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My Cave? Really?

I wrote this many years ago now. Looking back on it now, this piece seems more than a little self-serving and even bitter, although there's really no reason for the latter. Actually, in this case I was very much a minor and short-time player in explorations that took years to accomplish. In the midst of all the whining, however, I'm trying to make a point about the connection that cavers make with a particular cave or a project, when it becomes something you lie awake at night thinking about.

The cave here is now one of the primary entrances to Nunley Mountain Cave (also known by its looney owners as Maria Angela Grotto). For the most part, access to this huge system has been denied ever since the rescue recounted here took place in February of 1982. The cavers in the story, people like Joe Douglas and Tom Pride, have gone to become distinguished in their own lives, and I am proud to say I knew them when they were a little less famous.

It was my cave, and slipped away from me as easily and as quietly as it had come.

Nobody owns a cave any more than anyone owns the sky or the trees or a waterfall. Like the Indians who have long since vanished, I prefer to think that these natural things belong to everyone, despite the efforts of men who think better, who think a legal deed gives them some greater right. If there were justice in the world, these places of beauty would belong only to those who appreciated them, at least to those who didn't defile them with beer cans and candy wrappers and carelessness--but in fact they belong to everyone, every one of us.

Ownership is, after all, a psychological state, something decided on paper, and most important, in someone's mind. Except in that imaginary fashion, no one really owns a cave, but I had that kind of delicate fantasy in my mind when it came to Dripping Springs Cave. Back in those days, we called it October Ten Cave. At the time that cave seemed to belong to me, and I look back now like a man remembering a love he stupidly let get away.

The cave was just a six inch hole in the bottom of a sinkhole when I came across it and first started digging it open. It wasn't my cave then; it hadn't been my idea to walk up the mountain and check out that particular sinkhole, but all the same I worked for twenty minutes alone, peering down into that blowing hole, getting dripped on while others stood above in the sunshine. I was there at the start, right at the beginning, and I thought I would be there at the finish.

And I was there on a Thursday night, when the entrance had been opened but explored only fifty feet to a pit, when Joe Douglas and I slipped down the pit so nonchalantly into bigger caver. At the bottom of that pit, Joe and I went our separate ways in search of what might be around the corner. My passage led back under the breakdown of the entrance, capturing the water from the sinkhole and guiding it down between wet, dark blocks of breakdown. Sometimes I wonder if anyone has ever looked at that place again, there in the breakdown. Maybe no one has ever bothered, and that much of the cave can still be mine.

Joe followed his passage into a vaulted high dome and then into a crawlway which now bears his name. But Joe turned turned around in that crawlway and was leaving the cave by the time I got there. I didn't turn around. I came to the top of a waterfall and climbed twenty feet down clean white limestone walls--and I remember my heart beating against my chest as I climbed down all alone in the water, knowing that something big was down there--pushing on to the lip of a 24 foot pit, where I could only stare downward into a large dome room. That night I felt extraordinary and special, and a bond was made; that night I felt like Joe and I had a cave all our own.

Joe and I were driving out through the muddy tracks in the cove, I had just gotten back into Joe's Vega after opening one of the gates.

"How was it?" Joe asked.

"It was cold, and it rained..." I said.

"And I felt like an actor," Joe finished, quoting a line from Bowie's Ziggy Stardust. Somehow, at that moment, Joe and I connected, and despite how common and simple that moment was I will never forget it.

Why is that we care so much about the intangible, impossible things? What is it that brings us back? A month later, I am back, feeling the hollowness of hypothermia, shivering with David Parr down in the passage later called Roger's River (I spelled my name without the "d" in those days, with a lightning bolt next to it), unwilling to turn back. Although the phrase is all too common, I remember David turning to me and saying, "I'm cold as hell!" because we really were, at that moment, really cold as hell, dangerously cold. Why did we keep going so much longer than we should have? Why is it that we go into caves or climb mountains, or do any of the "because it's there" things? Maybe it's as simple as this: we are looking for something new, something untouched, something that will finally prove that we are out of the ordinary.

If a young explorer dreams of being one of the "super cavers," being one of the lucky ones who knows he has done things and been places that make him extraordinary, then the whole world is divided into three classes of people. There are ordinary, boring people (non-cavers), average cavers (the middle class), and what we used to call super cavers (rich and famous) who are always magically in the right places at all the right times, always one step ahead of everyone else. I went into Dripping Springs Cave wanting to be a super caver, knowing somehow that by luck and persistance I had stumbled onto the right place.

The day that I stopped trying to be out of the ordinary was on my twenty-second birthday, and on that birthday instead of being the hero I was watching my cave leave me forever, seeing it parceled out to confident young men who didn't deserve it, who weren't part of the original circle, who hadn't put in the miles. A good young caver named Tom Pride hung in a waterfall and came close to dying; a veteran caver named Richard Greer fell because a pit wasn't rigged properly; and although neither one of those events was my fault, I cannot to this day shake off my own blame. Even now, my memories are clothed in what-ifs: if I had not been sick with bronchitus, if I had not sprained my ankle, we might have avoided that whole, ugly rescue and all of its repercussions.

A helicopter landed in the cove that night. News teams from around the region reported on the rescue, and the Ramsey's declared their cave off-limits for once and for all.

Maybe nothing has been the same since that one lousy night. Maybe I gave up my claim to the cave when Richard and I dragged ourselves up the climbs and out through the waterfall into the February darkness, when I found myself limping about outside during the rescue, when I became just an ordinary person, another bystander. At least it's convenient to think of it that way, to whine and feel sorry for myself. I went back to Vanderbilt wiped out and sick and depressed, trying to explain what had happened to my girlfriend and students in the pub who had heard about the rescue on television and anybody else who would listen. And others went back to the cave, back to my forbidden place of disaster, where I had found myself utterly helpless to help anyone but myself, and those other people pushed on through the virgin passages, made the connections and discoveries I will never see.

It was my own cave, a place that just those few of us could claim, and it slipped away as quietly and as easily as it had appeared.

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