I thought close confinement would bring terror — but somehow, with such a party, I felt no fear — not even when we inched along, on our bellies, inside that natural tomb where the tiger bones lay. I did reflect on the countless tons of mountain bearing down on that dome so close to my head and shoulders, but I had dry matches and plenty of carbide. And it was so cool, wallowing there in the mud and slime which half covered my body. Nice clean mud, undefiled by man — mud that had reposed undisturbed on that floor maybe for millions of years.
— Paul Flower’s “Trip with the Sewanee Cavers,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, August 19, 1947
It had been a slow six weeks since my move back to Charleston from Chattanooga, Tennessee — the initial thrill of reconnecting with old friends had given way to a general malaise in the face of unemployment and living at home at the pleasure of my parents, so when I got a phone call from John Hodgson Parker inviting me to join him in Sewanee for Easter for a weekend of tree planting and general messing-about, I leapt at the chance.
The crown jewel of our trip? John, through persistent wheedling and name-dropping, had managed to secure permission for us to explore Wet Cave, a legendary but off-limits cave near the bottom of the plateau. The mouth of the cave lay in the shadow of the landowner’s home and rumor has it that he permanently rescinded access privileges when a busload of tourists arrived from Atlanta, wide-eyed and clutching tickets that they insisted gave them the right to tromp through the cave, scratching their initials into the limestone and plundering pieces of the formations that adorned the cave.
Sewanee is located more or less in the center of an area known to cavers as “Tennessee-Alabama-Georgia.” TAG, as it is called, is home to an estimated 10,000 caves due to the prodigious limestone deposits that make up much of the bedrock. Susceptible to the chisel-like workings of the calcium-rich water flowing in the streams and rivers throughout the area, time and pressure have transformed this bedrock into a labyrinthine network of caves, sinkholes, underwater lakes and rivers and many other otherworldly formations. Sewanee’s domain alone is home to at least a dozen mapped caves, the majority of which are within a short hike or drive from campus.
After two days of working in the yard with John, our party rose early and set out in two cars down Roark’s Cove Road and soon arrived at the mouth of the cave, a large stream swollen by the recent rains issuing from the side of the plateau into a small pool before coursing over the meadows in the valley. Wasting no time, we loaded two backpacks with enough beers to keep us all well-lubricated for tight squeezes and some water for good measure. Also: spare headlamps, batteries and about two dozen wax candles for ceremonial purposes. Our mission — to crawl, trudge and scamper to the breakdown of the cave near a large waterfall, located near the top of the plateau.
One-by-one we waded into the frigid water and ducked past the rocks guarding the entrance. Soon the light of the outside world began to fade until it was merely a pinprick in the fabric of darkness. Now the only light came from headlamps and hand-held flashlights as we moved past column-like stalagmites and flowstone formations that resembled frozen rivers, born from the mineral-rich water that have run through this cave for eons.
After a few hundred yards of wading through a 15-foot-high tunnel, we found ourselves at the base of a large boulder, against which leaned an old aluminum ladder. John, our de-facto guide, pointed to the space where the water flowed out from underneath the rock. “That’s the Intestine. We’ll take that on the way out.”
One by one we climbed the ladder into the bowels of the cave, through rooms with names such as the Room of Statues, laden with impossibly intricate limestone formations. We crawled army-style through spaces with just enough clearance for our heads, trying to ignore the cave spiders and bats clinging to the rock centimeters from our faces. In one particularly memorable section, the Mud Room, we sank thigh-deep into mud with a consistency like peanut butter. One girl in our group lost both her shoes (we found them and she was able to continue) and yours truly was completely immobilized and had to be hoisted out by the armpits. This room gave way to a section called Fat Man’s Misery, which continued for about 200 yards before giving way to an enormous room called Wagnon’s Wallow. In this room we gathered around the backpacks before striding out to different corners of the room, lit candles in hand. We positioned the candles on the rocks and put out our headlamps, allowing the eerie orange candle-glow to cast shadows over the limestone, standing stock-still and silent.
At times we extinguished our headlamps, one at a time, until we were left in the primordial darkness of creation, the only sound that of the creek and the occasional droplet of water from a stalactite spattering on the mud below. In these moments of profound sensory isolation I became acutely aware of the fragility of the human constructs of space and time. For, if what the physicists say is true and time and space are indeed relative, then it stands to reason that a man could stand still and silent in this black solitude for a thousand years or more and when he finally switched his light on and illuminated his surroundings he would not have aged even a day.
The terminus of the cave is a waterfall that bursts out of the side of a large chimney. To the best of my knowledge, no one has been able to locate where the water enters the cave from the surface. We explored a few more rooms above the waterfall, one so rich with ancient bivalve fossils that it seemed they had been placed there deliberately for us to enjoy.
After admiring the end of the cave we enjoyed a final ceremonial candle lighting and set off for the light of day, back through the gravel crawls and the Mud Room, past the Room of Statues and finally out through the infamous Intestine, which was just as tight and serpentine as its name implies. We soaked in the Devil’s Bathtub, a frothy, waist-deep pool near the mouth of the cave in a fruitless attempt to wash the mud from our clothes.
* * *
We emerged from the cave and found ourselves greeted by green grass and bright sunlight. Horry Sr. sat contentedly on a rock and asked us, in his thick Charlestonian accent, how it was. Needless to say, we couldn’t quite describe the impression of the cave, the sheer depth of it. But he understood. Before clambering back into the truck and driving up the road to the top of the plateau, we ate sandwiches and washed in the creek, enjoying beers that had been cooling in the stream. The ride up was one of contented silence, having had the privilege to appreciate the world from below.