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Remembering Solution Rift

June 4, 1994

About a decade ago I went to a cave called Solution Rift with the Nashville Grotto. It was, I think, the first time I had ever done a pulldown trip that is, going in an upper entrance and pulling the doubled rope down behind you in a succession of pits in order to exit at the base of the mountain. I remembered everything about that trip: walking through poison ivy on the hike to the cave, loaning a wetsuit to Jim Hodson, the pits, the passages, the long crawl out the lower entrance.

I try never to forget a cave. When I get home from a trip, I usually write down all the pertinent facts just to make sure. Otis Farmer is just the opposite. He goes caving all over the place, and never records anything. Otis forgets the names of caves he's seen. If he remembers the name, he doesn't always remember the place, who was with him, and eventually whether he went there at all. Well, that's fine. If Otis can visit the same cave twice and see it for the first time on both occasions, that's wonderful in a silly sort of way, kind of like my own proclamations that a cave remains virgin if you don't use a light. Even Alan Cressler, an extremely prolific caver who keeps careful records, has been known to find what he thought was a new cave, only to discover that it was not virgin, and worse, to find upon checking his journal that the footprints were his own. Like Alan, I pride myself on knowing my way through any number of caves, but as the years go by, I find myself drawing a blank more and more often.

Alas, memory is a strange and unknowable thing. Although we might through sheer determination will ourselves to remember one particular moment in time or another, the pictures that pop into my mind decades later are usually insignificant details. I see myself walking through poison ivy, but I can't tell you how many drops we rappelled in Solution Rift back in 1984 (or even know the year with any certainty) because like Otis I didn't write any of it down. There was a time in the mid-1980's when I went caving and just didn't bother to write up my trips, and now an ever-increasing number of caves and dates and events are lost to me. Like a rock climber halfway up a crag without a rope, I put myself at the mercy of the world and all its events, relying on dormant brain cells and dusty neural pathways that may or may not still exist.

And so when Otis Farmer, Dawn Flynn, Roger Wells, another fellow named David, and I arrived at the lower entrance to Solution Rift on June 4, 1994, perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that even the spring wasn't quite as I remembered. I was reassured as I made the hike up the mountain, taking my own route, climbing steadily to the elevation that seemed right and then walking directly to the entrance. I sat down on a rock near the sinkhole intending to guide the others in, only to hear voices below. Otis and Dawn were already at the entrance.

Inside, we stepped over one pit (a minor detail, quite forgettable) and arrived at the first drop, which I expected to be about 40 feet deep. Instead, it was two drops, 20 feet and 30. I went down the latter with my light turned off, then felt my way into the scalloped canyon passage that followed. In the darkness I could see what looked like distant stars shining above me: tiny glowing insects perched on the walls. When Dawn arrived, I reached over to turn off her light and tried to show them to her. "Where?" she asked, turning her light back on. "Just look!" I said, turning her light back off. She turned her light back on and peered ahead. "I don't see anything," she said.

The third drop, a 40 foot descent into a canyon that opened into a room, was just ahead. I remembered this; I knew the way. With my light still off, I attempted to lead Dawn into a crawlway (or was it just an alcove? The darkness was impenetrable) and then retreated in confusion. But the crawl led on, for hundreds of feet. I lay panting on my stomach, looking ahead down a passage barely a foot high for as far as I could see, listening to the scrapes of bodies sliding forward over the cobblestones. If the ceiling dropped, if we were forced to fight for mere inches, that was just the way it was; complaints were futile. Light or no light, there is no retreat on a pulldown, only forward, onward, outward.

The passage opened to stoopway, then to walking. We came to the fourth pit just after a beautiful formation area where foot-long soda straws hung amidst flowstone draperies. I put on my wetsuit top; the others, having inexplicably brought no wetsuits, descended while I sat at the lip and temporarily blocked the waterfall. My efforts were futile, since the infamous "Brr Tubes" were just ahead. Here the passage, true to its name, shrank to a small tube mostly filled with cold water, immersing us to the neck. A hundred feet later we emerged on a balcony near the top of Confederate Well, a 167 foot pit. From the bottom a beautiful scalloped canyon led almost immediately to a short drop (20 feet or so). I was ready to take off my harness, remembering this to be the final drop, but Otis informed me that we had a climbdown and another pit yet to go. A cave, I decided, can change a lot in ten years.

The passage that followed was especially beautiful, pristine limestone just wide enough to step comfortably through, with sparking rimstone and cave pearls on the floor. Soon we came to the final short drop, where I again blocked the flow to keep my thermax-clad companions out of the water. Amazingly, they were all still alive, despite their lack of neoprene. Apparently technology has advanced somewhat since the days when we used to attempt wet caves dressed in cotton. Still, I'm not a fan of this sort of "no margin for error" caving, and I can't help wondering what would happen if the cave flooded or someone got hurt.

Now we were in the first of many stream crawls which stretched infinitely into the distance. I floated on my belly where I could, trying in vain to save my knees. I pulled myself forward for a few more yards, then lay with my cheek pressed against the cool rock, my mind wandering off into daydreams of other times and other places, only to awake and find myself back in Solution Rift.

Time, they say, moves in a circle; everything changes, and yet remains unchanged. I will remember this passage, how the rope I was dragging tried to snag on every projection, how my kneepads slipped a hundred times out of place, but I probably won't remember the cave pearls or how many drops we did. Does it matter? If I were to die tomorrow, would my last thought be to recall the exact depth of Confederate Well? But if it's all unimportant, why does not remembering make me so uneasy, and so unsure?

The cave goes on. I take whatever comes, moving forward, onward, outward, walking when I can and crawling when I have to, my mind so wrapped in the present that daylight itself seems like just another distant memory.

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