Spending the night in a cave was fun.
I went in with my Scout troop. Spoiler alert: I also came out with my Scout troop. Well, most of them, anyway. We might have lost one or two. We were touring Cumberland Caverns in Tennessee. Part of the fun was that we left home after school on a Friday afternoon in the fall so we arrived after dark and had to make our way up the trail to the cave entrance with our flashlights out and our sleeping bags on our backs. The cave rangers, a group of guys in olive drab, heavy boots, and bright yellow hard hats, led us down a stairwell and into the main entrance room, a high-ceilinged area that was brightly lit and had a canteen area and restrooms at one end and at the other stretched away into darkness. We were told to leave our bags there but to choose a spot carefully because it was where we’d be sleeping. I picked a spot away from the main group. I wanted to get the full cave experience and if I rolled over to one side I could look into the abyss. I didn’t think about how that might affect my sleep. In fact we were then taken on the spelunking tour at what seemed like very late at night. In fact it was probably not later than six or seven, but I realized time has no meaning in a cave. There is no day or night underground. There is only the passage of time, a passage that, for most caves, is measured in slow, steady drops that build hanging stalactites, the rising cones of stalagmites, and that wear away the stone to reveal crystals of quartz or gypsum. In one massive room we were told that where we were sitting had once been the ceiling, that it had collapsed approximately ten-thousand years earlier, and I hoped it wasn’t due for another makeover, but that’s another story.
After we had been through the “wild” part of the cave, where the only light we had was our flashlights, where we had to crawl through tight spaces, and where we went through the infamous Bubblegum Alley, a stretch where the mud nearly sucked the shoes off our feet, we were brought back to the main room. Everyone settled into their sleeping spots. All the lights except the ones just overhead were turned off so that we were in a warm pool surrounded by darkness. One of the rangers, a tall skinny guy who stood out because he was the only one without a beard, came and stood among us.
“I’m going to tell y’all why you don’t go spelunking alone,” he said. Shouldn’t this have been covered before the tour? I thought. “I’m going to tell y’all about a Scout like you who was at the back of the line and decided to go explore a side tunnel. His name was Kevin. He thought he could find his way back, but if you’ve done spelunking you know the way back never looks like the way in. There are turns and tunnels that you didn’t see that open up. Not all these caves have been mapped either, and we don’t know how far they go. Search parties were sent out but Kevin was to deep, and he kept moving. If you get lost in this cave,” and he looked hard at all of us, “you stay in one spot. It’ll make it easier for us to find you.” He walked among us, continuing to talk. Kevin drank water from pools he found and ate the cottony fungi that grew on the walls. It tasted terrible but it was all he could find. Then he started to catch small cave fish, and he caught bats and would drink their blood. Kevin managed to survive a year, then two years. His clothes were shredded on the rocks and he went naked. One night he found his way into the main room. As the ranger told us this I thought about Gollum, and stories of subterranean humans, and wondered if those creatures were inspired by real events. None of us asked how the ranger knew all this in such detail.
“It was late at night and Kevin walked among the sleeping campers,” the ranger went on. “He knelt down next to a boy and touched him. The boy woke up and screamed. All the lights were turned on and Kevin saw his own body for the first time in a long time. His skin had become translucent, his organs visible and pulsing. He ran and disappeared before anyone could grab him.” The ranger crouched and started tracing the dirt with his finger. “No one knows if Kevin is still out there. People think they see him sometimes on the tours, and rangers report finding footprints in the farthest ranges of the cave. We don’t know if he’d hurt anyone but where he touched the boy he left a mark, a white mark, right on the boy’s jugular vein, where the blood flows, like the blood of bats that he drank to survive.”
The ranger stood up. “Well, good night kids!”
All the lights were turned off and we were left in total darkness. There is no moon, there are no stars in a cave, only a ceiling of stone.
I was bleary-eyed at breakfast the next morning. After picking up a pack of cereal and a carton of milk I sat down at one of the long tables across from the ranger who’d told us the story. I looked over and noticed he was wearing a name tag.