Monday, September 5, 2011

The Darkness Out of Time

Mental images of Lovecraftian horrors abounded this weekend, as Ms. B. and I headed westward into Tennessee, primarily to delve deep into the earth at Worley's Cave (a.k.a. Morrell's Cave), near Bluff City. Oh yes, there was geocaching involved (see GC237VH for information about the cave itself), but there wasn't much thought of getting a caching credit as our group of ten made its way deeper and deeper into treacherous, subterranean darkness. More often, I often found myself searching for Arne Saknussemm's telltale initials imprinted on the stone walls, or Sagoth artifacts from the lost world of Pellucidar. It's a fascinating environment down there, and while I've visited tourist-friendly caverns before, this was my first experience going deep into a living cave, requiring hiking, climbing, crawling, and wading in a world absolutely devoid of light. It's definitely not an endeavor for the claustrophobic or one with an especial dread of the darkness....

Without a doubt, this long Labor Day weekend has been among the most satisfying in recent memory. Late Friday afternoon, Kimberly and I departed Greensboro for Johnson City, TN—mostly in a driving rain, though it thinned out enough in places to stop for the occasional cache. A couple of them, which we found on remote country roads in almost pitch darkness, nicely foreshadowed our upcoming subterranean excursion. While driving in such a hard rain was no treat, the atmosphere proved to be outright creepy, and I doubt I could have enjoyed it more (though the real highlight might have been the barbecue at a nice little joint in Wilkesboro). Once ensconced in our rather spartan accommodations in Johnson City, I headed out on foot for a few nearby caches before settling in for the evening with Ms. B. and a bottle of good bourbon.

Saturday morning, we drove over to Buffalo Mountain, a few miles southwest of Johnson City. The park features an extensive trail system, and I'm pretty sure we managed to find a couple of the steepest routes as we climbed toward the summit. Needless to say, there were caches. Part of the hike's allure was that, except for one brief encounter with another fellow on the trail, we seemed to have the entire mountain to ourselves. We encountered no bears or other wildlife more threatening than mosquitoes, but then those mosquitoes—and a freaking little sweat bee that wouldn't leave us be—were more tenacious than Bruce the Very Hungry Shark. You've got to hate it when 80% DEET sends the buggers into little mosquito laughing fits. At least I managed to successfully swat a few, and once back down at the bottom, we availed ourselves to a fine picnic lunch we had packed.

From there, it was off to Big Rock, a scenic spot on the Nolichucky River (very near The Devil's Looking Glass), once again finding ourselves on remote, all-but-deserted country roads through forested mountains that absolutely had to be home to all manners of Lovecraftian horrors, Wampus cats, and perhaps even bigfeet. No, we didn't see them, but that doesn't mean they weren't watching us. I mean really. If you were a bigfeet, wouldn't you be spying on such foolish humans with disdain? Be honest now. A couple of more caches, and then back to Johnson City for a satisfying seafood dinner.

Cloud formation over Winston-Salem on the outbound journey, which soon dumped
all kinds of real water
(not that bogus bottled stuff) on our heads.

Ms. B. and Damned Rodan on the trail at Buffalo Mountain, looking perhaps
a little less exhausted, hot, and sweaty than they really were.

Damned Rodan at Big Rock, overlooking the Nolichuky River.

Yesterday morning, it was out to the River and Earth Adventures outpost in Elizabethton, where we connected with our group of intrepid cave explorers. Worley's Cave is something in the neighborhood of 200,000 years old, and extends eight to ten miles into the Tennessee terrain. The cave was discovered and explored in the early 1800s by John Morrell and later became the property of Elias P. Worley (hence the alternate names). We arrived at the site about 11:00 AM and after a few words of wisdom from our guide—mostly about not straying off into unknown catacombs—we began our descent.

I've never been claustrophobic, and I can't say at any time I felt any overwhelming fear in the cave. But there were times that the idea of crawling 50 to 100 ft. into spaces so tight that you couldn't lift your head an inch was pretty oppressive. It helped that everyone in the group had a fair sense of humor about the whole business, and our guide was obviously quite experienced. Actually, I think the most disconcerting moment for me was entering a chamber whose ceiling was a jigsaw puzzle of rocks that appeared to be held in place only by a single columnar stone that, on its own, did not appear all that stable. In another room, one of the gigantic stalactites—easily fifteen feet in length and weighing many hundreds of pounds—had fallen from the ceiling, who knows how long ago. Last week's magnitude 6.8 earthquake was still fresh in my mind, and I found myself having to occasionally thrust that memory right back where it came from because I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to be in that cave during an earthquake.

Several times, we had to climb up slippery rock faces, such as "The Devil's Staircase"—which was, in the words of one of our fellows, "like trying to climb peanut butter"—and then, conversely, slide down long slopes on our heels, avoiding grabbing any nearby outcroppings for fear of dislocating your arm. I think for some the most unsettling experience was crawling 40 feet or so through a passage called "The Birth Canal" into a tiny chamber, where we all turned off our helmet lights. The darkness was the most profound I've ever known, though I can't say it was any more disturbing than the crawl itself. Once again, it was levity to the rescue when our guide told us that, after a time, even though you can't see a trace of movement in that blackness, your eyes make you believe that you can—to which one fellow responded with, "Yes, I've been giving you the finger for the last five minutes."

The only known fatality in Worley's Cave was Mr. Worley's own son, who became lost in a portion of the cave now known as Worley's Triangle because it's the hub of a maze-like series of passages, among which even a most experienced spelunker could lose his way. Now, sometime back, a couple of ill-prepared explorers were lost in the cave for 80-some hours, and when they were found, they were huddled in one of the chambers in the darkness, convinced they were sitting in their living room watching television. I do hope they had imaginary DVD players since even imaginary television tends to air total shit, at least on the channels that I get.

Our trek took us about five miles into the earth. The return journey, for the most part, was a bit easier than the one going in, as our route bypassed a few of the crawls and climbs of our ingress. The last quarter mile to the exit required wading through an underground river, which, needless to say, was rather frigid, though by that time, we were already so wet and coated with mud that I don't think anyone particularly noticed. Reaching daylight again felt like hitting a wall of bright, hot, humid air that almost sent some of us back into the darkness until our eyes and bodies re-acclimated themselves to our surroundings.

The River and Earth Adventures company very kindly provided us with a picnic lunch. Then Kimberly and I, not content with such humdrum entertainment, headed back out into the wilds of Unicoi County for another mile-plus hike to Ramsey Creek Falls and a cache hunt. Once back in Johnson City, getting ourselves clean took something near an act of God, but we somehow managed it so we could avail ourselves to sushi and sake. A satisfying end to a most rigorous day. Alas, on the trip back today, yet more driving rain and a poorly marked detour made things a little dicey. But we're still in one piece and very happy for it.

A few of my muscles are still hollering, yes, but at least very quietly.

Who could that be crawling out of the Birth Canal?

About to go up The Devil's Staircase

We've got to go where?

Rolling, rolling, rolling.... It's the only way to get to the other end.

Ms. B. hanging out in one of the more innocuous-looking alcoves.

Ms. B. and Rodan in the underground, looking every bit as muddy,
wet, and exhausted as they really are.


James Robert Smith said...

Sweet! I've been hiking in that area, but maybe I'll take that cave tour!

Stephen Mark Rainey said...

We had a Groupon for the caving trip, which was 50% off, but it would have been worth paying full price. And we didn't die in there, which was an added bonus.

Unknown said...

My son is headed over in a week or so to go spelunking with a friend. No tour for them - I am trying not to have a heart attack. LOL! His friend lives in TN and is very familiar with these caves so they aren't being completely stupid. I am very thankful for your review and pictures as I know they are starting their adventure going down the Devils Staircase and then heading out from there.