@story MARCUS COKER
@images MARCUS COKER AND COURTESY BLANCHARD SPRINGS CAVERNS
One of the things I like about being alive is being above ground. I like the daylight, and I assume I’ll have plenty of time in the dark—like eternity—once I’m gone. Which is why the idea of spending five hours below the earth, with only a flashlight the size of a half dollar strapped to my head, didn’t originally excite me. But now that I’ve spent five hours down below, in Blanchard Springs Caverns, I understand why bats like the underground.
Blanchard Springs Caverns is located near Mountain View, and offers an experience called the Wild Cave Tour. Whereas other tours take visitors along paved walkways that have been lit so crystalline rock formations can easily be seen, the Wild Cave Tour takes cavers “off road” on a 1.6 mile hike to undeveloped parts of the caverns. The brochure promised I would get dirty, climb steep slopes, and crawl on my hands and knees. I thought I might have Batman as a tour guide, but I didn’t. I did, however, have Paul McIntosh, which was even better.
Caving, it seems, is dependent on proper fashion. When I’d arrived, I was in shorts, a t-shirt, and tennis shoes. Before starting the tour, Paul asked us to clean our hiking boots in a Lysol solution, and explained that the rest of our outfits would be provided. Since 2006, six million bats in North America have died from white-nose syndrome, a fungus. The disease doesn’t affect humans, but many cavers unknowingly spread the disease via clothing that doesn’t get washed after use. Paul said, “The only way to continue offering tours is to make sure boots are cleaned and to provide other gear.”
From the first step into the cave, I was fascinated. It was fifty-eight degrees, dark, and the moisture dripping from the ceiling reminded me of a dungeon. A dozen headlamps shone out in all directions, revealing rocks of all shapes and sizes. After less than half a mile, the sidewalk below us ended. Much like Mr. Rogers, we all sat down and changed into our cleaned hiking boots, preparing for the wild.
As I laced up my hiking boots, I took stock of my outfit—high-water overalls, knee pads with duct tape, gardening gloves, a helmet, and a flashlight. I felt distinctly not sexy—and I knew it.
However, I was soon thankful for the reinforced seat in my coveralls, because I was scooting along an area called the Grand Canyon. It was like going down a slide, made out of gravel. At the bottom, we stopped by a creek bed. The ceiling was ten stories (100 feet) above us. I felt as big as a fly in a punch bowl. Then, upon Paul’s suggestion, we turned off our lights.
It was pitch black. I could hear the creek rustling by, its sound filling the dark expanse. Then Paul said, “It’s fascinating that this was going on millions of years before I was a dream.” Suddenly, all my problems seemed insignificant. At the same time, I knew that if I were alone, without a light, I’d never find my way out.
Once we turned our lights back on, Paul continued the tour, pointing out the rock structures that have formed over thousands, even millions of years. Hundreds of stalactites hung from the ceiling, and just as many stalagmites gripped the floor. Some were the size of soda straws, others as big as my arm.
Most impressive were the columns, which are the result of stalactites meeting stalagmites. Some were larger than a high school football player. All the structures are the result of water dripping off limestone and depositing minerals as it evaporates. “They’re supposed to grow a cubic inch every hundred years, but that doesn’t really work out. If one is two feet tall, it’s possible it’s been here a million years,” said Paul.
We proceeded down a path called the Subway, stopping occasionally to look at bats or peer down a seventy-foot hole in the ground. As we continued, I realized I was essentially hiking in the dark, seeing the world only twenty-five feet at a time. Paul said, “We used to use brighter lights, but people got scared. LED lights don't scare people because they can't see as far.”
At the end of the Subway, we came to the Ham Sandwich. (Go figure.) It was a narrow pathway, and I had to suck in my gut, crawl on my stomach, and scoot on my back to get through it. (Apparently the rocks were the bread, and I was the ham.) One by one, we reached a room just tall enough for Mickey Rooney to stand in. I felt like I was in Journey to the Center of the Earth, but was only 150 to 250 feet below the earth’s surface.
We stopped for lunch in the Hall of the Titans, a group of especially large columns that reminded me of sumo wrestlers. Paul said, “The columns were named after the Titan missiles used during the Cold War. The cave was actually listed as a fallout shelter in the 1950s and 1960s.”
After lunch, we worked our way through the many levels of the cave. Sometimes there were marks where cavers from fifty years ago left their names. Everywhere, there were rocks—wavy rocks that looked like bacon, white rocks that looked like snow, even rocks that looked like Medusa’s hair.
At times, we walked along false floors, which are large rocks originally supported by sediment that has since washed away. They were solid, like thick Jello, but I could feel them bounce as we crossed. Toward the end of the tour, as I was side-stepping along a ledge no wider than a paperback novel, my heart rate picked up for the first time, and I wondered if should have double knotted my laces.
By the time we reached the pavement where the Wild Cave Tour had started just five hours before, I was tired, covered in mud, and ready to see daylight. But it wasn’t long before I was ready to go back, ready to put a flashlight the size of a half dollar on my head and discover an amazing underground world just twenty-five feet at a time. Reservations are required. Cost is $75 per person. For more information, visit www.fs.usda.gov/osfnf and click on the Blanchard Springs Caverns link on the right, or call 888-757-2246.