Wednesday, April 05, 2006


Today is my day off from running (Boston Marathon less than two weeks away!), and should be using the extra time I have to do homework (getting all my work done and getting 8 hours of sleep a night next week is going to be quite the challenge), but I’ve been embarrassingly neglecting of my blog, so I think I’ll do some writing instead. (And this is more important anyway, right?)

I should cash in on my empty promises or you guys are going to stop reading…so here’s my attempt to drive my Spring Break Caving Adventure.

The problem with writing about caving is I want to convey two main things: 1) how absolutely hardcore and badass it was (because I’m always trying to let the work know how hardcore I am, right?), and 2) how fun and amazing it was. Wait, why is that a problem? The problem lies in the fact that only a person who has been caving will ever be able to appreciate how intense it was and how crawling around in the soaking cold dark through mud and over sharp rocks while avoiding chasms of death and accruing an innumerable amount of bruises can be considered “fun.” To borrow from Stanley Fish (who is simultaneously infuriating and ingenious), “I say it to you now, knowing full well that you will agree with me (that is, understand) only if you already agree with me.”

Of course, I could probably say the same thing about a lot of fringe (or even not so fringe) activities.

But nonetheless, I’ll try…

We got off to a late start Friday afternoon, about half an hour after our projected departure time of 6 pm. We arrived at the cave at about 10 am. Phew. Of course the travel time included abundant stops, including “New York style” deli food in Pennsylvania (or was it Connecticut? We drove through so many states—Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia--it’s hard to remember…), countless gas stations, and a diner in West Virginia, decorated with garishly bright colors and flowers and Easter eggs and lollipops and other ghastly things, where I finished my plate of pancakes before the waitress could bring everyone’s food to the table.

We crawled out of the cars and into the cave to sleep for the night…err…day. I think this was the low-point of the trip for me. It wasn’t the crawling through a small crevice with my sleeping bag, or the laying on a bed of mud without a sleeping pad (that was actually quite comfortable), it was the three or so servings of caffeinated beverage combined with the equal (or greater) amounts of water I’d had on the drive to West Virginia. Combined with the fact that it isn’t environmentally responsible to urinate in a cave unless there is running water (there wasn’t), you get the idea. Let’s just say that by the fourth time I had to get up I got quite good at peeing into a bottle. Eerm. I don’t think I got a single minute of sleep.

Luckily we were soon up and caving and the pain and dampness and bruises and death (a.k.a. hazardous “depth” to watch for) made me forget the 8 hours of bladder-agony. But I’m painting too rosy a picture, aren’t I? Just kidding, I enjoyed it. A lot. The first day we were in Sharp Cave, located off Highway 219 in West Virginia somewhere “to the right.” (Actually across a snow-covered field…oh did I mention there was a blizzard on the way down and our driver did about a…oh…540 spin out into the guard rail of a winding mountain road on the way down?) The odd thing is…it’s warmer inside the cave. That’s because it’s always the same time of day and time of year in a cave. The cave temperature in West Virginia is a pleasant 48F—it’s like night time in Portland in Fall all year round. The cave was very exciting, featuring lots of exciting boulders for me to hop over and lots of excellent mud.

The mud. It was so great. I’ve never felt anything with such an amazing consistency. And no, I’m not being cheeky. There was one spot where there were hundreds of human-made sculptures, with sizes ranging from a finger’s width to a cocker spaniel, spread out across a glorious muddy ledge. People had built, over who knows how many years, mud creations of every form imaginable. (Some cavers have very sick minds.) It was fantastic.

Sharp Cave also has a waterfall. By the time we got to the waterfall I wasn’t too eager to jump into the water to scale up it, but I still enjoyed it’s awe-inspiring beauty and all those wonderful things.

Caving is like an endless string of very short-lived very gratifying moments. For example, peeing into a bottle became the greatest thing in the world…but by the second time I knew that less than an hour later I would be debating whether to hop out of my sleeping bag again or keep holding it. Also, I’d been in a cave for over twelve hours, getting out and breathing fresh non-cavey air was glorious…until I froze while waiting for everyone else to climb out. But once I started sprinting back across the snow-covered field I was happy again…until I had to strip off all my mud-soaked clothes at the side of the road and stand shivering while the driver of my car refused to start it to preserve his commendable gas mileage. (We solved that one by the next day.)

We stayed in a “cabin” (more of a house if you ask me) with heating and hot water (well, the first night…) and a stove and I got my first full-night’s sleep in a long time.

The next day we went to another cave. (Oh man, I wish I had written down the names, because I seriously can’t remember at this point.) Let’s Call is Cave X. Cave X had a hideous slope of death (“Do not proceed down this slope or you will die”) that led to an 80-foot drop off. We repelled down it. Wow. That was my first serious repelling experience. Repelling down a stairwell or off a climbing wall is nothing like repelling in the dark, by yourself, down an 80-foot plunge. It was excellent.

The next day we tackled a 200-feet repel, followed by an ascent.

The highlight of the second day:
A 40-foot tall steep mud slope (just steep enough so that if you lay flat against it like a human starfish and you moved just the wrong way you would slide all the way back down), no foot- or hand-holds. What did we do to the slope? Why, climb up it, of course! Or rather, I don’t think climbing is the right word. I managed to do it by a kind of side-ways humping motion and a whole lot of grunting and swearing. I’m not sure what other people did, I was too busy trying not to slide all the way back down to the bottom (which happened…). That mud hill has to be somewhere in Dante’s Inferno. Seriously.

I was so exhausted and sweaty when I got to the top, but I somehow retained the sense of mind not to slide all the way back down to the bottom on my butt just for fun.

One thing caving reinforces is: Pain and hardship is always way less painful and hard after the fact. Funny.

The third day was definitely punctuated by the aforementioned repel and ascent, but the best part of the day for me was when I got to climb a mountain! (Well, sort of.) After finding the cave entrance, which was halfway up a “mountain” (an Oregon hill), I just ditched my caving gear and kept going all the way to the top. “I’ll be back, don’t worry,” I told my cohorts. I realized that as fun and exciting as caving is, I am so much happier when I’m heading to a summit. Maybe I’m too goal-oriented, who knows? Anyway, regardless of my own psychoanalytical motives, it was beautiful up there, and the peak I’d bagged carried me through the rest of the day.

The fourth day we did an easy cave in the morning and then headed home…arriving back at 3:45 am or so. And I had a radio show that morning. Excellent!

Of course there was a lot of eating and hot-tubbing and “your mom” jokes in between everything I described, but I felt the omissions were justified. I’m very tired.

I wanted to write about lots of other things, like Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which I watched for the first time yesterday, and the discussion on environmentalism in the political and social sphere we had in my nature writing class yesterday (three out of the four of us came to the conclusion that environmentalists needed to employ propaganda).

But for now…I think I’ll…stop…


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