Alone in the Dark

There is no comparing the satisfaction of munching Lifesavers Wintogreen mints, and watching the little green sparks jump in your friends mouth.  Doing it in a cave brings the experience to a new level, since the green flints are the brightest (and only) thing in sight.

But then, being in a cave, swallowed by the complete absence of light, alters most any experience.  Four of us took a trip to the unincorporated village of Burksville this weekend, out somewhere in God’s country (south of Waterloo) to Illinois Caverns.

To get started, we carefully descended the steep slippery stairs, heading towards the warm, dark air.  In less than a minute, you’re in a cave – a veritable cave, not some tourist trap with lights, concrete and a gift shop.  The air is so heavy with moisture that you can see it floating in the air, like a fine mist.

Most of the going is fairly easy; alot of walking and treading on slick stones, some wading, and the occasional climb.  The hardest part is resisting the temptation to reach out and grab a bat- the little critters are adorable, like a pet mouse with wings and a snout.  I managed not to grab one, but I could easily observe it from about half a foot away.  We also saw a few tiny crustaceans squirming around on a rock- they may have been an endangered species that inhabits only the caves around southern Illinois (according to Wikipedia), or they might have been totally unremarkable- I prefer to think the former is true.

What was most enjoyable for me was the moment when the four of us turned off our flashlights, and listened to the sound of another world.  The darkness is tangible- when you can’t see anything at all, and there’s no wind or perceivable temperature, darkness becomes the way to define your surroundings.  Even though I knew there were four of us, I felt totally alone.  What’s more, not being able to see anything immediately heightens your awareness of the noises of the cave- running water.  It’s as if you turn instantly into a bat- unable to see, but with sharp ears and a sense of peacefulness within the cave.

Some people are afraid of this sensation- the absence of human life, the crushing environment of being underground in an alien world.  All I can say is that I found it very tranquil- the thought occurred to me that my distant ancestors, and my future progeny would see nearly the same cave as I have, even thousands of years into the future.  Even the tiniest passages that dotted the walkable parts of the cavern took millennia to open up, and the walkable portions themselves were far older than those little passages.

Being in the cave also gives you a taste of the inexorable force behind its creation- water.  Though the rocks might not know it, that water was effin’ cold, and during the last part of our trek, I was in up to my waist (which meant that April was in above her belly button).

It’s a lesson in humility, one that I think might never get old.

One thought on “Alone in the Dark

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