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As Nuts as It Gets

January 28, 1990: Annie was waiting for me with the message when I got home on Saturday night. She'd written it down on a scrap of paper: "Tight, lots of water, lots of air." Kent Ballew had called, and he and Neeld Messler had gotten into going passage at one of their secret digs.

"You're an accomplice now, man," they said when I met them at the secret parking spot. Bethany leans forward out of the truck and brushes back her long hair blonde hair, gives us all a funny look, and drives away. I've been on some sneaky caving trips before, but this is the first time I've ever been an accomplice.

Neeld and Kent have done a job on the dig site: the hole is six feet of diameter, ten feet deep, with the stream now splashing down into a clean limestone cavity. "Clear!" Neeld yells from below, and I start my descent, feet first into the hole, trying to keep the dirty water from splashing on my lips. With my helmet off I squeeze forward through a foot-wide slit into passage large enough to sit up. Neeld is just ahead, pointing out rocks that I shouldn't touch, thoughts I shouldn't think. Fifty feet inside, just down a ten foot chimney, I'm looking into the tight spot where the passage narrows to ten inches. Kent has blasted here, but with poor results. Helmet and battery off, I edge my body into the slit. The extra quarter inch of the wetsuit is almost too much. I hold my breath, wiggle my chest around, feel the knobs of rock sliding across my ribs. Then I'm through, able to breath again.

People find out I go into caves, usually when a co-worker or a relative talks, and I can imagine the horrible things that go through their minds, visions of being crushed to death in the dark, of cold and dank places. Sometimes I try to tell them it isn't that way at all, not all that bad. Fifty feet inside the Secret Trestle Cave, I reconsider. This one, I think, is as horrible as they think.

Kent can't fit through the tight spot with a wetsuit on, despite two attempts and numerous blows with the hammer. He retreats to undress, and I move down through breakdown to join Neeld in a small, drippy chamber, the limit of previous exploration. A small hole is the top of a forty foot pit; we rig one of Buddy Lane's 5/16" PMIs to a bolt set on the previous trip. Neeld starts yelling after he squeezes down into the pit. There's another drop below, he says.

Kent goes down, and I follow. The second drop is about fifty feet. We stand shivering on the windy, wet platform as Kent hammers the drill for another bolt. Down we go, one two three, but the only passage from the bottom is a tight, twisting crawl. The air and water are being sucked in, and so am I. Twenty painful feet inside, I am stopped by a twisting turn to the right, and back out. This is one of those nasty, heavilyi fossilized crawls that tear at your skin like thousands of little teeth, with big molars of chert projections to hang you up and hold you in place. Kent starts up the rope, while Neeld enters the crawl. He comes out, tries again feet first.

He's doing it. Neeld is contorting himself to get around the twist. "Relax, Neeld!" he tells himself, and then, to me, in a voice that's almost pitiful: "You're not going to leave me?" Hearing that lonely voice, I cannot help but think of Floyd Collins. What if Neeld gets caught in there, past the twist? How long can Neeld's body last in the air and water? I could go in feet-first, as he did, maybe get around the twist, but then what? Poke at him with my feet? The sounds of his movements fade. I'm shivering, and back out of the crawl to the dome. Kent yells from above, says he's freezing and will see us on the surface. I go back into the crawl and lay staring into the jagged slit. How is it possible, I think, that a human being could live in that space? And yet he's doing it. Neeld is alive in there somewhere.

His blonde head appears around the twist. He struggles. "Relax, Neeld," he says. The head is withdrawn. A hand comes around the corner, groping, then the blonde hair. "Relax!" Neeld shouts at himself. The head disappears. To me: "It looks so easy!" On the third try, something clicks; Neeld finds the missing piece. He slides through the twist, emerging on his back. I wince as he ripples his body across the jagged rock, but he grins. "Simple," he says. "Simple."

And in that fleeting moment of sanity I think: My God, they're right about us. We really are nuts.

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