Underground Odyssey

Entrance to Cathedral Cave
The entrance to Cathedral Cave. Missouri State Parks website.

I'm scared.

I'm so scared that pain is carving a cave in my stomach. I'm scared because I'm about to meet a bunch of strangers. I'm scared because I'm about to go deep inside a cave with those strangers. I'm scared because I have a black garbage bag full of caving equipment, and I swear I forgot something.

When I get scared like this, my body shuts down. I want to go to sleep. I want to keep everybody away from me. In short, I want to crawl under a rock. In about an hour, that's what I will do.

I sit inside the Visitor Center at Onondaga Cave State Park and wait. It's past noon, and the strangers are late. Maybe I can drive off, I think. I'll tell them I couldn't find Leasburg, Mo., let alone the park. I can just ask them how the trip went later.

I sit and feel scared and want to throw up. I'm scared because I'm not wearing any underwear.

Scientific Showplace

Cathedral Cave is 500 million years old and still kicking. It is considered "alive," which means it continues to grow and change. A stream flows through it. Stalactites protrude from the ceiling, and stalagmites spike up from the floor. They still grow, thanks to the calcium carbonate solution that drips into the cave and precipitates back into solid form. This drip is very, very slow ˜ about a square inch every hundred years.

Like most caves, Cathedral Cave is made of carbonate rock. Millions of years ago, the rock dissolved as water came in contact with it. This water contained carbon dioxide that was picked up from the atmosphere and soil above and carried underground. The water and carbon dioxide combined to form carbonic acid, which ate away the rock.

According to the cave guide manual, Fair and Everett Pinnel and Clifford Adair were the first people to enter the cave in 1919. It was opened for commercial purposes from 1930 until World War II, when tourists stopped coming due to gas rationing. It was a "show cave," which means that guides took people into the cave on tours. Under new ownership, the cave was re-opened in 1976 as Missouri Caverns. This lasted only two years, and it became part of the state park in 1981.

The Novice

It is a sunny Sunday in Leasburg, with the temperature hovering in the mid-60s. Despite the lack of underwear, I am sweating.

I am wearing no cotton because cotton holds water. I wear a bright orange fleece sweatshirt, some nylon running pants and wool socks. I also wear black Altama boots, which are made by a company that contracts for the Department of Defense.

About a quarter after noon, Ben Miller finds me and says we're about ready to go. Ben, 23, has bleached blond hair and jumps around a lot while talking, possibly a result of the Sam's Mountain Lightning soda he gulps down. He is the kind of person who sees the digitally created caves in movies such as The Lord of the Rings and wants to explore them. Maps of two caves, Crystal in Missouri and Jewel and Wind Cave in South Dakota, hang on his living room wall. A parks and recreation major, Ben hopes to graduate from college, go to graduate school and eventually become a cave manager.

I had actually met our entire group the week before at the Chouteau Grotto meeting. The grotto, one of about 11 in Missouri, is a local group that meets once a month at the community room of Boone Electric Cooperative to talk about caves. After the meeting, the members like to go to G & D Pizza & Steak to talk about caves some more and drink Heineken.

Through the course of the evening, cavers with doctorates meet with student cavers who meet with cavers from all walks of life. They can be elitist; one tells me that "spelunkers" are people who go into caves without enough light, take stuff out and ruin things for the rest of us. The grotto members are not spelunkers; they are "cavers."

But they also want to help. Ask members for a tip on caving, and they will tell you to join a grotto. The combined knowledge at the Chouteau Grotto is overwhelming. They don't just know how to explore a cave; together they are familiar with almost all of the more than 5,000 known caves in the Missouri area.

This month's meeting lasts more than four hours, with time evenly split between Boone Electric and G & D. As it gets closer to 11 p.m., the only people left at the restaurant are the grotto and some drunk guys at a distant table. Ben talks to me about the air in the caves. If you can feel or hear air moving, you know there is more to the cave. The air moves because it is equalizing with something else farther along.

"Follow the wind," Ben tells me.

Rita Worden, the grotto president, and Ben tell me about Lechuguilla Cave in the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. It is a dream destination for cavers, thanks to its enormity and spectacular formations. It is the deepest cave in America. Unfortunately for the average caver, Lechuguilla is closed to all but the most important researchers.

"It's every caver's dream to find another Lechuguilla," Rita says.

Our group for Cathedral Cave is loaded with experts. Tiffani Addington is a park naturalist at Onondaga, so she knows the cave better than any of us. Jessie Bebb is the vice president of the grotto and a forestry major at MU. Keri Renfroe first visited Rock Bridge State Park on a motorcycle and sings along with Dave Matthews on the radio. She and Ben are classmates in the Geography of Caves class at MU. And then there is me.

Underground Inspiration

Joe Hobbs, the professor of Ben and Keri's class, was born in New Mexico near Carlsbad Caverns. He went to a show cave when he was a kid and has been smitten ever since. Hobbs has caved in Egypt, South India, Madagascar and Malaysia. He has devoted his studies to how people use caves. They serve as places of worship and meditation, burial sites and commercial areas. The idea of a person alone in a cave appears in the spiritual traditions of numerous cultures. In Malaysia, hermits go into caves to seek spiritual solace. Mayan shamans in the Yucatan, who go into caves to have visions, see caves as portals or doors that lead somewhere else.

Hobbs studied a Thai nun who gives moral and spiritual guidance to Buddhists. She lives in a cave but uses a cell phone to take appointments. The number one problem she counsels about is money.

Despite all this, little has been written about why people find caves to be so spiritual. Hobbs intends to change that. He is working on a book on the subject and suggests that people go into caves because they are so different from other environments. They are in between light and dark, not quite land nor water. The temperature is constant. As Hobbs says, "They fall into nether zones."

So does Hobbs go into the caves for spiritual experiences?

"They have given me more reverence than I've ever had for other people's religions," he says. He believes people go into caves for spiritual reasons without even realizing it.

Inside Cathedral Cave. Missouri State Parks website.

No Turning Back

We are going on a "through trip," which means we go in one way and out another. Most tours of Cathedral Cave are not through trips ˜ they go in so far and come out the same way. We are lucky, I am told.

But I'm still scared. We have driven toward the top of the cave. I'm not scared of the strangers; they are all college students and, therefore, we have a lot in common.

I'm scared of going underground. For one thing, I'm a bit claustrophobic. I'm also out of shape. Lastly, I give up easily and might want to quit at the first sight of a challenge.

We put on our helmets with the light straps that make us look like miners. I borrowed mine from Ben. It has a sticker that says, "Helmet Laws Suck."

The first part of the cave is the commercial entrance. The floor has been paved. It is a decidedly surreal experience to be on a sidewalk underground.

The guides explain cave formation to me. They also point out some of the cool elements. Near the beginning, we see some grotto salamanders in the water. More accurately, the people with me see them. I can't find them, in part because they are so little, but also because my helmet light is going dim.

After about 1,300 feet, we come to the formation for which the cave is named. Resembling a cathedral, this is a huge room with a column about 25 feet high, 15 feet wide and 10 feet thick. Opposite the column are some stairs in the mud.

I ask if these are natural, and the guides laugh.

After the cathedral room, we go off the cement path, over a railing and into some knee-deep, ice-cold water. I sink into the mud, which scares me because I think my boots will fall off. Fortunately, they don't.

My light gets even dimmer, so much that I am relying on the other cavers so I can see. Of course, I don't tell them about this (probably due to macho posturing, I think), but they all notice. Tiffani asks me if I have any spare batteries. I don't. We try her spare ones, but the light doesn't get any brighter. She gives me a spare light to put on, and I can now see just how gorgeous the cave is.

The cave becomes smaller at this point but no less amazing. We are careful not to hit our heads on the low ceilings because we could easily knock off some of the stalactites. That would be reckless caving.

The stalactites are beautiful. Pure calcite is translucent when light is shined on it; it appears to glow. Even though the underground is frequently associated with hell, this glow makes it more like heaven.

We see some "cave bacon" in the ceiling. Also called ribbon stalactite, cave bacon forms when water flows through a crack in a slanting ceiling. In essence, it is a wide but flat stalactite. It looks like bacon.

As we get farther into the cave, we see some bats. Contrary to rumors, local bats are actually only about two inches tall and are relatively harmless. Whenever we see bats, we get quieter because they have an acute sense of hearing, and we don't want to scare them.

One of my fellow cavers looks up and giggles. I look at the ceiling where I see, hanging upside down, two bats doing it in a position that can only be called "batty-style."

New Territory

"Why didn't I do an article on supermarkets?" I ask Ben.

I have walked through mud and rushing water and hit my helmet on the ceiling too many times to count. We've crawled on mud. Now, I am crawling, slowly, on rocks, because the cave ceiling is only a foot and a half above the floor.

Near where the cave forks, Keri had spotted an opening above the path. She crawled in, and we followed her. The passage wasn't on the map. It probably hadn't ever been touched. We had found virgin cave.

Keri crawls ahead, and the path gets smaller and smaller. Eventually it gets down to around four inches. I am farther behind where the cave is a little higher, but not by much.

Ben, who has been crawling behind me, tells me to lie down. I do. He crawls directly over me. Ben, Jessie and Keri are ahead of me in a tiny passage. Ben pushes farther.

"I can't do it," he says eventually. He's reached his limit.

"That's the first time I've heard him say that," Jessie says later.

We crawl back out of the opening, and all of us are excited. We have gone where no one had gone before, underground.

As we move closer to the exit, there is less and less water. Eventually we reach another passage where we have to crawl. I don't have kneepads; my friend who loaned me the all the equipment didn't mention those.

I crawl on my belly, rocks poking into my hungry stomach. They tear into my nylon pants as I move, about three inches at a time, toward more darkness. My pants start falling down and only some polyester gym shorts rest between me and crawling naked on rocks.

As I crawl, I realize that I've never, ever done this before. I am crawling as if my life depends on it, because it does. We have passed the point of no return. I will have to crawl on rocks if I go on or if I go back.

Despite my foggy glasses, I see the light in the distance; we are approaching the end of the cave. There is literally light at the end of the tunnel. I move along, grunting and swearing. Tiffani, Jessie and Keri have made it out of the cave, and my slowness is keeping Ben behind me. I move faster as I see the end. Like Winnie the Pooh stuck in Rabbit's hole, I squeeze my way out of the cave exit. After being in total darkness for three hours, the light is stunning. It is beautiful.


Keri later tells me that the strain you feel in a cave gets your endorphins pumping. But I would like to believe something else also happened. Like the Malaysians, maybe I had some sort of spiritual experience. I wasn't scared any more. I felt a weird feeling; instead of cursing my body for its flabbiness and weakness, I was proud of it for getting me the hell out of the cave.

When I was in high school, I realized that it is impossible to be truly alone. At almost all times, I realized, someone knows where you are. I became obsessed with sneaking off to parks by myself, just so I could feel like part of oblivion.

Being in the cave took me back to that obsession.

Afterward, I ask Jessie to elaborate on what she meant when she said time dissolves in a cave.

"You eat when you're hungry," she says. "You rest when you're tired. Your parents can't find you."

In other words, you are on nature's clock. And that's nothing to be afraid of.

This article originally appeared in the September 19, 2002 edition of Vox Magazine.

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