I am lying sideways in a crawlway barely large enough for my body, taking a breath before moving on. Beneath me, a cold, viscous mud is soaking into my right arm, which is becoming stiff under my weight. My neck is sore from tilting my head to see ahead of me. My kneepads, once protectors, have hung up enough times on protruding knobs of rock that they are probably around my ankles—I cannot look back to know for sure, but I can feel the gravel biting into my knees. A drop of cold water falls in my ear and I cringe, awkwardly pulling off my left glove and wiping the wetness away with moderately clean fingers. I take another breath, replace my glove, and continue on.
Moving is by no means an easy affair. To gain ground, I must kick with my feet and heave forward with my shoulders, pulling wherever possible with whichever arm is forward. The wriggling motion would look like a fish flopping on the shore if anyone could observe it through the rock. All I can see are the boots of the person ahead of me jerking and thumping against the walls. Round rock cobbles in the floor of the passage jab into my ribs and must be pushed aside to allow my torso to pass between the floor and the jagged ceiling. When I make it out of the crawlway, it is into a small sloped room that leads immediately to another crawl, but which is large enough for a few of us to rest.
I am tired from the exertion, my knees and elbows are sore, and lying against the stone allows me to gingerly discover what will be quite notable bruises by the end of the day. My damp clothing is transferring heat into the rock, and the ceiling is still less than a foot from my face.
“How many more of these?” asks one of my companions. I am the leader on this trip—I know the cave, where to go and where not to, and can offer the knowledge that will ease their fears.
“Three,” I reply. “But they’re not so bad. Shorter. The last one is tight, but only a foot long, and the rest of it is mostly hands-and-knees crawling. We’re more than half-way in.” They are comforted—ahead is the promise of rest, large chambers, and lunch. Only a few more pinches to get through.
My first trip into this cave was with my friend Stacy when we were planning a college orientation trip years before. Then, my claustrophobia was still paramount, and we had been left by logistical necessity to find our way through this cave on our own. I still recall the apprehension I felt when Stacy and I came to the first pinch, or tight spot, in the cave. The Outdoor Program director had told us it was the easiest, but it looked about the size of a steering wheel. No human being could fit through that, I was sure. To attempt it would be the purest insanity. I was even more certain of this when I pushed through it into the crawl beyond, the crawl I have now just come out of. Then, what kept me going was only the absolute dread of going back. Now, it is second nature. I am aware that I am cold, tired, bruised, aching. I am aware that I am entombed beneath several hundred feet of solid rock, and that I am only going deeper in. And yet, despite all this, I am completely comfortable here.
Or, perhaps more accurately, I crave the discomfort of being here.
Image Credit: Me