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Spooky Night at Valhalla

It was late on the Saturday night after the Anvil Cave Rally, June 11, 1988. Annie and I bounced up the two miles of logging road to Valhalla around 10:00, the Cave Pinto III pushing through the heavy green branches of summer. The camping area, a scant hundred feet from the maw of the pit, was deserted, and still as a tomb.

I turned on the rear fog lights and we sat contemplating the black ashes in the fire ring. Ten feet above us, a pole was tied horizontally between two trees. Deer hunters had put it there, I explained, to hang their trophies overnight, to sleep to the cadence of blood dripping, drop by drop, into the dusty ground. Annie joked that deer season was long over, that maybe the pole was there for hanging something else. No, I said, just for deer. Annie crawled into her sleeping bag while I brushed my teeth.

Valhalla: night shot

Valhalla is a spooky place. Never mind that Sam Crawford and Michael Hanebaum, two Georgia Tech students who were simply standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, were crushed by a massive rockfall on the floor of the great pit in 1984. I'm not saying those two fellows, may they rest in peace, are haunting the place--not at all. Valhalla was a spooky place long before that fateful day, an unfriendly pit with high shadowed walls like the ruins of an ancient cathedral, with a hazy fog never really seems to lift out of its depths. There are friendly caves that invite the explorer onward, and there are subtly unfriendly caves that radiate just the slightest feeling of dread, that keep you constantly looking over your shoulder, as if you are being watched. There are caves and pits where accidents tend to happen. Valhalla is one of those places. There's almost a mile of cave on the bottom, but how many people have ever gone more than a few feet from the entrance shaft? Except for Bill Torode and the folks who helped him survey the cave, I don't know many people who seem eager to spend time down there.

Annie and I had camped at Valhalla before, but never alone. And I felt very alone as I stood peering into the trees, brushing away the moths and strange insects of the night that were drawn to the fog lamps. Then the lights--both of them--died.

"Huh!" I said to Annie, hoping she was awake. "Must've blown the fuse." I felt my way to the front of the truck, eyes slowly adjusting to the shadows of the moonless night, then stopped. My heart stopped with me.

There was a man standing ten feet in front of the truck, facing me.

I reached over quickly to flip on the headlights. The man disappeared. In his place was a dead tree. I started to laugh, to tell Annie how I'd been spooked by a tree, then stopped. The feeling of being watched was still there. Finally into my sleeping bag, I battled with insects who buzzed insistently inside the camper shell, and tried not to imagine someone or something walking silently around the windows, looking in at us.

Valhalla: night shot In the morning all was bright and green and hot. A brown Toyota truck came bouncing up the road, laughing bodies hanging off the back. Eight cavers from Columbia, Missouri were taking in Valhalla as the last stop on their way home. They rigged two ropes and I rigged mine, doing the pit twice, hanging with four on us on the ropes at once for pictures. They were a friendly bunch, and I enjoyed being at the pit with them. My childish fears had vanished in the sunlight.

Later, at home, Annie happened to remark that she thought the campground at Valhalla was haunted. She'd heard strange noises during the night. Only then did I tell her how I, too, had been spooked. Later, I happened upon the date of the Georgia Tech accident: June 10, 1984. We had camped there one night after the fourth anniversary of the tragedy, which was almost a strange sort of coincidence.

I've been to Valhalla more times than I can remember. It is a beautiful place, a wonder of creation, and yet there is something--I don't know what--wrong there. Sometimes when I think about Valhalla, it's as if I am still standing on the bottom alone in the darkness, telling myself that it's all in my imagination, that there's no such thing as an unfriendly cave.

Note: In 2002, the Southeastern Cave Conservancy purchased Valhalla after almost a decade of no access. You'll need to contact the SCC in advance to set up a trip, and can't go during hunting season, but it will be worth the effort--and cavers are once again able to experience Valhalla for themselves.

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