One night when I was young and impressionable, I cuddled up with my parents to watch a special on TV about caves. In this particular special, some unlucky kid had fallen into a cave and got himself stuck in a crevice a hundred meters below ground. A few hours later, the local townsfolk heard his cries and scrambled to save him. They had meetings to plan a rescue and began feeding the boy food from a tube but, over time, the boy grew so skinny that his emaciated body dislodged and he fell to his death (presumably to the center of the earth).
That night, I lay awake in my parent’s bed, petrified. The next night, I slept on the floor outside of my room which, in my mind, seemed safer than sleeping on a heavy bed that might crash through the ground into a cave we never knew about below my house in suburban Washington DC. For one week of my adolescent life, I thought of nothing else but falling into caves.
The fear went away when I visited my first cave at Luray Caverns in the Shenandoah Valley. I realized that caves are like amusement parks for rocks. There are fancy lights, funny names and goofy guides to take you on an adventure below ground.
The Fox River Caves were unlike any cave I had ever been to. These sister caves were reputedly discovered in the early 1900’s by a local Sheep farmer, Mr. O’Brien, who was searching for his cattle on the opposite side of the river. Looking across, he saw a sizeable hole in the cliff and the find was reported as a “miniature Waitomo.” Owners of a local guesthouse constructed an entrance gate and began operating guided tours from the small township of Brighton (today’s Fox River) to the cave from 1906. In the 1950’s, the gate was removed and the cave was opened up to any wanderer willing to make the two-hour hike through the woods along the Fox River.
Felipe and I (after our arduous journey to the Ballroom Overhang) traversed steep hills of slippery, moss-covered rocks bridled with streams and pocketed with mud to approach a grand hole in the cliff-face. There, we found the sister caves at Fox River. The area’s “oldest tourist attraction” sat in the forest like an abandoned set piece from Jurassic Park. The lower cave’s tempting entrance was graced with signs of caution, warning of falling rocks and sheer drops in the floor. Part of me wanted to venture in to see what all the “danger” was about, but the other part of me didn’t want to fall into a hole, get fed from a tube, and die. To persuade us elsewhere, signs guide visitors to the upper cave, which is “safe” and includes, “more spectacular formations.”
I had never entered a cave without all the pageantry. Where were all the colored lights and dorky guides to teach me the differences between a stalagmite and a stalactite (“Stalactites hang TIGHT from the ceiling of the cave. Stalagmites MIGHT one day reach the roof”)? Where was the spotlight on the oldest rock and who would point to a group of stalagmites and quip that it looked like the nativity scene? This idea that I could be allowed access to a cave without a wooden walkway, audio tour, and a $5.00 headlamp rental was new.
There was an eerie chill in the air as we ducked out of the rainforest and into the upper cave. Drips of water cascaded down perfectly conical stalactites to the wet cavern floor in soft echoes. It was the only sound we heard as we snaked our way into the rock. The cacophony of forest noises disappeared as everything went remarkably quiet.
I had always been taught to not touch anything in a cave, but in such close quarters and with minimal light, this was inevitable. We climbed deeper into the cave over rocky ravines dividing the crumbling remains of a 100-year-old stone path. This was certainly one of the blackest places I had ever been. Yet, it was filled with glistening white. The calcite formations, developed over thousands of years, jutted out from above and below. In the beam of the flashlight, we walked through what appeared to be a tunnel of never-ending of vampire chops.
We had read that the tunnel went in for about 200 meters but we were 20 minutes in and saw no end in sight. When the water levels in the cave rose above our ankles, we chose not to continue through the murky mystery of the dark water. An upside down city of rock reflected on the placid water making it hard to tell what was coming from above and what from below, and I began to see that you don’t need all the funky lights and tailored journeys to make a funhouse out of a cave. This macabre obstacle course through the curving tunnel past ghoulish formations and mystical reflection ponds spoke for itself.
Crawling through the dark, following the narrow beam of a solitary flashlight, we made our way out of the upper cave and back into the sticky air of the rainforest. My eager eyes darted over to the broad opening of the lower cave. I walked closer to peak in – just to take a look. Then, I reminded myself of the curious kid who fell to the center of the earth and I straightened my focus, eyed the path home, and didn’t look back.