeated? After wrestling with myself and catching my breath, I headed back up the hill.
I was discouraged. I was mad. The whole reason I came here was to find Floyd's greatest discovery, and somehow I lost it before I even found it.
Upon reaching the two dwellings again I was more alone than ever. Defeated, I walked around one last time and looked at both buildings before the long walk back. As I stood directly between Floyd's house and the ticket building, I gazed into Floyd's window and said,
"I'm sorry Floyd. I tried. If the cave is at the end of that road, I don't have the strength to go back down and find it. If it's anywhere close by, I wish you could show me where."
As I turned to my right for one last look into the woods, I saw something I could not believe. I was standing right in the middle of a path leading downhill into the woods. RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE!!!!! Honest to God I never saw it before.
I walked across this spot the first time I came between the houses. I never saw it. But was it the path to the cave? I was definitely being told to follow.
Twenty yards down the path confirmed it. Standing at the top of the hill I discovered stone steps covered with leaves leading down and to the right. Next to the steps were the remains of wooden posts that once supported a wooden handrail, long since rotted and gone. I immediately looked back at the house. I knew Floyd was watching and smiling. I could sense his presence and was okay with it.
"Thank you, Floyd," I said. "Thank you very much."
With excitement and caution I started down the steps, clearing the leaves as I went. As I rounded the turn at the bottom, to my right, was the entrance to Floyd's greatest discovery, Crystal Cave. Less than a hundred yards from Floyd's house.
Steep steps dropped down twenty feet or so to the small cave entrance not much bigger than a door opening. But there was no steel gate closing it off as Mike the tour guide had told me the day before. It was open. And it was very, very dark.
I thought about descending to the bottom of the steps to the entrance, and if I had a flashlight I probably would have. But with no light I didn't like the idea of something possibly looking back out at me. Something, perhaps, that would leave large scat? Curiosity was pulling me in. Fear was holding me back. I stayed a bit, surveying the whole picture and wondering what it was like going on tours back in the twenties. Satisfied, I climbed back up the steps to the house.
Standing all alone on the drive I absorbed one last look of the Floyd Collins homestead. I now felt complete on my personal mission. The void I was experiencing from the beginning was gone.
This was my closure. Looking at the house I removed my hat, bowed my head and spoke one last time to Floyd.
"Floyd, again I thank you. I know without a doubt it was you who showed me Crystal. May you rest in peace."
Wiping the tears I turned and walked away, not once looking back. I wasn't on the road three minutes before I came upon a couple walking in.
Throughout all these times searching for Floyd I've been alone. It's been Floyd and me. No one else ever entered the picture except for the tour guide that sparked me to continue on my quest for completeness. Now minutes after it was all over, I'm not alone anymore.
The incoming couple stopped and chatted with me a bit. The man said he'd been here before and asked if I went into the cave. I told him I heard the cave was sealed with a steel gate, although I didn't see it from the top of the steps. I also told him I wasn't carrying a flashlight with me.
Then he said something interesting. He told me the steel gate was farther inside the cave to close off the passageway but you can walk into the entrance. As you enter you are immediately inside the large room, Grand Canyon Avenue, that Floyd first encountered and you can see the spot where Floyd's coffin was displayed until it's removal in 1989. If I had a flashlight and was with someone, I'd go in. But no flashlight and alone? Sorry Floyd. No can do.
Ten more minutes passed before I came across another family on their way in. Seems I'm really not alone anymore.
A couple of weeks ago I'd never heard of a man named Floyd Collins. I didn't know of his entrapment in Sand Cave, the agony he experienced in his last hours of being buried alive, or the frustration of the rescuers when they finally reached him much too late. But just after reading an amazing book about his whole ordeal, and visiting the sites that captured the hearts and souls of America, I can honestly say I was moved tremendously from someone I never knew. I have somehow been singled out and personally touched by a person and event that took place a long time ago in another part of the country. He pulled me in and personally guided me to my needed closure of this event, an event I wasn't even aware of weeks ago. I know he did. Because I could feel him in the end. The legend of Floyd Collins, his caving explorations and discoveries, will live on in Kentucky's cave country forever. And I will never look at another cave the same way again. At least not without a flashlight.
Closure. A word describing finality. Termination. An ending. That's the word I used, wasn't it? Closure?
I'm sorry. I used it prematurely.
Well, not totally. At the time I stood in the driveway after finding the cave I did feel closure. At the time.
The conversation I had with the people on my way out has been consuming me for these past weeks. The idea that there might be a possibility to actually enter Crystal Cave, even for only a short distance, wouldn't leave my mind. So, yes, I went back. Again.
Although I didn't have a flashlight at the time I was there, it's a different situation now. Modern caving protocol says before entering a cave you should have three sources of light. Now armed with one large flashlight, one small one and a propane lantern, it's my turn to enter Crystal Cave.
I arrived at the gated road early Sunday morning November 13th. Now I'm not superstitious, but going in on the 13th did cross my mind that maybe this wasn't the right day to explore a cave alone, especially one that's been closed to public tours for almost forty five years.
As I stepped out of my truck the brisk morning air kissed my face and once again I found myself in isolation. The quiet sound of the forest was deafening, hearing only the sound of the pebbles and fallen leaves crunch under my soles as I walked the long road back to Floyd's homestead and ticket house. My heart pounded louder with each step of anticipation bringing me closer to Crystal Cave. I wasn't even sure if I could get inside the cave entrance because I was strictly relying on the conversation I had with the couple walking in weeks before.
I seemed to arrive at the Collins homestead much quicker this time, but after checking my watch the amount of time was the same. I guess time seems to drag on going in to the unknown the first time around.
As the house came into view things looked different than it did when I was there before. Surveyors have plotted areas and stakes were pounded into the ground everywhere along with colored streamers hanging from various points on tree branches. The path to the cave was clearly marked now with ribbons leading the way right down to the entrance. Something is going to happen here, but I don't know what. Maybe the National Park Service decided it's time to preserve the Floyd Collins area.
I stood at the top of the steps looking down at the door sized rock entry to the cavern. This point is as far as I came before. Reaching into my pocket to find matches to light the lantern, I realized they were still in my truck in a place where I wouldn't forget them. I forgot them. The flashlight will have to do now. I started down the steep stone steps toward entry.
I think it was about fifteen or so steps and I found myself standing at the opening looking into darkness. The steel closure I heard about sealing off the cave was now visible. It surrounded the perimeter of the opening but no gate was intact.
Clicking on my flashlight revealed the location. It was not a gate, but a steel door, and it was lying face down on the cave floor just inside the entrance. I slowly, and cautiously, stepped inside.
No sound. Nothing. If you think about it, that was a good thing. I sure didn't need anything to growl at me. I panned the area with light. It was a fairly large room, small rocks scattered everywhere on the cave floor, with a smooth, flat ceiling. I moved my light from right to left. And then I saw it.
A large lump was in my throat. I gasped, searching for another breath of air.
Rusted, deteriorated, but clearly visible, were the remains of the metal enclosure that protected Floyd's coffin until it's removal for proper burial. Just a few feet away from me. All I could do was whisper, "Hi Floyd," and hoped I didn't get an answer.
I looked around the room but my light beam wouldn't carry across to the other side far enough to spot any passages. Besides, if I saw one I don't think I would have gone any farther than I already was. Continuing alone didn't strike me as being too bright. It's one thing to go solo backpacking like I sometimes do, in the wide open spaces, but it's another thing to go solo caving, completely underground, in a cave that's been closed to public tours since 1961.
Especially since I've never done it before. After all, Floyd was alone when he got trapped. I was happy getting this far. With one last look around, and a smile, I exited Crystal Cave.
As I reached the top of the path between Floyd's house and ticket house I heard a roaring noise approaching from the long driveway. It was getting louder by the second and I was nervous, not knowing what to expect.
Two large SUV trucks whipped into the circular drive in front of me and stopped on the opposite side. All I could think of was the National Park Service saw my truck parked at the entrance and thought I was vandalizing the cave.
As the doors swung open, five young men stared at me in bewilderment. I knew I was in trouble for something. I approached them before they had the chance to approach me.
It wasn't the Park Service. I wasn't in trouble, either. The sign on their door read Purdue University.
"What are you guys surveying?" I asked.
"We're not surveyors," one said. They were cavers that got permission to explore the cave. That's why they were able to drive in, they had the key to unlock the steel gate at the driveway.
I don't think they expected to see anybody here, hence the reason for bewilderment. They continued to stare as they gathered helmets, lights and other gear from the back of their trucks.
I told them I just came from inside the cave but was only in the large room.
"Have you guys been here before?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah. A few times."
We talked a short while and I found out that some of the old tourist trails in the cave are on the other side of the large room I was in, but I couldn't see them because of my weak light. I wouldn't have gone that far alone, but now...there were five more people. Experienced cavers. Okay, here goes.
"Listen," I said, "I'm a journalist from Detroit doing an article on Floyd Collins, and it would be great to be able to go with you guys a little ways on the tourist trails. I'll put your names in the article if you let me go with you."
That sounded enticing, didn't it? You'd take me along if I said your name would be in the article, wouldn't you?
Okay, I lied.
I didn't have enough balls to ask them. I wanted to ask so bad that I could taste it like the stale, musty air in the cave, but I guess the way they kept looking at me was telling me not to bother. I figured they'd laugh at the thought of having this inexperienced old fart tagging along for the ride. So I never really asked. But didn't it sound good for the ending to my story?
Maybe this will be a good ending. This part is true.
I made one last stop at Sand Cave on the way back. Remember the wire fencing that the military installed on Carnival Sunday to keep the crowds back? I wanted to see if there were traces of these left from eighty years ago.
Parking in the usual spot from being here previously, I again walked the boardwalk in to Sand Cave. Standing on the deck looking down, I hopped the railing and walked across the top ledge. Then I headed back into the woods where the suspected fencing was supposed to have been installed. It's been a very long time since the wire was nailed to the trees and I didn't even know if wire fencing would last this long. It may have rusted away by now.
I soon came upon the remains of a small structure, possibly an old outhouse from years gone by. Maybe it was from Carnival Sunday, I don't know. But it was old, and there wasn't much left.
Zigzagging back and forth throughout the woods, I hoped I would come across some trace of fencing somewhere, constantly picking out the largest trees and checking for traces of wire. I wasn't having any luck. An hour of searching the entire area turned up nothing.
I started heading out towards the boardwalk, defeated. Well, maybe not. If the wire was all rusted and gone there wouldn't be anything to find. But I still looked at every big tree on the way out, coming up empty.
My conclusion was there was nothing left to find.
I was wrong.
Once again, I turned to Floyd.
"Floyd," I said. "I'm twenty yards from the boardwalk, on my way out. If there's something to find, help me find it."
Walking to the boardwalk I spotted one more large tree fifteen yards to my left. I was tired. I've been walking through the woods for an hour. Do I really want to walk over there, out of my way, to check this last tree? Floyd says I better.
Stumbling my way over logs and limbs I reached the tree. Narrow sticks were protruding from the center of the trunk about five feet above the ground. Actually, upon closer examination, they were not sticks at all. Should I continue?
Yes, the sticks were actually pieces of fence wire right in the middle of the tree. The fence was originally nailed to the side of the tree, but years of growth had raised the wire five feet above the ground and buried the wire inside. The tree actually grew around the fence. Floyd pointed me in the right direction once again.
Now isn't that a better ending? And it's true.
Later that day I called one of my boys back in Michigan and told him of my adventures in cave country, mainly the recent expedition in Crystal Cave. Naturally he thought I was crazy, but when I suggested all of us driving down one weekend to explore Crystal a little bit, he was eager to come along.
So at this time I'll have to close the book on the search for Floyd Collins Crystal Cave. I've been in the entrance of Sand Cave and saw the sealed passageway where he died, walked his property to his home and ticket house, entered Crystal and viewed where his body was displayed for years and found the remnants of fencing that held people back from Sand Cave during the rescue attempt eighty years ago. Floyd has shown me the things I came to see. I again have closure. I'm happy and content.