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Train Soot, Bones, and Bears

For hundreds of years, Lookout Mountain Caverns has fascinated those passing through Chattanooga. Indians and later Civil War soldiers explored with torches; Andrew Jackson, along with hundreds of others, left his signature. So many came after the war that a caretaker was put in place to collect admission, and in the 1880's, three men are said to have spent two weeks in the cave when their light failed. But in 1908, a railroad tunnel cut into the cave, filling its passages with the black soot of the coal-burning engines, and the railroad blocked the entrance to keep people out. In the 1920's Leo Lambert blasted a 420 foot shaft down to the cave from the slopes above, hoping to make his fortune by reopening the cave to tourists. At 260 foot level the shaft--completely by accident, the legend goes--he intersected the upper cave that became known as Ruby Falls. The lower cave was opened briefly for tourists, then all but forgotten.

Long ago, Andrew Jackson had been there. More recently, Kent Ballew and Neeld Messler had been there, discovering and exploring thousands of feet of new cave. Me, I'd never been there, so when Kent invited me to join him to help retrieve an ancient bear skull from the innermost reaches of the mountain, I started gathering my gear.

Four of us met at Ruby Falls early on Saturday, May 2, 1992: Kent, Neeld, Dan Twilley, and me. After receiving appropriate stares from the tourists waiting in line, we boarded the elevator and were whisked down to the lower cave. The attendant flicked on the lights and bid us farewell. After suiting up in wetsuits and nylon cave suits, we left the walkways and bare lightbulbs of the tourist path behind and waltzed down the dry passage. On the walls around us were signatures dating back to the Civil War.

"Anything before 1863 is Confederate," Kent said. "Anything after is Yankee." It wasn't hard to imagine which side he would be on. There is a photograph in Outside magazine in which Kent is shown gazing up from the bottom of the Sinkhole, a Confederate flag draped over his shoulder. The picture is captioned "Portrait of a Rebel."

We climbed down to meet a sizable stream, and pushed on through into stoop passage. All at once Kent stopped in his tracks. There, half buried in the cobblestones, was a jawbone with a gigantic tooth at the end, like that of saber-tooth tiger. Kent marked the spot and we continued for another thousand feet of predominantly walking stream passage to reach "the gate," a low constriction. Andrew Jackson probably never made it this far. For the early explorers, the gate must have been a terrifying distance from daylight. Yet somewhere in this area is a signature from Shelia Waters, a solo explorer who in the 1870's had left his lonesome signature many miles inside Cumberland Caverns, just to the north.

"Waters was here," Kent said. "Alone, I'll bet."

Kent is that same kind of person, a solo caver, a free thinker, a man who once lived for months in a tent out in the woods. Had he been around in the 1870's, he might have been an outlaw, a gunfighter with a black hat--either that or the sheriff who shoots him down. Once, when this had been the end of the cave, Kent had been on his belly in this passage, peering into the stream crawl beyond the gate, feeling the wind on his face. He crawled, then slithered into the icy water, turned his head sideways and held his chin up to the ceiling to breathe, knowing that the cave didn't end there. And he was right.

Now, a year or more later, Kent slid his body forward again and bellowed out a tune, a raunchy blues song about cold water and pain in his knees. Dan joined in, and I countered with the theme from the Red Food Stores commercial. Neeld, a decade younger than any of us, just crawled. The good life to Neeld means freedom to travel, living in the back of his International Scout, and going caving constantly. Later, when I'm tired and muddy and can think only of how nice that hot shower is going to be, Neeld will ask if I want to go do a wet multi-drop with him that afternoon, and he'll be completely serious.

Only a few hundred feet past the low airspace, we reached an intersection to the right. Though we were now a mile or more under the mountain from the train tunnel, soot coated the passage, almost beautiful in the way that black snow would be beautiful, disturbed only by the tracks left by Kent and a very few others on previous trips. In a belly crawl just beyond, we gazed in fascination at the complete skeleton of a bird-like creature--either a very tiny dinosaur, we decided, or a chicken--which lay preserved in soot like something out of the Smithsonian.

The bear skull was just a few hundred feet beyond, a foot in length, massive teeth still showing, stuck to the floor of a high dome down which it had probably fallen many hundreds or thousands of years ago. Kent and Dan carefully dug it out, packaged the skull in a plastic container filled with Styrofoam peanuts, and we began our careful exit. Past the chill of the water crawl, we stopped to retrieve the "saber-tooth" jawbone, then added it to the peanuts.

We took a short tour of the old commercial cave before changing clothes at the elevator. I was astounded. There was almost nothing to the front part of the old commercial cave, just a few hundred feet of very straightforward passage, of walking dimensions but not much bigger, and a grand total of two formations. Did Leo Lambert really think this cave would make his fortune? Did he sink his shaft just by chance at the one place where Ruby Falls overlaps? Or did he know about Ruby Falls beforehand, as people said even then? We stood waiting for a lull in the tourist traffic high above so the elevator could descend to pick us up, wondering.

The four of us walked out of the building dragging our duffel bags of wet gear, our faces still a bit sooty, receiving more stares from the tourists. The bones, Kent said, would be sent off for analysis and then would probably end up in display case somewhere. But before that could happen, before we could go home, there was one more thing to do.

We posed under the little arch that said, "My Trip Through Ruby Falls," holding an ancient bear skull and a jawbone from a saber-tooth cat, their wicked teeth shining in the bright sun.

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