In the moist, elemental rind of the Earth, the balance shifts. I am on my belly, twisting through a subterranean, mud-slicked limestone passage in West Virginia, and am for the first time legitimately trying to keep up with my 10-year-old son, Kai.
I’m here with him, his friends Curtis and Finn, and a guide in late March, exploring one of this state’s 5,000 known caves, most of which (like this one) have no parking lot, interior lighting, gift shop, or even signs.
In fact, our guide, Lester Zook, agreed to take us in this cave on the condition that I reveal neither its name nor its precise location. So: We’re somewhere outside the one-stoplight town of Franklin, about an hour mostly west of Harrisonburg, Va., above a bucolic valley west of the Shenandoah Mountains where hills choked with oak and hickory trees rise and fall like banjo rolls.
“When you move in a cave, do so slowly,” Zook says as we stand in sunshine beneath a rock wall, pondering the pumpkin-size hole at our feet — our portal to adventure. “There’s seldom a reason to be in a hurry.”
Zook, 58, is a wiry 5-foot-6, an ideal build for crawling around underground. He wears well-worn blue coveralls with integrated knee and elbow pads, and hiking shoes. As he instructed when I phoned, we're dressed for mud and for the near-constant 52-degree Fahrenheit air of this cave.
Zook views backcountry activity as an antidote to the smother of safety and structure that children face in the modern world. "The outdoors is basically a giant gymnasium," he says. "And it's different than traditional sports. There's no coach, no screaming audience, no humiliation or bench time. The kids can just be themselves."
With, of course, a few rules.
He leads us through a safety briefing, checks our helmets and headlamps, ensures that everyone has a whistle, and asks the boys how they think people find their way through cave systems.
Yes, Zook confirms, some mark walls with spray paint, but that's bad eco-juju and, in many places, illegal. No, people don't leave trails of crumbs. As for those who rely on their memories, Zook says, "We have a word for them: lost."
He then pulls out his favored method — a map and a compass — and gives a brief primer on how to use them before dropping to hands and knees and leading us underground.
The hole opens to a descending crevice and we climb down 15 feet of puddle-laden ledges until we reach a relatively level path where we can touch the walls on both sides.
After a few twists and turns, this alleyway opens to a dome the size of a large dining room. We’re in a rock world. On one side, the ages have stacked multi-ton slabs of limestone like hastily shuffled playing cards. Shadows dance across the walls, ceiling, floors, and geologic clutter, which runs the gamut of brown — russet, sand, walnut, tan, chocolate, khaki.
Water drips from stalactites that finger down from the ceiling, the smallest of which are known as soda straws, with each drop leaving behind a residue of calcite that further extends the formation. In many places, the calcite is fashioning stalagmites on the floor, glossy nubs that appear translucent white in the center. Some of these have bubbled together into flowstones, alluringly smooth formations that resemble miniature caramel mountain ranges.
We sit and switch off our lights. Total darkness. As in, can’t-see-your-hand-an-inch-from-your-face dark. “I can’t see anything!” Finn says in what I hope is more amazement than terror.
Total darkness is one of the factors that makes a cave a cave, versus, say, a hole; to earn the label, caves (or caverns; there's no difference) must also have formed naturally and be big enough to hold a person.
I’m enjoying the complete shutdown of one of my senses and wondering what it would be like to try to find my way out of here blind when Zook turns his headlamp back on.
He assigns Kai and Curtis to Navigation Team A and helps them orient to generate a hypothesis. "We think there's a passage around that corner," Curtis says, pointing toward a shadow. Sure enough, the route squeezes through a notch before widening into a room decorated with stalactites and stalagmites, including some in an upper corner that have grown together in three-foot floor-to-ceiling columns.
Around the next bend, Zook points out a hibernating brown bat, about the size and cuteness of a mouse, dangling as though its feet were super-glued to the underside of a ledge. We see few other signs of animal life, just three spiders and a small pile of bones, including what appear to be the vertebrae of a sizable mammal.
"No clue," Zook says when I ask the species. "Maybe some bear fell in here and couldn't find his way out."
Of all the emergencies I imagined — claustrophobia, ankle sprain, boys sprinting off with compass and map — I never considered that we might stumble upon a predator. But Zook says such a confrontation is highly unlikely. “Mammals don’t wander too far underground,” he says, although he’s heard of cavers encountering groundhogs and coyotes.
Zook appoints Finn and Kai to Navigation Team B and, in what an astute student would take as a harbinger, counsels us on how to negotiate extremely tight spaces.
“If you feel like you’re getting stuck or claustrophobic, focus on breathing. Next, work on micro-movements; often, you’ll find you can move one body part a little, then another. Don’t fight the cave: You’ll only make things worse.” Never pull or push people in a tight spot, he says, which might get them entrapped.
We face two crawls where I have to back out a few times and reorient my helmet-shoulder-torso alignment to shimmy through. But none is what cavers call chest compressors — spaces so tight one must fully exhale to make it through — and they all open to larger spaces quickly enough that I don’t freak out.
Our last stop is the Art Museum, a loftlike nook where visitors have plastered the walls with mud sculptures — a cartoonish skull, an impressive rendition of the James Madison University “Duke Dog” mascot, and other 21st-century references that detract, ever so slightly, from the ancient vibe down here.
Kai and I get the final Nav Team assignment — steering us back to daylight. After we plot out the necessary turns, I promptly lead us into a cul-de-sac, proving that, left to my own skills in a more labyrinthine cavern, I’d be dead.
My son jumps past me. “Dad, let me go in front.” He darts around one last corner and climbs toward a keyhole of sunlight without looking back.